THE EXORCIST (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
A cat unexpectedly jumping from off camera is scary. But The Exorcist is so disturbing it will mess you up for months. Controversial and profane, The Exorcist remains the most viscerally harrowing movie ever made, not only because it dares to question the existence of God but because it has the cojones to put Satan in the body of a 12-year-old girl. Moviegoers literally fainted as Linda Blair vomited pea soup on a priest. And after a series of mishaps, Friedkin asked a clergyman to perform an exorcism of the set. ”A lot of people definitely thought something weird was happening,” says Blair, ”but I was so young they tried to keep me in the dark.” Consider yourself blessed, Linda.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Truth is stranger than fiction…and it’s a hell of a lot scarier, too. Based (like much of Psycho) on the horrific ritual murders committed by Ed Gein, Chainsaw looks, feels, and smells so much like a grainy, low-budget documentary that it borders on snuff. It opens with a sober-voiced narrator (a young John Larroquette) detailing a heinous killing spree. Then we see the split-second flashbulb pops of crime-scene carnage before finally meeting Leatherface — a homicidal lunatic wearing a butcher’s apron and a mask stitched out of human skin. Hooper says that when he settled on the film’s title, ”I lost several friends. But I thought, they’re putting so much energy into hating the title, maybe there’s something there.” Indeed there is; a copy of Chainsaw resides in the Museum of Modern Art.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
As Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins is a waking nightmare of seductive depravity — the sick, twisted serial killer America hates to love. Even with Hannibal the Cannibal safely locked away in his maximum-security cell, Jodie Foster’s FBI trainee Clarice Starling is as helpless as a lamb. ”Great villains are subversive — audiences go and see them because they feel uncomfortably attracted to them,” says Scott Glenn, who plays Starling’s seen-it-all FBI mentor in Silence. ”To this day I still have nightmares about it.” Join the club.
THE RING (2002)
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Few supernatural films have proven to be as unwittingly grounded in reality as The Ring. Released back when SARS was a particularly crappy Scrabble attempt and ”bird flu” something that Heckle gave to Jeckle, The Ring has aged into a rare kind of thriller, one with frights that not only hold up years later, but are heightened, thanks to subsequent real-life events. With its virus-like ”villain” (a mysterious tape that’s passed from one victim to the next) and the slow-build physical deterioration it causes (nosebleeds, hallucinations), Gore Verbinski’s box office hit now seems culturally clairvoyant in our disease-distressed times.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A charter member of the scary movie hall of fame. Many of its most renowned features are readily apparent: those startling cuts (more than 50 in the shower sequence alone), Anthony Perkins’ neurotic mama’s boy, Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking-violins score. But Psycho‘s sneakiest tricks manifest themselves more subtlely. Take Hitchcock’s decision to use a handful of different stabbers in Janet Leigh’s slice-and-dice sequence: ”He kept changing it so the audience wouldn’t be able to get a fix on Mother,” Leigh, who spent seven days in that shower, told EW in 1999. ”At one point it was Tony’s stand-in, at one point it was a woman. Never Tony.” Bottom line: It still works.
Directed by David Fincher
From the jittery, scratched celluloid of its opening credits onward, Seven oozes more apocalyptic doom and deranged creativity than any Brad Pitt movie has a right to. Before this film came out, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, pride, and lust were just intangible words uttered in Sunday school. From its bleak, rainy setting to an unshakably grim finale, Seven is so nihilistic and disturbing it’s hard to fathom how it ever got greenlit. We mean that as a compliment.
ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
Directed by Roman Polanski
More conspiracy thriller than horror movie, Baby nurses a mother lode of phobias. As Rosemary (Mia Farrow) slowly intuits she’s been raped by Satan, she wrestles a myriad of believable demons: uncaring doctors, intrusive neighbors (primarily Ruth Gordon, who copped an Oscar), and a monstrously self-centered husband (John Cassavetes). Farrow’s alarming enactment of emaciated desperation got a spur from then-husband Frank Sinatra’s off-screen behavior: She was devastated when he initiated a divorce in mid-production.
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Based on a story by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist was released just one week before E.T., and it seemed like the latter movie’s evil twin. Both were tales of suburban California families whose lives are upended by otherworldly invaders, but while E.T. seemed a Christian parable of death and resurrection, Poltergeist had a more sinister take on the afterlife. That three of the franchise’s stars suffered untimely deaths led to talk of an off-screen curse, which surviving cast members dismiss and refuse to discuss, but which makes the film that much creepier.
28 DAYS LATER (2003)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Boyle’s post-apocalyptic thriller pushed the envelope in two major ways. The first was its introduction of ”fast zombies.” In almost all previous incarnations, the undead lumbered like slow-walking trees, arms raised at 90-degree angles, moaning for brains. But in 28 Days Later, they moved like rabid, caffeinated jackals. It was new, bold, utterly terrifying. Boyle’s second twist was having his zombies not be zombies, per se, but infected people. When Cillian Murphy awakens in an abandoned hospital, the plague that’s turned London into a no-man’s-land isn’t something out of a horror film we’ve seen a million times before; it’s something far scarier.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven
The screen debut of the character who gave striped sweaters a bad name, Nightmare introduces a suburban monster who stalks teens while they sleep. Craven makes the most banal aspects of adolescence hellish, whether it’s turning the sanctity of childhood bedrooms into murder zones or a phone into a demonic tongue. Freddy eventually turned into an all-too-jokey shadow of himself — but there’s nothing funny about him in this first installment. Bonus: A young Johnny Depp gets eaten alive by a bed.
THE EVIL DEAD (1982)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Before he was the webmaster of the Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi was a college dropout with $385,000 and a nightmare. Plotwise, The Evil Dead is just your basic ”kids at a remote cabin in the woods foolishly read forbidden book and unleash demons” movie. But the result was a template for a generation of horror filmmakers, thanks to the wry Bruce Campbell (as ”Ash” Williams, in the performance that made him a cult horror hero), those predatory trees, and Raimi’s wickedly inventive direction. As he told EW, ”When we made Evil Dead, I wanted [viewers] to jump and scream and feel my wrath!” We’re still feeling it.
THE OMEN (1976)
Directed by Richard Donner
Someday, an enterprising film student will write a master’s thesis on why the Nixon-Ford era spawned the cinematic unholy trinity of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Until then, let’s just picture the last of those demon seeds, Damien (Harvey Stephens) — the tiny Antichrist with the 666 devil sign on his scalp — maniacally pedaling his tricycle and knocking Lee Remick over the second-floor railing to the menacing strains of ”Ave Satani.” ”That boy was putty to direct…just a dream,” says Donner, who adds, ”A lot of people were afraid to see The Omen because The Exorcist scared the s— out of them so much.”
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1990)
Directed by John McNaughton
One of those horror movies where the low budget actually helps — lending a rough, documentary look to the proceedings — Henry follows the titular character and his hee-haw partner in homicide, Otis, on a spree that includes one nightmarish scene in which the two murder a helpless family, then sit back to watch a videotape of the crime. ”Once I was late for a screening and bumped into a lady running away from the movie,” says Michael Rooker (Henry), ”and she ran smack into me and just screamed and screamed!”
(Written by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Steve Daly, Daniel Fierman, Dave Karger, Chris Nashawaty, Brian M. Raftery, and Gary Susman)