The Scariest Movies of All Time (According to My 12-Year-Old Self)
I’m not much of a Halloween kind of guy. In fact, I don’t care for it at all. The costumes—meh. The parties are just another excuse for adults to get hammered and dress up in racially and sexually insensitive garb, writing it off as a spoof. The candy—well, I like the candy but I like candy anytime of the year.
But scary movies? I love 'em.
Growing up I was never bothered much by monster movies. I had all the great Universal monsters—Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman—as plastic models, meticulously put together with glue and painted within an inch of their campy lives. Slasher movies are always fun but rarely filled me any sense of dread.
Years ago, when we had the theater on Halsted and Belmont, we decided to host a Scary Movie Night the week of Halloween. The idea was for everyone to pick a movie that scared the shit out of them when they were kids and revisit them as adults to see if they held up. My choice was Phantasm (1979).
Set in a mortuary sprung straight from a nightmare, the film finds a trio of heroes, brothers Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornburry) and their reliable companion Reggie (Reggie Bannister thrust into The Tall Man’s (the creepy as hell Angus Scrimm) domain where he greets them with logic-bending terrors and sends the souls of the dead to an afterlife of slavery. Complete with the surreal murderball and inter-dimensional dwarves (reminiscent of Lucas’s Jawas) and a giant fly that bled yellow goo when put through a garbage disposal, this freaking thing haunted me for a long time.
Watching it decades later, in a theater full of comedians, the shoestring budget effects and bizarre Dadaist storytelling had most of my crew looking at me like I was an idiot. “This is what scared you as a kid? Not Halloween or Friday the 13th?”
In the same spirit, here’s a short list of the movies of my pre-teen years that gave me nightmares and how they fare today.
A young American ballet dancer abroad at a prestigious German dance academy uncovers an ancient, sinister coven of witches. Suspiria is famous for its baroque violence, over-the-top technicolor look, and the intense prog rock score by Goblin. It single-handedly landed Dario Argento in the Greatest Horror Directors Club and left me creeped out for months after seeing it.
And it holds up. Sure, lots of directors have since imitated so many aspects of Suspiria that watching it today makes it more nostalgic than truly terrifying but if you haven’t seen it, crank up the volume, turn off the lights, and immerse yourself. This is one of those films that transcends horror and becomes like a dark red and blue saturated tone poem of dread and mayhem.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
A remake of the 1956 original, Philip Kaufman’s movie about an alien race slowly taking over humanity by replacing them with pod people who are identical to the people they’re replacing is a paranoid conspiracy theorist’s night terror. I remember spending some time after seeing this wondering, in a most serious way, if any of my teachers were really humans or pod people. To this day, the concept of plant-like tendrils growing out of my body completely gives me the whim-whams.
In 2017, the film holds up. The performances (especially by the young Donald Sutherland and a really young Jeff Goldblum) are solid, Kaufman amps up the dread, and it includes a non-Spock Leonard Nimoy.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Sure, The Exorcist was unsettling but according to the press surrounding this film (based on the 1977 book of the same title) this was flat-out, crap-your-pants scary because it was ALL TRUE! IT REALLY HAPPENED! OK, turns out it didn’t really happen and was most likely just a tale the Lutz family came up with because they couldn’t afford the house they bought and this story of a horribly haunted house terrorizing them was the best they could come up with.
But, at the time, it was ALL TRUE! James Brolin and Margot Kidder really heard voices at 3:15 every morning. Blood really poured from the walls. The priest was actually attacked by forces of evil and a swarm of flies. The remake in 2005 makes less sense because a simple Google search could’ve warned the Lutz’s about the murders in the house before they even drove up the drive but in 1979, this thing gave me the willies.
Nearly 40 years later, the movie doesn’t quite hold the thrills of my childhood viewing if only because the goddamned Amityville story has spawned 15 movies, most of them truly sucking in almost every way.
What fucking business did an 11-year-old kid have watching this ungodly thing? Beats me but I saw it in a theater in Phoenix, Arizona. And it fucked me up for life, I think.
When Henry (John Nance) discovers that a past roll in the hay resulted in the birth of a wormy, lizard-like malformity whose hunger is as unending as its cries, his life is turned upside down in a series of visions and unsettling tangents where every indulgence sets a trap for further terrors. David Lynch somehow manages to wring sympathy for the pathetic, nasty thingazoid that lays there throughout the film like a raw nerve and constant source of agitation. Lynch directed, produced, wrote, edited, and acted as sound designer for this awful experience, this solidifying his remarkable indie genius and creating a movie that defies categorization. Not an art house film, not a horror movie, not a comedy (although some of it is ridiculously funny), Eraserhead is simply unlike anything that had come before or has come after.
Four decades later, it still makes me queasy and itchy.
The movies that scared me when I was 12 are not the same types of movies that scare me now. In general, I enjoy horror movies a lot. But the truly terrifying films of my fifties tend to be documentaries about climate disaster, the horrors of the criminal justice system gone wrong and things like The Big Short. That shit is ALL TRUE! IT REALLY HAPPENED! Terrifying.