Truly scary stuff

From murderous clowns to harrowing modernity, Salon staffers pick a terrifying lineup of spooky movies and TV shows.

By Salon Staff

Published October 31, 2002 1:00PM (EST)

We've seen the scary movies cable networks trot out this time every year, and frankly Fox News is far more frightening. A truly scary movie doesn't need gore or heart-attack thrills. It should creep up on you. It should terrify you with what you don't see, let your mind devise its own worst-case scenario.

Barring that, there are always evil clowns. That's a way of saying that Salon's writers tried to come up with a list of scary films and TV shows that you won't see on the USA cable channel -- and we only partially succeeded. But hey, clowns really are scary, and you know you were once terrified of Freddy Krueger too. If Salon owned a cable network -- insert demonic laugh here -- these are the films and TV shows that we would schedule in our Halloween marathon.

"The Vanishing" (1988)

Horror movies have held me in their grip ever since I first watched "Night of the Living Dead" on my dad's black-and-white J.C. Penney set. But in all those years, from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" to "The Ring," there's only one scary movie I wouldn't be willing to sit through again.

George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" (or, in Dutch, "Spoorloos") is at the outset an almost innocuous mystery set amid contemporary middle Europe. Saskia disappears from a French rest stop in broad daylight. Her boyfriend, Rex, is investigated and released; the police pronounce themselves baffled. Rex refuses to give up the search, and his suspicions eventually settle upon Raymond, a family man and pillar of the local community. As Sluizer's clean, even filmmaking sharpens itself to a point, it becomes clear that Rex is willing to risk anything to find out the truth.

Nothing I say can quite prepare you for the ending of this movie. "The Vanishing" is so terrifying precisely because of its unremarkable, anonymous landscape, totally free of Gothic architecture, dark basements or bolts of lightning. Europe, Sluizer seems to argue, has not really conquered its demons but merely repressed them -- and they are beginning to adapt to their new circumstances. Sluizer remade "The Vanishing" in 1993, as a Hollywood film starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, but removing the story from its European setting (and, of course, softening and moralizing the ending) ruined everything.

-- Andrew O'Hehir

"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1986)

"Who you think you're associating with anyway?" Henry says to his roommate's sister. He's kidding because she'd been surprised that he has a credit card, but the line is central to this terrifying little picture, which is scary precisely because you never know who you're associating with. This polite, unassuming guy Sis is growing sweet on is a compulsive, dispassionate murderer who kills everyone in his path.

Chainsaw-wielding mutants in hockey masks or "Blair Witch" ghosties might symbolize our fears, but most of us never run into anything even remotely resembling them. Henry, though, is the real deal. He's the guy who bends over to pet your dog on a street corner, sits two stools over at the diner and nods hello. We watch Henry randomly meeting people and then just as randomly deciding to follow and kill them -- or let them go with a shrug. Horror movies don't scare me, but the first time I saw John McNaughton's "Henry" I walked the two blocks home from the theater on the lookout for my killer, and once I got home I took a good look in every closet. Real closets, I mean. Not metaphorical ones.

-- King Kaufman

"The Haunting" (1963)

Director Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" proves that what you don't show is always much more terrifying than what you do.

An anthropologist with a special interest in psychic phenomena invites two psychic researchers, plus one wiseacre skeptic, to spend a few nights at a mansion known as Hill House, which is thought to be haunted. The walls of Hill House don't bleed or anything like that -- but they're alive for sure, and Wise taunts us with flickers of that life, things that we don't so much see as sense. And if the subtle visuals don't get you, the sound surely will -- the aural effects alone make "The Haunting" one of the most unnerving movies of all time. Whatever you do, don't ever wake up in the middle of the night, alone in the dark, and think about it. Just don't.

--Stephanie Zacharek

"The Exorcist" (1973)

As in most truly terrifying movies, the people in William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" don't make any stupid mistakes. They don't go into the basement, or run upstairs instead of out the front door, or swim in shark-infested waters. Chris MacNeil and her daughter, Regan, are simply living their ordinary, comfortable, modern lives when evil descends to rip the girl's soul apart.

Regan's possession is like an illness -- her body spasms, excreting vile fluids, raping itself. And to me, illness has always seemed scarier than, say, psycho killers: It's invisible and formless and there's nothing you can do to keep it away. I saw "The Exorcist" before I should have, sneaking downstairs when I was 7 years old to watch after my parents had gone to sleep. That's why I could never tell them about the nightmares that plagued me for weeks afterward. Somehow, the movie has been conflated in my memory with the moment I realized there were vicious forces and random calamity in the world, and that no one at all is ever completely safe.

