Criterion Corner #17: The 10 Scariest Movies in the Criterion Collection

Criterion Corner #17: The 10 Scariest Movies in the Criterion Collection

Oct 29, 2012

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The Criterion Collection doesn’t get enough credit for celebrating horror classics and legitimizing some of the most terrifying films ever made, helping eerie obscurities and delirious B pictures to earn the enduring respect of today’s cinephiles. In fact, it has been doing it from the very beginning -- when Criterion first began producing DVDs, it immediately made it clear that it wasn't taking any prisoners, releasing films like Shock Corridor, Flesh for Frankenstein and The Silence of the Lambs alongside Seven Samurai and other similarly ennobled classics. If you run your finger along the spines of Criterion’s first 25 DVDs, the closest thing to a normal drama you’ll touch is Sid & Nancy. There’s nothing prosaic to be found amongst that tone-setting first batch, but you will find a David Cronenberg film about twin gynecologists and the woman who forces them to -- and I’m quoting from Criterion’s official synopsis -- “Descend into a whirlpool of sexual confusion, drugs and madness.” I know that the company has a stuffy reputation, but it’s not as if we’re dealing with Chariots of Fire, here. And I haven’t even mentioned that spine #17 is Salo -- releasing Pasolini’s infamously vile satire when you’re trying to build a widely appealing home video brand is sort of like releasing termites when you’re trying to build a Jenga tower.

Given that it has now released almost 650 films on DVD and Blu-ray, it’s not hard to imagine that you could put together one hell of a Halloween horror-thon exclusively from the films that have been stamped with the Criterion “C.”  But in doing so, you’d probably find that horror is a fluid concept, and that the most unshakable scares tend not to jump out with the screech of a violin so much as they gradually sink under your skin and squeeze your bones in the middle of the night. Sure, for the true spirit of Halloween you’d do well to stick with the eerie likes of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, but as the depth and diversity of Criterion’s lineup makes mercilessly clear, sometimes the most terrifying horror films don’t even identify themselves as such, eschewing ghouls and ghosts and undead Asian preteens in order to tell the kinds of stories that could happen in a world that is more recognizably similar to your own. Halloween only lasts for a night (or, when it’s on a Wednesday, a week), but for movie lovers the horror lasts all year, hiding in every corner of the world’s most important classic and contemporary cinema.

And so, inevitably, here’s a somewhat alternative look at the 10 most terrifying films in the Criterion Collection (we’ll just consider Carnival of Souls to be the first one). Hold on to your butts.


Broadcast News (dir. James L. Brooks) 1987

So far as I’m concerned, James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News is pretty much a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, but instead of Mia Farrow gestating the reincarnation of Satan, it’s Holly Hunter presiding over a nightly news show that’s being possessed by a blind lust for ratings. The end of the world is still at stake, but this time it’ll be measured in Nielsen numbers instead of brimstone (and scored by some sweet synth action). 

Albert Brooks plays Aaron Altman, a brilliant TV newsman whose love for the truth is only equaled by his love for his director, a spritely spitfire named Jane Craig. Aaron aspires to anchor the network’s flagship newscast, but he just doesn’t have the kind of face that American wants to look at at every night. Tom Grunick is beautifully telegenic, but he’s a functional moron who’s managed to seduce Jane despite his oafishness. Aaron sees the future of American journalism being held hostage by ratings, and -- believing Tom to be the Prince of Darkness -- he bluntly tells Jane exactly what he thinks about her new crush: “What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No, he will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing. He will just bit by little bit lower standards where they’re important. And he’ll get all the great women.”  

It’s a funny line, and the conversation that follows is oh so agonizingly romantic, but Aaron isn’t kidding around (and neither is James L. Brooks). The idea that responsible journalism is being subsumed by show business is as readily apparent now as it was prescient in 1987, the sacred tasks of the Fourth Estate abandoned in the name of scare-mongering, punditry and whatever the hell Greta van Susteren is. When good satire becomes self-evident, that’s when you know to be really afraid (although these days good satire is how many of us get our news, in the first place). Substance is on the brink of being extinguished by flash, and the scariest thing about Broadcast News is how the movie just sort of gives up at the two-hour mark, reasonably suggesting that even the likes of Jane and Aaron are powerless to stop it.

Alternatives: Ace in the Hole, The War Room, Tanner 88


People on Sunday (dir. Robert Siodmak) 1930

When it was first released in February of 1930, People on Sunday was probably about as terrifying as a Matisse painting. It plays like a Weimar-era Levi’s ad, lightly narrativized and extended to feature length. Cowritten by Billy Wilder and directed by Robert Siodmak, People on Sunday is an impossibly idyllic portrait of five young people enjoying a weekend in Berlin -- they go to the beach, they eat a picnic, they make love, and they talk about getting together to do it all again on the following Sunday. But you should never take the “following Sunday” for granted.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, People on Sunday plays like the most suspenseful movie that Hitchcock never made, the ultimate “bomb under the table” film -- in this scenario, the bomb is World War II, and the table is life as we know it. Shortly after the film was released, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and Sundays became very different for most of the civilized world. A contemporary viewer watching People on Sunday sees the first act to the greatest horror story ever told, all smiles and sex before the 20th century’s ultimate monster shows up to ruin the party. It’s the flip side of Resnais’ Night and Fog, like the black box recordings from a doomed plane, frivolous chatter transformed by tragedy into testament.

