With Halloween's approach, I'm reminded how much I love scary movies. What's behind this fondness for horror and mayhem? Is it a form of masochism? I think I'll save on the shrink bills and say "no". It's simply the thrill of the experience, like the most intense ride at the carnival, or parasailing, or sky-diving. It's a weird attraction to danger, whether real or manufactured, that ironically, makes me -- and others, I think -- feel that much more alive.
Please keep in mind: I am not listing the ten best horror movies of all time, but the ten scariest. If I attempted the former, you would see a few older titles that by today's standards are more creepy than horrifying.
For my specific purpose, it felt right to begin with the 1960s and go forward. Culled from www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com, here are my picks for the top ten scary movies, ideal for Halloween (or pre-Halloween) viewing, and listed chronologically.
1. Psycho (1960) -- Marion Crane ( Janet Leigh) wants to make a new life for herself, and flees Phoenix with a stolen bag of cash from her employer. She then makes a fateful stop at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates ( Anthony Perkins), an awkward but seemingly innocuous man. Marion learns too late he is anything but, and soon her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Marion's lover Sam (John Gavin) team up to discover what happened to her. Made at the peak of his career in 1960, Psycho was suspense master Alfred Hitchcock's last black-and-white picture- a film that inaugurated the "slasher" movie. The famed director knows just how to heighten our dread of who or what might be at the top of the stairs, or beyond that shower curtain. The terrifying Psycho stands above most any psychological thriller made since.
2. The Innocents (1961) -- Based on Henry James's The Turn of The Screw, the movie centers on one Miss Giddens (the late Deborah Kerr), a governess in late nineteenth century England hired to care for two orphaned children in an old rural estate. Once settled, she experiences odd sightings and sensations which convince her that supernatural forces are communing with her charges. This chilling horror tale uses muffled sounds and fleeting glimpses to cast its spell of mounting terror. Kerr is terrific in the lead, a woman who must determine whether she's being haunted or going mad, and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are eerily remote as the two possessed children. Also look for Michael Redgrave as the children's aloof uncle (whatever his faults, he's wise enough to stay away).
3. The Haunting (1963) -- Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson), a professor of the paranormal, sets out to discover whether the infamous Hill House is truly haunted or not, with the help of several carefully selected human guinea pigs. What happens to the group "in the night, in the dark" leaves no doubt as to the answer. Among a stellar cast, Julie Harris stands out as the spinster whom the ghosts of Hill House single out for special attention. A sexually ambiguous Claire Bloom also registers as the clairvoyant Regina. Veteran director Robert Wise masterfully orchestrates tools of the trade to create perhaps the quintessential filmed ghost story, applying a degree of restraint and subtlety generally absent from more modern horror entries. Remade but never equaled.
4. The Exorcist (1973) -- Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) begins to see strange symptoms in only child Regan (Linda Blair), which soon develop into violent seizures. With the best doctors unable to detect a cause, a desperate Chris reaches out to spiritual sources for help, first enlisting Father Karras (Jason Miller), and finally, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow). William Friedkin's masterful adaptation of William Peter Blatty's best-seller stands as one of the most petrifying films on record. Burstyn embodies the frantic mother, while Miller becomes the film's emotional heart as the tortured Karras. And young Blair would never match her outing as the possessed child. Look for a solid late-career turn by Lee J. Cobb as a curious detective. To the uninitiated-this is strong stuff.
5. Halloween (1978) -- Michael Myers, who butchered his sister when he was six, has escaped from an asylum and returned to his small Illinois hometown just in time to wreak more carnage on Halloween. Baby-sitter Laurie Strode ( Jamie Lee Curtis) is unlucky enough to fall in Michael's path. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael's psychiatrist, is frantically tracking his patient, but how much blood will get spilled before he finds him? John Carpenter's first and best entry in a long series, this lean feature works because it's both original and daringly basic: Laurie is a young teenage girl up against a monster, with only her wits and her two feet to protect her from the wrong end of a large butcher knife. Will Laurie and her young charges make it to Thanksgiving?