-- Michelle Goldberg

The Kingdom (1994)

So much of "The Kingdom" is cornball melodrama. Director Lars von Trier's Danish television miniseries about a hospital built on an ancient bleaching ground is usually called a combination of "ER" and "Twin Peaks." At its core, though, it's mostly an old-fashioned soap opera. In my favorite scenes, a stiff Swedish doctor summits the Denmark hospital where he works and shouts, "Danish scuuuuuuum!" You want to hiss every time he comes on camera. There's plenty of funny, bizarro stuff too, including a phantom ambulance, a ghost-hunting hypochondriac and two actors with Down's syndrome who work in the cafeteria dish room and seem to know what the future holds. Amid all the wackiness, however, is a creepy supernatural story, helped made hyperreal by von Trier's shaky hand-held camerawork and proto-Dogma 95 filmmaking technique. How scary is it? Well, the thing comes chopped up in four hour-long episodes, and a certain ghost girl kept me from making it all the way through the final one. Von Trier, however, soldiered on in another four-part series, "The Kingdom II." I don't know a thing about it.

-- Jeff Stark

"Repulsion" (1965)

"Are you asleep?" a pampered London salon patron snaps to her eerily distracted manicurist in the opening moments of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion." Carol doesn't know the answer herself. Played with nail-gnawing timidity by Catherine Deneuve, Carol is a creature who, in another era, would be given to headaches and long holidays in the sanatorium. In Polanski's world, however, she's stuck in swinging Carnaby-era London, a hub of unrelenting noise and leering catcalls.

When her sister goes on vacation, Carol's tenuous grip on sanity deteriorates as rapidly and gruesomely as the rabbit meat she's forgotten on the counter. Carol doesn't go docilely into her psychosis. She's takes down those who wander into her path, a lecherous landlord and a hapless suitor alike. Victim or victimizer, where the film truly becomes disturbing is in its depiction of mundane urban horror -- in the way terrible things can happen practically right in front of the little old lady next door, the way we can be seemingly surrounded and still desperately, fatally alone.

-- Mary Elizabeth Williams

"Peeping Tom" (1960)

Before Tony Soprano, "Halloween's" Mike Meyers or even "Psycho's" Norman Bates, there was Mark Lewis -- a deeply disturbed camera operator who kills on film. Lewis was one of the first movie murderers to be portrayed with empathy. Yet he never earned the campy, iconic status of Norman Bates. One reason may be Powell's creepily smart camera work, which manages to implicate us in the voyeurism of filmmaking. Powell also integrates sequences of a documentary made by Mark's father, a scientist who used his son in his experiments. I'm not sure which is harder to sit through: scenes of Mark as a child whimpering in his bed as his father's shadow looms over him, or the coldly clinical sequences of a grown-up Mark calmly photographing the glazed expression of victims forced to witness their own deaths in a mirror affixed to the killer's camera. What makes this film so frightening is that you experience the achingly lonely and cold heart of a killer. When I saw this film for the first time as a cynical 15-year-old, I finally learned that there are limits to perversity.

-- Adrienne Crew

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984)

The scariest parts of the original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" have nothing to do with Freddy Krueger's gruesome appearance, director Wes Craven's love affair with projectile blood and gore or even the idea of a villain who haunts teenagers' dreams. It's the unclear distinction between sleep and wakefulness that really set me on edge -- the scenes in which neither the viewer nor the character knows whether they're awake or asleep. Nancy dozes off in class, for example, then she seems to come to just in the nick of time. Or does she? Is she only dreaming she's awake? No one can be sure until Freddy appears. And nearly every time, Krueger does just that, leading us through a nightmarish chase scene followed by wakefulness that we've already learned to distrust. Each Freddy episode leads the characters to more exhaustion, which leads to an even greater desire to fall asleep, which means more Freddy, more running, more blood, more trying to figure out what's real, what's a dream, who's alive, who's dead. Yikes. Not even the movie's asinine sequel-ready ending -- nor Craven's juvenile slasher style -- can keep "Nightmare on Elm Street" from giving me chills.

