Amid the computer-generated blood and gore of today's slasher/torture/splatter cinema, there is what many call the golden age of supernatural-psychological horror.
‘Carnival of Souls’ (1962)
One of the first full-length departures into supernatural surrealism, “Carnival” follows the dreamlike path of a woman who survives a horrible accident, only to find that she can’t shake the souls of the damned. Creepy.
‘The Haunting’ (1963)
Arguably one of the greatest “haunted house movies” of all time, “The Haunting” is based on the Shirley Jackson novel, “The Haunting of Hill House.” It stars the incomparable Julie Harris and Claire Bloom who play off each other, and their fears, like nobody’s business. Delightfully scary black & white atmospherics, combined with a tight, smart screenplay, make this a first in many imitators through the decades.
‘The Eye of the Devil’ (1966)
The occult premise may sound tired today, but this is actually several years before “The Wicker Man” (1973). A man and wife (David Niven and Deborah Kerr) return to his ancestral homeland, a vineyard village that has seen better times. What they don’t realize is that the town needs a blood sacrifice to replenish the crop. Creepiness abounds with the appearance of a blond couple — played by David Hemming and the ill-fated Sharon Tate in her major film debut.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968)
Young, chic man and wife move to spectacular Manhattan apartment building that appears to be a bargain, but as it soon turns out, it is one of the devil’s own. When Rosemary (played by young Mia Farrow) gets pregnant, her life dissolves into a paranoid nightmare that leads to one masterful, diabolical climax, thanks to the artful eye of director Roman Polanski. This is one of indie director/actor John Cassavetes’ strangest roles, and guaranteed, you’ll hate him by the end of the film.
‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ (1971)
This horror classic could also be called “The Indomitable Vincent Price.” He absolutely owns this movie as the monstrous Phibes, who exacts revenge for the death of his beautiful wife. Bordering on the “slasher” sub-genre, the film is so fantastical that it comes off as a bad supernatural psychedelic headtrip nonetheless.
‘Wicker Man’ (1973)
The zenith of the supernatural conspiracy sub-genre, this is unbelievably portentous and surreal, made only more chilling by a masterful Christopher Lee. A young police officer travels to a remote Scottish isle to investigate a report about a missing girl. The townsfolk, who worship Celtic gods, are quirky and hostile, and won’t even acknowledge the girl exists. They mess with the poor policeman’s head — and the terrifying ending will most certainly mess with yours.
‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
This classic became the first in a long line of imitators because it had all the ingredients of a super-spooky story: angel-face girl is possessed by a demon invited via Ouija board, only for a Catholic priest beleaguered by doubt to step in for the save. While most newcomers have tried to outdo this film with fancy CGI and yuck factor (though it is hard to beat Linda Blair’s spinning head and projectile vomit), they always fall short of the pervasive feeling of dread, not to mention spectacular acting by Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow.
‘The Legend of Hell House’ (1973)
One of the many descendants of “The Haunting” trope, this one distinguishes itself because it is in fact based on writings by macabre master Richard Matheson. A paranormal team led by reliable horror actor Roddy McDowell descends upon a cursed, foreboding British manor to investigate the angry, twisted poltergeists who dwell there.
‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973)
This British thriller is plodding, sad and often times confusing. It’s also one in a series of movies of the period starring major box office stars and involving some sort of (a) black magic, or (b) good old-fashioned diabolical conspiracy. Here, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland team up as parents grieving over the loss of their daughter. They become the unwitting recipients of a psychic warning from the grave. But who is sending the message? The terrifying last scene is worth the investment.
‘The Omen’ (1976)
Only Gregory Peck could take what might have been a silly premise — the birth of the anti-Christ, complete with “666” scarred on a baby’s head, demonic nannies, and devil dogs — and turn it into a riveting horror-thriller. Peck and Lee Remick play Mr. and Mrs. Thorn, who find out too late that their son Damien is the dark prophet foretold in the book of Revelations.
There is not a person alive who grew up in the late ’70s or early ’80s who did not jump 10 feet at the final scene, and feel entirely rattled for at least a few days after viewing. It was the fitting denouement to this Brian DePalma masterpiece in which a horrifying high school prank goes horribly wrong on prom night, and the entire senior class pays for it. This one was so good it was nominated for Academy Awards, including one for Sissy Spacek, who played the fragile Carrie White. No remake could do this original justice, which also starred John Travolta and Nancy Allen as the cruel tricksters, and Piper Laurie as Carrie’s fanatical mother. DePalma, frankly, nails it.
‘Mephisto Waltz’ (1976)
Alan Alda and Jaqueline Bisset star in this very strange and sometimes silly excursion into demonic soul-transference. The trippy dream sequences, maniacal characters and plot twist at the end, make up for an unbelievable, but diverting plot.
Released between two genre eras: the self-indulgent ’70s and the mass-produced gimmickry of the ’80s, Phantasm could go either way. Luckily, the grim atmospherics and the malevolent undertaker called “The Tall Man” make this tale about supernatural forces in a local mausoleum more scary than campy — demonic ewok minions aside.
‘The Shining’ (1980)
Stanley Kubrick takes one of Stephen King’s early novels and turns it into a cinematic masterpiece. The story of a little family that moves in as winter caretakers of an historic, yet isolated mountain hotel is just as terrifying for what you don’t see in the quiet empty frames, as what you do. Masterful performances by ham-fisted Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers and Daniel Lloyd as “Danny” make this one of the most effective “scary movies” of all time.
Author Clive Barker is known for his sadomasochistic themes, and this one is certainly full of them. Still, what works best here are the relentlessly evil villains, three Cenobites led by the demon Pinhead, who can’t discern between good and evil, pleasure or pain. Very dark and very gross, this ’80s flick stands out as one of the scariest of its time.
‘Prince of Darkness’ (1987)
A bit uneven, the first half of John Carpenter’s classic is where all the great, icky stuff lives — the radio disturbances and garish shadow figures permeating our protagonists’ dreams, the sudden gathering on the street of hostile urban vagabonds (Alice Cooper!), the quirky but earnest paranormal students who come to study ground zero of what turns out to be the coming of the antichrist in the basement of a run-down church, and of course Carpenter’s brilliant soundtrack. Carpenter knows how to deliver the goods, and even if the end falls apart a bit, the rest of the film is worth it.
‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)
Just when you thought psychological horror was dead in the grave, here comes M. Night Shyamalan with this taut, emotionally gratifying, often terrifying, thriller. A little boy (Haley Joel Osment) has been living among the presence of volatile spirits (unbeknownst to anyone) his entire life. Watching him navigate his adolescence, his relationship with his single mother (Toni Collette) and equally troubled therapist (Bruce Willis) is a heart-wrenching excursion. We see what he sees, and we learn what he learns. Creative, well-acted, and surprising, “Sixth Sense” rehabilitated the genre.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)
As Mike D’Angelo, a writer for the now-defunct “The Dissolve” wrote on the film’s 15th anniversary, “If there were some means of determining the most violent movie-related backlashes … it’s a fair bet that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ would rank somewhere near the top of the list.” That doesn’t mean that a whole lot of people who saw this breakthrough horror pastiche didn’t find it ultimately terrifying. The initial viral marketing shtick — that this was indeed a documentary about three college students capturing a local witch-legend — didn’t hurt either. With the lack of a visible boogeyman, this is one of those films that either made the hairs on your neck stand up, or not.
‘The Grudge’ (2004)
Based on the Japanese film “Ju-On,” the story of a house haunted by a dead wife and her young son was one of the most horrifying things to come out of the genre in the 2000s. The feeling of dread and the ghastly images just out of frame made for a well developed nightmare that spawned a number of underwhelming sequels and copycats.
‘Session 9’ (2006)
They don’t make ’em like this anymore, but here’s to hoping. The lack of gore but the constant suggestion of violence, the mystery, and the persistent feeling of active malevolence around every corner in this abandoned 19th century mental asylum, is worth a viewing. It made a quiet debut, but is gaining momentum as a supernatural-psychological cult classic. And for good reason.
WASHINGTON — Though it most flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, there are continual examples of a specific subgenre — psychological horror — which relies heavily on suggestion and blends the paranormal, paranoia and conspiracy.
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