HAPPY HALLOWEEN, MY FRIENDS.
Two weeks ago, I spilled my weaselly guts on what gives me the biggest case of the creeps. Now, you can see for yourself which films encapsulated those fears the most for me! And low-key, these aren't all gonna be straight up horror or thriller movies. What a twist!
Because you know, like, people aren't incessantly scary, but sometimes, uh, they can do stuff that scares you more than any ghastly little ghoul.
Besides, aren't the best scares the ones ya never see coming? Eh? Eh? These are movies with components so frightening that they stick alongside you no matter the genre. Not just one scary scene - but an ingredient which makes the flick what it is. Oh, and it's not like we're not gonna have some good horror flicks on here.
Let's turn those pants brown!
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey
It's true - this is a beautifully optimistic film, at its core. A dream of evolution throughout millennia, culminating with the ultimate apotheosis of primitive being to abstract being. It's cosmically heartwarming. Too bad Stanley Kubrick is director - and there's no way he's letting you watch one of his movies without offering you a glimpse into the dark, unnatural mechanics that come with life.
You didn’t think the man who imbued the hilarious Dr. Strangelove with a no-holds-barred nihilism and A Clockwork Orange with - well, just making that in the first place - would himself back? Let’s have a checklist. A primate discovers the use of tools: wow! The music swells, the angle is triumphant - oh, what’s that? The primate is beating a rival tribe member to death? No stirring music?
Just a quick, real glimpse of capacity for violence? Oh, Jeez. Okay, moving on - hey, we’re in space, following our fearless astronaut protagonist! Hurtling through the cosmos, oh wow, passing through alien landscape after alien landscape. But where is that damn choir coming from, and why do they sound like they’re crying out in pain?
Hey, pull that close up on his eye farther away, it’s unsettling and too meta for my tastes, you know, having lens reflect eye reflect existential infinity. Those alien landscapes don't look wondrous - they're vast, too vast! Oh god, why is this plunge into the unknown so scary? So unable to process?? Gah!
Adventure is rousing, heroic, and oftentimes, a glimpse into the abyss. That’s where we often find our core, but sometimes, it’s hellish doing so.
Oldboy's what I'd call a retrospective horror film. Not until that final, oozingly bleak, deliciously twisted plot revelation, do we have anything remotely scary. Thrilling, yeah, but in a cool, action mystery type way (unless teeth being pulled out is a phobia of yours, then yes, there's a scene that's very scary).
We sympathize, root for, and cheer for Oh Dae Su, as he fights against a mysterious kidnapper to find the truth of why he was ripped from his daughter and held captive for over a decade. But then something magnificent happens in the final fifteen minutes. The rug is pulled out from underneath us when a secret so horrible - one only the human mind can conjured - is unleashed to the knowledge of our protagonist.
And then the world of Oldboy has suddenly become inhumane to the nth degree. Everything we saw transpire was the mechanism of a hellish psychological revenge and battle that's been brewing for years. Everyone is a plaything of humanity's worst flaws, beset by the consequences of those flaws. This isn't a twist that gives new meaning to a plot point, or clarifies, or any of that other cheap stuff that equally cheap twists provide.
No, this twist is far worse - it casts a dark shroud over literally everything on the screen. It doesn’t matter what occurs outside those frames, we’ll never know. Right now, we just have our own little fucked up world, in which our characters will silently languish for the rest of their lives.
Don’t think the ending of the film does anything to assuage those fears; the last shot, no matter how heartwarming it looks, promises to never let that secret go away. We can practically read it in Oh Dae Su’s eyes: if there’s a hell, he’s here. What’s worse? He may have just deserved it. And he’s slave to it forever.
When you watch it again, those cheers become bated breaths, as we watch Oh Dae Su unknowingly embark on a quest that was twisted from its very beginning.
