I’ve never been much into gory horror movies. They never scared me. I’ll take a nice horror story that delves deeply into the psyche of its characters and pulls out the darkness within any day. Therefore I’ve compiled a list of 15 horror movies I think are the best in piling on the creeps and chills while sparing the gory details. So in no discernible order, here is my list of some really great, creepy, chilling horror flicks.
1. The Innocents (1961)
Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is one of those horror films that succeeds in delivering the right gothic atmosphere for chills and thrills. Filmed in b&w and starring Deborah Kerr, The Innocents tells the story of a young governess whose two charges, Flora and Miles, may or may not be the victims of spectral manipulation. Like the novella, the movie is ambiguous about whether the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the children’s previous and long deceased caretakers, are real or whether it is all in Miss Giddens’ sexually repressed head. But that only makes film viewing all the more fun. Regardless, the film has a few shockingly frightful scenes, such as when Miss Giddens, in a game of hide-and-seek with the children, comes across the ghostly image of Peter Quint himself peering ominously at her through a window; or the film’s climax, when Miss Giddens forces a psychological exorcism on poor Miles that goes horribly wrong. A great film for horror fans who want a heavy dose of psychology with their chills.
2. The Haunting (1963)
Another b&w classic, The Haunting is, like The Innocents, an adaptation from a literary source, in this case Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House. Unlike most horror movies, The Haunting succeeds in delivering its frights by not revealing what is at the rotted core haunting the decrepit mansion. Sounds effects are put to great use as a small team of parapsychologists encounter a terrifyingly noisy haunting. At the heart of the story is the neurotic and unloved Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a woman whose desire to belong takes a shocking and fatal turn. Also starring Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, and directed by the legendary Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), The Haunting delves deeply into the psychology of horror and how the things we don’t see are often the things we ought to fear the most. Forget the 1999 remake and check this one out instead.
3. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Carnival of Souls is one of those low-rent movies that were produced in the 1960s and then quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the film was revived for modern audiences, that its quiet and simple pleasures were appreciated. Carnival of Souls, the brainchild of industrial filmmaker, Herk Hervey, is a truly spooky entry on this list, with its b&w cinematography, its naturalism, and yes even its cheap production. With an even spookier soundtrack, composed of music performed on a pipe organ, Carnival of Souls makes for the perfect midnight viewing. I won’t give too much of the plot away since much of it depends on the twist ending, but needless to say the movie, which stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a woman who is being stalked by an apparition, builds its creepy chills to a shocking conclusion.
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby is by far one of the most paranoid films ever made. In fact, one can argue that it is as much a conspiracy movie as it is a horror movie. But then again, what can be more frightening than a conspiracy against you? As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you. That is the horror Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) encounters while she and her actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), await the birth of their first child. Unbeknownst to poor Rosemary, she is the victim of a worldwide conspiracy involving her neighbors (Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer) and her husband to steal her baby. Once Rosemary discovers the shocking truth, she tries to protect her unborn child, only to learn that the truth is far more shocking than she realized. With an ending that is enhanced by what it doesn’t show, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, proves that real fear comes when no one, not even your own husband, can be trusted.
5. The Entity (1981)
Starring Barbara Hershey, The Entity is one of those movies that plays for keeps. While not gory, the film is graphic in its depiction of a woman who is sexually assaulted by things she cannot see. Hershey plays Carla Moran, a single mom struggling to hold her family together. One night, Carla is raped by an entity, which then continues to assault her in the most brutally horrifying way. Fearing for her sanity, she seeks psychiatric help, but loses hope in psychiatry when her therapist insists that she is creating a delusion to deal with childhood abuse and sexual repression. Carla knows her encounters are too real to be a figment of her imagination. After she meets a group of parapsychologists in a bookstore, she convinces them to investigate and capture the entity. Supposedly based on true events, the film’s ending, no doubt added for dramatic license, nonetheless begs credibility. No matter. The film is still powerful and frightening enough whether you believe it actually happened or not.
6. The Others (2001)
The Others doesn’t start off as a terribly scary movie. In fact, most of the film deals with a young mother trying to keep her family together while her husband is away at war. Yet the film is deeply atmospheric and slowly builds its creep factor as the family begins to realize that they are not alone. The shocking twist ending adds a satisfyingly unexpected touch. Starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, The Others takes the haunted house concept and completely turns it on its head as audiences are forced to question who is truly haunted. A remarkable film that is gothic, moody, atmospheric, and unsettling all at once.
7. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone is the story of a young boy who is sent to an orphanage in the countryside during the Spanish Civil War and is drawn into a murder mystery involving a now deceased orphan and a shady character working at the orphanage. While there is a ghost story at the heart of the mystery, the true horror of this quiet gem is the one involving the uglier aspects of human nature, whether that be the horrors of war, of greed and corruption, or of the inexplicable behavior of adults as seen through the eyes of a vulnerable child.
8. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead, the granddaddy of all gory movies, not to mention zombie pictures, shouldn’t really belong on this list. So why is it? Well, I like it. But more than that, this 1968 feature does an excellent job of balancing chills, thrills, and gore. Shot in b&w, George Romero’s first movie has an eerie, claustrophobic feel to it as a group of people are trapped in a farmhouse while hordes of zombies who want to make them their midnight snack try to break in. You get the feeling while watching that the entire world has been confined to these people and this farmhouse, adding to the movie’s sense of dread and paranoia. What gore there is in the movie (shots of zombies gorging on the entrails of their victims) is kept to a minimum, and what is shown instead are the power dynamics between the film’s lead, Ben (Duane Jones), and fellow stowaway Harry (Karl Hardman), a typical suburban dad, who, along with his wife and daughter and a young couple, has been holed up in the basement. Like all great horror movies, Night of the Living Dead is as much concerned with the ways humans attack and destroy one another as it is about marauding zombies. There lies its effectiveness. How different really are humans from monsters? the film asks. This is the real terror and one of the reasons why Night of the Living Dead is a classic.
9. The Exorcist (1973)
Upon release, The Exorcist set box office records and also had audiences vomiting in the aisles. Modern audiences might find it implausible that a movie could cause such violent reactions, but The Exorcist, regarded as one of the scariest movies ever produced, earned its pedigree simply because nothing like it before had ever been committed to the screen. Director William Friedkin wasn't kidding around with this story, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, about a young, innocent girl who is possessed by the devil. Starring Ellen Burstyn and the young Linda Blair as Regan, The Exorcist builds upon its horror slowly as we watch Burstyn’s Chris and Regan live out their otherwise normal lives only to be violated by the intrusion of unspeakable evil. The film creates sheer terror through the convincing use of special effects, makeup, and especially sound effects (when I was a kid seeing this movie for the first time on television, my mom told me not to look at the TV screen if I was too scared to watch it. But the sound effects were a lot scarier than what was actually on screen). Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller round out the cast as two priests enlisted to perform an exorcism to save Regan’s soul.
10. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
This recent take on demon possession is supposedly based on true events. Whether you believe in the devil or not, however, oughtn’t get in the way of enjoying this very effective horror flick. Laura Linney plays an attorney who is placed on retainer by the Catholic Church to defend a priest (Tom Wilkinson) who has been charged with the negligible death of a college student, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), during an exorcism. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, like Rosemary’s Baby, is a movie that reveals how flexible the horror genre can be. Taking demon possession and mixing it up in a courtroom drama, this movie is more concerned with the questions of belief, both in God and in the devil. Despite its philosophical and theological concerns, the film also works as a great horror movie without relying on cheap gore. Little moments, the ones that often occur in the corner of our eyes or in the back of our minds---a door supposedly closed now open; the smell of something burning; the little bumps in the night---add to this film’s creep factor. The flashback scenes of Emily Rose’s possession and exorcism are also scary as hell. This is one of those films that continue to play on your imagination long after the final credits have rolled across the screen.
11. Psycho (1960)
No list of horror movies can ever be complete without Psycho. Directed by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho is precisely one of those movies which proves that you can still deliver on the shock and thrills without an excess of gore. All the more important to remember considering that Psycho is the granddaddy of all slasher films. Starring Vivien Leigh and Anthony Perkins, Psycho tells the story of a frustrated and unhappy woman, Marion Crane (Leigh), who steals money from the real estate office where she works so that she can be with her lover, who is at present too broke to marry her. Marion takes off with the money to meet up with her lover, but is detoured when she stops at the Bates Motel, an out-of-the-way motel run by the skittishly neurotic and loney Norman Bates. The rest of the story revolves around what happens next at the Bates Motel. For those who have yet to see this classic, I won’t spoil it. Needless to say, Psycho, known famously for its shower sequence, set the standard for horror movies and also showed that real horror sometimes comes with a welcome sign and a smile.