-- Damien Cave

"Hush," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1999)

There are plenty of movies and TV shows that can give you nightmares after the fact. The creepiest thing about the Gentlemen, who take over Sunnydale in "Hush," is that they seem like figures we've already met before, on the far side of the wall of sleep. These mute, grinning, dapperly dressed skeleton-like figures glide on air like wheeled mannequins; they've come to Sunnydale to first steal the voices of the townspeople, and then to extract a few hearts from their victims. Written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, "Hush" -- which is without dialogue for almost the entire hour -- scans just like one of those listless dreams in which you try to scream, and can't. Everybody's had 'em -- and yet the way the eerie quiet of "Hush" sucks you in, you feel as if the experience is privately, and unequivocally, your own.

-- Stephanie Zacharek

"Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

There are witches and herbal spells and a hairy, red-eyed monster in "Rosemary's Baby," but those things really have nothing to do with why Roman Polanski's classic makes you itch with uneasiness and dread. This story of a newly pregnant young woman (Mia Farrow) and a coven of Upper West Side witches unfolds with such steadily increasing terror that even when Rosemary's wretched husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), criticizes her new haircut, his words seem to drip with corrosive evil and pending doom. Yet it's what's unseen -- or the mere thought of it -- that chilled me most. The film is mostly set in an apartment as bright and sun-drenched as Rosemary herself; instead, it's what's growing inside her, beneath those pastel frocks, where darkness and evil lives. We never get a look at the thing but when Rosemary peers into the black-sheathed cradle for the first time, the look on her face tells us more than we need to know.

-- Suzy Hansen

"One Step Beyond" (1959-61)

As with most children, I'd imagine, I was scared to death of clowns. So I was a sucker for an episode of the old horror TV series "One Step Beyond" about a jealous lout who strangles his girlfriend one night at a carnival with a mute clown as the only witness. Fleeing the scene of the crime, the killer keeps running into mirrors -- in shop windows, barrooms, his car. And in each he sees the reflection of the clown, his face contorted in rage as it reaches forward to strangle him. Of course, when he turns around there's nothing there. After fraying your nerves for a half-hour, the show ends on a quiet note that turned my young blood to ice water. I remember going out for ice cream with my family immediately after it aired and spending the entire car ride turned around talking to my mother and aunt in the back seat. No way was I not going to know what was coming up behind me.

-- Charles Taylor

"Black Sunday" ("La Maschera de demonio") (1960)

It's natural to flinch at the thought of a sharp object headed for an eye. Luis Buñuel's "Un Chien Andalou" featured a razor slicing an eyeball, and dozens of directors have exploited the image. Italian horror maestro Mario Bava tapped for his films a similar fear and delivered cinematic concerts of anticipated pain. His best film, "Black Sunday," starring Barbara Steele, makes the most of aichmophobia. The movie opens with one of the goriest scenes in film: 18th-century jailers hammer a metal mask with long, sharp spikes coating its interior onto the beautiful face of a witch named Asa. (The DVD version of the film features a longer shot of the poor woman, with blood spurting out from behind the mask.) Centuries later, the reanimated corpse of the witch takes her revenge on the ancestors of her foes. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't live up to its killer opening, but still delivers short, sharp shocks. I still can't bear to look at photographs of the film.

-- Adrienne Crew

Episode 30, "Twin Peaks" (1991)

Whether David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" is the best serial to ever air on network television is up for debate. That its final episode is the weirdest hour is not. Seen by some as a giant fuck you to the network that had canceled the show after two seasons, the Lynch-directed 30th installment killed off beloved characters, ventured to alternate planes of reality and brought back two of the show's signature characters: the dancing midget and the bellhop giant. In the worst moment of all, the show's hero, Agent Dale Cooper, ends up possessed by the leering, greasy-haired transmigrating spirit killer BOB.

To me, the most horrifying things are always slightly incomprehensible -- and there are lots of mysteries here. How come Laura's eyes are blank? Does Coop get lost in the Red Room because he finally succumbs to fear? How frightening -- how horrible -- is that? If we believe the network, "Twin Peaks" fans were the only people watching the show at the end. But I imagine that at least a few people stumbled across the last episode. The only thing that displaces my own dread is imagining someone for the first time coming across the disorienting plot and all those unsettling Lynchian tricks -- strobe lights, backward talking, humming sound design and the haunting voice of blues singer Jimmy Scott. How confusing. How scary.

-- Jeff Stark

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