OK, from the “just for giggles” department…
If you know me well, then you are aware of my peculiar fondness for the experience of being frightened. Those who harbor a similar fondness will understand the dynamic to which I am making reference. We are the people who gravitate toward literature, television, and cinema that take us beneath the surface level of life in order to explore unsettling mysteries and horrifying scenarios—hauntings, hobgoblins, and things that go bump in the night.
Some of my Christ-following sisters and brothers have had a difficult time making sense of this particular proclivity. One of my friends, for example, recently invoked Philippians 4:8: “I thought that we were supposed to be thinking about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable! How do you square that with your fascination with the macabre?” Of course, I should point out that the friend who asked me this question is practically addicted to televised vacuousness (better known as “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Bachelor”), thereby helping us to remember that “pure and lovely” always reside in the eye of the beholder.
Truth be told, it is not my intention to justify or defend my proclivity. It is what it is. I seem to have come into this world with an innate predilection for exploring narratives that are unsettling and stories that venture into dark places. I will trust you to understand that this does not mean that I am glorifying evil, celebrating wickedness, or even magnifying the monstrous. In fact, I feel free to explore such stories and narratives without any real (or at least lasting) fear precisely because of my conviction that the Lordship of Jesus Christ holds perfect authority over every evil that this world might place before us. With that blessed assurance securely in place, a frightening film becomes for me a playful, imaginative, and cathartic journey into the land of (macabre) make-believe.
So, having offered that Christocentric disclaimer, allow me to ask you a question that seems to resonate with appropriateness on this October 31st:
What have been the films that have frightened you most over the years—the films that have brought you into an exhilarating and enlivening sense of cinematic anxiety?
Although it has been a couple of years, I have shared my personal list of such films in previous blog posts. I offer my list once again (updated and augmented) in the hope that it will inspire some playfully scary memories, not to mention some light conversation.
Here are the films that have scared my proverbial socks off, in no particular order:
“The Exorcist” (1973)
This film is replete with some of the most horrifying cinematic moments that I have ever experienced. Though certainly a bona fide horror film, the film’s pacing, dialogue, and acting are far more reflective of a well-crafted drama. The coldly manipulative and dreadfully eloquent phrases offered by “the devil” create a sense of palpable spiritual tension, especially since they are starkly juxtaposed with the vulnerability and brokenness of the people to whom the phrases are offered. Lastly, Linda Blair’s bold performance forever changed the way I think about both the human spinal column and pea soup.
“The Changeling” (1980)
A memorable haunted house film starring George C. Scott. It is a film that compels the viewer to understand that, in the right setting, even old wheelchairs and rubber balls can become something terrifying.
This is a small but effective film that wisely resists the temptation to say too much about its villain or his motives (a fact that has escaped Rob Zombie in his recent remakes). The film simply puts a mysterious and, apparently, motive-less villain in front of us, throws an old Captain Kirk mask on him, and compels us to be terrified.
I still have to keep an eye on the door when I shower! Enough said.
Although more of a frightening crime drama than a horror film, “Seven” nevertheless provides several occasions of true cinematic horror. Personally, I find it to be a better film than “Silence of the Lambs,” to which it is often compared.
“Alien” and “Aliens” (1979 and 1986)
I place these two films together because they work in much the same way. By creating a powerful sense of claustrophobia, a dreadful network of circumstances, a number of interesting characters, and a way cool monster, the films stand as a couple of the finest “monster movies” ever made. Along with…
Years ago, when we first purchased a DVD player, my wife Tara asked me if I wanted her to buy our very first DVD on her way home from work. I said yes. She asked me which one to buy. I told her to buy a gripping classic that would be both fun and exciting to watch. She came home with “Jaws,” thereby proving once again that she’s the coolest woman on the planet. Put simply, “Jaws” rocks. Speaking of which, did you hear about the woman from “Jaws” who had a dandruff problem?…………. They found her head and shoulders on the beach! (I’ve been using that joke since 1975!)
“The Ring” (2002)
I know, I know. “It’s not as good as the original Japanese film, ‘Ringu.’” But, having seen both, I just don’t buy that. I’ll take “The Ring” over “Ringu” any day. During my first viewing of the film, when Samara actually crawled out of the television set, I yelped like a crazy man and whispered to Tara, “That’s one of the scariest things that I have ever seen!”
“The Shining” (1980)
This, by the way, is also one of my favorite Stephen King novels. As a film—and, more specifically, as a film brought to life by a visionary director like Stanley Kubrick—it grabbed my attention and never let go. I find it to be a brilliant story about ghosts, family dynamics, and one man’s rapid descent into madness. Plus, it is some of Scatman Crothers’ best work since Hong Kong Phooey.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Ostensibly a story about the spawn of Satan, this film also creates a portrait of social alienation among Manhattan’s elite. Quite frankly, I’m not sure which storyline is more terrifying!
“Fright Night” and “The Lost Boys” (1985 and 1987)
These are not stellar films. But it didn’t feel right to create a list like this without putting a couple of vampire films on it. These two films contain a wonderful combination of campy fun and genuine jolts. That’s the tooth, and nothing but the tooth.
“American Werewolf in London” (1981)
Humor and horror, in my opinion, are never far away from one another. Do you need proof? Look no further than “American Werewolf in London.” Throughout the film, I found myself simultaneously giggling and covering my eyes. Plus, this film offers the best “transformation into a werewolf” scene that you will ever see.
“Exorcist III” (1990)
Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. This clever film is a well-crafted piece of work that captures some of the depth and dread of “The Exorcist” while at the same time exploring some new territory. Unfortunately, its final segment betrays the film’s earlier integrity. But this does not change the fact that the film is genuinely and creatively terrifying.
“The Orphanage” (2007)
This is a smart and cleverly-written ghost story that brilliantly juxtaposes the security of a mother’s love and the spiritual unsettledness of a memory-laden (and, by the way, genuinely haunted) home for children.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
Is this film really a frightening drama or a dramatic horror film? Who cares?! All I know is that, when I saw it a second time, the scary scenes still gave me goosebumps, even though I knew they were coming. That’s the mark of a truly haunting film.
“When a Stranger Calls” (1979)
When the innocent babysitter hears that ominous question from the mysterious caller—”Have you checked the children?”—I am always pulled into the depths of her fear and helpless vulnerability. Later, when she discovers that the calls are coming from inside the house, I normally lose control of my bodily functions.
“Paranormal Activity” and “Paranormal Activity 2″ (2009 and 2010)
These are nicely structured and cheaply made films in which young couples attempt to capture evidence of a haunting in their house through the use of a video camera. Since most of the manifestations of the haunting occur at night while the couples are asleep, the film succeeds in taking one of our most comfortable and vulnerable conditions—sleep—and transforming it into something utterly dreadful.
A creepy hotel room with a ghostly history, coupled with an exceptional performance from John Cusack, make for a refreshing and unnerving treatment of the haunted house genre. Let’s just say that, after a night in room 1408, bedbugs don’t seem like so much of a threat anymore.
Thanks for taking the time to read through my list. I hope that it was a fun trip for you. Perhaps you would like to add to it.
Enjoy your Halloween–-and have a couple of good scares while you’re at it.