The scariest movies ever
Forbes Magazine posted an article (which I won't bother to link) claiming they have scientifically established the scariest movie ever made--based on a small sample size of viewers watching some 100 picks from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Reddit. The 'study' measured the heart rate of the viewers and on that basis picked the most terrifying.
To be fair the article is fairly upfront about some of its limitations (sample size, source of movies (IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes?)); what it doesn't even bother discussing is the validity of the chosen standard. I mean--heart rate? YouTube videos sometimes show a woman asleep in bed or a dog licking its balls; suddenly--boom! A loud shriek and a white face pops onscreen. Heart races--does that qualify? If you assemble enough of these videos in a 90 minute compilation would they outperform the number 1 title on Forbes' list?
YouTube goes on to play a video of bizarre body parts. Right now I'm staring at the longest tongue I've ever seen stretch out to delicately pick her own nose; I imagine my heart accelerated a tad, and not out of arousal (I've seen octopus tentacles less elastic). Does that qualify?
Likewise, if you watched the 2020 American presidential debate and your pulse jumped in irritation each time Trump opened his mouth to interrupt Biden, does that qualify?
O and the study's rationale: "to save them the time of searching through thousands of titles across streaming services like Amazon, Netflix and Shudder." How consumer-friendly; life is short, you can't waste time taking a chance on some unknown name or title. Go straight for the meat everyone else is gorging on, never mind the thrill of the hunt or the pleasure of an unexpected find.
The choice of movies, the methodology, the very notion that an elevated heartrate is the be-all and end-all goal of horror is absurd. What's terrifying--more terrifying than most pictures on that list--is the apparent possibility that folks will actually believe in this shit, because it's from a major magazine (that specializes in finance) and it used the word 'science' on its title.
Horror should stimulate not just your bodily functions (heart, sweat glands, bladder control) it should--but check out my own titles, none of which are included in Forbes' clickbait piece, and see what I mean.
10. Benjamin Christensen's Haxan (Witches) is odd even in a list of oddities. Chris Fujiwara describes it in his Criterion piece as an essay film on the subject of witchcraft and mental illness that treats the latter with remarkable open-mindedness, depicts aspects of the former with chilling matter-of-factedness. Without fully endorsing the possibility that these women (odd that few of the accused are men) really are witches, Christensen presents their fantasies and the fantasies created about them with equal realism, to the point where he applies makeup and plays the devil himself. It's this blurring of the border between horror and documentary--and (arguably) personal boundaries--that makes this great horror: because we don't know (just from seeing the film) where one ends and the other begins.
9. I could have picked Michael Haneke's Funny Games which I think is a masterpiece of a limited kind (the home invasion thriller meets the no-exit scenario) but instead chose his real masterpiece Amour, a horror / love story where horror and love are indistinguishable and integral to the story: if you love someone aren't you capable of committing the most horrifying acts for their sake? Likewise if you totally love someone isn't that absolute love not a little horrifying?
8. Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness--imagine if you will Ringu's eerie cursed video expanded to over an hour's length. The result of the director's chance visit to a mental hospital, Kinugasa's film captures not just the stench of genuine madness but its beauty, the superimpositions (at one point suggesting a multi-limbed multi-legged woman spinning in place) and lens distortions (at one point suggesting reality tearing itself open to spew forth the contents of another universe) sketching the results of an unhinged camera yoked to an equally unhinged sensibility, this before digital effects were even a notion. Balanced against the avant-garde imagery are closeups of different patients, anguished despairing and (most unsettling of all) serenely vacant--as if their attention was directed at some unseen alternate reality, the way Kinugasa's camera keeps attempting to do and on occasion succeeds.
7. Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill is also an exercise in style but in vivid color, the plot a touch more comprehensible than Kinugasa's but really just one more flimsy structure which Bava decorates with one extravagant setpiece after another: a young woman is menaced by a little girl peering into her bedroom window; a young man runs after himself again and again, in an endless series of rooms; a different young woman runs down an infinitely spiraling stair, pursued by a child's laugh and a bouncing rubber ball. Bava's films make only cursory nods to logic and reality (doesn't help that much of the dialogue was apparently improvised out of a 30 page script, acted out in a shooting schedule of only 12 days); part of what makes them so unsettling is the suspicion aroused that Bava can at any moment sweep it all aside to reveal his truth: that there is no logic or reality, just howling madness--superbly shot in vivid color, often by Antonio Rinaldi (who worked exclusively for Bava) and (in this case) scored to an arbitrary assembly of tunes from different films, including Bava's previous works.
