Because apparently I can only do lists anymore!
I realized after putting together my 'best movies of the decade so far' list that I left out of consideration a couple of truly stellar scary flicks, which chastened me because I'm always the one saying that the intelligentsia should finally start recognizing and awarding those outside genres like sci-fi and horror. If applicable I will rectify this on the eve of 2020 - pending we're all still here, of course. ;) (I'm not a doomsday prepper, I just don't know what's wrong with this world anymore. Sigh) In the meantime, I'll put an asterisk next to the names of movies that should have been in the running for last year's list.
I think that the 2010s have been an incredible time for scary movies because they're finally being done right. We're past the slasher insanity of the 70s, the teen nonsense of the 80s, and the self-awareness of the 90s and 00s. Finally, filmmakers are making good on the truth that the only thing to fear is fear itself - it's what you don't know, what you can't see, that is the scariest, because the mind will fill in the blanks with whatever scares you the most. In this way, the 'scare' factor impacts a much larger portion of the audience than is possible with gushing blood and feral screaming (which, shocker, isn't scary!).
So, herewith, my list of movies to watch during the witching season that should leave you good and scared by the time Halloween night gets here. Enjoy...IF YOU DARE. No, just enjoy.
(in no particular order)
Paranormal Activity (2007) The first movie to dare to capitalize on the found-footage premise of Blair Witch Project almost a decade before, PA scared THE SHIT out of me. It is only one of three movies that have ever kept me awake at night after seeing it (the other two being Signs and Event Horizon). It's basically 100% 'things that go bump in the night' and that is really all I ask for. Of the sequels, only part three reaches the level of the first. Absolutely do not watch this alone with the lights out. You will die.
Insidious Chapter 2* (2013) While the first Insidious was great, the sequel blew my mind, for several reasons. First, I think the concept of The Further is awesome - a dead zone parallel to ours, all dark empty houses and bad memories and regret (the motionless people seen in the third Insidious were a great touch, for an otherwise subpar installment). Second, the integration of the events from the first movie, with the intruder, is phenomenal. If the screenwriter did not write the first movie with any inkling of a second in mind, he's a genius. Third, I thoroughly enjoy how Chapter 2 taps into the contemporary ghost hunting craze, as the characters investigate an abandoned hospital (classic!) and an essentially haunted house. Fourth, the backstory on the Old Woman is both creepy as hell and heartbreaking. If you twisted my arm, I'd have to say this is my favorite on the list.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014) If you've never seen Flight of the Conchords then you will be unprepared for the majesty that is Jemaine Clement. He and fellow kiwi Taika Waititi produced this comedic gem (Watiti, fun fact, is currently directing the third Thor - whaaa?!). The movie is a mockumentary about four vampires living in a huge, rundown house in modern-day New Zealand, and their struggles to stay relevant yet still undiscovered. It's so second-by-second hilarious that at one point I was laughing so hard I couldn't hear what else they were saying and I thought, oh well, there'll be something else ridiculous along in a moment. No worries! Of course this movie isn't scary and isn't meant to be, but it will make your Halloween for sure.
The Woman in Black (2012) Atmospheric as hell, WIB ably balances the terror of the unseen and glimpses of the titular character to create a near-constant sense of foreboding. While no one would willingly shut themselves up in a gigantic old haunted house (the premise of about a billion other scary movies), it's Daniel Radcliffe's character's sheer determination to keep returning to the scene of the scares that primes you to jump out of your seat. If he would just listen to the village folk! But no. Also, the rocking chair scene? I yelped.
Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) What? YES. Somehow, way back in 2003, this movie combined teen nonsense, genre self-awareness, and legitimate scares. I think the concept of the monster himself is fascinating, and he's almost Krueger-esque with his giant hat and trench coat. I actually saw this before I saw the first Jeepers Creepers, and, sitting there in the dark with my college buddies, just hearing about the evil keepsakes in the church basement was enough to tingle my spine. While the lead-up to the movie's climax is literal in a Scream sense (behold! the face of fear!), overall it's a very well-done and underrated flick.
The Conjuring* (2013) There seems to be somewhat of a consensus that this is something like the top scary movie of the decade so far. It would be for me if Insidious 2 hadn't been so freaking clever; still, this is probably my number 2. Again we have hapless people holed up in a big house in the middle of nowhere while a dead evil terrorizes them - and again, so well made, how can I complain? Lily Taylor, who played the mother, was in another 'scary' movie back in 2000, The Haunting, and it was absolute rubbish (except for the fireplace scene, we all screamed). It was a step-by-step manual of how to show everything and completely ruin a good premise. Taylor is redeemed by taking part in The Conjuring with the soon-to-be iconic pairing of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Ed and Lorraine Warren. This movie also capitalizes on the idea of ghost-hunting, so YES, and while the exorcism probably takes it a skoche too far (you'll notice there are no exorcism movies on this list), it is still overall incredibly satisfying.
