Just like a few others in this section of the list, Charles Laughton’s brilliant Night of the Hunter isn’t really a horror film, but still sets out to keep the audience on edge. Starring a diabolical Robert Mitchum as a preacher/serial killer Reverend Harry Powell, it follows him as he tries to woo his former cellmate’s widow Willa (Shelly Winters), hoping to learn where he has hidden his bank loot. Powell devises that his children John and Pearl must know, but he struggles to gain young John’s trust. When Willa learns of his plan, Powell is forced to kill her and hide the body, leaving him as sole caretaker of the children, who flee down the river. And then the scene. Having believed they have escaped Powell, they hide themselves in an empty barn. They catch some sleep, but John is awakened by barking dogs. He looks out on the horizon and hears the calling card: Powell singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in the distance while, suddenly, his silhouette on his horse move into the line of sight from the left. This was Laughton’s only film as a director, but what a masterpiece. Mitchum’s performance is so menacingly calm that the moment his deep voice is heard in the distance, it’s chilling.
You can’t argue that Ivan Reitman was legitimately trying to frighten anyone, though Ghostbusters is filled with images that, in many other films, may have done that. The tone he sets with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis is sarcastic and funny enough that it drowns out any real fear it may have incited. But, as a standalone moment, the first emergence of Gozer is a frightening scene. Dana (Sigourney Weaver) sits in her apartment alone, when things start to get a little creepy. She sits in her armchair, hoping to relax, when it won’t release her. Light emerges from her door and that chair locks her down and turns her to face the door. The door opens to reveal a reanimated gargoyle, red eyes and all. This creature (and its lost mate) is played for laughs other times, especially with Rick Moranis. But the first appearance of this menacing creature is actually quite unnerving, packaged in with household items taking control. The special effects are dated now, but viewing Ghostbusters through a lens of story development only, and it’s a pretty solid ghost story with a premise that goes beyond the constant wisecracking.
It might play out like a horror film to many, but it’s just a psychological thriller. Don’t get too antsy. Directed by Curtis Hanson, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle sees a woman named Claire (Annabella Sciorra) reporting her obstetrician to the police after he sexually molests her during a routine checkup. The doctor kills himself in response, leaving his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) with nothing, thanks to the lawsuits that have spring up since the first reported molestation charge. His widow goes into early labor, loses her baby, bleeds out, and is given an emergency hysterectomy. Claire and her husband have a beautiful baby boy named Joey and try to find a nanny. They hire a woman named Peyton (De Mornay, using an alias) who comes into their home and begins a treacherous plan to destroy Claire from inside her own home and steal her family away from her. Peyton manipulates her daughter by having her keep secrets from her mother and her husband by sexually tempting him, causing Claire to question his fidelity. But the biggest moment of the film comes from Peyton’s direct care of Joey. She finds him crying in his crib – as any infant does – and picks up a pillow. At first, it appears that Peyton is going to smother him, but instead sets the pillow aside. She picks Joey up to comfort him, only to undo her dress and begin to breastfeed him. It’s a chilling moment and is repeated throughout the film, causing Joey to refuse Claire’s milk (any mother will vouch for how this somewhat simple thing can bring on such a feeling of utter rejection). Peyton’s act of vengeance hasn’t just complicated the family’s lives, but taken one of the true gifts every mother has with their own child. While she hasn’t turned Joey against Claire, she has created a scenario where he prefers her to Claire in one of the only “decisions” an infant can make. The first moment itself is a quietly frightening visual, but the undercurrent of what it does to a parent is deafening.
Walt Disney’s fourth animated film, Dumbo was pretty much made for next to nothing to make up for the financial loss the studio went through after Fantasia, an expensive, gorgeous experiment that didn’t go over well with audiences. While it clocks in at a mere 64 minutes, it is still one of Disney’s beloved classics. Dumbo is ridiculed by all the other elephants for having enormous ears. His mother, while defending her son, loses her temper and is locked away, her trainers assuming she’s gone crazy. Now alone, Timothy Q. Mouse decides to keep him company and mentor him, a lonely elephant without anyone to care for him. The circus director tries to include him in various acts, but he ends up ruining all of them. But one evening, after a heartbreaking visit with his jailed mother, Dumbo begins to cry and gives himself hiccups. He and Timothy both drink from a bucket which they believe is water, only to learn it’s been spiked with champagne. As classic Disney films tended to do, Dumbo then shifts into surprisingly dark territory, as Dumbo gets drunk and begins to hallucinate. What results is a colorful, unpredictable dream with pink elephants against a dark background set to music. The musical number featuring eyeless elephants playing their trunks as trumpets is beautifully animated, but it does take a surprisingly sad Disney movie into an area that is legitimately bewildering. It’s become a signature scene in Disney’s early work, but it still incites feelings of discomfort and worry.