8. Taxi Driver
I love dread. I hate jump scares. Give me slow, boiling tension over immediate AHHHS any day. The feeling of a pressure cooker ready to blow - that's scary. The feeling of a pressure cooker ready to blow, applicable to many a folk on our city streets, a personification of everyone's darkest fantasies - that's inescapably worrying. How perfect does this film utilize its dread? The ending is by all means, structurally and character-wise, happy but wait; they're praising a psychopath vigilante! He's got everyone back in his good graces, but he's going to snap again!
Oh no - Scorsese didn't just go for a punch of an ending. We reel from the punch and then process the fact that another punch is coming, and it'll be bloody, violent, and celebrated. The worst part of this film is knowing this is bound to happen anywhere, anytime, and Travis Bickle is not so much a character as he is an embodiment. So many think vigilantism is supported here, but I digress; Scorsese knows filth better than anyone.
Travis’ descent starts out almost comically air headed, but the slip - the pressure cooker - is slow as it switches to uncomfortable, unforgiving, surreal madness and pathos. It’s not one quick event that shifts his gears, it’s a lifetime of isolation and environmental insanity, and we’re treated to every bit of it. By the end, you’ll feel exposed to the underbelly not only of a city, but of everyone’s most buried thirsts for bloody justice.
And suddenly the world is more sinister. Also, maybe it’s because NYC was its own haunted house of grime and crime in the 70s that it would make a scary backdrop for anything. You could set an MGM musical in 1976 Times Square, and it’d be a Halloween classic right up there with the likes of Friday the 13th.
7. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Yeah, this son of a bitch is just straight up nightmarish. Look at that shot, for Christ's sake! What do you guys think of body horror, hm? You know, like metal growing out of your body, skin twisting off or morphing itself hideously, all that good stuff? Like, mostly everyone gets goosebumps thinking of that?
If you don't, then you'll have a blast watching Tetsuo. The scenario of how this film came to be, I imagine came after a glorious night of probing every possible fear of body mutilation and transformation, set in a dark room with tons of microscopes and other examination equipment. That’s the only way to explain it.
Apart from its stark black and white cinematography and twitchy, often sped up editing giving the feel of a demented graphic novel coming to life, there’s no rest for the squeamish here; anyway the premise can dig itself into the reams of body corruption, it will. It’s unflinchingly gruesome and holds no punches, and on those tenets alone, will freak the hell out of you.
And it’s not like Cannibal Holocaust or those other torture feast flicks that are made to demonstrate the capacity for human depravity. Here, it’s all out of one director’s imagination - and what a freakish imagination you have, Shinya.
6. Gerald's Game
Apart from some truly terrifying bouts of imagery - pouring dreadful seas of color and shadows onto horrifyingly real and surreal scenarios, which I won't spoil - Gerald's Game's horror lies more in the thematic terms of its story. Jesse, our protagonist played to near perfection by Carla Gugino (whom a generation adored as the mother from Spy Kids), has had two insecure males in her life who have let that insecurity infect and take her captive: her father, and her husband. Both, while flawed, are entirely selfish.
The father thought rather to confront his insecurity or inward demons, he would pass them onto his daughter, like a sick game of telephone. The husband, on the other hand, knew he could use his wife as a plaything not to rid himself of his insecurities, but to try and morph them into something. She never asked for this, as so many females in real life haven’t asked for patriarchal shackles or binding tenets of a masculine filled with culture, but it’s going to happen anyway. And now it’s in the ultimate stage of entrapment as she literally lies handcuffed to her bed, following her husband Gerald’s attempts to dominate her in a bout of cruel bondage sex.
The usage of one setting is ingenious - it lets all of the psychological pain and captivity Jesse’s suffered linger in the air, and when her backstory is revealed, the prison is complete. The frightening thing is, we as a culture have made this prison for so many - and how many women have suffered a fate like this? With Gerald’s Game, we dive into the rabbit hole of that encapsulation, and the experience is as grim as it is sobering.
Mental, physical, and surreal horror all blend here to create a wholly unique and expertly crafted flick that might just be the greatest Stephen King adaptation. Like any good horror, there’s also some catharsis to be found, but you’ve gotta go through hell to get to heaven, right? By the way, there’s a twist hidden in the ending (I’ll let you see yourself) that changes the nature completely of one of the room’s elements. Some people think it’s cheesy, I think it’s absolutely terrifying! See for yourself!
