Welcome to my dungeon, boys and ghouls. Mwoo-ha-ha-ha! Let me light my cigar in this dime-store skull candle and we'll all settle in for an evening of thrills and terror. Since I work at Salon, I am contractually obligated to tell you that the scariest thing this All Hallow's Eve is, you know, that lady, our fave-rave cover girl, the one with the sexy-"Handmaid's Tale"-remake thing going on. But I resist! It's simply not true! The scariest thing is that many of your apparently normal neighbors, people who work and go to school and feed their kids products that only slightly resemble Soylent Green, will be voting for her. Boo!
As you can tell by now, if you're almost exactly my age and grew up in Northern California, my ideas about adult ambition and cultural achievement were almost entirely shaped by Bob Wilkins, a onetime advertising salesman who hosted "Creature Features" on KTVU in Oakland, Calif. (and various other regional stations) from the mid-1960s until 1981. Now, 30-odd years after Wilkins poisoned my mind and perverted my tastes, I explore the Intertubes and discover that he wasn't especially knowledgeable about film, and didn't care for horror movies. He was faking it the whole time! Maybe I learned that from him too.
Wilkins is now retired from TV -- and living in the crucial 2008 swing state of Nevada! (When you're a journalistic professional, there's always an angle.) So I'm sitting here in his old easy chair, ready to dispense some ruthlessly pared-down wisdom on the spookiest celluloid delights available for your Halloween delectation. Thing is, when it comes to scary movies, everybody's an expert -- and curiously enough, the experts all seem to agree. Despite the miscellaneous nature of the category (what connects "The Evil Dead" to "Silence of the Lambs"? And what makes either of them anything like "Audition"?), annual lists of the 10 or 20 or 50 most spook-tacular films don't vary much.
Rather than just recycle one of those lists and try to add my own niggling little spin to it, I'm approaching this task in two ways. My first list is a kind of Halloween-horrorbot consensus, drawn from agglomerating numerous lists for points of agreement. I've tried to keep my own taste out of it, although I suppose in whittling it down to 10 essentials I have inescapably played favorites. (I've excluded "Jaws," for example, because as scary as it is, it ain't a Halloween movie. Sharks are a summertime thing. They go with salt-water taffy and evil clowns and horrible accidents on the Tilt-a-Whirl. E.g., have you ever seen a shark in a haunted house? If you have, it was a Land Shark, and that's a completely unacceptable blending of pop-culture tropes, in my view.)
Then there's the second list, which although it's got several popular choices, is a bit more personal, a bit more arty, a bit more adorably idiosyncratic, a bit more Beyond the Multiplex, a bit more Sarah-winkin'-atcha. I would say it was a bit more Bob Wilkins, but then Bob Wilkins doesn't know a single damn thing about movies. I'm not bitter. Only wounded. A couple of these, including my No. 1, are not so super seasonally appropriate either, so I'd better shut up about my sophisticated Great Pumpkin-inspired methodology. (Hey, hey! Why isn't "Pumpkinhead" on either of these lists? Oh, that's right, because it isn't that good. It's kinda scary, though.)
Feel free to cast aspersions, create your own vastly superior lists, and so on. We're on board with the whole reader-participation aspect of the Internet, in case you didn't know. The 21st century is almost 8 percent complete! Now that's scary.
THE UNIVERSALLY AGREED-UPON LIST OF THE SCARIEST MOVIES EVER
1. "The Exorcist" You know, I didn't see this until six or seven years after it first came out, and I guess it had been built up so damn high by playground whispers suggesting that it had spread widespread cases of insanity and/or diabolical possession that I was the teensiest bit disappointed. Still, it works on you plenty, even after all this time and all the hype (at least, it does if you even have the faintest vestige of religious belief, however conditional and self-contradictory). The most ominous of all Hollywood's forays into the supernatural, and captures director William Friedkin at the height of his claustrophobia-inducing powers. Let's also shout out to renegade Catholic novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, whose own directing efforts with "Exorcist 3" and the even more deranged "Ninth Configuration" rank among the craziest 1 percent of movies ever made on Planet Earth. Paul Schrader's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" is also kind of worth seeing, if not that scary.
