An American Werewolf in London (1981)The very diverse John Landis (can you believe he made this AND Animal House?) brought us an eerie atmosphere and a great mix of on-screen horror along with off-screen that’s left to your imagination. The likability of David Naughton as our afflicted leading man makes it that much more compelling – we root for him, yet he turns into a hideous monster that terrorizes and attacks people. And the special effects makeup by the legendary Rick Baker are just about unmatched here. Scariest Scene/Moment: There are quite a few horrific and frightening moments to be found here (such as the repeated moments of the main character’s dead friend talking to him), but I have to give it to the famous, unforgettable scene of our leading character, David Kessler, transforming into the titular werewolf. As mentioned, the special effects makeup by Rick Baker is just astonishing and still holds up today even after all these years. It’s one of those scenes that serves for re-watches just for its own sake - I would be very surprised if ANY werewolf movie to come will match that transformation scene.
Misery (1990)Has there ever been such a terrifying female horror “villain” as Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes? She’s initially, and on the surface, a loving, kind and helpful woman – a former nurse, in fact. What more could you possibly want from someone helping you to get heal after a car accident? But instead she turns out to be a crazed, obsessed fan of James Caan’s novelist, Paul Sheldon, and he unluckily gets “rescued” by her, kept sedated in her secluded home, eventually forced to rewrite his novel because he killed off her favorite character. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman draw everything they can from a fairly basic premise and make for one helluva of chilling watch, which is helped tremendously by the performers, particularly Bates as Annie (she won an Oscar for it, FYI). Scariest Scene/Moment: One scene jumps straight to mind not only when I think about the scariest moments from this film but from any film, and that would be when Annie puts a piece of thick wood between the ankles of Paul and proceeds to break them sideways with a sledgehammer. In King’s book, Annie uses an axe instead of a hammer, which (as you can imagine by the way King describes things) is horrific enough. But somehow the sledgehammer – or at least the way Reiner shows it happening on-screen – is even MORE horrifying.
[REC] (2007)Going just by the plot description, this may seem like any other of the millions of zombie films out there - however like 28 Days Later, the "bad guys" here are technically NOT zombies, but do we really want to split hairs? Give it a chance and you’ll see it trumps most of the zombie films that have come before. The pace is put it up to an eleven from about the 20-minute mark onwards and it never lets up until the credits roll. There are tons of effective jump scares, skillfully done gore (it’s enough to get the point across but doesn’t go overboard) and “get under your skin” moments that stay with you long after the film ends. The performances, particularly from the lead actress, are very convincing. Scariest Scene/Moment: Like pretty much ALL of the films on this list, there are so many “scariest moments” to be found (a couple that come to mind is when one of the firemen falls down the middle of the stairs, and when the little infected girl bites someone out of nowhere), but I simply HAVE to give it to the last 5-10 minutes when the lights go out and the night-vision of the camera gets turned on. Other recent movies (such as 28 Weeks Later and another certain “creature feature” that’s also on this list) have used night-vision for horror effect - but none quite so effectively as [REC]. Just what is in that room with the last two remaining uninfected people? It’s hard to tell, but what it hints at is truly horrific.
The Shining (1980)Probably the technically BEST horror film I’ve ever seen (and subsequently on this list), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a haunting, truly terrifying movie that features some of the most iconic horror moments, dialogue and imagery of all time. Everything from the Steadicam floating through the hallways and rooms of The Overlook Hotel, to the strange and terrifying visions make The Shining one of the all time greats of the genre. Jack Nicholson (in one of his best roles) gives a fantastically chilling performance as Jack Torrance; Shelley Duvall is convincingly terrified as his wife Wendy; and Danny Lloyd as little Danny is the perfect “horror survivor child.” Scariest Scene/Moment: The blood flowing from the elevator, Jack following Danny in the snowy maze and the beautiful woman suddenly turning old all come to mind as highlights, but I think there’s no question the greatest scary moment from The Shining, and maybe any OTHER horror film, is Jack chopping his way through the bathroom door with that axe. On the other side is a terrified Wendy, with nothing but a knife to protect herself, and with every chop of that axe, and the closer Jack gets to getting through, the scarier it becomes (Duvall’s convincing scared performance doesn’t hurt). Finally, Jack breaks enough through the door to get his face through, and he says those famous horror words – “Heeeeeeerrrees Johnny!” Classic and horrific.
The Descent (2005)The Descent features an all-female cast (despite one guy at the beginning for a few minutes) and starts off with the terrible death of our main character's (Sarah) husband and daughter, which gives us a reason to feel sorry for and connect with the character. We care for the rest of the cast as well – a rare feat in horror movies where characters are usually just “meat for the killer,” but Marshall manages it with ease. This film is scary even BEFORE we get to the monsters. For the first 45 minutes we're subjected to what seem likes endless caves of darkness, almost unbearable claustrophobia and hints of what could be lurking in the shadows. The tables definitely turn once the monsters are introduced, but it’s really something when a horror can scare you long before the antagonist appears. Scariest Scene/Moment: A couple of scary moments of note include when Sarah is trapped in one of the narrower passageways that lead from one cave to another and suddenly it starts to collapse, and when the night-vision gets turned on and we see the Crawlers feeding. But the crowning moment has to be when we first get a look at the Crawlers: the group of women find their way to a fairly open part of the cave that has paths leading off in directions all around and suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the Crawlers appears, standing upright and looming over one of the women. What ensues is a bloody, messy and crazed attack from the Crawlers on the women, some managing to fight them off but others not so lucky. Truly terrifying stuff that’s just one of the reasons The Descent sits comfortably at number 1 on my list.
Honorable MentionsThese are also worthy and almost made my list:
- Inland Empire
- Rosemary’s Baby