Everyone has a movie that scares them to their core – probably something you watched on TV as a kid when you shouldn’t have. For me, it’s Halloween. When I went on the game show Debt, my chosen pop culture ‘area of expertise’ was this movie. WHY I LIKE IT: The woolen, brown and burgundy 1970s atmosphere; the grit that our studious heroine Laurie shows; that Michael Myers never runs anywhere, so confident is he that he’ll catch up in due time; his creepy gas station jump suit. And of course, the frickin’ music. I got to meet Jamie Lee Curtis on the set of Halloween: H20 in 1998 — twenty years after the original. I’ll blog about that in the coming weeks.
Haute Tension aka High Tension (2003)
This little-known movie is terrifying. It’s French with sub-titles. Now you know why it’s little-known. But there’s not a lot of dialogue so it doesn’t really matter. It’s about two girlfriends who go visit one of the girl’s parents. They stay the night and some maniac shows up at the desolate house and stalks each one of them. One of Barrak’s co-workers let us borrow the DVD. I watched it by myself when I was pregnant with Greta. I was so freaked out, I had to turn it off. For weeks, I was afraid to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Then I heard there’s a fantastic twist, so I returned to it. It was worth it. A little gory though. WHY I LIKE IT: The twist is on par with the one in Sixth Sense when you find out Bruce Willis is dead.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Scary movies from the ’70s do it for me because they spend a lot of time building suspense. This movie is heavy on creepy build-up and light on gore. It’s based on a true story about an already fragile family who, unbeknownst to them, move into a haunted house. It made me scared to go to the basement for a long time. WHY I LIKE IT: The exterior shots of the house and the scenes with Margot Kidder wondering what the hell is wrong with her husband, James Brolin. The feel-good moment of the movie? When the dad runs back into the house at the end to get the family dog!
What Lies Beneath (2000)
This is a guilty pleasure. It’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, who is known for his special effects. It takes place during the time of year we’re in now – back to school turning to full-on fall. It’s got Ouija boards, doors mysteriously opening, ghosts writing messages on steamed up mirrors, and a pretty good plot twist. Also a couple homages to Hitchcock. WHY I LIKE IT: Would I be a nerd if I said the acting? Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are such a pleasure to watch as upscale, empty nesters living in a sweet house on a lake. And the smart girl triumphs in the end. Love that.
The Worst Witch (1986)
Ok, this is a TV movie, and it’s not at all scary. It’s a kids movie — a pre-cursor to Harry Potter, in fact. Starring Tim Curry, Diana Rigg, and Mrs. Garrett from the Facts of Life. I used to plop down on the couch with a tuna fish sandwich and watch it after school. I would have been around 13. It takes place at a witch school and centers around a young witch, played by Fairuza Balk, who is struggling to master her powers. See? Harry Potter. WHY I LIKE IT: Little witches running around their boarding school turning each other into frogs. So cute.
The Village (2004)
I am M. Night Shyamalan’s perfect audience. I love twists and I never see them coming. How did I not see this one coming? Here, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix and others as pilgrim types living in what seems like Thanksgiving-Land. There’s a color they do not speak of, and they don’t dare leave their village because of the clawed beasts that lurk in the woods surrounding their enclave. But then Joaquin is gravely injured and his brave blind girlfriend offers to leave the village for medicine. WHY I LIKE IT: It’s got the big three: spooky fall atmosphere, scary music and a good twist.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
I don’t think anyone would say this movie is scary. It’s a Tim Burton production — with equal parts wry humor, melancholy sadness, and macabre darkness. Johnny Depp plays the doctor/coroner who comes to the town of Sleepy Hollow to solve the mystery of the headless horseman and all the decapitated people who keep turning up. WHY I LIKE IT: The set, the costumes, the comical medical equipment that Johnny pulls out of his doctor bag. Plus it has Christina Ricci as the town heiress Something Von Something, and Christopher Walken as, well, you can probably guess. Barrak is a big Tim Burton fan so we own this.