Martin Scorsese’s films tend to have a dirty, sinister underbelly. His use of music is sometimes bewildering, but incredibly effective. But, other than his Cape Fear remake (Shutter Island not withstanding), he has never made a film that could be described as a “horror film” (even Cape Fear is on the fence). So, when Scorsese delivers chilling, unstable moments that incite fear, you know it’s a deliberate shot to the veins. Casino has always been viewed as a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas, but stands alone as one of Scorsese’s greatest critical and commercial successes, not to mention convincing everyone for a brief period of time that Sharon Stone could act. Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is sent to Las Vegas to run a casino on behalf of some mobsters in the Midwest. Eventually, thanks to his success, the mob sends Ace’s friend Nicky (Joe Pesci) and his brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) out to help protect the business. Throw in a woman named Ginger (Stone) who marries Ace and has a daughter with him and you get the makings of a crime/family drama of high level. Ace begins to make enemies and the FBI eventually gets involved, making Ace’s business and family difficult to maintain. The mob gets tired of the mess that’s being made and decides to take action. Meanwhile, Ginger has a brief affair with Nicky, infuriating Ace, forcing him to search out Nicky and confront him. But, before he can do so, members of their own crew take Nicky and Dominick out to a cornfield in the middle of Indiana and unload on them. As usual, Scorsese’s penchant for rock/pop music makes its mark, as “House of the Rising Sun” plays in the background. But the brutality Scorsese tends to show in his crime dramas usually come packaged with dark lighting and a more mysterious mood to them. This one is in broad daylight in middle America – no back alleys, no dumpsters to hide behind. Just corn. Scorsese even uses Nicky as the narrator of the scene; that is, until he takes the first shot with a baseball bat. The scene feels like it was coming, but the amount of graphic violence is surprising, even by Scorsese’s standards.
It was originally conceived as a television miniseries, spanning a whopping 312 minutes. It was cut down to 188 minutes for a theatrical release in 1982 and focuses on the two title children in Sweden, navigating their expansive family. Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) have a happy life, with two parents with a happy marriage. When their father unexpectedly dies, their mother eventually marries Edvard (Jan Malmsjö), a local bishop. They move into his home with his mother, sister, aunt, and maids. Unfortunately, unlike the life they’ve lived until then, Edvard’s strict rules diminish any sense of creativity and freedom they once had. Edvard stifles any sense of imagination in the children, punishing them often by keeping them in their rooms. Their mother asks for a divorce, but he refuses, citing that, if she leaves, he will gain custody of Fanny and Alexander. Eventually, they receive help from Isak, a friend of their grandmother, who helps stow them away and moves them to his own apartment, which is a cavalcade of mystery and fantasy. But, within those rooms is Isak’s nephew Aron’s puppets. These puppets just hang in this dark room, the wind moving them like chimes back and forth. At one point, Alexander is in this room, when a door slowly opens. From there, he has a cryptic conversation with a being claiming to be God, who says that no mortal should ever look upon him. Ingmar Bergman’s filmography is filled with beautiful realism and fantasy both, but Fanny and Alexander has always felt like the one that finally combined the two themes into one epic dreamscape. But this moment, even within the context of the film, is terrifyingly well-staged and creepy. Plus, puppets are just creepy. Especially marionettes.