12. The Shining (1980)
Based on the popular Stephen King novel, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, The Shining has a creepy, cold feeling to it. And I’m not just talking about the winter atmosphere. Rather, everything seems off in this flick. Nicholson’s line reading and facial expressions have a kind of dream-like effect to it, like he’s operating at a completely different speed than everyone else. And the relationship between his Jack Torrance and Duvall’s Wendy, as well as with his son, seem cold, distant, aloof. You sense that this family has seen horrors far more frightening than what they’ll experience at the Overlook Hotel. Kubrick’s directing style adds to the film’s dread. The lighting and camera angles, the use of silence interrupted by abrupt sounds (such as the scene of young Danny [Danny Lloyd] riding his Big Wheels through the hallways) all create an atmosphere that is slightly abnormal and off-balance. The real horror, of course, lies not with the ghosts that haunt the Overlook, though when they appear they’re as shocking and disturbing as in any ghost story. Rather the real horror lurks in the soul of a man who is slowly disintegrating into madness.
13. The Sixth Sense (1999)
While M. Night Shyamalan’s first film The Sixth Sense deals with ghosts, it isn’t really a horror movie in the traditional sense. Rather, the lead character, Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled young boy who is a conduit to the spiritual world, struggles to cope with his otherworldly capabilities while dealing with the even scarier problems of bullies, divorce, and alienation. Yet there are genuinely frightening scenes in this movie, especially when Cole is visited by ghosts who seek him out for help or companionship. The Sixth Sense, though, earned its way to the top of the box office with a twist ending involving Bruce Willis’s child psychologist who tries to help Cole wrestle with his emotional problems, unaware that he might have more to do with Cole’s psychological problems than he realizes. The film works still even without the twist as it delves effectively into the emotional lives of its characters.
14. Ringu (1998)
You can't find a scarier image than the one above. It's from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (aka The Ring) and it's the spookiest thing you'll ever see in film. Ringu involves a videotape that causes the gruesome death of anyone who watches it. A young reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) researches the tape following her niece’s death and is drawn into the mystery regarding the young girl who appears in it. After viewing the tape, she has exactly one week to find a way to avoid an equally gruesome fate. The movie is a race against time as Reiko not only tries to solve the mystery of the little girl’s death, but save her life and the lives of her loved ones as well. Creepy, atmospheric, and thoroughly original, Ringu is a marriage of traditional horror with modern technology.
15. Carrie (1976)
This second Stephen King-based adaptation is notable for the fact that the real horror starts in the last third of the film. Starring Sissy Spacek, Carrie is the story of an abused, loveless, and otherwise unremarkable girl who has the remarkable power of telekinesis. Much of the film deals with Carrie struggling to understand her powers while coping with being the punching bag for both her classmates and an overbearing mother. The film shows how group conformity and religious zealotry can be pretty scary too. Poor Carrie is so abused that when she finally gets her revenge, you can’t help but root for her. The movie ends with a twist that’s a real shocker and proves that director Brian de Palma knows how to bring the terror and suspense. Spacek’s performance is likewise notable for bringing to life a character who goes from a sad sack to a blossoming flower with enough potential that her final degradation is as heartbreaking as it is horrific.
16. The Universal Horror Movies: these 1930's Universal horror movies, such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), the Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and others, are light on scares, but big on atmospherics. Still it’s a little hard to go through Halloween without settling down with one of these classic horror films.
17. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1991): Sure, Keanu Reeves’ performance nearly sinks this movie, but there’s always Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque excesses and, of course, Gary Oldman as the titular vampire.
18. The Lost Boys (1988): Joel Schumacher’s creepy and atmospheric movie is pretty funny too. It is also one of the great ‘80s vehicles starring Corey Feldman and the late Corey Haim.
19. The Lady in White (1988): not particularly scary, but it does have the nice, curl-up-in-a-blanket-and-pop-the-popcorn feel to it. A horror movie that’s gentle enough for the kids.