Welcome back to my Halloween themed posts for October. Let’s finish up our “scary listings” by looking at my top 15 scariest movies of all time.
Now I don’t want this list to cover the “usual suspects,” although you’ll see some here. Since I want this to be different from your run-of-the-mill horror movie list, I’m looking at movies that scared me the most WHEN I SAW THEM! So seeing a movie at age 12 (or 6) might have a totally different impact than seeing it for the first time at age 32. For example, when the old Adam West Batman show would end in a cliffhanger, my 7-year old mind worried that Batman actually might not make it! See what I mean?
So let’s go inside this haunted house, push the spider-webs aside, and see what we find lurking behind the shadows. Some of my choices will make you say, “Of course!” And some, you’ll scream, “What was he thinking?” For the most part, you won’t find current slasher films or tales of teens who have sex just before they get sliced up by a maniac. And movies that blame it all on the military for doing illegal experiments so they can kill more people? Yawn.
I will reverse countdown (beginning at #15) and ending with my #1. You’ll also see an “HM” … Honorable Mention … alongside each selection. HM = this one was also good and, in many cases, a similar film, but was not quite good enough to crack the top 15. Ready? Enough of this. Let’s get started!
Chamber of Horrors (1966)
Patrick O’Neal (Family Feud) stars as a psycho in 19th Century London who cuts off his hand to escape the law, then dispatches his old enemies using various blades and knives for his artificial hand. The grisly ending takes place in a Wax Museum. Saw it on TV one night when I was in the 3rd grade. What were my parents thinking? It was originally intended to be a TV series about scary happenings in that same wax museum but was never picked up by a studio.
BTW, am I the only person in America who thinks wax museums are spooky? I remember visiting one with my parents on vacation and I swear that Nathan Hale nodded at me in the scene where he was about to be hanged. Did Chamber of Horrors affect my thinking in that place? Hmmmm.
HM: House of Wax (1953)
The legendary Vincent Price as a disfigured sculptor whose wax figures look “too real.” Can you guess why? The scene where his face “breaks away” is awesome and still scary! This movie first got my attention as a kid in the 60s, seeing it featured on the cover of Famous Monsters of Film Land magazine. It features the debut of Charles Buchinsky, later to “become” Charles Bronson (who was my inspiration for Jeremiah Bronson in Dogwoods Blush). It was remade in 2005, remembered mostly for the on-screen death of Paris Hilton.
The Prophecy (1995)
Supernatural/end of times films are always scary and this one tops ‘em all. We all expect demons and the devil to try and destroy us, but what if there was a 2nd rebellion in Heaven and the Angels wanted to wipe us out to restore “order” in the universe? Christopher Walken at his creepy best really made me think about all things cosmic and their place in the order of the universe. (Despite objections from my friends that I am not capable of such thought)!
HM: The Stand (1994).
This epic TV series starred Gary Sinese among others and was an excellent adaptation of the equally excellent Stephen King book. As scary as biological warfare is, what happened AFTER the attack that devastated society is even scarier!
An Eye For an Eye (1996).
My #1 fear is not being able to protect my family. Blame it on Death Wish (1974). I was a teenager then, but Eye came out after I was a married father of three. Keifer Sutherland may be the hero to lots of ladies out there thanks to 24, but I will never get his evil, murderous character from this film out of my mind. It’s too scary for me to even enjoy. That’s why I still don’t quite trust Jack Bauer!
DIGRESSION: Speaking of Death Wish and not forgiving Keifer, what about Jeff Goldblum? He was one of the thugs who raped Bronson’s daughter and killed his wife and he GOT AWAY WITH IT!!!! When I saw him later as the hero in films like Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Independence Day, I wanted to call 911 and say, “That’s the guy!!!! Arrest him!!!” (Or better yet, point him out to Dirty Harry)!
HM: Breakdown (1997).
Very similar in nature to Eye, but a much happier ending. The great Kurt Russell realizes his wife has been kidnapped in the wasteland of the western USA and seeks to rescue her before the kidnappers realize he has no real money and kill her. Again, this movie feeds my #1 fear and Russell is his usual amazing self in depicting a normal guy trying to be a superhero.
John Carpenter’s ground-breaking film that opened the door for Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and the various slasher films that dominated the 80s. But this one is scarier by far! Saw this one in college and it was so original at the time, it really made me think about the “Boogey Man” and what he might look like if he came looking for me. It was the talk of my college buddies for weeks afterward. This film also made a star of the talented Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut.
HM: The Funhouse (1981).