For those of you who saw this in IMAX, how many palpitations did you go through? I'm genuinely curious. I almost dragged my family to this in IMAX, and I'm glad I didn't, cause I think we all would have had joint heart failure and keeled over right in the theater. War is hell, of course. War is messy. But above all, war is fear. I always adore when a film grasps that in any depiction of war onscreen, because it’s goddamn true.
Fear of waiting to die, fear of being surrounded by endless death, fear of. For once, Nolan’s signature emotional detachment enhances its subject matter - they’re pretty much just eventual corpses, so why pretend anything else? Sure, we could pile backstory and characterization, but then we’d forget what’s arguably the film’s thesis: there are thousands of men who were doomed to be nothing but bodies on the shores of France in the great war.
And the fact that luck keeps most of our protagonists alive here makes the whole thing worse, as if death is just biding its time, picking its victims with merciless aplomb. Of course, this is all made compact by truly stellar sound design. It almost seems strange putting a film so high when the scariest thing about it is its sound design, but don’t we still hold wolf howls and ominous winds as pillars of the iconic Halloween night?
I almost peed myself when those first round of bomber planes start to dive down on the beach. Approaching sounds become ghostly sirens of a cold chance ready to make any of the Allied soldiers a corpse. The slightest movements can either be a savior or a killer, but Nolan has no intention of settling that.
That’s within the first five minutes - and strap your seat belts in, because once that sound echoes, the next hour and a half can be filled with blood and inescapable death, around every corner. It’s only a question of when. We never see the actual Axis fighters, just their weaponry and their machines firing death; I think the undeniable evil nature of the Axis, historically, lets them become larger than life horror icons of their own here. This might be the perfect experience of a battlefield.
Psh! Just a haunted house movie in space with a phallic looking alien? How scary could that be? It's true. Alien as a whole doesn't really frighten me. I find that when something grows to be so iconic, it loses some of the mystery that made it scare us in the first place - most of the selections on this list I saw fresh or without any horror cultural zeitgeist, which let their scares shock me more. Kind of like how I always thought bigger bugs are less freakier than tiny ones in the way you can easily spot where they're going.
I thought upon first viewing that I'm gonna get a solid, thrilling space adventure. Cool! I'm down. Yet something extraordinary happened. I didn't jump at any scene or stuff my head into a pillow after the credits rolled. Better yet! I couldn't sleep that night. Why? It hit me - there are so many tiny components at play here that you miss right away, but provide such a creepy atmosphere that it’s impossible to shake them off.
Embedded in my subconscious were the little things like Ash the android’s twitching as the lights strobe in and out, his voice becoming a mechanical gurgle; the perfectly dead world where the space jockey is found, worsened by how hauntingly familiar it is, and thus terrifically uncanny; or the glitchy words spazzed out by the computer as the ship’s corporate instructions reveal their murderous mandate to the crew.
That was what stuck with me. Throughout the film, multiple characters ruminate on what the alien wants, what it is, or where it came from - and there’s no human answer, just the loving, calculated praise from the ship’s mechanical evil teammate. A sort of dark counterpart to 2001, Alien acknowledges that while the unknown itself is scary, what’s lying in there is just plain old monsters and madness.
And those wonderful little details hold that claim up, displaying an inherent darkness waiting to befall humanity in space. We can’t process it, and it can’t process us, but not because of mental capacity - because we’re nothing more than insignificant victims of a cosmic environment we have little hopes to conquer or understand. All we can do is brave the dive, and be consumed.
3. Get Out
When I look back on this movie, a good chunk of the time I laugh heartily. And that comedy perfectly collides with a terror that grows from ridiculous to possibly conceptual to unbearably real. Jordan Peele conjured a minor miracle, actually, in just throwing an all-encompassing tone to the wind and creating something far more effective.
