Most horror movies are pretty horrible. Not horror-inducing, just bad.
Psychopaths prey on teenagers or unwary travelers with chainsaws, axes, long, sharp knives, or other implements guaranteed to cause pain and death. Spurting blood. Anguished screams.
No psychopath has yet equalled the remarkably non-violent and un-bloody (well, barring one notable scene) Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
Terrified victims race from room to room (or tree to tree if lost in a forest). Then, just as safety is (apparently) in reach, the killer leaps out and takes a fatal swing.
Settings are as clichéd as the monsters: Houses where a murder occurred. Abandoned lunatic asylums. Foggy forests. Cemeteries. Halloween.
There aren’t many movies I can say truly scared me, but here are a few I can recommend.
THE UNINVITED (1941), starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, is a traditional haunted house story that, for all its age, uses excellent special effects to create lovely levels of creepiness to this story. Ghosts—there are two—appear unexpected and, in one case, in unexpected form. Even two big handicaps—the lack of acting skills possessed by Gail Russell, who played the young woman in peril, or the purple dialogue handed to an otherwise wonderful actress, Cornelia Otis Skinner—can mar the pleasures of this straightforward ghost story that contains, at its heart, a murder mystery.
THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), starring Bruce Willis in one of his best roles, a brilliant Haley Joel Osment, and a lovely turn by Toni Collette, as Osment’s mother, bewildered about how to understand and support a son who obviously doesn’t fit in with other kids. First time I saw this, I did not see the ending coming, and I was delighted, especially when repeated viewings revealed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan played fair: The clues are all there, as are a plethora of red herrings. Creepy moments occur when least expected: Collette turns her back on her neat kitchen for a few seconds, only to turn and find ever cabinet and drawer has silently, swiftly opened. Osment goes the bathroom in the middle of the night and, as he stands before the toilet, something passes down the hallway behind him. Marvelous.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) scared me silly first time I saw it. Oren Pelli, the writer and director, understood a critical point few writers/directors grasp and fewer put into action: Haunting terror is best evoked not in chainsaws or masked killers but by making the normal suddenly otherwise. In PARANORMAL, a door moves slightly in the middle of the night while the homeowners sleep . . . With no visible help. A Ouija board suddenly catches fire. Footsteps, outlined in powder, appear on the bedroom floor at night. Knocks and thumps abound. All of this is recorded by a video camera set up by the skeptical, but accommodating boyfriend of a woman who senses something isn’t right in their otherwise mundane townhouse. The ending is a shocker, but even so—and there’s no spoiler here—we see only the same characters we’ve been following throughout the movie.
THE INNOCENTS (1961). One slightly paranoid governess (the excellent Deborah Kerr), two bright, cheerful children, a warm and jolly housekeeper, and a huge mansion deep in the English countryside, and memories of the children’s former governess and the absent master’s valet, both now dead. Memories . . . or ghosts? The governess sees a man’s face in a window. A woman stands, very still, on a small island in the middle of the estate’s lake, watching her . . . then disappears. The children begin to behave and speak oddly, and Kerr—who played the uber-governess in THE KING AND I (1956)—grows increasingly confused and frightening. No cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs to set all right in this movie. The fact that many who see this film version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw know Kerr from KING makes her terror even more effective. Another shocker of an ending, in part because we are given is no answer to the question: Is the house haunted?
WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000). Imperfect, but the first half contains some wonderfully creepy moments created by another director (or writer; possibly both) who realized that terror lies in the familiar suddenly turning strange. Like bathrooms in which the tub fills itself with hot steamy water and words are drawn by an invisible figure on the steamy medicine chest. A front door opens by itself just as star Michelle Pfeiffer reaches for the knob. A framed photograph of her and her loving husband (Harrison Ford) keeps falling to the floor and breaking the glass; the family dog freaks out by the lake water behind the family home. Then there are the dysfunctional neighbors, one of whom disappears under mysterious circumstances. Things go a bit silly and hysterical in the last third, as if all involved in the production became impatient to get it done, but overall this is an entertaining and nicely hair-raising movie.