This is the question echoed by the freaky, ghost-faced killer in Wes Craven's "Scream" franchise (there are four of them, as of now, with an MTV series in the early planning stages). And, truth be told, "Scream" was pretty scary. But it was also funny. And now feels sort of dated. In fact, the amount of honest-to-god scary movies that you could probably name, if confronted by a sinister phone call, is probably pretty small.
In the spirit of Halloween, however, we wanted to single out those movies that really are scary, the ones that still give us trouble sleeping. And we've gone for mostly off-the-beaten path movies, although a few classics have snuck in there (even if it would have been nice to include more, Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" I'm looking at you). It goes without saying that this isn't intended as any kind of definitive survey; we've kept things pretty modern and American (again: seek out South Korean horror epic "I Saw The Devil" if you need an extra scare), in the interest of space and reader attention spans.
Still, if confronted by a darkly-tinged phone call this Halloween and the voice at the other end of the line asks what your favorite scary movie is, at least you can watch some of these and maybe have a better answer.
Gallery | 10 Horror Movies That Will Actually Scare the Crap Out of You
- 'The Shining' (1980)
I'm trying to stay away from the obvious, but sometimes you just have to give it up, especially since we seem to be having a collective "Shining" moment, what with the wonderful documentary "Room 237" (about the myriad conspiracy theories surrounding the film) making its home video debut and author Stephen King finally releasing "Doctor Sleep," the long-awaited follow-up novel (this time Danny is a grown ass man but falling into the same traps that his father did). It should be no surprise that Stanley Kubrick, when setting out to make a horror movie, wouldn't just make some drive-in cheapie but an epic work of genre fiction that would last the test of time. Not that everyone is a fan; King himself publicly decried the liberties Kubrick took with his novel and many have claimed that it's boring, slow and ponderous. It might be all of those things, but it's also absolutely terrifying, with Kubrick conjuring images that, try as I might, I just can't scrub from my brain. Anchored by an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, "The Shining" is one of those movies that deserves to be known as an all-time scary movie.
- 'Suspiria' (1977)
If you thought Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-winning "Black Swan" was a trip, then you should probably watch this blood-chilling Italian spook-fest that heavily inspired Aronofsky's film. "Suspiria" concerns an American girl (cult icon Jessica Harper) who goes away to an Italian ballet school run by women who might be witches. Everything about "Suspiria" is overwhelming, from the sound design and score (by Goblin) to director Dario Argento's crayon-colored visuals (the blood is redder than it was in old Hammer movies), which rank amongst the most striking ever committed to a horror film. Argento firmly puts you in the shoes of Harper, whose discovery is shocking and profound. If you're looking for a movie with a traditional narrative, then you are probably best served elsewhere. "Suspiria" employs an eerie kind of dream logic, and it makes everything even more haunting. (Like most great horror movies, a pair of lackluster sequels followed: "Inferno" and the way after-the-fact "Mother of Tears.") It's still bewitching after all these years.
- 'Don't Look Now' (1973)
Maybe my favorite horror film of all time, Nicolas Roeg's cultish thriller focuses on a young couple (Donald Sutherland and an almost painfully beautiful Julie Christie) who, in the opening sequence, lose their young daughter in an accidental drowning. Understandably distraught, the pair move to Venice, where Sutherland is restoring some ancient church. Then things get really weird: Christie befriends a pair of psychics, a serial killer has the city in a stranglehold of panic and fear, and both parents are plagued with visions of their dead daughter. Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the stories that "The Birds" and "Rebecca" were based on, also wrote the source material for "Don't Look Now." But "Don't Look Now" is drastically different than those somewhat dusty Hitchcock movies; not only does it feature the greatest sex scene ever (seriously), but it also has an ending so shocking that it's hard to shake, years after seeing it. It's also drop-dead gorgeous in the most '70s way possible (love those argyle socks, Donald!)
- 'Prince of Darkness' (1987)
John Carpenter is a director known for instilling fear into audiences around the world. As the creator of "Halloween," "The Thing," and "Christine," he has spooked countless human beings. But one of his scariest works is also one of his most under-seen. "Prince of Darkness," which was recently released in a highly recommended deluxe Blu-ray package from Shout Factory, is about a team of religious scholars and grad students who are conducting a study on a mysterious vile of goo that just might be the physical manifestation of Satan. Admirably philosophical and deeply visceral, "Prince of Darkness" has a vibe unlike any other Carpenter movie; call it an oppressive blanket of bleakness. Carpenter is always scary but that scariness is often peppered with jokey winks or out-and-out jokes. Instead, "Prince of Darkness" is positively apocalyptic. After watching this movie recently I had nightmares. I honestly cannot remember the last time that happened. Just thinking about it is kind of creeping me out. It's that scary.
- 'Kill List' (2011)
A more recent movie (but every bit as scary as any other film listed), this Gallic horror movie, directed by the outstanding Ben Wheatley (who had not one but two excellent genre films come out this year, "Sightseers" and "A Field in England"), is a movie best experienced without knowing anything about it. I saw it at SXSW a couple of years ago, at a special morning press screening set up after audience reaction proved so strong. Even at 10 a.m., it scared the hell out of me. What's so fascinating about "Kill List" is about how fearless it is, toggling between genres like someone flipping through television channels. It's a domestic drama one moment and a hit man thriller the next and a grand, "Wicker Man"-style horror movie the next. It's unpredictability adds to the movie's atmosphere of dreadful foreboding. You can tell that something horrible is just around the corner, you just don't know what. To say anymore would be criminal, but just know that this has rightfully been inducted into the pantheon of all time great horror movies.
