What is my inordinate attraction to making lists? I dunno, but Halloween provides an excuse to wax self-indulgently on my list of the scariest horror films I've ever seen. In deference to the All Hallow's Eve, incidentally, I am limiting myself to films with a supernatural bent of some sort (meaning The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs are rendered ineligible).
10. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Forgive me, George A. Romero, for I would rank the remake scarier than your 1978 entrails-laden original . But hey, the updated zombie yarn is simply scarier; the first 20 minutes, in particular, are just crazy intense.
9. The Evil Dead (1981)
Well, the sequel is much more fun, but it's more hilarious than horrifying. Sam Raimi's original low-budget classic features the infamous "shaky-cam," nifty animation and a dance number that's worth losing your head over. Besides, the movie that essentially launched Bruce Campbell's career is always worth recognition.
8. The Changeling (1980)
A solid haunted house story that manages to achieve actual poignancy, too. Go figure.
7. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski's take on the Ira Levin novel is less horror and more paranoia, but man, oh, man, is it a paranoiac's wet dream. Atmospheric and expertly paced, Rosemary's Baby is too often overlooked as a great film because its title and plot are so ensconced in popular culture. While the central plot point has Satan planting his seed in pasty-faced Mia Farrow, Polanski elicits the real frights by exploiting our more mundane suspicions: the divide between generations, the nosy neighbors and the aloof spouse.
6. Halloween (1978)
While John Carpenter's mad slasher flick is mask and shoulders better than the craptacular imitators, it's no masterpiece. The director goes a bit overboard with the p.o.v. shots, Nancy Loomis underacts, Donald Pleasence overacts and the premise -- crazy guy torments trio of babysitters -- is pure drive-in fare. But Halloween was the first movie I remember seeing in the theater that completely flipped me out. It was my Cinema Paradiso moment, a dying-to-be-scared 13 year old in a theater filled with freaked-out teens and adolescents certain that we were all being let in on the most twisted of collective nightmares. All that, and P.J. Soles' bare boobies.
5. The Ring (2002)
Not so much a remake as an English-language do-over, this Hollywood take on the 1998 Japanese horror flick Ringu scores with the visual themes of water, TV static and a cursed videotape that looks like outtakes from a Nine Inch Nails music video.
4. The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
A woefully underappreciated chillfest, director Mark Pellington performs the amazing feat of making even Chap Stick disturbing.
3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Not a through-and-through horror film, but M. Night Shyamalan's directorial debut is as spooky a ghost story as they come. In this story of a kid who -- c'mon, say it with me -- can see dead people, Shyamalan wrings the maximum chills from Philadelphia, a city undoubtedly teeming with apparitions of all kinds. Once the temperature drops, the ghosts appear for scenes simultaneously creepy and morbidly humorous: the teenager with a head wound offering to show his dad's gun, the domestic abuse victim rummaging through the kitchen for a knife. Just because The Sixth Sense has been absorbed by the zeitgeist doesn't make it any less terrific.
2. The Shining (1980)
"Play with us, Danny ... play with us. Forever and ever and ever." Christ, Almigty -- if there's one thing I don't like, it's creepy twin girls who've been hacked to pieces by their dad and still insist on hanging around. The only thing worse? Well, possibly a long-legged nude woman in a bathtub who turns out to be a fleshy old crone. Talk about beer goggles. Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of mood and pace is a far cry from the Stephen King novel on which it's based, but the cinematic Shining is brilliant on its own terms. And scenery-chewin' Jack Nicholson is a gas, gas, gas.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Pound for pound, still the horror champ in my book. I know it's considered cool these days to scoff at some of the film's dated special effects -- the levitating body, the bed thumping wildly against the floor, etc. -- but William Friedkin's unblinking, almost documentarian approach to the William Peter Blatty novel still gives me the willies. Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller are excellent, and Captain Howdy is one bad mofo.
By the way, MDC has his own -- and rather impressive -- list over at Manifest Density.