Absolutely terrifying

By Aaron Allen and Chris Bellamy

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986)

Directed by John McNaughton

Forget about Jigsaw and Kevin Spacey’s milky-white bald killer in “Seven,” with their overly elaborate, metaphor-laden murder methods. The only way these guys accomplish their gruesome feats is with the invisible assistance of a hundred art directors and a grip named Steve.

The titular sociopath in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is the real deal. He looks like a normal guy with a normal job, but there’s just something…not right about him.

“Yeah, I killed my mama,” he says to his roommate’s sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). She unwisely listens to him with pools of sympathy in her eyes as he goes on to talk about how his mama was a whore, how she would bring home strange men and make young Henry watch. And then he stabbed his mama. Or did he shoot her? Henry’s not sure-maybe he’s mixing her up with the waitress he shot.

What makes “Henry” more disturbing than some glossy thriller in which Brad Pitt handsomely stoops over a stinking corpse is how Henry (Michael Rooker) does not have some righteous reason to explain his behavior-he simply kills.

“It’s either you or them,” he explains to his roommate, Otis (Tom Towles), who catches the killing bug, too. He and Henry buy a camcorder and videotape themselves raping and murdering a suburban family. They go home and watch the tape like porn.

We have no outside perspective to this-unless you count Becky, but her sweet and tragically misplaced love for Henry places her in the thick of things. The director, John McNaughton, and his co-writer, Richard Fire, offer only Henry’s world and nothing outside of it, which puts us in the uncomfortable position of trying to identify with a serial killer. Now that’s disturbing.


“Eraserhead” (1977)

Directed by David Lynch

When a newborn child cries, it’s the responsibility of the mom or dad to try to decipher those cries. Is the baby hungry? Does she need to be changed? Maybe the kid has a fever? Why doesn’t this thing come with instructions?!

That panic is at the center of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” a black-and-white, nightmarish pile-up of what happens when one unprepared father tries to raise a mutant child and-despite his desperate attempts-manages to do everything wrong.

The movie takes place in a dark, industrial city throbbing and humming with spirit-crushing menace like the shadowy backside of an old gas-powered stove. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a shy man with a high-rising wilderness of hair on his head-like Kramer’s do, but backlit to emphasize the wild frizz and matching nerves.

He and his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), have a baby who is best described as looking like that egg-headed, winged fetus thing on the cover of Sigur Ros’ “Agaetis Byrjun” album. Unwilling to take responsibility for her mutant child, Mary flees, leaving Henry to deal with the mewling creature.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg in this very, very bizarre movie. I haven’t even mentioned the dancing woman who lives in Henry’s wall furnace or the seductress across the hall who takes Henry to bed where, together, they sink into a steaming bog of blankets-literally.

This will all make perfect sense to anyone who’s ever seen a David Lynch film. “Eraserhead” is Lynch unfiltered-the purest connection to the man’s subterranean twists. He takes our fears and doubts and expands them into pustules that lurk beneath the skin.


“Session 9” (2001)

Directed by Brad Anderson

Something very bad happened at the abandoned mental hospital where an asbestos cleaning crew goes to work, but what that horrible event was and why it happened are never made entirely clear.

Some horror movies crash and burn on ambiguity, but Brad Anderson’s “Session 9” thrives on it. The cleaning crew-led by sad, taciturn Gordon (Peter Mullan) and practical, down-to-business Phil (David Caruso)-get along at first, but as the days go by, tensions rise.

Mike (Stephen Gevedon) discovers a box of reel-to-reel audiotapes in the basement-records of conversations between a doctor and a female patient with multiple personalities, one of them possibly deadly. Mike recalls a story to the others in which one of the hospital’s patients accused the doctors of raping her and involving her in pagan ceremonies. That, along with budget cuts, might have led to the hospital’s closure. No one seems to know for sure.

Hank (Josh Lucas) finds a stash of valuables hidden in the wall. We see what he doesn’t: That hole leads to the hospital’s morgue, where one of the body-sized drawers is open.

Phil’s paranoia is growing (or is he simply smoking more pot?) and Gordon hears a voice that “lives in the weak and the wounded,” as the voice itself says.

