Based on a short story by Clive Barker, this genuinely disturbing fairy tale concerns an urban legend that haunts a poverty-stricken housing project in Chicago. As a grad student (Virgina Madsen) investigates the legend of Candyman, the hook-handed murderer who can be summoned by speaking his name into a mirror three times, Helen Lyle finds herself affected by the unending violence and desperation that grips Cabrini-Green. Effortlessly weaving in ideas involving class and race without aggressively preaching, director Bernard Rose crafts a mournful little picture where the underprivileged find it easier to blame their misfortunes on a ghostly hook-handed psychopath than accept the random misery and violence in their midst . Deftly dealing with the core power of urban legends (they only have power if you believe them), the film resists revealing the truth about the mythical Candyman until the last possible moments. Personified by a foreboding but sensual Tony Todd in a star-making-but forever typecasting performance, the world of Candyman is one where it's easier to fear the boogieman than to fear your neighbors.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
This one is Wes Craven's masterpiece, bar none, and easily the best of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. The picture works as a deconstruction of the slasher genre, an emotionally wrenching portrait of grief, and a genuinely terrifying piece of horror of its own right. On the surface, the movie basically unleashes horror icon Freddy Kruger into the real world, where he terrorizes the real actors (Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Robert Englund) and filmmakers (Wes Craven, Robert Shaye) who brought him to life. In a deeper sense, this film operates as Freddy Kruger's The Shootist and/or In A Lonely Place. Like those films (as well as Jim Carrey's The Cable Guy and Adam Sandler's Punch Drunk Love), Wes Craven takes an iconic and beloved figure and places him in a more real-world environment, where we are forced to face just how unpleasant he really is (and thus acknowledge our guilt for cheering on his prior killing sprees). Freddy Kruger isn't the least bit funny this time around, and he's not dispatching half-naked teenagers for our blameless entertainment. Kruger's murders here have devastating consequences that will ripple throughout the lives of our lead characters long after the credits role. Wes Craven's New Nightmare does something astonishing: it makes us fear and hate Fred Kruger for perhaps the first time.
Event Horizon (1997)
You won't find me calling this a great movie (even the director admits that it was heavily cut by Paramount), and it kinda falls apart in the last fifteen minutes. But for the first 75 minutes or so, Paul W.S. Anderson's haunted-house remake of Solaris scared the living daylights out of me in theaters. The cast is uncommonly top-notch for this kind of material (Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, , Kathleen Quinlan, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, and Richard T. Jones), and they bring a genuine conviction and believability to the opening expository sections. Once they are sent to retrieve the mythical Event Horizon, a ship that disappeared into deep space seven years ago, Anderson quickly establishes an anything-can-happen ethos which leaves the viewer as uneasy and confused as our heroes. The horrifying imagery, meant to antagonize the boarders with their darkest fears and most guilt-ridden moments, creates a genuine sense of discomforting dread. Again, it's basically a slickly-made b-movie sci-fi horror picture, but it's well acted, gorgeous to look at (it cost $70 million back when that was a lot of money) and scared the crap out of me on a greater level than any film I can remember seeing in a theater.
Halloween: H20 (1998)
This reboot/sequel to the ongoing Michael Myers saga isn't going to give anyone nightmares, and there's nothing particularly horrifying about it. But director Steve Miner does something exceedingly rare and surprisingly effective: he doesn't give the audience what it wants. After a blood-drenched prologue, the film takes its time getting to the promised mayhem. We know Michael Myers is on his way to find Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and we know that those around her are in grave danger. But then... nothing happens. This is not a standard slasher film where someone gets gruesomely bumped off every eight minutes. This one makes the audience wait, which in turn makes the audience sweat and squirm. Miner knows full well that anticipation of violence is what's scary, so by keeping most of the carnage in the last reel, he crafts an uncommonly suspenseful little chiller that does the 1978 original proud.
Joy Ride (2001)
This little-seen thriller stands alongside the original The Hitcher and Steven Spielberg's Duel as one of the scariest movies ever made about cars. This John Dahl-directed chiller concerns a college kid (Paul Walker) who set out on a road-trip to pick up a longtime crush (Leelee Sobieski), who needs a ride back home after recently having broken up with her boyfriend. Alas, he is forced to make a detour to pick up his trouble-making brother (Steve Zahn) out of prison. As the two brothers make their way to their original destination, Zahn decides to use his newly-purchased CB radio to play a cruel prank on a random trucker. Said trucker does not take kindly to the humiliation and sets out to make them pay. The result is a classic 'what would you do?' suspense tale, as the genuinely guilty young men try to survive retribution from an unseen driver (voiced with genuine sadness by Ted Levine) of an eighteen-wheeler. The film falters a bit at the very end, but it's a genuine bruised-forearm classic of the genre.
