As fans, we tend to be heavily nostalgic toward the horror films we grew up watching. We still love them and we appreciate the craft that went into them, especially some of the true technical masterpieces. But the movies that introduced us to the genre will never be as scary to us as adults as they were when we were children.
Even when we go back and discover a hidden gem from the ‘70s and ‘80s that we may have missed, they’re usually not that scary to us. Times change, filmmaking styles change and people changed. What terrified an audience in 1986 might not have the same effect in 2016.
But there are, of course, always exceptions. There are some classics from the ‘80s that still get under the skin, some that still even retain their power to terrify. Keep in mind, of course, that art is subjective and that what scares me might not scare you. Even having said that, though, I find most of the selections here pretty hard to argue with.
Poltergeist is pretty much the essence of scary. There are so many frightening elements to it. It’s not just the clown, or just the tree, or just the swimming pool, but all of these things. Each of them still have an impact years later. I think it’s pretty fascinating that while so many felt traumatized by it as kids, many felt traumatized by completely different scenes. For many people, the clown did it, for others it was the face melting. Poltergeist will always be the perennial proof that a feature doesn’t need to be rated R to be horrifying.
Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is one of my favorite novels. The book is absolutely terrifying. The movie misses a lot of the key elements in the process of adaptation. But I have to admit that it hasn’t lost many scares over the years. With a combination of the atmosphere, gruesome Dick Smith makeup and the most jump scares this side of Insidious, Ghost Story is sort of underrated for how scary it really is.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Speaking strictly to the original film here, I have to admit that after seeing it easily well over 100 times in my life, A Nightmare on Elm Street is still truly creepy. Freddy may have gotten to be a funnier presence in the later entries but in the original he is damn scary. The opening kill is brutal and still one of the most horrific in the genre’s history. All the scenes with Tina in the body bag (props forever to what Amanda Wyss put up with while filming) are haunting.
The effects hold up. Most of them hold up ridiculously well. People watching it for the first time in 2016 will still wonder how those were pulled off, but the effects aren’t why it’s still scary. It’s scary because the premise is horrifying and because all of the paranoia that goes into the story can still be felt and still feels completely relevant. Nobody trusts each other, and it’s not about learning to trust one another. The creature is amazing, but nothing is scarier than a monster that can look like anyone and completely strips you of your faith in the people around you.
Some people don’t consider it a great adaptation—I, however, think that it is—but Pet Sematary is genuinely one of the scariest horror films ever made. It’s a deep morality play about accepting death. What I love so much is that it starts out with a parent attempting to explain death to a child, to get them to understand it, but then peels back the hypocrisy of the fact that almost no one truly accepts mortality when confronted with it. Then you add on top of that things like Church, Pascow, and of course Zelda. Zelda, who terrorized my generation probably more than any other character, with less than three full minutes of screen time.
The Evil Dead
I know most people today see The Evil Dead as something unintentionally funny. It doesn’t work for everyone, I get that. I think it also has to be taken into account that most people who watch Evil Dead for the first time now are trying to laugh at it because they’re familiar with Army of Darkness or now even the TV series. But to me, it’s still the “ultimate experience in grueling terror.” The isolation of it, the whole look and design of the possessed friends, the insanity that builds and builds as it goes, the pencil scene, Linda’s nursery rhyme… it’s all genuinely unsettling.
Even as a kid, Child’s Play scared me much more before I saw it than after. Because I’d built up Chucky in my head as this ultimate evil thing. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do see, because it lets your imagination run wild. For this very reason, though, I think the first 45 minutes are really, really scary. I show it to people now and they still get scared by parts. It’s really unnerving to just have Chucky sit still and maybe move his eyes just a little bit. The scene in which Karen Barclay realizes the doll’s been moving around without batteries is still amazingly well crafted and tense.
Peter Medak’s The Changeling is one of the scariest haunted house movies ever. The séance scene is classic. There are so many scares that harken back to The Haunting, creating a sense of dread and unease with nothing more than simple sound design. But it also features what I think is the most effective scare in any ghost movie, and that’s the scene where George C. Scott finds a ball bouncing down the steps from nowhere and, being fed up with the occurrences in the house, drives the ball away and throws it off the bridge. Satisfied, he arrives back at the house only to open the door and find the ball bouncing down the steps again, dripping wet. Scenes like that require nothing to be horrifying, and for that, they’re unbeatable.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Henry will never not be scary because Henry will never not feel real. Michael Rooker has gone on to play several other intense characters, most famously Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead, but he never topped the psychotic coldness, instability and general dread captured within this character. You never know what to expect from him. I think that’s part of what makes him so unnerving. Somehow it’s actually scarier to not know whether someone is going to kill you or not.