Horror is in the eye of the beholder.
This thought first occurred while I was enjoying a ham sandwich during a screening of Rob Zombie’s carnage-filled 2007 “Halloween” remake.
I’d seen so many horror films by then, as a movie critic, that fake gore no longer registered. And “jump” scares that provoked screams from fellow viewers left me unmoved.
True horror, experience had taught, does not shock. It insinuates. It follows the viewer from the theater and into the parking garage, where shadows that weren’t noticeable before the film suddenly seem ominous.
The feeling can last a night, a month, or forever. (Cue organ music).
In honor of Halloween, here are five chilling films – movies that penetrated even my horror-film-jaded psyche – available for home viewing.
“The Exorcist” (1973): Some advice, for the kids: Wait until you’re 17 (the legal age to be able to see this R-rated movie alone) and then add a couple of decades for good measure. It worked for me. Years of seeing head-spinning, pea-soup-spewing parodies of Linda Blair’s performance as a possessed girl cushioned the impact of the real thing. Otherwise, this film, which unlike most horror movies features smart characters who make thoughtful decisions, might have been too plausible-seeming to bear.
No one in “The Exorcist” runs headlong into danger or does anything to provoke the entity to take possession of the girl. Yet awful things happen anyway, and that’s terrifying. Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray
“Black Christmas” (1974): This Canadian film about a madman hiding in a sorority house is considered the first modern slasher film. Compared with the cheapie flicks that followed, it’s a masterpiece of direction, acting and production design.
Margot Kidder brings bad-girl fire to her heavy-drinking sorority-sister character. Director Bob Clark (best known, incongruously, for “A Christmas Story” and “Porky’s”) skillfully interweaves creepy scenes involving the killer upstairs – sometimes shooting from his mouth-breathing point of view – with warm scenes of holiday cheer below.
As Clark’s camera moves from a long shot of the house to a tight shot of an attic window, “Christmas” reveals one of the most troubling images in horror-film history. DVD (be sure it’s the 1974 version, not the lame 2006 remake).
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984): Movie audiences, schooled by late 1970s and early ’80s films such as “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night,” were teen-horror veterans by the time “Nightmare” arrived. But when Freddy Krueger, while chasing his first victim, suddenly grew arms long enough to span the width of an alley, all bets were off. This infusion of the supernatural into the slasher film marked the first signs of the ingenuity that filmmaker Wes Craven, who died in August at age 76, would show for the rest of his career. Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray
“The Strangers” (2008): Filmmaker Bryan Bertino claimed this story of a couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) terrorized by home invaders was inspired by a true story – a stretch worthy of Freddy Krueger.
But his movie still plays as highly realistic, and that’s why it unnerves. The family vacation home where the couple is spending a few days, with its dated 1980s appliances and design features, looks like vacation houses in which we all have stayed. Bertino adds, to this backdrop of authenticity, almost painterly shots of masked invaders, standing still and silent within the frame, visible to us but not yet to their victims. *Shiver.* Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray
“The Babadook” (2014): Relentlessly tense, then acutely horrifying, this Australian film rattles the viewer as much as a mysterious, insistent presence in her house does an emotionally exhausted widow and mother (a raw Essie Davis). Young actor Noah Wiseman, as the monster’s main target, looks so authentically terrified that you’ll hope the young actor received plenty of hugs between takes. Then you wish for your own hugs. Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray