About nine months ago I blogged about the funniest movie of each decade. (If you missed it and are curious, click here.) With Halloween fast approaching, I thought I would revisit that format and write about the scariest movie of each decade. But first I’m going to continue my endless preamble.
In general, people seem to either love or hate the horror movie genre. My theory is that this is a genetic trait like eye color or kneecap shape. Not sure if this gene is dominant or recessive, but certainly my dad passed this trait down to me. (My mom hates horror movies, but interestingly, her sister—a.k.a. my aunt—loves them; so geneticists need to mull that over when assessing the heritability of this trait.) In any event, I grew up loving horror movies and watching as many as I could. Every Saturday as a kid I was glued to my television to watch Chiller Theatre on New York’s Channel 11. They showed a wide array of classic horror films from the icons of the genre like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” to the low-budget schlock flicks like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Attack of the Crab Monsters.” While I recognized that some movies were clearly better than others, the truth is, I loved them all.
These days, I rarely get to see horror movies. My wife does not share my love for the genre, so for the most part, if I’m seeing a horror flick, I’m doing it on my own. And frankly, I don’t get to the movies on my own all that often. (I do have two sons who I hope have inherited this trait, but they’re only seven and four so I can’t quite test this theory yet, lest I cause them nightmares and years of expensive psychotherapy.)
So, onto the list. What follows is what I consider the scariest (not necessarily the best) horror movie of each decade. Unfortunately, because I haven’t seen many of the older films in 30-plus years, some of these decisions are based on hazy recollections. Feel free to let me know if you think I’m making some obvious omissions.
“Nosferatu” (Directed by F.W. Murnau) -1922: For whatever reason (certainly cinematic scholars must have theories that I’m too lazy to research) the horror films of the silent era were ruled by the Germans. Perhaps it was some sort of artistic omen of the horror that was to come in Germany in the next couple of decades. In any event, horror films in this era were slow-paced and atmospheric. Without sound, filmmakers relied on imagery to create their scares. And “Nosferatu” has its share of creepy images. A vampire film that predates the classic “Dracula” by nine years, the title character, played by Max Schreck, is a horrifying figure to behold, and the antithesis of the suave persona immortalized by Bela Lugosi.
“Freaks” (Directed by Tod Browning) -1932: The 1930s was the golden era of movie monsters. “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and my personal favorite, “The Invisible Man,” all had their most famous incarnations in this decade. Yet from a scare standpoint, I have to put the lesser known “Freaks” ahead of them all. The film, which Tod Browning made a year after he directed “Dracula,” revolves around the trials and tribulations of a circus sideshow. While not particularly frightening by today’s standards, the film had a creepy vibe and an excellent payoff scene at the end.
“Phantom of the Opera” (Directed by Arthur Lubin) -1943: As I did my research for this piece, I quickly recognized that the 1940s was probably the weakest decade for horror movies. Mostly there were endless sequels of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Mummy;” as well as endless meetings between those and other classic monsters with Abbott and Costello. As I scrolled through the titles of the horror flicks of the 40s I came across “Phantom of the Opera” and jumped in my seat just a little. As I mentioned earlier, my recollections of some of the older classics are a bit hazy and this one falls into that category. But what I do remember is that as a boy I was terrified of this movie. And I’m pretty sure that Abbott and Costello must have been too, because the Phantom of the Opera is one of the few movie monsters from this timeframe that they didn’t meet.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Directed by Don Siegel) -1956: This is the decade in which sci-fi and horror met head on with glorious results. Whether it was science experiments gone awry (“The Fly”) or exposure to radiation (“Them!”) or unwelcome visitors from another planet (“The Thing from Another World”) the things that would scare moviegoers in this decade generally had some sort of preposterous scientific explanation. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was no exception in this regard, but what did make it different is that the monsters looked like everyone else, instead of like, say, a 50-foot, fire breathing lizard. In most horror movies you could tell who the evil ones are, but not in this one, which is what made it so intense.
“Carnival of Souls” (Directed by Herk Harvey) -1962: Creeeeeeepy! This is sort of an obscure cult classic, but I have to say that few horror movies set a mood as well as this one. The plot: A young woman gets into a horrific car accident with two friends and is the sole survivor of the crash. Soon after, in order to escape the bad memories, she moves to a small town where she accepts a job as a church organist. But things do not go well as she begins to see visions of an otherworldly man who seems to be drawing her to a nearby abandoned carnival site. I can’t really say much else, because the hair on the back of my neck is standing up, so I’d like to move on if you don’t mind. (And yes, while “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Night of the Living Dead” are all great movies in their own right, I find this one scarier.)
“The Exorcist” (Directed by William Friedkin) – 1973: I’m not really sure what to say about what is arguably the most iconic horror movie of all time that has not already been said. It broke a variety of cinematic taboos and was, at the same time, an amazingly well made film, garnering ten Oscar nominations and winning two of them. (Best Screenplay and Best Sound.) But what makes this movie so very effective in the scare department is that some of the most frightening moments come not from the over-the-top sequences, but the quieter moments. For example, when Father Karras is summoned to the house while Regan MacNeil is asleep and sees that the words “help me” have raised up on the flesh of her abdomen. It’s one of many chilling sequences that help make this not only the scariest movie of the decade, but in my opinion, the scariest movie of all time.
“The Changeling” (Directed by Peter Medak) – 1980: The 1980s had several very scary blockbuster horror flicks that I thoroughly enjoyed, like “The Shining,” “Poltergeist,” and “An American Werewolf in London,” but none of those films—or any others from this decade—scared me as much as the lesser known “The Changeling.” George C. Scott plays a composer who moves into a large mansion soon after his wife and child are killed in a car crash. (Why he would need a 30,000 square foot house when he’s living by himself isn’t entirely clear.) As you might guess with this kind of set up, the mansion has some issues. Far and away the most effective haunted house film I have ever seen, there is a scene with an empty wheelchair that will make your hair stand straight up when you see it.
“The Blair Witch Project” (Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) – 1999: I know this movie leaves a lot of people scratching their heads, but it left me shaking in my boots. Its effectiveness for me is a direct result of the fact that I did a lot of backwoods hiking in the early to mid-90s and the film played upon my fear of getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness and not knowing what evil might lurk in the darkness. The first 70 minutes of this film slowly filled me with a feeling of dread, and the last ten minutes flat out terrified me.
Tie: “The Others” (Directed by Alejandro Amenabar) – 2001 and “Let the Right One In” (Directed by Tomas Alfredson) – 2008: I really did not want to have any ties, because it feels like a cop out, but I simply could not choose between these two films. (And yes, these are both clearly horror films, rather than horror movies, if you get my drift.) “The Others” is an extremely effective gothic horror story about a mother who lives in a mansion (of course) with her two children who have a rare condition that prevents them from being exposed to light. So, the already gloomy mansion must be kept even darker for the kids’ sake. Throw some very creepy servants into the mix and you have the groundwork for a very scary movie. “Let the Right One In” is about a pre-teen vampire, but is as far removed from the “Twilight” series as you can possibly imagine. The film was made in Sweden (it’s subtitled) and takes place there in the winter. The director takes full advantage of the dreariness and desolation of a Swedish winter to create a very atmospheric, very creepy film that really gets inside your head. (At least it got inside my head.)
“World War Z” (Directed by Marc Forster) – 2013: Sadly, I have only seen two horror movies in our current decade. The one I picked and “Cabin in the Woods.” I thought they were both pretty good (certainly not great) but I give WWZ the edge in the scare department. Fast moving hordes of zombies can be pretty freaky. The film was not so much spooky, as panic-inducing. It made me want to take up running just in case.