Great book (see last week’s post) but poor film. I include it here simply because the monster was so darn terrifying. And his final battle, which seems to last about 10 hours and features some GREAT cinematography and suspense, is truly frightening! Absolutely first rate! The last 20-minutes or so of this Tobe Hooper film really had me on the edge of my seat!
The Frozen Dead (1966).
Nazi scientist keeps the heads of evil Nazis alive, hoping to transplant them on a healthy body.
HM: The Brain That Would Not Die (1962).
Beautiful woman survives decapitation in car crash because her scientist husband keeps her head alive.
I saw both of these movies on TV in the late 60s when monster movies came on late night on weekends. They are pretty much interchangeable, but the idea of a detached head that still lives continues to give me the willies! I gave Frozen the “nod” (haha) due to the final scene (above), where the head begs someone to “bury me!” Yikes! But Brain creeped me out, too, thanks to the urban legends of the era about poor Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and still living for a long time afterward. I went to a local carnival in the late 60s (I was 10-11) and saw a supposed “headless” corpse that still lived. Sure it was fake, but it gave me nightmares for years! And I still recall the billboards at that carny, which were much too graphic for today’s county fairs! This concept led to the creation of a similar creature, “The Head-Man,” in my upcoming horror novel, Dove of War (October 2011).
The Sixth Sense (1999).
“I see dead people,” plus the absolute best twist ending EVER! This movie just blew me away then and still does today. My favorite Bruce Willis performance by a mile!
HM: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968).
The great Chris Lee as Dracula in this Hammer Films classic. I was 14 and watched it on a late-night TV fest. The British Studio, Hammer, made dozens of low-brow horror films that were much more bloody, violent, and sexy than the old Universal projects, especially for the era. The final shot … Dracula impaled on a silver cross as the sun comes up … had me gasping for air.
Bela Lugosi’s enduring depiction of the Man from Transylvania, Count Dracula. I watched this with my Mom on TV when I was about 8 . She shared with me that she saw it when she was about my age and how it scared her as well. Great memory! “I never drink … wine!” There will NEVER be another Bela!
HM: The Indestructible Man (1956).
Don’t laugh. This low-budget stinker starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) came on TV on a Sunday afternoon when I was about 10. The idea of electricity bringing murderers back to life and making them “indestructible” was just too scary for me to comprehend. How would any of us ever be safe? You may laugh now, but 1960s rural Georgia was a much more innocent time than today’s ultra-violent standards. And Chaney is forever Hollywood royalty in my mind. I have to say it … this movie was SHOCKING!
American Werewolf In London (1981).
Best werewolf movie EVER!!! The transformation was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. And the “nightmare within a nightmare” sequences were first rate! A friend at the time, after hearing how I loved this movie, said, “Bill, you are sick!” I knew that BEFORE I saw this flick! The graphic nature of this film cost actor David Naughton a spot in the Dr. Pepper soft drink ads of the early 80s.
HM: Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972).
Chris Lee returns in his final turn as the evil Count Dracula, besetting the descendants of arch-enemy Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) in modern London. This was the first Hammer Film I saw at the theater, so that was thrilling in and of itself. And the opening sequence, with Dracula battling Van Helsing atop a runaway horse-drawn carriage in 1872 only to be impaled on the broken wagon wheel? Oh my! And using Satanic rites to bring him back from the dead? Oh man! This was scary stuff in 1972, at least for this country boy!
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
This was drive-in heaven. The title alone is enough to make you cringe, and the ads that promoted it as a true story were relentless. To this day, when I hear a chainsaw, I think of this movie.
HM: The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
Remade as a gore-fest in 2005, this 1977 original plays on my #1 fear again of not being able to protect my family. Anytime I travel along a deserted road where the stores or gas stations are miles and miles apart, I think of this very disturbing film. I saw it late-night in college, so it didn’t have much impact on me at the time. But looking back on it, the concepts depicted here are as horrific as they come.
The Naked Jungle (1954).
The amazing Charlton Heston in his pre-Ten Commandments and pre-Ben-Hur days, battling hordes of killer soldier ants who destroy everything in their path in South America. I
sat in my Grandmother’s lap and watched it on TV one night in the early 60s (I was 5-6). I’d been bitten by ants, of course, and the idea of being attacked by millions who could eat you and leave nothing but bones in seconds was almost more than my overactive little mind could handle. Thank you, Mr. Heston, for saving the day (as you always did)!
HM: Nightmares (1983).
