Actually Scary Movies

by Brooke Ferguson

I love scary movies. I’ve been watching them since I burst from my mother’s chest like the monster in Alien. And October used to be an exciting month for me, because on any given night I could turn on the TV and find a classic horror flick — Halloween is always in rotation, and you don’t have to travel too many channels to find something from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series — but lately … it hasn’t been enough. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Halloween, Psycho, and the tried and true favorites. It’s just that I’ve seen them roughly six thousand times each, and I can anticipate each glint of the knife, each fake-out scare (you know, where it’s like “AHH! OMG it’s just the cat. OH WAIT, HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”). They don’t keep me up at night anymore, staring at the doorknob, waiting for it to turn. They don’t screw with me for days and days, forcing me to puzzle over just how I would escape a chainsaw-wielding maniac, or a clown that can attack you through the plumbing, because after years of obsessing over those questions, I’ve pretty much got it down (my answer to the the latter, by the way, is not to flush the toilet or even unlock the bathroom stall. Just shimmy out under the door and run like hell).

So, maybe this Halloween you’re like me. Maybe you’re tired of the torture-porn in the theaters or the classic movies on TV with all the bloody bits and curse words edited out. Below are five movies that are not obscure, no, but overlooked. They’re slow-burn movies, the kind that might not have a lot of “gotcha!” scares, but that mess you up for days or weeks or a lifetime. (I’m looking at you, #2.)

5. The Haunting

This movie, based on a Shirley Jackson novel, is such a great mind-fuck. You know how movie people always talk about how Jaws was so scary because for the first half of the movie you don’t even see the shark? The Haunting is all over that, and so elegantly, using sounds, lighting, and minimal special effects to create an unsettling and eventually terrifying atmosphere. You’ll be surprised by how maddeningly creepy a slow-zoom on a bit of embossed wallpaper can be.

And for the love of Yaweh, stay away from the remake with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

4. Don’t Look Now

John ( Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) move to Venice, attempting to recover from the death of their young daughter. They befriend a pair of elderly twin sisters, one of whom is blind but claims to possess second sight. She convinces Laura that their daughter is still with them. John, meanwhile, continually glimpses a tiny figure running through the streets in a red coat, just out of his reach. It’s frightening because you see Donald Sutherland’s heinie, but also due to the masterful direction and editing and the “What the shit just happened?” ending. Those last few minutes account for the only time I have simultaneously laughed, cried, and thrown up.

3. City of the Living Dead

Okay, I don’t know how scary this one really is, but it’s a total gore-fest, and features one of my all-time scariest movie moments, when (spoiler alert) a young lady literally pukes her guts out. Also, I really enjoy overdubbing.

2. The Vanishing (Spoorloos)

This movie will mess you up for a long time. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is all very, very realistic and very, very scary. Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) are a young couple on a road trip. When they stop at a gas station for a pee and a snack, Saskia disappears. Rex spends the next three years obsessively searching for answers until he is contacted by her abductor, Mr. Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Lemorne gives him a choice: Spend the rest of your life wondering what became of your beautiful girlfriend to whom you were kind of a dick, or drink this drugged coffee and let me show you her fate. Just thinking about this movie makes me feel panicky. It plays on one of my worst fears as a woman — that I have to be nice to everyone, even if they’re a little sketchy, because it’s more important for me to put my safety at risk than to maybe be a bitch. (Again, avoid the remake.)

1. The Thing

Not the one in theaters right now (that one’s a prequel and should have a subtitle or something but is instead also called The Thing), but the 1982 John Carpenter movie. To me, this is the perfect horror movie. A group of American scientists are trapped on a research station with an alien. Oh, and did I mention the research station is in ANTARCTICA? Oh, and did I mention the alien can ABSORB PEOPLE AND ASSUME THEIR IDENTITIES? No other film so effectively creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia. It’s also surprisingly funny, and stars Kurt Russell as a pilot who needs only a beard, a leather jacket, and a floppy hat to brave the sub-zero temperatures. Now, a lot of people might think the special effects are silly or cheesy, but those people are idiots. The actors are actually reacting to things that are in the room with them, instead of some empty space or green screen where something will be added in post-production. It makes a difference. And come on, a guy’s head grows legs and turns into a spider-thingy! Tentacles and wormy things are flying everywhere! It’s so gross and fun and scary and amazing. And, if you’re still not convinced, Wilford Brimley is in it. And he would encourage you to watch this movie. You don’t want to disappoint Wilford Brimley, do you?

Brooke Ferguson is a cook in San Francisco. She promised her dog Peanut she would mention her in this bio if Peanut promised to stop pooping angrily outside her bedroom door.