Rare is the modern horror movie that begs to be watched in the dark. Lights on or off -- it's not gonna make a difference when you're watching a 'Saw' sequel. From time to time throughout film history there have been some directors who got it right and took obvious delight in making you reach for the light switch. Each of the creepy movies on this list earned its spot in different ways -- mood, atmospherics, music, lack of music -- but they have one thing in common: Good luck watching them ... alone ... in the dark.
Oh, 'The Others' … how do we love thee? From your self-playing piano to your impenetrable fog to the photos of corpses in your locked attic. The mansion. The hired help. The accents. The creepy kids. The seance. The twist ending that actually becomes more powerful with repeat viewings. You are haunted-house, bumps-in-the-night, gothic-horror perfection.
A sorority house is emptying out for Christmas break and the few stragglers – Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder among them – begin receiving aggressive prank calls. The setup sounds standard until you realize that this is several years prior to 'Halloween' or 'When a Stranger Calls.' Bob Clark directed this before moving on to pseudo-classics like 'Porky's' and another holiday-themed flick you might have heard of called 'A Christmas Story.' Beautifully shot, acted and edited, its only weak spots are some unwelcome comic relief and an overambitious red herring. How 'Halloween' managed to eclipse 'Black Christmas' in popularity and influence is unknown, but both movies -- for better or worse (mostly worse) -- managed to jump-start a trend in horror that would be with us for a very long time.
The Aussie-lensed ‘Lake Mungo’ probably works better on a small screen because it’s designed to mimic supernatural cable documentaries. It’s the story of the hell a family goes through in the aftermath of a daughter’s mysterious death. It’s a mystery. It’s a ghost story. And it’s one of the most convincing fake documentaries you’re likely to see. (If you stumbled across it on Discovery, you’d probably believe you were watching the real deal.) Characters are slowly revealed through a first-person interview format and judiciously employed unscripted, observational footage. This allows for a deliberate, suspenseful unpacking of the movie’s narrative and a slow-building sense of dread. Cinematographer John Brawley knows how to capture the lonely emptiness of a lost loved one’s bedroom and the menacing chill even familiar places like our homes can take on when grief and sadness seem to hang tangibly in the air.
Is there any subgenre of horror more personal than the home-invasion movie? In 'The Strangers' (pictured above), Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman drop their love smack-dab on the rocks (after a botched marriage proposal) at his family’s vacant, and fairly remote, summer home. After a mysterious encounter with a young woman who comes knocking at 4AM asking for someone they don't know, terror slowly begins to creep in from the (literal) margins of the frame. After more unnerving knocking, it becomes clear that the couple is being stalked by a masked threesome whose motive is disturbingly unknown. “Why are you doing this?” asks Tyler to the most gulp-inducing answer imaginable: “Because you were home.” Director Bryan Bertino’s insistence on holding shots long after you’d expect an impatient director to cut away, provides the audience with little reprieve from the suspense.
'Carnival of Souls' (1962)
It's difficult to watch 'Carnival of Souls' and not think of countless movies that have been lightly flavored with its subtle visual horrors. Herk Harvey, an industrial and educational short film director, made it on a shoestring budget just to see if he could make a horror movie. (Um, he could.) And even though he never made another, he must have been surprised by the loyal fans his singular feature garnered in the years that followed. It’s one of the few classics of horror that still plays as actually scary for new audiences. It’s also ridiculously available to see for free, so there’s really no excuse to not pop some corn, turn off the lights and climb under the covers with your iPad.
'V/H/S' (2012), 'V/H/S/2 (2013)
Brace yourself. Not every chapter in these two equally good anthologies are winners, but there’s plenty WTF moments to be had for even the most fearless viewer. It really all depends on what kind of horror really gets under your skin. Directed by a stable of young-gun horror directors, the 'V/H/S' movies both work overtime to provide shocks and legitimate scares. The framing device is a little wobbly – typical of most anthologies – but most of the individual stories pay off nicely. But these movies are not for the squeamish. It will take several days for you to scrub some of the more effective visuals from your memory. Demons, ghosts, alien abductions, zombies … suicide cults … the 'V/H/S' flicks have something for everyone.
Tod Browning’s ode to the misunderstood inspired the Ramones and may be one of the most reliably shocking movies ever made. Riding the success of 'Dracula,' Browning was given the opportunity to make 'Freaks' for MGM. The result was considered an unreleasable disaster and MGM pulled their support ensuring the movie's temporary obscurity. Equal parts art and exploitation, the film gives a behind-the-curtain look at the circus sideshow and is cast with the genuine articles: bird ladies, human skeletons, Siamese twins, a human torso and pinheads. The story involves Hans and Frieda, two engaged little people being torn apart by the beautiful trapeze lady who, conspiring with the strongman, hopes to seduce Hans out of his fortune. The giddy freak chanting during the engagement party scene still makes an impression. For a bonus horror, note that engaged midgets Hans and Frieda are played by Harry and Daisy Earles: real-life brother and sister.
Another anthology, and a good counter to 'VHS’'s style. A group of strangers, including a nightmare-plagued architect, are assembled for mostly unrelated reasons at an English farmhouse. The architect recognizes the strangers from the recurring dream he fears is coming true. This starts a conversation in which each guest shares a story about their own personal brush with the supernatural. Each story offers its own rewards, but the Christmas-party segment resonates as a perfect short ghost story. Likewise, Michael Redgrave’s crazed ventriloquist tale taps the sickening terror of talking dolls long before ‘Magic’ and ‘Child’s Play’ attempted the same.
'The House on Haunted Hill' (1959)
The house on haunted hill isn’t really haunted — or is it?! Vincent Price and his sexpot wife host a party in the titular location. If the guests can stay the entire night in the creepy mansion (they’re locked in), they’ll get to split a fortune. But a series of scares and near-misses leaves each of them wondering if they’ll survive to see morning. This is arguably gimmick-flick director William Castle's best movie. It's well-written, features great performances and generates genuine goosebumps as a ghostly whodunit that stands the test of time.
If it seems like this list is a little heavy on ghost stories, there’s a reason: Ghosts resonate with us as something that we could actually experience. You can’t really say the same of vampires, zombies or any other kind of monster. 'The Innkeepers' is solid ghost story-telling at its best. Ty West (who also made the great, but slightly less effective, ‘House of the Devil’) knows how to turn the screws of suspense. The movie takes place over the final weekend of a historic hotel before closing for good. Two ghost-obsessed night clerks try to take advantage of the time alone with the mostly empty hotel for some last-gasp paranormal investigation. ‘The Innkeepers’ is a charming throwback to classic horror that still reaches for some solid modern scares.
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