6. David Lynch's Fire Walk With Me is his corrective to the soapier more lighthearted Twin Peaks: the film serves as both prequel and time-twisting sequel to the TV series and--without Mark Frost's moderating influence--also serves up a grimmer version of the eponymously fictional northwestern town. Where misogyny in Peaks is couched in comforting often comic TV tropes, here we feel its full force. The horror isn't inspired by the image of depraved evil, though there's plenty to go around; the horror is in seeing Sheryl Lee's brave anguished Laura Palmer being stripped of her defenses, layer by layer, skin by spiritual skin (a if you like proto-Martyrs only with real suffering): what's left is--strangely, perversely--hopeful, a vision of joy that can leave one in tears.
5. Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Cure suggests a serial killer with a philosophy. O I know I know--all done before, and to death, literally. But there's something about Kurosawa's elliptical style, the way he (through his killer) seems to be hinting at something mysterious behind his string of not-quite murders, motivated by his obliquely sketched not-quite philosophy. "Who are you?" the putative killer asks, resulting in all kinds of murderous mayhem; watching this you may think the man may be onto something: pointed existential questions that undermine one's sense of identity or (worse) one's sense of reality can be maddening enough to make one want to strike out--at everyone, at anyone. I can't fully understand how, but I can certainly relate.
4. Enter Jacques Tourneur, master of the atmospheric low-budget horror. His pulpiest title, I Walked with a Zombie is easily my favorite onscreen adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre ever, with the sultry West Indies substituting for bleak Northern England, and Caribbean voodoo for boring congenital insanity. The results are anything but pulpy--are if anything lowbudget poetry. Tourneur's delicate camerawork fills in the silences and deep pools of shadow that mark Bronte's Gothic romance (call it Caribbean Gothic); the song liltingly performed midway through this brief gem (it runs only 69 minutes) captures the regretful tone: "Ah woe--woe is me! Shame and sorrow for the family." Not a single rapid heartbeat to be heard, only the sense of profound guilt and lingering pain--the prospect of death in these islands bring not fear, but the anticipation of lasting peace.
3. Carl Th. Dreyer arguably made only one overtly genre film, that one being more than enough. Vampyr like Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill chooses the slenderest plot (from a short story by Sheridan le Fanu) on which to hang even odder nightmare images: a man's shadow raises a shovel and the shovel fills magically with dirt, which is returned to its originating hole; another man stares helpless as his coffin is nailed shut, a candle lit and set on the little window framing his face, and he's carried out the house and into a nearby grave; a woman looks up at her sister and--only the simplest and most disturbing of effects--her mouth stretches into a voracious leer. With music from a band we don't see (only its shadows) and actors speaking in voices we don't quite hear (either coming from another room or from another world), Dreyer's film feels very much undead--as if the creatures the film is about had decided to rise up, commandeer a camera, and set the record straight on their true concerns and sensibilities.
2. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is a masterclass in gaslighting--in weaving a web of deception around a woman so tightly knit and thoroughly conceived her worst paranoiac dreams aren't just justified they're inadequate. The villains in this film practice an encyclopedic smorgasbord of evil, from the incidental sin of nosiness (asking your new neighbors the price of their furniture) to the more serious business of mutilation and murder (casting spells to blind and later kill) to the arguably even more serious offense of marital betrayal...but the single most evil onscreen act is committed not out of greed or selfishness or malice but out of love--a woman's will and instincts unleashed. Maybe what one young lady once told me is true: motherhood is not a woman's noblest greatest achievement but arguably her curse. This film makes one at least pause to think darkly on the matter.
1. Mike de Leon's Kisapmata I've summed up thusly: the horror comes not so much from the violent finale (which, to stress the point, de Leon telegraphs in the film's own theatrical poster) but from every incriminating accusatory detail assembled along the way. Not so much from this strange family with its tyrannical patriarch but from the fact that said patriarch sits at the head of his family speaking pronouncements ex cathedra, from the heart of conservatively Catholic, middle-class Filipino society.
It's a carefully constructed utterly convincing world--convincing in part because much of the dialogue sounds so hilariously familiar (we may catch ourselves realizing we've either heard them spoken to us or said them ourselves) in a large part because you sense that this is a privileged glimpse into the filmmaker's own very private life. The title ('Kisapmata') translates roughly as 'eyeblink' or 'in the blink of an eye' and I find that unnervingly suggestive--that the divide separating de Leon's forbidding realm of deep secrets and ugly unspoken truths and our own is as brief as the blink of an eye.