I’m pretty sure they play “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in this movie. That’s an automatic point. But really, it’s the first 15 minutes of the movie that secures its spot on my list. It’s textbook, people. WHY I LIKE IT: The beginning, as I said, and the tongue-in-cheek, self-aware vibe of the whole movie. David Arquette as the dopey and accidentally effective town cop? Check. Henry Winkler as the school principal? Check. An homage to Halloween, my all-time favorite scary movie? Check.
Friday the 13th (1980)
A couple years ago, before kids, I had to take a day off work to have a root canal. It was a few days before Halloween. It was kind of a windy, sunless afternoon and I came home from the oral surgeon’s office to our empty 1914 bungalow in Clintonville, popped some Vicodin, and turned on Bravo or AMC. The original Friday the 13th was just starting. It struck me that the killing and all that business — it’s a pretty small part of the movie. It’s all about suspense, creating that creepy foreboding. God, that root canal was painful. WHY I LIKE IT: It’s got the ’70s/early ’80s grainy look, a creepy masked figure, killer music and an exceedingly harassed girl who triumphs. I don’t give a shit about aliens from outer space or birds who attack or even witches who lurk in the woods. Give me a creepy man-boy in a one-piece zip-up who stalks teenagers and you’ve got yourself a scary movie!
This movie barely makes the list. It has no star power other than M. Night Shyamalan, who produced it. It’s kind of hokey. But while you’re watching it in your living room on a Saturday night, it’s kind of good and pretty effing scary. A bunch of people are trapped in an elevator and one by one, they start dropping. But who’s doing it? WHY I LIKE IT: There’s a scene at the end — the ‘reveal’ if you will — that I can see plain as day in my mind’s eye and it still creeps me out when I think of it.
When a Stranger Calls (2006)
You’re getting tired now, Green. It’s 11:20 p.m. When a Stranger Calls? Really? Yeah, you’re right. It’s a remake, for god’s sake. WHY I LIKE IT: Remember, in the original, young babysitter Carol Kane is advised by a strange caller to ‘check the children.’ Then next thing you know, the cops are telling her, ‘The call is coming from inside the house! Get out!’ That is CLASSIC! Unfortunately it’s like the only good 10 minutes of the movie. The 2006 version is more interesting. The people are prettier, the house she’s babysitting in is architecturally awesome and beautiful, and it’s really pretty good. There’s also one creepy scene at the end where she knows the guy is in the house, she goes into this one room, and he’s… well, you’ll just have to try to catch it on HBO. Or WGN.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
This stylish little film is worth searching out. It came out around the same time as Sixth Sense (‘I see dead people’) and got overshadowed. Kevin Bacon plays a Chicago dad who gets reluctantly hypnotized and suddenly attuned to the bad things that happened in his house before he and his son and pregnant wife moved in. The son is also attuned, kind of like Danny in The Shining. I interviewed Kevin shortly after this came out. We were on the set of Hollow Man, and we both knew Stir of Echoes was way more interesting. I told him how much I liked it. He seemed genuinely appreciative of the compliment, and agreed the movie got eaten up by the Sixth Sense ballyhoo. WHY I LIKE IT: I was practically under my theater chair.
American Horror Story – Season 1 (2011)
I’m sneaking this one in — yes, it’s a TV series that ran on F/X a few years ago. The good news is, you can buy it on DVD easier than most of the movies listed above. Season 2 was also majorly creepy with a fantastic twist that TOTALLY snuck up on me. But the first season? An instant classic. Dylan McDermott (love him), Connie Britton (love her) and their daughter move into their dream home in L.A. Then some truly terrifying stuff starts coming out of the woodwork. Jessica Lange, such an unbelievable chameleon, was really good as their cock-a-doodle neighbor. WHY I LIKE IT: Barrak would always go to bed and leave me up to watch this by myself. Usually I made a Brandy Alexander-cognac-Bailey’s-milkshake type concoction to drink while I watched. Bless Belle, our bulldog, for staying downstairs in the living room with me while I sat frozen in my chair. I hated the ending though.
Anything I missed?