Credit goes to CablePulse24 for getting me thinking on this. With Halloween on the way, they run a segment asking people what they think is the scariest movie of all time. The Exorcist got mentioned a lot, as did Pscycho, Poltergeist and The Ring. But I had to really think in order to come up with movies for the list.
I actually haven’t watched many of the movies that would make the list. I’ve never seen The Exorcist, and I don’t really have any interest to, even though I know it’s an effective movie. I like to be scared, but my taste in horror runs to the gothic, not splatter. I favour suspense over gore.
Doctor Who did gothic horror very well — largely because it was the cheapest kind of horror it could do effectively. Keep the lights down, give us quick glimpses of the monster and long periods of tense, creepy music. If done well, something unseen is usually a lot more frightening than something seen. After a spate of movies that equated gore with horror, The Blair Witch Project showed that it understood that… and it’s sad that the people who took on **Blair Witch 2 at once mouthed platitudes about the first movie’s suspenseful allure, and then said that the second movie would “show the audience much more”.
It’s doubly ironic that The Blair Witch Project debuted the same year as the remake of The Haunting. The original 1963 movie was a mastery of gothic horror, featuring some of my favourite most-frightening scenes. The remake? Special effects and gore. Yuck! The Blair Witch Project got it, just as The Haunting lost it, and then the Blair Witch Project proceeded to lose it too.
With that in mind, here’s my (incomplete) list, in no particular order:
The Haunting (1963 version): Scary house with scary noises, frightened actors trapped within. Quintessential Gothic horror, well executed. A classic.
The Sixth Sense: M. Night Shymalan is shameless in his use of music and creepiness to get real scares. This movie may well have cursed him, forcing him to try too hard in subsequent movies, but he remains one of the few directors in Hollywood who understand that things unseen are scarier than things seen. I very much enjoy Signs for this reason.
Alien/Aliens: Lots of gore here, but the first movie, first and foremost, is a gothic horror sci-fi masterpiece. Aliens manages to live up to its predecessor by running in the opposite direction, but it still has plenty of suspense and creep. The two movies together make a wonderful pair. I am offended by Alien 3’s mere existence, thanks to the fact that they had the audacity to kill off Newt.
And that’s about it, frankly. As I compile this list of movies, I find myself drawn again and again to television. Doctor Who has most of the gothic horror moments that I remember. Then there’s Quatermass and the Pit (1950s television version). I guess I favour those productions that are forced to scare us on the small level. Movies make the fright too unsubtle.
The scariest thing I ever saw on screen remains the creeping darkness from the railway station episodes of Sapphire and Steel. In this story, our interdimensional troubleshooters Sapphire and Steel investigate a haunting in an abandoned railway station. They encounter two separate forces. There are a gathering squadron of ghosts, from recent and distant wars, all resentful of the fact that they are dead, and then there is a mysterious dark force behind the ghosts, feeding off that resentment. As Sapphire and Steel investigate the source of the ghosts’ resentment (which isn’t as clear as you think), the ghosts react, and call the darkness to their defence.
There’s an incredible scene where the darkness attacks our heroes, surrounding them, turning their surroundings into a void. The moment that got me, stays in my dreams, is when the darkness creeps up the table, turning it black, turning the candleholder black, turning the candle black, snuffing out the candle flame. One nightmarish image and all it is is a colour.
I like my scares subtle, and I guess that’s something of a rarity in big and brash Hollywood. Again and again, I turn to the people who have to manufacture frights with smoke and mirrors. Because that’s where the challenge is the toughest, and the payoffs are the greatest.