“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) from his 1927 essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”
In the spirit of Halloween – a time of bubbling cauldrons, bloodcurdling screams and cackling spirits – ATG puts forth our top 10 picks of the scariest movies of all time, nine of which were made over 30 years ago, but hold up surprisingly well.
Responsible for spawning numerous sequels, cheap imitators and whole genre movements (zombies, aliens, etc.), these movies play off of man’s primal fear of the unknown, causing our imaginations to run rampant with unthinkable possibilities.
Directed by James Whale, this 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) classic novel Frankenstein (1818) is by far one of the scariest movies ever made. Only a few years into “talkie” movies (1929 Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was the first ever “talkie” movie) you know you have made a scary movie when people run out of the theater throughout the movie (which is exactly what happened in 1931). The special effects, make-up, and laboratory hold up amazingly well when you consider it was made close to 75 years ago. Boris Karloff without a doubt delivers the most classic performance of the Frankenstein monster ever made.
Note: For a hilarious spoof on the original, check out one of our all time favorites, Young Frankenstein (1974) starring the always-enjoyable Gene Wilder with Cloris Leachman.
2. Psycho (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. This is a classic that stays with you and is every traveler’s worst nightmare when checking into a sketchy motel. Even today it keeps people on their paranoid toes when taking a shower. Anthony Perkin’s intense low-key performance is unnerving and the ending is still one of the all-time best of any classic scary movie.
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George Romero. This low-budget black and white has probably spawned more zombie-related movies than any other movie made. Filmed in western Pennsylvania which adds to its authenticity, a few of us have been spooked in the cemetery of the living dead where some of the filming took place. The current zombie craze is a spinoff from this cult classic. After all, what isn’t scary about being locked in a country farmhouse when hundreds of local living-dead are trying to break in and eat you!
4. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Directed by Tobe Hooper. Another cult classic with an unknown cast set in the remote and desolate Texas outback. Unchain your imagination when viewing this scary movie and you will be running wild with fright! Being chased by a leather-faced maniac with a chainsaw is enough to get anyone’s blood pumping!
5. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin. One of the few movies worth all the hype when it first came out. The spinning head scene has spun its share of jokes and is one of the most familiar and referenced movie scenes ever. Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, and Max von Sydow give very authentic and believable performances that leave you wondering: “Is there somebody inside me?”
6. Jaws (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg. A movie that grabs you and won’t let you go into the water on your next visit to the beach. So many classic lines – “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat” – and classic scenes, it is a hard one to top. Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, it was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard and became the first ever summer blockbuster that played in theaters all summer long. After filming was wrapped up, Dreyfus and Spielberg went to Hawaii for a vacation and couldn’t bring themselves to go in the water!
Note: The sequel is worth watching as well.
7. Halloween (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter.* Jamie Lee Curtis’s breakout performance. This movie is a real treat for teens and is considered the original “teen scream” movie that keeps you jumping out of your seat. Responsible for launching a whole new genre that is still going strong today with Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and Paranormal Activity.
Directed by Ridley Scott. A slow-to-start classic space thriller that picks up speed a third of the way through and continues to build to one of the scariest scenes in cinematic history (hint: My belly doesn’t feel so well). This movie put Sigourney Weaver on the map and also includes John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Harry Dean Stanton . It spawned a whole new alien genre with three sequels. Many attempts have been made to top this original space monster story and 35 years later it still hasn’t been done.
9. The Thing (1982)
Directed by John Carpenter. An all-time favorite and a rare movie remake that is 10 times better than the original. Kurt Russell, with a great character cast, gives an amazing performance of what it would be like to be stranded in Antarctica with the “THING.” A movie with one of the best opening sequences – a dog feverishly on the run from some-THING in an intense pursuit-and-capture leaves the dog exploding into a monster “THING” – that sets the stage for a wild and frightening ride to find who on the island has the THING inside of them.
10. Wrong Turn (2003)
Directed by Rob Schmidt with a largely unknown cast. A classic on-the-edge-of-your-seat movie that gives quite a fright and stays with you longer than you’d like. An easy-to-relate-to-situation that quickly turns into a nightmare will make you think twice about venturing off the beaten trail. The story takes place on the back roads of West Virginia where you will find that smart yuppies are no match for inbred hillbillies.
*For another fright from John Carpenter check out The Vampires (1998)