The best horror/suspense films offer lessons for all writers on compelling character, simmering tension, and killer endings. Whether you prefer a classic freak fest or a modern scare, Script’s editors and contributors have some recommends for your holiday. Share your picks in the comments section for a chance to win a frightful DVD from the vault.
Chad Gervich, Script contributor, Scriptmag.com columnist:
Obviously. If you put anything else as your number-one scary movie, you’re just plain wrong. The Exorcist taps into such universal feelings about children and parents and coming of age; it terrified me when I first saw it as a kid, and now it terrifies me in whole new ways as a parent.
Every time I go to a doctor … or take my car to a mechanic … or drop my computer at the fix-it store, I wonder: How do I know I can really trust these people? I mean, they could just tell me whatever they want about things that are valuable to me — I need to take these pills, fix this drive, pay them that — and I’d believe them. Rosemary’s Baby does an amazing job of capitalizing on how we trust those closest to us — our spouse, our doctors, our friends and neighbors — especially regarding matters that are most important, like our unborn children.
I’m not a big fan of the ocean. Sometimes I look off the Santa Monica Pier at night and think, "Man — if you were floating just a few miles out there, it’d be nothing but black above you, black below you, black all around … and no one would even know you were there." Yes, Open Water has sharks, but the real monsters are the hopelessness and desperation the couple feels. I’ve seen this movie once, and I have no desire to watch it again any time soon.
Maureen Green, Web Editor, Scriptmag.com:Cape Fear
The first and last time I saw Cape Fear (the Scorsese version) was as a teenager, and it still haunts me. The fact that there are no supernatural elements — just a sick, twisted individual at the center — makes it all the more terrifying. Max Cady exemplifies how one strong character can dictate a story from beginning to end, controlling the emotions of all of the other characters, even when he is not physically present in a scene. Max Cady could be seated next to you, planning to follow you home, right now.
The Orphanage (El Orfanato)
Just thinking about the eerily ethereal world of The Orphanage sends a chill through me. There are moments in the movie that I find myself lingering over, dissecting. Were the supernatural forces good or evil? Were there any supernatural forces at all? Could I live with myself if I had done what Laura (the protagonist) did? The ending is so completely satisfying and sorrowful, I can watch this film again and again and still be moved. It’s not just one of my favorite scary movies; it’s one of my favorite movies.
Let me say up front, from a continuity point of view, Frailty has some problems, and the DVD commentaries do nothing to clear them up. However, I went into this movie blind and was completely able to buy into the ending, which I still find one of the cleverest in the last several years. If you can overlook one or two gaps in the plot, the resolution makes the film worthwhile, and Bill Paxton’s earnestness in the mercenary role elicits true, visceral fear.
Shelly Mellott, Editor in Chief, Script:
I think The Exorcist is one of the scariest movies ever, because fear is elicited by things in everyday life — a little girl, a crucifix. The idea of evil being able to infiltrate our lives is a common one, but to watch it happen slowly and inexorably is terrifying. And the girl walking backward down the stairs? Too much! Plus, the story is grounded in fact, to some degree. You think about that while you are watching it.
I loved Paranormal Activity for many of the same reasons. That film took the reality up a notch and you were truly gripped by how these people were trapped in their home by evil. And the scene at the end made me jump a foot off the couch! Not a lot of movies do that these days, because we are so desensitized to violence. Instead, they rely on gore and not on the slow build of psychological torment that really creates fear.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
I will always be terrified by good ol’ Freddy. I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was around 13 in my grandparents’ creepy old row home, with the double-level basement and creepier furnace. Scared the crap out of me! The idea of something you can’t escape – like the need to sleep – makes the antagonist unbeatable. There is no way out. And the fact that the kids didn’t even kill him, their parents did, made it worse.
Ray Morton, Script senior writer; Scriptmag.com columnist:
For me, James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein remains one of the scariest movies ever. The performance of Boris Karloff as the monster — aided by that amazing make-up by Jack Pierce, make-up that was so good and so convincing that it looked like they had actually found an actor who looked like he had been stitched together from pieces of dead bodies — is absolutely haunting. Horrible to look at and possessed of both a mute, monstrous rage and strangely affecting pathos, Karloff’s monster is both incredibly alien and incredibly human, which makes him so much scarier than any animatronic or rubber or CGI monster could ever be. And the film’s soundtrack — which, having been recorded very early in the sound period, is full of odd mistakes and imperfections (such as an eerie lack of ambient sound, weird echoes, and deadened drop-offs) — makes the whole thing even more creepy and disturbing.
The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs still scares the Chianti out of me. Not the gory parts (although they do work pretty well), but the absolutely unsettling quality of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (the quiet, subtle, insidious version — not the campy boogeyman of the sequels), and the incredibly tense and horrendous climactic scene, in which Jodie Foster stumbles around in the dark as the very mad Buffalo Bill reaches out to stroke her. Oh my God, I’m getting jumpy just thinking about it.
They’re real, man. And they are coming for you through the most terrifying rainstorm you will ever endure.
Staton Rabin, Script senior writer, Scriptmag.com columnist:
When I was six years old, my parents went out for the evening and left me with a teenage babysitter. Their instructions to the sitter were: "Don’t let her watch The Birds!" Of course, my babysitter and I watched the movie together the moment my parents left. I couldn’t sleep that night, and ever since, I can’t look at a flock of birds without wondering what they might be planning. Hitchcock (and writer Evan Hunter) knew that the mundane and ordinary can be turned into something far more scary than anything transparently "supernatural," and this Master of Suspense built the tension, using sound effects and strategic silence, keeping his audience on edge at all times.
The Wizard of Oz
Everyone I know, who was under the age of 12 when they first saw this movie, thinks the Wicked Witch of the West (played by the great Margaret Hamilton) is absolutely terrifying — and I concur. When the anguished image of Auntie Em appears in that crystal ball at the Witch’s castle ("Dorothy … where are you? …. We’re trying to find you.") and is suddenly replaced by the Witch’s hideously evil green face and mocking voice, it was enough to send generations of children into therapy. Why is the Witch so scary? Because the role is written and played totally straight, and when she makes a threat, she doesn’t mess around. "How about a little fire, Scarecrow?"
Andrew Schneider, Managing Editor, Script:
I know it’s cliché, but the original Exorcist immediately comes to mind because, as a youngster, that was a new kind of horror/suspense for me … maybe because it was a possession story, I don’t know. But after first seeing the movie (a handful of years before I probably should’ve been allowed to) and even watching it today, Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil — from the carpet pissing and head-spins to the projectile green vomit and vile expletives — still gives me the creeps.
The Devil’s Rejects
The Devil’s Rejects by Rob Zombie was very frightening, but for a different reason than most horror films. Not on a supernatural level, but more the shock value the audience experiences from such an utterly deranged and perverse family of characters that the writer-director created. You shudder and cringe in disgust at the heinous acts they commit yet, somehow, you find yourself rooting for them at the end of the film … or was that just me?
Last decade, while everyone was in a frenzy over the Saw franchise and its brand of torture film, I preferred Eli Roth’s Hostel movies. Personally, I thought the stories were much more believable, thus further ramping up the suspense for the audience. Any film that makes you want to rethink your vacation plans is my kind of horror.
Share your favorite horror/thriller/suspense films below for a chance to win a DVD from the Scriptmag.com vault. And Happy Halloween!