It’s not a horror film in the supernatural sense, but you could argue that American History X is scarier, thanks to its heightened version of an all too real evil. Directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna, the film is told through the eyes of Danny (Edward Furlong), a Venice, California teenager slowly being introduced into the neo-Nazi movement. After writing a paper on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rather than being expelled, Danny is asked to write a paper about his older brother Derek (Edward Norton), who is being released from prison after three years. Scenes flash back and forth between the past events, which tell the story of Derek’s movement into neo-Nazism and the present day, with Danny struggling to understand his brother’s tendencies and why they have suddenly evaporated. Kaye shows past events in black-and-white, adding a stark contrast to the present day events, which are buried in a tone of misunderstanding and confusion. Derek’s father was a racist firefighter who was murdered by African-American drug dealers, enraging a young Derek to the point of a volcanic, racist explosion on television. He then begins a white supremacist gang with Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach) called the D.O.C. All this leads to the moment that haunts many a viewer. After defeating some gang members in a basketball game, those men come to Derek’s neighborhood and try to steal his truck. Enraged, he goes outside and shoots one of the thieves. In addition to that thief’s death, his the treatment of the second thief is what sends him to prison to change his life. The curb stomping scene is not nearly as graphic as most audiences remember it, but the build up is epic – the dinner party that turns anti-Semetic, Derek’s “celebration” with his girlfriend, and Danny’s slow-motion attempts to stop Derek while he lines up his victim. Kaye’s decision to film it in black-and-white only adds to its gritty realism. Norton’s performance earned him his second Oscar nomination in a film that, while aggressively broad in its morality tale, still manages to make an impact.
The happy story of a group of bunnies based on the novel by Richard Adams and adapted for the screen by Martin Rosen is far from a child’s animated film. Watership Down follows a world with a culture and mythology all its own, where the rabbits worship a God named Frith who created the world. The action takes place in Sandleford, England, where a rabbit named Fiver has a vision about the world ending, encouraging Hazel, his brother, to ask the chief to evacuate the warren. After refusal, eight of the rabbits manage to escape, but lose one in the morning, leaving them without a female. Violet is the only female in the group, and the rabbit culture of Watership Down views them almost as a commodity. But the terror behind this moment is the sheer unexpected nature of it. They’re all relaxing and Fiver – the youngest, panicky rabbit – wakes up to watch a hawk swoop down from the sky and attack Violet. Mind you, this doesn’t happen in Richard Adams’ novel. Violet isn’t even a character in the novel. So this moment was conceived in addition to the already graphic nature of this animated film. There are lots of other dark, bloody moments dealing with these anthropomorphised bunnies, but this shock moment with a trickle down horror effect feels like the most unwieldy.
David Fincher’s filmography is phenomenal, with broad shifts between genres, but always with a signature style. After early gems like Se7en and Fight Club, Fincher was still working out the type of filmmaker he would be and the types of stories he wanted to tell. In 2007, he delivered what was at the time his cleanest, most complete film with Zodiac, a dramatization of the zodiac killer who stalked the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, based on the nonfiction novel from political cartoonist and novelist Robert Graysmith. Centering on Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his obsession with decoding the killer’s messages to the San Francisco Chronicle to the point that he forms a somewhat reluctant partnership with Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) as they continue to investigate, causing headaches for the police department, particularly Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who had been leading their efforts to find the killer. While Fincher’s brilliant focus on the investigation is what makes the film so compelling (the performances are fantastic), it’s the dark moments when he shows the unseen killer at work that drive the horror elements. There are three or four moments that could qualify here, but I’m going with the moment where a woman picks up a hitchhiker in the dark outskirts of San Francisco. He sits in the car, completely shrouded in darkness, and tells the woman that he will throw her baby out the window before he kill her. It’s one of the least enjoyable line readings in film history and it breeds disdain and fear in the pit of your stomach.
It’s a science fiction film that’s also a film noir. And it may be Ridley Scott’s best film, despite it being a flop when it came out. Blade Runner shows us dystopian Los Angeles in 2019, where the exo-world is kept afloat by replicants, which are android-type creatures manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. They are sent to other planets to do menial work, but a limited few escape and go into hiding is Los Angeles. Police officers are sent to find and “retire” them, including Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who takes the assignment despite his exhausted mind and body. Among the replicants is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), an agile, brilliant man with a penchant for poetry. Roy is aware that he has a shelf life, so he and his team go searching for the creators to force them to extend their lives. Meanwhile, Deckard is hunting them down. Roy finally arrives at the home of Tyrell himself, accompanied by eye designer Sebastian. He demands to be given a longer time on this planet, to which Tyrell confesses it isn’t possible. Roy confesses to some mistakes and poor decisions. Tyrell still views him as a great achievement and tells Roy he should be proud of himself. Roy kisses Tyrell and, well, ends his life in one of the mot graphic non-horror deaths of all time, long before “Game of Thrones” made it “cool.” It’s a menacing scene that shows the lengths Roy will go to in order to gain life, while at the same time adding a layer of pain and humanity to Roy that hadn’t yet been seen. He’s a replicant, but he still feels emotions, whether they are manufactured or not. Vengeance is driven by hatred and pain, both of which Roy possesses.