Saw this on HBO in the mid-80s. This collection of four different 20-minute tales is first rate from beginning to end. Based on urban legends, the first story, Terror in Topanga, has a smoking addict (Cristina Raines) going out to buy some cigarettes despite reports of a killer loose in the neighborhood. The second story, Bishop of Battle, has a teenager (Emilio Estevez) who becomes so good at a video game that the game comes to life to collect him. (This is the best known segment from this movie). The third story, The Benediction, has a priest (one of my favorite actors, Lance Henriksen) who loses his faith, leaves his monastery and is stalked on the road by a black pick-up truck from hell, literally. The fourth story Night of the Rat, has a couple (Richard Masur and Veronica Cartwright), along with their young daughter, battling a giant rat living in their suburban home. do you feel nervous when you see a little mouse in your house? Imagine a rat the size of a calf! That’s right! This collection just gets better and better as it goes along.
The Exorcist (1973).
I was 14 when it came out. My dad would not let me see it, so I was in my 20s before I finally witnessed Linda Blair say and do all those horrible things under the influence of demonic possession. While seeing the movie was somewhat of a letdown by the time I saw it, the time when it came out is forever tattooed on my brain. Highly controversial, all my high school buddies ranted about it, proclaiming that “this is something that can really happen to us!” It spawned hundreds of imitations, even to this day. The phenomenon of The Exorcist is impossible to ignore.
HM: Angel Heart (1987).
A much scarier Lucifer (Robert DeNiro) and the amazing performance of Mickey Rourke make this one of the best “you can’t beat the devil” tales of all time. DeNiro is just amazing and his scenes with Rourke rank as some of the best acting ever! “Alas… how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise, Johnny!”
The Fly (1958).
Vincent Price in a rare “good guy” role. Poor David Hedison (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) gets the short end in possibly the single scariest scene in all of movie history! “Help me! Help me!” I defy you to find a scene any scarier than the ending to this film! (Even though Vincent Price admitted later that it took several takes to film it because he could not stop laughing!).
HM: The Amityville Horror (1979).
Why do I like this movie? The acting is terrible. The book did not convince me of its validity. The whole story seems concocted. Yet, there’s something about it that still kinda creeps me out (forget the sequels and the remake … trash all around). And why is it ALWAYS 3:00 am when I wake up in the middle of the night?
The Thing (1982).
John Carpenter completely reinvents the 1951 sci-fi thriller starring James Arness and casts my hero, Kurt Russell, as mankind’s only hope in an arctic hell! I saw this film in a theater in 1982 and people were screaming in the audience. And the ending? Why was there never a sequel to this movie?
HM: Alien (1979).
ROTC summer camp, Fayetteville, NC, 1979. Two things I’ll ALWAYS remember … Sigourney Weaver in her underwear and … hey, YOU KNOW THE SCENE I’m talking about!!!! Everyone in the theater jumped and gasped when it happened because NO ONE in 1979 saw it coming!
The Birds (1963).
Saw it on TV with my family in the mid-60’s when I was about 9. I had a huge crush on Tippi Hedren and wanted to protect her at the end, which must be normal since that’s EXACTLY what director Alfred Hitchcock wanted audiences to feel when he cast her. I recall playing with my buddy, Tony Webb, during recess shortly after seeing this movie. We noticed several birds starting to gather on a telephone wire and got scared. Well done, Mr. Hitchcock.
HM: Fistful of Brains (2008).
Hey, creator/writer/director Christine Parker is a good friend and son Sting Cain is Executive Producer! I even got a small cameo in a crowd where I’m screaming at someone to please let me inside before the zombies get me. (http://billcainonline.com/?p=104) Darn if they wouldn’t open that door! I never said this list was fair or scientific!
Follow Christine’s amazing work at the links posted here:
Scared me to death then (I saw this at the theater in Tallahassee with High school pal, Jimmy Barrett, in ’75) and scares me to death now. I knew I was in trouble during the opening five minutes! To this day, 35 years later, I don’t like going much deeper than ankle high in the ocean. Give me a swimming pool any day.
HM: Orca (1977).
A Jaws imitation but more unique than most rip-offs. This flick was a revenge drama from the perspective of the killer whale. Throw in some native Alaskan mysticism (from the great Will Samson), the always cool Richard Harris, and a very pretty Bo Derek (her film debut) and you have some great drama. On second thought, it’s actually much more than just a Jaws imitation. This film made me feel sorry for the whale. In light of the recent attacks at Sea World against humans, makes you wonder just what these whales really are thinking!
There are plenty more films I could have listed and easily made a top 100. But these are the ones that come to mind for me that made such an impact AT THE TIME and continue to haunt, entertain, inspire and scare me to this day! I hope you got a kick out of reading it. Agree? Disagree? Let me know about it. I’d love to hear your opinions.
Until then, grab some popcorn, snuggle up with the one you love, and turn on your favorite scary movie with the lights down low! I dare you! But above all …