Alternatives: Night and Fog, Hearts and Minds


The Woman in the Dunes (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara) 1964

There’s being trapped in a relationship, and there’s being trapped in a relationship. To that end, The Woman in the Dunes is like Sleepwalk with Me, if instead of Mike Birbiglia it was narrated by Jean-Paul Sartre. Adapted from a typically warped Kobo Abe novel, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s masterpiece begins with an entomologist named Junpei trawling across some remote sand dunes in search of rare insects. When he misses the last bus home, the local villagers lead Junpei to the only available room in town, which just happens to be at the bottom of a ladder that drops into the deepest dune around, at the bottom of which lives a ferociously oversexed young widow. It all seems like a pretty great deal, until Junpei wakes up the next morning to find that the ladder is gone, and he’s stuck down there, forever. 

Good news: Sex! Bad news: Living in a pit of waterless purgatory. What a dilemma! And one I think we’ve all had to face at one point or another. Shot in luminous black and white like a commercial for a perfume that reeks of death, The Woman in the Dunes only grows more erotic as it becomes increasingly terrifying. The imagery is unforgettable, but the film lingers under your skin because it gets sand in all the worst places, vividly illustrating how quickly we can adapt and dispose of the things and people who seem to give our lives their meaning. 

Alternatives: Scenes from a Marriage.


Burden of Dreams (dir. Les Blank) 1982

Les Blank’s documentary about the insane four-year production of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo isn’t typically regarded as a horror film -- it can’t possibly be as scary to watch as it probably was to live (or fund). Nevertheless, for anyone who’s at the whim of their visions, Burden of Dreams is the kind of exhibit that can haunt for years on end, resurfacing like an acid flashback at the first signs of ambition. Sure, the fact that Fitzcarraldo was successfully completed (and is totally amazing) gives this story a happy ending that reflects the sublime perseverance of Herzog’s hero, but I can’t think of a more terrifying movie to watch before embarking on any kind of major endeavor, artistic or otherwise. Because at the end of the day, Burden of Dreams is an exaggerated riff on the perils you can expect to encounter whenever you try to do anything that’s irresistibly difficult. 

Yeah, your project probably won’t involve replacing a movie star who’s been diagnosed with dysentery, or politely requesting that local tribesman refrain from butchering your crazed lead actor, but undertaking anything of such magnitude will inevitably lead to moments that feel similarly insurmountable. This is what you’re in for. It’s enough to scare you into saying “screw it” and opting instead for a night on the couch with the Real Housewives of wherever. Even Miami. Yes, even Miami. 

Alternatives: 8 1/2, Crumb, Pina.


Bigger Than Life (dir. Nicholas Ray) 1956

James Mason’s screen persona was often so stiff that it was hard to tell if he was an actor or a part of the set, but he wasn’t simply the Cam Gigandet of yesteryear. There was something dark and primal lurking under that stuffy facade, and even his most proper performances betrayed that split persona. He appeared to be the most ordinary man to ever step in front of a camera, but to see a James Mason movie is to spend two hours with Dr. Jekyll with your fingers crossed. But Mason was most effective when a filmmaker dared to puncture that surface and let the actor’s pressurized id leak out, like shooting holes into the bottom of a lifeboat. Unsurprisingly, Nicholas Ray got the very best of him, preying on Mason’s duality to create the cinema’s most frightening domestic monster.

In 1956’s Bigger Than Life, Mason plays Ed Avery, a hugely respectable family man suffering from agonizing bouts of pain. The doctors diagnose him with an arterial inflammation of some kind, and prescribe a (then-experimental) drug called cortisone that makes him feel invincible and dangerously delirious. Never mind the fact that cortisone is now practically a food group for most athletes, because Ray was just using it as a means to obliterate the madness of modern living -- if Douglas Sirk used a paintbrush, Nicholas Ray used a chainsaw. Avery is given a glimpse through the looking glass, a fractured peek through the dome, and he doesn’t take kindly to what he sees about the smallness of suburbia. Bigger Than Life brilliantly subverts Mason’s screen persona to suggest that even the best of us is skittering on the surface of a grandiose rage, but what makes the film so enduringly scary despite its increasing silliness  is that -- from beginning to end -- Ray only treats the symptoms, and never the disease. Ray understands something that contemporary riffs (i.e. Falling Down) never could: Change negates the power of a story like this, it needs a happy ending in order to make a difference.

