Freddy Krueger: obviously scary. Hopping through nightmares, knife-fingers, it’s all there. Also obviously scary: Jason Voorhees. Seemingly unable to die, and again with the sharp stuff. These guys are patron demons of horror, killers who play by the movie-monster rules, whose scariness is telegraphed from the second you see them.
Sometimes, you don’t need something pointy coming at you to get your adrenaline pumping and your fingers clasped in front of your face. A movie can be plenty scary without a place in the Halloween horror canon. All it needs to do is worm its way into your head and make you really, really stressed about what’s going on. Maybe it’s a traditional psychological thriller. Maybe it’s an unsettling examination of the horror that lies within the human mind. Maybe it’s got Jake Gyllenhaal in it.
Here are 10 flicks guaranteed to raise your blood pressure, one way or another, if you’re looking to get into a scary mood off the bloody path.
“Rebecca” (1940): Come through, Daphne du Maurier! There are plenty of Alfred Hitchcock films that could land on this list — the whole lot could be Hitchcock, honestly — but the director’s adaptation of du Maurier’s gothic novel is perhaps my favorite. And brother, I watched a lot of Turner Classic Movies as a kid. Joan Fontaine stars as a young bride whose brooding new husband, Laurence Olivier, is still hung up on his dead first wife, the titular Rebecca. They move into Olivier’s scary mansion, where his housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), dresses like the ghost of a pilgrim and chips away at Fontaine’s peace of mind — like if Regina George had a severe middle part in her hair — in the name of the sainted Rebecca, whose legacy isn’t what it seems. A suffocating black-and-white thriller.
“Gaslight” (1944): The movie so good, they named a type of psychological manipulation after it (and the play on which the film was based). After a brief courtship, Charles Boyer marries Ingrid Bergman and they move into the house Bergman’s long-murdered aunt left her. She then wastes no time in immediately going insane. If you know what the word “gaslighting” means, you’ll know the next thing I write will be “OR IS SHE?” A good third of the chills in this moody thriller are courtesy a 19-year-old Angela Lansbury as that most underrated of movie monsters — a sinister housekeeper. Does this sound like “Rebecca”? I admit some of the plot beats are familiar, but Bergman’s terror-face has no peer, and the titular spooky lights will make you fear power outages forevermore.
“The Holy Mountain” (1973): I’m not calling this Alejandro Jodorowsky mind-trip a horror movie. I’m just saying it’s going to give you nightmares. Two words: cheetah breasts.
“Donnie Darko” (2001): This is my favorite movie, scary or not. While it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense, this trippy cult classic is like a sci-fi “Catcher In the Rye” set during Halloween. There are some genuinely disturbing elements — any time Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks at the camera during one of the sleepwalking scenes is worth a shudder, and Frank the Rabbit wears one of cinema’s greatest fright masks — but the general sense of unease and isolation is the real source of fear. Who hasn’t felt like the world is ending but no one else understood?
“Mulholland Drive” (2001): I have legitimately screamed and run out of a room and away from a movie precisely once in my life. It was while watching this David Lynch movie. Famously devoid of a coherent structure (I already said “David Lynch”), “Mulholland Drive” is a waking Hollywood nightmare (starring Naomi Watts) about two women chasing a mystery through an apartment, a diner, a surreal cabaret and the limits of what you thought you knew was true. But back to the screaming: That diner, man. You’ll know what I mean.
“The Prestige” (2006): Do you want to gleefully pop candy in your piehole as Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale one-up each other in the ways of late-1800s stage magic? Do you want to hear the only Michael Caine monologue you will ever need to break out at parties? Do you want to be slowly and then all at once horrified as the secrets of Christopher Nolan’s plot-as-illusion are revealed, showing the terrible lengths to which obsession drives men? Do you want to see David Bowie play Nikola Tesla?
“Black Swan” (2010): One college friend I talked to after seeing this cheerily remarked “I wish there had been more dancing!” True, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet of horrors has fewer piorouettes than a seasonal production of “The Nutcracker.” But you’re on this ride to watch Natalie Portman violently lose contact with reality in pursuit of a perfect performance, not lace up her pointe shoes. If that doesn’t sound compelling enough, allow me to tempt you with shards of glass, bleeding tutus, haunting doppelgangers, hallucinations of Mila Kunis and a brief but memorably jagged turn from none other than Winona Ryder.
“Gravity” (2013): For the movie-watching experience that says “You will not have the luxury of getting up to go pee because Sandra Bullock is never going to be safe.” Bullock’s astronaut spends pretty much all of this stunning Alfonso Cuarón film in various states of solo interstellar peril, just trying to survive, much less get home. You don’t need serial killers and demonic possession when the scariest monster of all … is space.
“Nightcrawler” (2014): If this isn’t a Halloween movie, then how come Jake Gyllenhaal spends the entire runtime of this movie looking like a straight-up jack-o-lantern? No, I take that back, because he literally plays a ghoul, a TV news stringer chasing footage of violence to sell to news director Rene Russo. Turns out his definition of “chasing” is decidedly more hands-on than most journalists. Gyllenhaal’s skin-crawling performance is a nocturnal fright.
“Good Time” (2017): Robert Pattinson has played a wizard and a vampire, and here he plays a demon of sorts. But there’s nothing supernatural about Ben and Josh Safdie’s unrelenting crime drama, where a small-time crook and definite sociopath played by Pattinson careens through New York like a toxic plague rat, infecting everyone he touches with misery as long as he can survive. A scene at a vacant amusement park late in the movie seals the deal as a film fit for October nail-biting. It was just released in theaters in August, so you’ll have to wait until next Halloween for a home viewing.