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Lawrence Toppman’s 12 scary movie faves

By Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

If characters in Hollywood movies reflected the makeup of the American workforce, our nation would have considerably more serial killers than attorneys, doctors and teachers. Maybe that’s why all the Jasons and Freddies and Michaels who’ve slashed their way through horror films of the last 35 years don’t horrify me.

To frighten me, a movie has to offer a villain who’s unique, believable, has comprehensible motives – mindless slayers don’t count, except for the shark in “Jaws” – and someone or something that can potentially be defeated, avoided or escaped.

They don’t have to be gross or gory; those traits put me off. While I enjoy laughing during a horror film (“The Cabin in the Woods” made my top 10 list last year), I don’t end up feeling terrified.

So here’s my alphabetical list of 12 movies that made me shrink back into my seat (and sometimes leap out of it) with an anxiety I couldn’t shake.

“The Blair Witch Project” – Still the best of the “found footage” outings for me. The unfathomable ending to this videotaped, deadly walk in the woods by scoffing researchers initially put me off, but now I like the ambiguity.

“The Descent” – Everyone has a physical place that frightens him more than others; for me, spots below ground induce special discomfort. So this story of cave explorers stumbling upon subterranean subhumans freaks me out.

“The Exorcist” – Oft-parodied since its appearance 40 years ago, but powerful nonetheless. It’s hard now to recall the effect this story of Satanic possession had on Americans; watching it at 19, I felt the theater grow cold around me.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – I speak of the 1956 original, though the 1978 remake has a lot to recommend it (and a different ending). This attack on totalitarianism has a simple premise: You fall asleep, you lose the soul that makes you human.

“Jaws” – The best movie about a killer animal ever made. My parents saw it first, described every scene in detail when they got home, and I still got shock after shock when I went to see it myself. The excellent acting helps; few horror films have that.

“M” – The greatest serial killer film of all time, directed by Fritz Lang. Peter Lorre plays a quiet chap who murders children, though his compulsion disgusts and horrifies him. When the cops clamp down on criminal activity to find him, underworld gangs hunt him down themselves.

“The Manchurian Candidate” – The 1962 original, about a much-decorated serviceman brainwashed by Communists to shoot a presidential candidate so their dupe can take office. Angela Lansbury gives a mega-creepy performance as the shooter’s devoted mom.

“Metropolis” – My favorite science-fiction/horror movie of the silent era, also directed by Lang. In a city where underground workers toil to support the happy lives of rich people living above them, a humanitarian and a robot version of herself sow harmony and discord, respectively.

“Poltergeist” – Ghosts haunt a young family, seemingly in a friendly (or at least neutral) way at first and then by kidnapping the younger daughter. Without relying on many special effects or shocks, the movie establishes an unforgettably spooky atmosphere.

“Psycho” – Alfred Hitchcock’s portrait of a mother-obsessed hotel clerk driven mad by sexual attraction has inspired countless uninspired movies. What begins as a robbery caper turns darker and more bizarre, scene by scene.

“The Shining” – Stanley Kubrick’s last great film grows more creepy and clever each time I sample it. Jack Nicholson stars as an unhappy husband who goes mad as the caretaker of a remote hotel. Watch the entertainingly daft documentary “Room 237” to see conspiracy theorists’ takes on the picture.

“The Silence of the Lambs” – Hannibal Lecter, the most memorable cannibal in film history, squares off against a resourceful FBI agent nearly as smart and strong-willed as he. Inferior sequels and prequels don’t diminish the luster of this masterpiece.

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