Maybe there are ghosts, but we don’t see them. What is clear is that the bad aura of the hospital is affecting the men and driving them to do unimaginable things to one another. The evil is insinuating here, slowly coiling its invisible tendrils around the legs of its victims before pulling them quickly down into madness. That slow burn is more unsettling than any ghost sighting.


“Madea’s Family Reunion” (2006)

Directed by Tyler Perry

I just had to throw this one out there. If anyone’s looking for a last-minute Halloween costume, you can’t go scarier than Grandma Madea, a pistol-packing, finger-wagging, wrestler-jawed protector of women’s rights…and the right of Tyler Perry to dress up in drag.

Forget about all the other movies I’ve talked about-“Madea’s Family Reunion” trumps them all with its disturbing blend of dopey melodrama, smelly fart jokes and stomach-churning values of forgiveness.

Would Tyler Perry forgive me for saying that his movies are pure crap?


“Freaks” (1931)

Directed by Tod Browning

It may seem cruel to consider a movie about circus freaks “scary,” but maybe that was Tod Browning’s point when he made this movie, which was eventually banned in the United Kingdom and swept under the rug stateside. What is so discomfiting about the film-a parable that pits inner beauty against outer deformity, and vice versa-is the way it uses typical movie elements (murder, romance, deception, theft) and sets them among dwarves, “human pinheads” and a variety of other so-called “freaks.” Browning shoves it right in our face, and the result-for better or worse-is uncomfortable and even terrifying.


“The Trial” (1962)

Directed by Orson Welles

I like a good horror movie, but generally speaking, they don’t “scare” me in the traditional way. They’re thrilling in other ways. But this one-one of Welles’ forgotten masterpieces, based on Franz Kafka’s allegorical novel-scared me to pieces. No, things don’t go bump in the night. Instead, Josef K. (Anthony Perkins of “Psycho” fame) wakes up innocently one morning only to find himself being searched, interrogated and arrested-and given no explanation whatsoever, only coy non-answers, his questions answered with other questions. It’s terrifying because you can imagine yourself in that situation and imagine the ambiguous horror of such an intangible fate-and because it takes bureaucracy, fascism and despotism to their utter extremes.

Welles, using a visual style that has been described as “baroque,” intensifies the story’s already foreboding events. The film’s bleak settings underscore what Josef K. comes to discover: There is no answer, no escape. “The Trial” is a frightening and surreal fantasy that somehow hits close to home-and it’s enough to make even the most levelheaded person feel a little (or a lot) paranoid.


“The Vanishing (Spoorloos)” (1988)

Directed by George Sluizer

Sluizer’s “The Vanishing” (not the awful American remake starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock) is disturbing by its very ordinariness. A husband and wife are on a road trip together, they stop at a gas station to fill up and grab a bite to eat?and then she’s gone. No trace, no evidence, no eyewitnesses. She just disappears. That’s haunting enough in and of itself, as is the husband’s years-long search to find his missing wife. But what is truly chilling is the infamous explanation of her disappearance (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it)-and the lengths to which her husband will go to understand it.

I will say this, without ruining anything, because this element is brought to the forefront so early in the film: There is another character introduced-we know he’s somehow involved but don’t know how or why. But eventually, at a slow, Hitchcockian pace, the revelations start coming. Once again, the film becomes scarier because everything that happens, and who is responsible, is normal and ordinary, something (or someone) you might see every day. Have fun on your next vacation.


“The Polar Express” (2004)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Now this is a truly nightmarish experience. Robert Zemeckis paints a vision of hell so terrifying, so bloodcurdlingly painful, that one can’t help but feel that his or her soul has been scorched upon finally escaping the film’s firm grasp. In the midst of a dark and perilous “North Pole,” creepy, dead-eyed, animatronic zombie freaks lurk around every corner, just waiting to unleash their ugly, wanton spirits upon your unassuming children. Take heed-for even when you feel you have escaped the worst of it, a digitally rendered Stephen Tyler will leap out at you, surrounded by a band of pedophilic elves and zombies, scaring the living piss out of you all over again, leaving as a vestige of your two-hour journey the kind of nightmare that will haunt you forever.


Ryan Perkins