Annabelle (2014) Yes, Annabelle. It was amazing. Clearly I alone am the barometer of what is scary and what's not, and because Annabelle scared the crap out of me, I declare it to have merit. The elevator scene, when she couldn't leave the basement? I did this thing where I was so scared I was laughing. It doesn't make sense - I think I'm laughing at what a scaredy-cat I'm being - but it is a genuine reaction. I also think the screenwriters were diligent in giving a couple from the 60s more modern sensibilities - the husband wasn't just like, have my baby and shut up - and while it was an anachronism, I appreciate it. The Annabelle doll was a fantastic prologue in The Conjuring, definitely deserving of its own movie, and you can bet I'm seeing the inevitable sequel they're already making.
Sinister (2012) My friend and I went to see this because it was supposed to be a cousin to the deliciously creepy Insidious, and it didn't disappoint. As many times as films have presented us with very un-scary demons, Baghul hits the mark perfectly. I didn't even want to look at him, and I'm pretty unflappable in general. The concept of grisly family murders caught on tape in almost clinical fashion is unique (and, as with a lot of the best ideas, very much a one-time concept. I do not do torture porn and the sequel to this movie was vomitrocious) and effectively places you inside of the confusion and horror Ethan Hawke's character feels. A great effort in my opinion, even if the movie never reaches the heights of its stellar contemporaries.
The Quiet Ones (2014) I'm going to be honest and say the best part of this movie is Sam Claflin, of Hunger Games and Me Before You fame. That boy just has the X factor, plain and simple. He's stunning to watch. The movie itself is a mish-mash of overdone tropes, with a general vibe closer to that of C-grade scary movies, but the cinematography is fresh, and there is one scene involving an empty bassinet that made the entire viewing experience worth it. I can't explain why this movie stuck with me so long after watching it (Claflin aside), so here it is on the list.
The Conjuring 2 (2016) Duh. You know, it's good to have a friend who's into quality scary movies; so many on this list I went to see with him when he still lived here, and it was super fortuitous that this came out while I was visiting him over the summer. We were of course nervous that it might not stand up to the original - but ohhhh did it ever. Come now. The scene in the den with the nun's shadow? I scare-laughed the entire time, unable to come to grips with my own mortality apparently. My friend just stared at his lap. Another incredible job by James Wan, and while it's not better than the first Conjuring, it is most assuredly on par. And seriously, how beautiful and amazing are Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga? I love how real actors are legitimizing the genre, much like what's happening over in comic book movie land.
The Babadook* (2014) The artistic entry on this list. I watched this movie on Halloween last year, and immediately watched it again the next day. I don't want to give anything away, but while it is definitely atmospheric, creepy, and has real scares, it is also about something so much deeper than the literal interpretation of the top-hatted titular character. It is about the darkness in life that finds us, that shapes us, that ruins us, a darkness as old as humanity's first primitive night, scared and abandoned in a limitless landscape. Interesting that filmmaker Jennifer Kent turned to Lars von Trier for advice on movie-making, but his advice clearly was sound (and you should absolutely see Melancholia). The Babadook is a visceral, instant classic.
Cloverfield (2008) Again, totally unashamed to include this movie. I remember the trailer for it showed before a movie I was seeing with my parents, and my dad randomly went to the bathroom during it, and when he came back I was like "---do you even know what you just missed?!?!" Cloverfield scared...the...shit....out of me, and I loved seeing the carnage and destruction around the emergence of a Godzilla-like creature through the grainy, shaky lens of a camcorder. I mean, come on - we had only ever seen stories like this through the slick lens of big-studio Michael Bay-type productions; the found footage here made everything intense, immediate, and real. To the haters I say, get your life.
Scary Movies That Aren't a Total Waste of Time: Dark Skies, The Witch, The Last Exorcism, Grave Encounters, Apartment 143, The Devil Inside, The Fourth Kind, VHS, A Haunting in Connecticut
'Scary' Movies to Avoid at All Costs: The Haunting, Sinister 2, Goodnight Mommy, Woman in Black 2, VHS 2, A Haunting in Connecticut 2 (I make it a point not to intentionally watch terrible horror, so rest assured this list could probably go on forever)