What's Your Favorite Scary Movie?
"28 Days Later" is wrenching, riveting and terrifying - everything a thriller
When it comes to trailer appeal versus actual-movie satisfaction, horror movies are the worst offenders.
The preview shows a nice family driving through a tranquil (albeit uncharacteristically gray) countryside to their cozy time-share. Then just when they're all laughing on the porch swing, the creepy music starts up and the mom, looking out into the horizon, whispers, "dear God."
Racked by anticipation, we wait three months, pay $10 and watch for two hours only to find out that the antagonist is a "zombie" with a club foot and a red karo-syrup makeup job. The inevitable disappointment sets in, and we wait till next Halloween before we do it all over again.
In light of the genre's bad rap, the following are ten horror flicks that have beaten the odds by not being cheesy, mindless drivel:
10. Se7en:The impossible-to-pronounce title belies a smart thriller about a murderer who slays victims using methods based on the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is force-overfed until he explodes, sloth is chained to a bed, and so on. The gore factor is moderate, but enough so that you will never want to reach for that third helping of spaghetti again. Also, it's a welcome sighting of Brad Pitt from before he had the strange facial hair and litter of children.
9. Scream: Before caller ID became ubiquitous, it made everyone afraid to answer the phone for a good several months. Unfortunately, it also inspired entire neighborhoods of middle schoolers to dress up in Scream masks for a good several Halloweens.
8. The Birds: The plot in Hitchcock's definitive thriller sounds almost ridiculous if you haven't seen it: Seagulls attack people. The end. But it's so delicately crafted, it seems like it could almost certainly happen in real life. Birds are somehow inherently evil-looking, so no actual monsters were necessary.
7. Carrie: Sissy Spacek plays Stephen King's tortured heroine brilliantly, possibly due to her naturally stark expression. The eponymous character is pushed to the limits by her overbearing mother and cruel classmates, and she gradually figures out that she has sporadic telekenesis. When school bullies dump a bucket of pig blood on her at the prom, she gets even, giving a whole new meaning to "you won't like me when I'm angry."
6. The Silence of the Lambs: The combination of Anthony Hopkins' maniacal cannibalism and the sartorial quirks of a gender-confused serial killer put this one in its own league of creepy. Never has a human muzzle been so powerfully chilling and fava beans so incredibly unappetizing.
5. Hell House: Okay, so this one isn't actually a horror film, but it's in the "scary because it's true" category. "Hell House" is a documentary, featured on This American Life this week, about a Halloween attraction organized by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. The church hired student actors to portray tragedies that supposedly result from the commission of various sins, and then visitors were led through rooms of staged abortions, tearful suicides and gay men dying of AIDS. At the end, visitors are taken to a "decision room" and asked to decide whether they prefer Jesus or date rapes. Happy Halloween!
4. The Shining: Is it possible to watch this movie without repeatedly diving behind a couch cushion? Stanley Kubrick masterfully directs Jack Nicholson in his transformation from a normal dad to an axe-wielding psychopath. And if that wasn't a big enough problem, little Danny also has those British ghost twins and the green bathtub lady to contend with. Altogether, it's an emotional and psychological rollercoaster that set the gold standard for the "large haunted wintery place" genre.
3. The Blair Witch Project: Low-budget, shaky and hard to follow, this movie gives every first-year broadcast student hope that maybe they can make it big after all. But because it looks like it was shot by you and your friends, it feels like it could be about you and your friends. That level of verisimilitude is hard to come by in horror flicks, and it definitely does the trick.
2. The Sixth Sense: It's rare for a ghost movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but "The Sixth Sense" has all of the qualities of an Oscarworthy drama mixed with a hearty dose of spooky. Sure we saw dead people, but we also saw Toni Collette play the perfect frazzled mom and Haley Joel Osment vapor-breathe his way to into our hearts. The movie proved that less is more when it comes to ghosts, since just a few glimpses of the undead leave us wondering what else is out there. Unfortunately M. Night Shyamalan, with his fantastic name and his surprise endings, only went downhill from here, although "The Village" deserves a nod for best use of red capes.
1. 28 Days Later: The Zombie/virus plot contrivance has since been played out, but in 2002 it was still relatively fresh. The combination of realistic zombies and eerily deserted scenes of London make this scary enough, but the fact that the characters have to kill each other as they get infected adds an interesting psychological element. If you think about it hard enough, there's the futuristic dystopia factor and the questions it raises about the nature of mankind. Or you could just sit back with some popcorn and enjoy a movie that's wrenching, riveting and terrifying - everything a thriller should be.