2. "Alien" I continue to feel that the opening half-hour of Ridley Scott's outer-space Gothic offers the most oppressive atmosphere in horror history. Then again, one's personal experience always plays a role: I'd been standing in the fog for hours outside the North Point theater in San Francisco with two friends from the high school paper, so we were primed. (One of them's now a leading visual-effects designer in Hollywood, although I'm not sure "Alien" is directly responsible.)
3. "The Shining" One of the few horror films that loses little or nothing on repeat viewings. Like most of Kubrick's movies, it only gains in resonance and complexity. And somehow the Overlook Hotel remains the scariest damn place on God's green earth every time out. Stephen King and his devotees weren't pleased with the way Stanley Kubrick tweaked the story ("All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"), but as a fan of both I'd contend that Kubrick pulled certain strands of writerly insanity out of the book that King only addressed halfway. Yeah, Jack Nicholson chews the scenery virtually beyond the point of self-parody, but I suspect all that was part of evil genius Kubrick's grand scheme.
4. "Silence of the Lambs" Here's the most thoroughly respectable entry on the list, a multiple Oscar-winner with a Shakespeare-honed thespian promising to eat your liver with, you know, fava beans and all that. I might not rate this flick quite this high, myself, but the mind game between Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal and Jodie Foster's Clarice definitely works its way into your nervous system.
5. "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" In terms of contemporary horror, both in its mainstream and more indie guises, this is the god from whom all blessings flow. (Or at least one of them; see the next entry.) The atmosphere, the camerawork and the evident discomfort of the cast in 100-degree-plus Texas summer heat are all amazing. Up to and including the first killing, Tobe Hooper's magnum opus is perhaps the scariest film ever made. After that, "TCSM" gradually becomes a dark, gruesome exercise in slapstick, an underappreciated aspect of its genius.
6. "Night of the Living Dead" Amateurishly made but thematically brilliant, George A. Romero's zombie epiphany captured a certain mid-'60s American paranoia -- about race, about communism, about science -- and delivered it as a jolt of electricity to the collective drive-in-going public. Despite the endless litany of sequels and remakes, this movie (and its immediate successors "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead") are the only zombie movies you need to see.
7. "Halloween" I've probably seen all of this movie, at this point, but I will confess that it gives me the whim-whams so bad I've never been able to sit through it from beginning to end. A totally relentless and technically brilliant film, avowedly inspired (says director John Carpenter) by the next one on the list. Too bad the psycho-slasher genre it spawned, which dominated the 1980s in American horror, was almost a complete waste of time.
8. "Psycho" Arguably the greatest film of Gus Van Sant's entire career. No, wait, I'm kidding. I mean the earlier version, directed by what's-his-name, the plump English fellow. There's no point trying to add to the volumes of prose written about "Psycho"; it's disturbed, disturbing, cinematically unparalleled and transcends this category or any other.
9. "Nightmare on Elm Street" It may have been morning in America, but in the nighttime underbelly of Reaganite suburbia a spectral janitor in an ugly sweater was eviscerating kids in their dreams. The subsequent Freddy Krueger franchise had a few high points (including the bewilderingly postmodern "Wes Craven's New Nightmare") and many, many low ones. But in terms of zeitgeist appeal and sheer terror, this movie marked the high point of Craven's pre-"Scream" career as a horror innovator. Of course, if you're unfamiliar with his oo-ver, you can move on from here to "Last House on the Left" and "The Hills Have Eyes." Too scary: "Music of the Heart."
10. "Evil Dead" Armed with a few thousand bucks, a lot of goop, a hambone actor named Bruce Campbell and the "shaky-cam" technology (it involves strapping the camera to 2-by-4's), future "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi made the ultimate low-budget, teens-vs.-demons film, rendering all others unnecessary. Except perhaps for his own "Evil Dead 2," which is the same movie reenacted as comedy. Widely imitated, but remains a harrowing experience. And one that prepares us for ...