Think back to how everyone laughs off a crisis, whether it be social, environmental, or moral, before it actually occurs - “psh, that can never happen” or “come on, that’s ridiculous” or “that’s just pushing it”. I like to think I’m at least slightly empathetic, and so when someone claims such a crisis is about to begin - or already beginning - I at least heed a little of what they’re saying.
When I first saw Get Out, and the true plot of the film was revealed little past the halfway mark, I had a scoff of disbelief. No way something that crazy could happen, could it? And with so many laughs, surely we were going for something in the vein of Evil Dead, right?
But this is a film that extraordinarily ties to the often scarily ridiculously world of real life, and as our real life world gives way to prejudice, paranoia, and cruelty, the ridiculousness is normalized. Slowly, I forgot about the comedic scenes as time went on - though they’re utterly hilarious - and instead thought ‘in a world like this, could a plot like that…actually happen’? Jordan Peele made a mirror here.
The more the world outside the screen warps, the more the reality of the film itself reflects ours. What worse could you ask for? This film hit a nail so deep it penetrated all of our consciousnesses, and in our current state of affairs, its truth tells us the world we’ve made and what we will make. We can joke, but the joke is hollow and burdened by pain. And a terrific build up of dread for about an hour doesn’t hurt either. Nope, never hurts.
2. Requiem for a Dream
Could you imagine trapping yourself? Via addiction, inherent evils and urges, or whatever else untickles our fancy? Worse, could you imagine watching a loved one trap themselves? You try and try to pull them - or yourself - away but in your heart, you know it’s a futile endeavor.
You know they’ve descended into the worst place to be trapped: your own head. Knowing that they did that themselves, however, adds a pain to the terror. What could you have done different? What factors pushed them to that point? Requiem for a Dream takes that premise and sprints with it, never once looking back. From the start, as two young adults are carelessly pushing a television through the sunny streets of Brighton Beach (Man, I love movies that explore Brooklyn besides all the hipster places), there’s no pretense of safety or hope as Clint Mansell’s endlessly foreboding and uneasy theme - of which I’m sure you’ve all heard, if not, give it a listen - pulsates in the background like a slowed down ticking clock. The first chapter is hopeful, fun even.
That’s the high, the part where the trap is promising, before it snatches you. From there on? This could have just been dumbly nihilistic and cruel, but there’s a constant human rawness and juggling of different tones that lets it teeter on the edge of style and substance ever so delicately. Hell, you’ll cry just as much as your eyes will widen, and doesn’t the thought of something that messes with your head and heart kind of terrifying? All because of a bad choice or falling victim to a bad habit. This could have been a triumphant tale of four folks overcoming their addiction and bettering their problems with better methods. But it doesn’t always work like that.
Happy endings are provided to us daily, because this is what an often normal, bad ending looks like. Like Get Out, Requiem for a Dream takes a scenario that you can’t empathize with unless you’ve either lived it or listen, and educates its audience on the inevitable, deathly outcomes of those scenarios. Except here, the demons are inside of us, and we cannot beat them. Plus it's got Jared Leto, who's always unsettling.
Don’t do drugs.
I hate disturbing things. Some artists just know how to craft just a frame alone that reaches into our minds and fiddles with the normalcy we’ve become so accustomed to. It’s not easy - no, that would be taking credit from David Lynch’s singular gift to hone in on internal, primal fears and personifying them with the utmost theatricality and making them normal instead. His fear of parenthood, which is what sparked this film’s tale of a new father struggling with the abomination his wife had just given birth to, could have easily taken up in a drama that goes deadly serious.
This fear is worse. It’s the point where the nightmarish has become reality, where being asleep and being awake are no longer different. There’s bits of really abstract comedy which all serve to create an uncanny atmosphere that turns any sound or object into yet another tool of psychological dread. To divulge any details is to spoil the trip, so I’ll let you find this film on whatever platform you can, and take the leap into David Lynch’s head.
You’ll find something familiar in there, but it won’t be the familiar you know. It’ll be the familiar that’s waiting for you when fear and paranoia take over your life, blind your senses via any type of malady consuming you. And to me, that turning point is quite possibly the scariest thing about being human.