Alternatives: All That Heaven Allows, Fists in the Pocket


The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton) 1955

The Reverend Harry Powell is certainly one of the scariest villains in film history, but at the same time he’s also a total cartoon. Indelibly played by Robert Mitchum in a performance so hammy you’re not sure if you should watch it or eat it for Christmas dinner, Powell is a child’s worst nightmare. A serial killer in the guise of a transparently twisted religious leader (with “LOVE” and “HATE” iconically tattooed across his knuckles, which is totally not insane at all), we meet Powell as he’s being released from his latest stint in prison, which ended with the discovery that his cellmate hid a big ol’ pile of money somewhere, and his two young kids may be the only living souls who know where it is. So Powell seduces the children’s mother, as you do, and begins pressing them to reveal the location of the cash. 

Charles Loughton, delivering what is widely regarded to be the most striking directorial one-off on record, renders Powell like the greatest Scooby-Doo villain there never was, casting severe shadows and falling down flights of stairs. Powell is indefatigable, hiding around every corner, under every bed, a man lit like a monster by the single-source genius of Stanley Cortez. He moves with the logic of a child’s nightmare, but he feels all too real and relentless to not be an ever-present threat. Reverend Harry Powell is every terrifying thing that’s waiting for little boys and girls in the adult world, but no one gets to choose when their childhood ends.

Alternatives: The Naked Prey, Corridors of Blood, The Haunted Strangler


Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini) 1975

Maybe the worst “food movie” ever made, Salo is a much easier film to describe than it is to endure. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final feature tells the simple story of four grotesque men in a Fascist-occupied corner of Italy towards the end of WWII, who move into a waterside castle and set up a kingdom for their debauchery. Eighteen youths are kidnapped and incarcerated in the castle, where their bodies are used as sport in the film’s downward spiral of libertine vice. It’s cruel to watch, but truly sinister in how easy it ultimately becomes to do so.

Pasolini recognized that casual evil is the scariest evil, and invariably also the most effective. Of course, that notion is much easier to sell historically than it is cinematically. Ninety-minute films -- which, by design, don’t allow for the same visceral thrills of typical horror fare -- seldom leave time for casual evil to take root and develop (hence, the slasher movie). But Pasolini’s anti-fascist orgy of human degradation is nonchalant in its debasement, numbing you with its horrors until they no longer horrify you, and that's when things really get scary. 

Alternatives: Island of Lost Souls, In the Realm of the Senses, The Ruling Class, Eating Raoul


Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James) 1994

Hoop Dreams has definitely aged a bit -- a risk incurred by any documentary about a generation of kids who worship Isaiah Thomas -- but for all of the hi-top fades and turquoise sweatshirts, Steve James’ landmark portrait of the American Dream is as urgent and frightening as ever. In fact, Hoop Dreams might be the only film scary enough to single-handedly double voter turnout. 

An epic portrait of two inner-city Chicago youths who hope that basketball will be their ticket out of the projects, Hoop Dreams captures lightning in a bottle, following its subjects for long enough to practically visualize how cyclical poverty and violence reduce the land of opportunity into an empty promise. You don’t need Steve James (or me) to remind you that such problems are endemic to this country, but it’s unspeakably petrifying to witness such a comprehensive overview of how broken the system truly is. Even (or especially) those for whom the film is more of a mirror than a window are likely to be petrified by the film’s scope -- if you make it through all three hours of James' epic chronicle and still don’t feel afraid, you simply haven’t been paying attention.

Alternatives: ...And the Pursuit of Happiness, Harlan County USA, Insignificance


Tokyo Story (dir. Yasujiro Ozu) 1953

Tokyo Story is routinely acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made (the directors surveyed in Sight & Sound’s most recent poll concluded that it is the greatest film ever made), but what often gets lost in the deserved swirl of accolades is something that’s at the heart of Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece. It’s accurate to label the film as “wise” or “wistful,” but perhaps the reason that people immediately reach for such flowery terms of appreciation is because it’s easier to reflect on the tragic truths of Ozu’s film than it is to confront them. In other words, Tokyo Story is “sad” when you’re able to keep it at a distance, when you’re able to watch it as a movie about the things that happen to other people. But Tokyo Story is unshakably chilling when you accept that it’s a movie about you, and everyone you know -- a movie about the things that you can see hiding under the bed, but are powerless to prevent. It’s a movie about... your parents coming to visit.

Yes, like all of Ozu’s films, Tokyo Story operates within a very ordinary milieu, its power derived from how the story pivots on common happenings and the modern strain on traditional relationships. A retired couple travel to Tokyo to see their children, only to find that their children have very little time for them -- Setsusko Hara, as their widowed daughter-in-law, is the sole family member to pay the aging visitors any mind. That’s just about all you need to know. Of course, Setsuko Hara is hardly Barbara Crampton when it comes to scream queens, but the unfailing earnestness of her performance forces you to take heed of everything she says, regardless of how severe her words might be. When one character rhetorically asks Hara’s character, “Isn’t life disappointing?” She answers famously: “Yes, it is.” So far as scary movies go, Tokyo Story makes Psycho look like Psycho II

Alternatives: Grey Gardens, Late Spring

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