6. Aliens (1986) -- Adrift in space for 57 years, survivor-of-horrors Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wakes to learn that the planet where she and her crew encountered a vicious alien creature half a century earlier has been colonized. Soon she also hears they've lost touch with the colonists, necessitating a search party. Given her past experience, Ripley must accompany a platoon of cocky marines to the surface. James Cameron's big-budget sequel to Ridley Scott's smaller, subtler "Alien" is propelled by a breathless, unrelenting pace (and Weaver's gritty performance) into its own nightmare orbit. A feverish, jolting sci-fi thriller pitting a squad of green, trigger-happy grunts against a teeming nest of truly repulsive monsters, Aliens also benefits from a solid supporting cast -- including Lance Henriksen and (surprise), comic Paul Reiser playing a corporate slime-ball. But just wait till "Mother" arrives!
7. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) -- FBI recruit Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) gets hand-picked by agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) for delicate but dangerous duty. Crawford is tracking a serial murderer known as Buffalo Bill, and needs to tap the demented but brilliant mind of killer (and cannibal) Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to get at this new monster. Lecter finds Starling intriguing, and begins providing clues to the case in exchange for improved conditions. Soon enough though, the FBI will regret involving Lecter at all. Jonathan Demme's inspired fright-fest is totally riveting from the get-go. Foster is note-perfect as Starling, a driven but inexperienced operative struggling not to appear terrified and out of her depth. And Hopkins's seething, malevolent Lecter will occupy a permanent place in your nightmares. One of our most potent shockers, Silence won a slew of major Oscars, and earned them all.
8. The Sixth Sense (1999) -- Psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) has a new patient, a boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), aptly named in that he claims to see dead people. For Crowe, who's recently had a near-death experience himself, this case is anything but routine. He quickly realizes that getting at the root cause of Cole's delusions will be a challenging and scary process. And what if the boy's terrifying visions aren't delusions at all? Director M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough feature is a clever shocker with a nifty surprise ending. An unusually subdued Willis is an effective anchor as the film's protagonist, but magnetic performances from young Osment and gifted actress Toni Colette (as Cole's mother) set this thriller apart, a movie best not seen alone.
9. 28 Days Later (2002) -- A monkey-borne virus turns human beings into flesh-eating zombies in Great Britain, and a handful of people who have escaped infection (including stars Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Brendan Gleeson) struggle to elude these rampaging beasts, find other survivors, and somehow get rescued. Still, outnumbered as they are, is there any way this can happen?
Though the premise sounds - and is - frighteningly close to George Romero's zombie movies, Days comes off fresh and fierce, thanks to Alex Garland's writing, an English setting and solid British actors, notably Murphy and the always reliable Gleeson. Recommended only for hard-core horror fans, this graphic, nerve-jangling film will definitely keep all you softies up at night.
10. The Descent (2005) -- Reeling from a car crash the prior year, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) travels to America with friend Beth (Alex Reid) to participate in a spelunking expedition, organized by Juno (Natalie Mendoza). Along with three other female friends, the group descends into an uncharted cave system expecting only adventure. But tensions rise after a cave-in, when they discover that not only are they lost in the primordial darkness, but also, they're not alone. Another winner from the Brits, Neil Marshall's film is psychologically tense and positively hair-raising. Yes, there's a lot of gruesome goings-on in this claustrophobic hellhole, but part of the fun is figuring out precisely what is stalking the poor lasses. Strong direction, imaginative editing, and eerie production design take Descent even further into nail-biting realms of pure terror.
I close with a jarring, brand new title as honorable mention: 1408, which finds jaded ghost chaser/journalist Mike Enslin (John Cusack) finally meeting up with the real thing in a New York City hotel room, and not liking it one bit. Express check-out, please!