14. Open Water (2003)
Like many films on this list, details of Chris Kentis’ psychological horror film has its basis in reality. Open Water was inspired by the unfortunate true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who in 1998 went to the Great Barrier Reef with a scuba diving group called the Outer Edge Dive Company.
The Lonergan’s were unintentionally left behind due to a lax dive-boat crew––they didn’t take an accurate headcount. In Kentis’ film the Lonergan roles go to Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan as Daniel Kintner and Susan Watkins, whose scuba-diving vacay in the Caribbean leaves them alone in shark-infested waters.
Kentis reaps maximum effect with a minimum of means as Daniel and Susan fight for their lives in a visceral, dread-inducing survival saga. As their hopes for survival dwindle, and the odds anyone even knows they’re gone seem ostensible, Open Water plays on primal fears and some serious intensity.
13. The Entity (1982)
This early 80s shocker from Sidney Furie (The IPCRESS File) is based on “The Entity” by Frank De Felitta, a supposedly fact-based inquiry into the 1974 Doris Bither case. The Bither character is renamed Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) in the film, a single mother who is attacked and raped by an invisible force, like an incubus.
Terrified and questioning her sanity, Carla begins therapy with a specialist (Ron Silver) who is determined to help her and is of the belief that Carla’s difficulties aren’t supernatural but self-inflicted, psychosomatic, and rooted in her traumatic past.
This supernatural suspense film deals with some difficult and controversial ideas, and the sexual nature of Carla’s experiences are upsetting and unnerving but Hershey’s performance makes it worth the while. The Entity gets added props from filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who considers it one of the scariest movies of all time, adding that “the banal settings, the California-modern house, accentuate the unnerving quality.”
12. Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film stars Guy Pearce as Leonard, a man driven to bring whomever murdered his wife (Jorja Fox) to justice, or a close approximation thereof.
The rub, and there’s always a rub in a Nolan picture, is that Leonard is stricken with a form of short-term amnesia, anterograde amnesia, that causes him short-term memory loss and the inability to form new memories. His addled memory is aided by Polaroids, notes, and tattoos as our hero tries to track down the lousy leads he has and figure out WTF happened to his wife.
Are Leonard’s mysterious “friends” Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) be trusted? Can Lenny even trust himself? Memento takes relish in revealing that Leonard’s insights may all be totally discredited if he’s the bad guy. Or is he? Memento is all gimmick, but Nolan’s fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
11. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In 1999 The Blair Witch Project became a huge box-office hit and a surprise critical success for the writer/director/editor duo of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez whose modest and ultra-low budget found footage supernatural psychological horror film would launch a fairly successful franchise and countless imitators, too.
The film tells the story of three luckless student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard) who hike in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994 to film a documentary about a spooky local legend, the Blair Witch. The students are never seen again but their video and audio equipment are discovered a year later and the recovered footage is what makes up the film.
The DIY aesthetic and personable performances add to the atmosphere and gimmicky nature of the film, the clever marketing of the film––it became a viral phenomena––give The Blair Witch a creepy, believable, campfire fright, making it an imaginative and effective experience. But be warned, for all the shaky camerawork, some Gravol is strongly suggested.
10. From Hell (2001)
Smartly adapted from the brilliant graphic novel by Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore, the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society) offer gripping and stylish thrills in this glimpse into the murders and investigations into Jack the Ripper.
Scotland Yard’s Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) is a sympathetic police officer, with a weakness for opium and absinthe, tasked with investigating the murders in the gaslit streets of 1888 London. Of course, the real-life Jack the Ripper was never revealed, and here some artistic license is employed as several of the theories of his identity are dissected and detailed.
While the abundance of gore and horror movie motifs may turn off some viewers, the Hughes brothers offer such formalism and atmosphere that From Hell is a lush, forcible retelling of a familiar and frustrating tale of murders unsolved.
9. Blow-Up (1966)
Director Michelangelo Antonioni became an international filmmaking sensation with this satirical strike on the swinging 1960′s; fashion, music, sexuality, social mores, modern sophistication, ennui and emptiness.
Blow-Up centers on oversexed mod London fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings). His photographs are a strange mélange of artful vérité compositions of transients and migrant workers or chic fashion models whom he seems to hold in contempt.
While hungrily snapping away at a park Thomas finds himself drawn to a couple, an older man and a much younger woman (Vanessa Redgrave), whom he photographs rather intrusively, drawing the ire of the woman, Jane, who ends up dogging his trail in pursuit of his film.
With a thriller-style hook, Thomas slowly begins to analyse his photos in the park which more and more take on a sinister slant. Is that a gunman lurking in the foliage? Is that a corpse in the undergrowth? As his photos develop and his paranoia takes hold it seems more and more likely that Thomas has captured a crime on camera.
Antonioni’s portrait of a society self-absorbed and overrun with giggling groupies, impassive audiences, and Discordian performance artists amongst others, makes for a fascinating, troubling and beguiling mystery where voyeurism intersects with uncertainty, and answers are elusive and eccentric at best. A classic that will have you uncertain if Thomas didn’t perhaps make the whole thing up. Huh?
8. The White Ribbon (2009)
Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s allegorical story of simmering evil in pre-WWI Germany focuses on a small Protestant peasant village, Eichwald, ruled by a triumvirate of influential men: the town doctor (Rainer Bock), the local pastor (Burghart Klaussner), and the baron (Ulrich Tukur). The strict social order is slowly and eventually skewered as a series of shocking and violent events unfold against both the patriarchs and the puritanical townspeople.
The White Ribbon may fail to provide a guilty party didn’t stop it from taking the Palme D’or at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival or the FIPRESCI Grand Prix awarded by the International Federation of Film Critics that same year, and it shouldn’t stop you from witnessing this riveting and haunting masterpiece. And given the current American political climate under Trump, this penetrating examination of sprouting fascism may contain added and upsetting emphasis.