THE WHOA-I'M-IMPRESSIVE LIST OF OFFBEAT, FOREIGN OR OTHERWISE PECULIAR HORROR CLASSICS
1. "The Vanishing" ("Spoorloos," 1988) I guess Dutch director George Sluizer's abduction flick is more a meditation on the banality of evil than a horror film, per se, and its outdoorsy, prefabricated middle-European setting is about as un-Halloween as you can get. Still, this might be the most purely terrifying flick I've ever seen. It will be several sleepless nights before you can get the final images out of your head, although Sluizer's amazingly crappy 1993 Hollywood remake (starring the pre-"24" Kiefer Sutherland) may provide a cure.
2. "The Haunting" (1963) You knew I was talking about Robert Wise's creepazoid black-and-white classic with Julie Harris, widely viewed as the haunted-house movie of all time, right? And not Jan de Bont's effects-driven 1999 remake with Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones? Owen Wilson! I can't even list that cast with a straight face.
3. "Ring" ("Ringu," 1998) Actually, Gore Verbinski's 2002 Hollywood version with Naomi Watts is pretty damn scary, but it's a completely different kind of movie, more driven by expensive CGI effects and more devoted to audience-hopping scare moments. Hideo Nakata's Japanese original draws you in much more slowly, with long takes, simple camera movements and limited sound effects, but when little Sadako comes a-calling, dear Lord, is this movie terrifying. If you aren't familiar with the whole Japanese-horror thing, this is the movie to start with. (Nakata's "Dark Water" is also excellent, as is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's memorably creepy if slow-moving "Pulse.") But if you're foolhardy enough to watch it alone, don't come crying to me about how you can't sleep and can't answer the telephone.
4 and 5. "Shivers" ("They Came From Within") and "The Brood" A double bill of slippery sexual terror from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, back before he became respectable. Sure, you could add "Rabid," "Videodrome" and "Dead Ringers" to the pile and have an all-night Cronenbergian orifice-fest, but these two have even more underground cred. In "Shivers," sluglike parasites turn the denizens of a Toronto high-rise into insatiable sex maniacs, while hirsute shrink Oliver Reed employs unusual therapeutic methods in "The Brood," i.e., provoking his female patients into birthing mutant monster children.
6. "Audition" With grave misgivings, and whatever Salon's equivalent of a "mature audiences only" warning would be, I will recommend Takashi Miike's elegant and disturbing masterpiece about a widowed businessman whose search for a new partner leads to a beautiful and cultured young lady who is, in fact, auditioning him for her own far more sinister purposes. Called misogynist by some critics and feminist by others, "Audition" has nowhere near the gore factor of the bloodiest Japanese films, but still contains some of the most disturbing scenes anywhere, ever.
7. "Suspiria" It's totally unfair to contain the supercalifragilistic tradition of Italian horror to one or two movies, but lists, like life, are unfair. Still, when it comes to Dario Argento's Technicolor nightmare about an American ballet student delivered into a coven of European witches, there are just two kinds of people: Those who need to see it, and those who need to see it again. Argento has said the film is modeled after Disney's animated "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," and the thing is, that makes total sense.
8. "Demons" From the other end of the Italian horror tradition comes Lamberto Bava's trapped-in-a-movie-theater trash classic (actually co-written by Argento), in which a West Berlin screening of a gruesome horror film becomes the avenue for an incursion of ravening demons into our world. Yes, it's a campy time capsule from the mid-'80s and a tribute to long-lost big-city grindhouse culture, but the splatters and shocks retain their force.
9. "Onibaba" Kaneto Shindo's atmospheric 1964 masterpiece about two isolated medieval women who prey on passing samurai marks the starting point (along with Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan") of modern Japanese horror. An international art-house hit with no explicit supernatural elements, "Onibaba" weaves a mesmerizing spell of madness and murder, its protagonists growing ever more deranged on their haunted, reed-swept plateau.
10. "Calvaire" ("The Ordeal") From the "Siberia of Belgium" comes this especially deranged example of Europe's recent horror renaissance, in which a third-rate Tom Jones-style entertainer breaks down in a backwoods area and is welcomed by an innkeeper who really, really doesn't want him to leave. Director Fabrice du Welz recycles elements of "Texas Chain Saw," "Deliverance" and "Misery," all while walking the fine line between horror and farce. And I had no idea that the local music and dance tradition of rural Belgium was so colorful!