Any list like this is subjective, but here is a solemn promise: this list is not solely based on the large horror franchises. Instead, I look at films that induce terror based primarily on one’s mortality. Death is the obvious bottom line in any horror film, but the horror genre doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on existential dread, so this list doesn’t exclusively contain horror films.
While I am certain that many will disagree with this list, these five films have made me confront my mortality in ways other films have not. People generally associate cinematic horror with the Jason’s, Freddy’s and zombies dominating the landscape, but there is more to generating fear than a creepy monster killing teenagers or the recently deceased coming back and eating the living; it takes an appeal not just to our fear of death but the conditions surrounding it. Consequently this list does not contain a single zombie or supernatural murderer. Instead, I look at five films that defy the fantastic and dwell within the every day. After all, none of us live in a zombie apocalypse or have our dreams haunted by a torched ghost killing from beyond the grave. The real horror surrounding us is tangible, visible in headlines or in our thoughts about the inevitable awaiting us one day.
Without further ado here is the list:
5. The Devil’s Rejects:
Rob Zombie’s sequel to the mediocre House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is where Zombie found his voice and crafted a horror film which works on multiple levels. There are those out there who believe The Devil’s Rejects’ primary characters are folk heroes of sorts, living out the American Dream in a murderous Easy Rider meets The Wild Bunch fashion. However, I see the three main characters as despicable, detestable humans deserving nothing more than death. These characters are frightening because their actions can make somebody who detests the death penalty and Old Testament vengeance embrace such emotions, actually cheering for their demise.
Like all of Zombie’s films, The Devil’s Rejects is chock full of violence, sadism and sexual and mental torture, which are obviously horrific, but it is where Zombie leads the audience that is really terrifying. Zombie makes his audience think thoughts they would otherwise regard as reprehensible. Unlike his Halloween remakes, which are scary, but nothing more than extravagant torture porn, The Devil’s Rejects is a ride through Americana which takes the viewers somewhere they would rather not travel, showing that death can happen at any moment and the players involved are not always known.
4. The Seventh Seal:
Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic The Seventh Seal is by no means a horror film – it is an exploration of faith, of life and death and the cycle of existence we are all a part of. It is beautiful at times and haunting at others, ultimately leaving the viewer with a good feeling even though, like life, it ends with death. However, it is The Seventh Seal’s existential ponderings that place it on this list.
One scene in particular, when Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) come across a young woman condemned to death by burning at the stake, stands out as one of the most frightening moments in film history. The look on the young woman’s face, her eyes looking at the two main characters, full of the knowledge that her life is over and uncertainty awaits, is what makes this scene so scary. The tragedy and the beauty of The Seventh Seal is in embracing this uncertainty which is a part of our lives every minute of every day; it is the knowledge that this life is temporary and can be taken away in a moment. Even faith is just that: faith, not predicated on anything truly knowable. Regardless of The Seventh Seal’s ultimately wonderful message, it is a film which will stick with you, making you meditate on the fragility of your existence.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
Released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has frightened audiences for almost 40 years. My father took my mother to see TCM in theaters and spent half the movie smoking cigarettes in the lobby, leaving my mother alone in the theater with one of the most chilling films of the 20th century. Like The Devil’s Rejects, director Tobe Hooper’s film relies on a version of the romanticized American landscape, using a group of young adults traveling through rural Texas as the victims of a remote cannibal family. Well before the slasher films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre punished America’s youth for promiscuity, disavowed organized religion and so forth, but without the comedic fanfare of a Friday the 13th film or the Halloween sequels.
What is also terrifying about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is its lack of excessive blood and gore. Naturally the film is violent, but it relies more on imagination than visuals. For instance, when Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) places Pam (Teri McMinn) on a meat hook, the wound is not shown, instead emphasizing the sound of it entering her skin. Immediately, Leatherface moves off-screen and the audience is facing a screaming woman still alive. We all know she is finished, but her agony is prolonged. Every death in this film, and even the one survivor’s experience, is tormenting, driving home the idea of the last few moments of our lives: will it be peaceful or will we end up being hit in the head by a sledge hammer, twitching around as a part of our dying brain realizes our life is over?
2. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer:
Like Hooper’s film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is also a film which explores the few harrowing moments between life and death, but whereas The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place in America’s heartland, John McNaughton’s low-budget shocker occurs in Chicago. Based loosely on the actions of Henry Lee Lucas and Charles Ng and Leonard Lake, who filmed their murders and rape like the two male leads in Henry, the film examines a serial killer who murders indiscriminately, leaving behind no trace and possessing no motive other than killing itself. Henry changes his tactics and location regularly, leaving behind no trail for the authorities. His drug of choice is murder, delivering his wrath based on his impulses and not a series of identifiable tells.
Shot on 16mm for around $100 thousand, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer uses its low production value to its advantage by giving the film an almost documentary-like aesthetic. Although Benoit Poelvoorde’s shocking yet darkly comic Man Bites Dog takes Henry’s documentary device further a few years later, it does not capture the horrific essence that McNaughton did. With incredible performances by Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead, Mallrats), character actor Tom Towles (The Devil’s Rejects) and Tracy Arnold it becomes apparent that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of those rare moments in cinematic history when a filmmaker acquires the perfect cast and budgetary restraints work in its favor. It is not a film for the squeamish because it reminds the viewer that these kinds of monsters can be anywhere, and the limits to their violence are minimal.
I am sure many people will disagree about Jaws’ placement as the scariest film of all time and I can understand their opposition. Too bad they’re wrong. Jaws is not just a scary movie – it is an adventure film also but its primary strength comes from its minimalism. Realistically, Jaws is a simple film about a killer shark terrorizing a small Northeastern beach community (it was shot at Martha’s Vineyard) and the people who deal with it. What makes Jaws work, aside from Steven Spielberg’s clever pacing, the excellent editing and the Hitchcockian devices littered throughout the film, is the primal fear it induces. The monster in this is real (unlike the Leviathan’s and other monsters lurking in the horror genre) and a source of fascination for millions of people; it is also a giant beast which devours flesh in large quantities and does not understand anything but shark concerns (“all this machine does is swim, eat and make little sharks”). It is a creature residing on our planet, but outside our domain, and we are powerless against it…and it can eat you. What is scarier than being something’s dinner, realizing it during the last painful moment of your life?
In addition to the primordial aspect of Jaws, certain dramatic decisions are in place throughout the film to amplify the horror. The shark is not seen up close until over an hour after the film begins and even though Jaws is violent, especially for a PG film, it relies more on showing the terror on people’s faces and their shrill, frenzied screams and calls to a divine power than blood. Of course there is Quint’s death where the shark’s teeth sink into his torso and make him spit blood and the boater’s leg falling to the bottom of the ocean but other than that the bloodshed is minimal. Even the scene where young Alex Kintner is eaten while at the beach, which has blood, is more about how the shark kills indiscriminately, not caring whether its prey is a child nor concerned one bit about what we deem important. It comes without notice, turning a lifetime of meaningful moments into one conclusion: dinner.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece: this list is highly subjective. Please feel free to contribute to the conversation, adding what you believe are the scariest films of all time. Below is a list of other films I considered but did not make the cut.
The Silence of the Lambs, The Birds, Paranormal Activity, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist (Which was excluded because I realized this film is only scary if you were raised with religion. Otherwise it is just Catholic nonsense), The Shining, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Invasion of the Body Snatches (the Donald Sutherland version from the ‘70s), The Grey, Rabid.