- 'Day of the Dead' (1985)
While "Night of the Living" dead is an undisputed classic and "Dawn of the Dead" is a rollicking zombie theme park ride, it might be the third in George Romero's amazing zombie series, that is the most creepily effective. Sure, "Night of the Living Dead" showed audiences something they had never seen before and remains a truly scary little movie, and "Dawn of the Dead" is the rare extravaganza that is as smart as it is entertaining (take that, Ronald Reagan!), but there's something bombed-out and sad about "Day of the Dead" that makes it even more powerful. It's basically the "Before Midnight" of zombie movies, taking place in a world overrun by flesh-eaters, with humans living largely below ground and doing odd tests on their walking dead captors (love you, Bub). Originally intended to be a zombie epic, the financiers balked when Romero wanted to release it unrated, so he had to scale down and make an even more intimate, claustrophobic version of his story. The results, which have also recently been offered up in a deluxe Blu-ray from Shout Factory, are nothing short of jaw-dropping. And bone-chilling. In "Day of the Dead," the humans are just as scary as the zombies (an ideally liberally lifted for Danny Boyle's similar "28 Days Later"). More brainssssss.
- 'High Tension' (2003)
French filmmaker Alexandre Aja is one of the most exciting directors working in the horror genre. In movies like "The Hills Have Eyes" and "Piranha 3D," he is able to both send up and celebrate horror movies using a combination of wicked camerawork, gross-out effects, off-handed humor (always with a political edge) and tautly constructed suspense set pieces. But one of his earliest films is one of his best: in "High Tension," a girl visits her friend's family farmhome for a weekend away form the hustle and bustle of college. The first night she's at the farmhouse, an anonymous madman kills the entire family (lovingly photographed in graphic detail), leaving her to run for her life. It's like a Dean Koontz novel crossed with an early Luc Besson movie, and had the movie not totally fallen off a cliff in the last act (thanks to an idea Besson had), it would be a classic. As it stands, with that stupid ending, it is a near-classic, and certainly worth watching. It'll give you some jolts, for sure.
- 'House of the Devil' (2009)
Ti West is a young American filmmaker who is just this side of the indie mumblecore movement. And he might be the next great face of horror filmmaking. West is always challenging conventions, whether it's for his smart-ass monster movie "The Roost" or his follow-up to this film, "The Innkeepers," which smartly deconstructed the haunted hotel subgenre. With "House of the Devil," it's the closest he's come to an out-and-out classic, a riff on the babysitter-trapped-in-the-house-alone subgenre that was popular in the late seventies and early eighties. In this film, a weirdly angular young college student, desperate for cash, answers an ad for babysitting. She's called out to a spooky mansion in the woods and asked to just sit tight; she doesn't even see the supposed kid she's babysitting. As you can imagine, things get very creepy, very quickly. The ending of the movie (which briefly costars "Frances Ha" breakout Greta Gerwig) has become a major source of contention -- either you see it as a huge pay off to all that waiting or a letdown for a movie that spent so much on atmosphere and mood. This is a recent movie that demands to be seen, appreciated and canonized.
- 'Dead & Buried' (1981)
Some horror movies are just lovably bizarre. Such is the case with this early-eighties gem, written by the team behind "Alien" Ron Schusett and Dan O'Bannon and featuring a freak-out twist ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan weep tears of jealousy. In the small town of Potter's Bluff, some mysterious murders are going down. The sheriff (James Farentino) sets out to solve the mystery, which leads to some deep and dark places, indeed. Featuring early make-up effects by a young Stan Winston (watch for that needle-in-the-eye gag) and a terrifically creepy score by Joe Renzetti, "Dead & Buried" is one of those little horror movies that manages to jangle your blood in altogether unforeseen and disturbing ways. It's hard to talk about this movie without giving it away, but Blue Underground released a terrific Blu-ray a few years ago, so pick it up, and get lost in the foggy cliffs of Potter's Bluff. This is the kind of movie that you watch and then immediately show ten of your very best friends because you want someone to love it to (it'd also be nice to have someone to talk to about it).
- 'Audition' (1999)
Of all the J-horror movies released in the early aughties, none gave us the willies quite like "Audition," from Japanese master Takashi Miike. Part of what makes "Audition" so effective is the way it creeps up on you. For much of the movie it plays like a sappy, somewhat sentimentalized drama, about a sad man who holds a fake television audition for a suitable new wife. The young woman seems to have it all -- she's lovely and engaging and personable. Except, of course, that the movie takes a dark turn and the woman you've come to adore turns out to be the stuff of nightmares. That's about all we can say before a bolt of lightning comes out of the sky and silences us. But it's worth it. The image of the burlap sack which appears to be still until... Well, just watch it for yourself. It's like "Jaws" for the age of internet dating.