If backed into a corner, I'd probably name this one as the scariest (and best) horror film of the last decade. This emotionally-wrenching and uncommonly disturbing chiller comes from director Bill Paxton, who stars as a normal single father of two young boys. Everything is fine and dandy until he sees a vision of a religious nature and wakes up his children to inform them that God has chosen him to be a slayer of demons. Told mostly from the point of view of the oldest son (a devastatingly-good Matt O'Leary), this modern-day fable brings about timely issues of the nature and limits of religious devotion, and how our standards for sanity have changed over the centuries. It features fine work from all involved, and it shows how good an actor Matthew McConaughey can be when he's not slumming. It's also disturbing and scary as hell. It will leave you feeling thoroughly creeped out and not a little sad.
While The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are M. Night Shyamalan's best films, Signs is easily the scariest film he has yet made. It's also, ironically, his most straight-forward and/or conventional picture. He personally coined it his 'Wal-Mart film' after the artier and more personal Unbreakable was ill-received by mass audiences, but it's still a potent and often terrifying piece of work. Mel Gibson stars as a guilt-ridden former reverend, who still mourns the accidental death of his wife some years earlier. While technically an alien invasion shocker, the film feels more like the original Night of the Living Dead, with the entire world-shattering incident being seen entirely through the eyes of Gibson's family as they hide in their farmhouse (it spawned a whole sub-genre of 'through their eyes/ears only' horror films, such as Cloverfield, Pontypool, and Legion). The film has a far-too literal ending, with the concept of concrete predestination negating the whole 'crisis in faith' character arc, but Signs uses a minimalistic approach to terrify us with the slightest bit of physical evidence (a single finger poking under a door, a fuzzy image recorded at a child's birthday party) to peak our interest and our fear. Those involved (Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, M. Night Shyamalan) have since tumbled into artistic collapse or personal disgrace in the eight-years since, but Signs remains a high-water mark for all involved.
Dark Water (2005)
I have not seen the original, but the Walter Salles remake is an emotionally devastating character study that gets under the skin because the characters earn our sympathy. This too features a fantastic cast, with such pros as Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Dougray Scott, Pete Postlethwaite, and Camryn Manheim grounding this spook story in a reality that is as frightening as any ghost. The story revolves around Dahlia (Connelly), who rents a somewhat slummy apartment after winning custody of her young daughter in a bitter divorce. Soon the apartment begins to suffer inexplicable water damage, along with the usual ghostly visions and sounds. Is the apartment haunted? Is her ex-husband trying to scare her into taking action that would help him regain parental rights? Or is Dahlia's family history of mental illness finally catching up to her? All three seem equally plausible and equally frightening possibilities, and that's not even counting the teens outside her complex who always seem to be watching and leering. The film works because Salles makes the everyday world of a working-poor single mother every bit as frightening and exhausting as dealing with the supernatural.
Okay, so this Mike Judge cult item isn't exactly a horror film, but anyone who has seen it knows full well how terrifying it is. Lucas Wilson stars as an average man, frozen in 2005 and reawakened 500 years later. To his shock, he discovers that not only is he now the smartest man on Earth, but humanity's collective intelligence has sunk to a level where they cannot even provide for their own existence. While technically a comedy, the film is both hopelessly chilling (there is no real way out for the doom humanity finds itself in, nor any humane way to prevent it) and uncommonly bold in pointing the finger directly at us. It reeks of studio interference, and it's not really all that funny, but Mike Judge's Idiocracy is one of the scariest films ever (barely) released by a major studio.
The Mist (2007)
This may be the most out-and-out frightening Stephen King adaptation ever released into theaters, in the same year that also saw the wonderfully scary/funny 1408. Directed by Frank Darabont, this genuinely plausible horror show concerns a couple dozen small-town folk trapped in a grocery store as the town (and the world?) is besieged by horrifying creatures of all shapes and sizes that just show up and start devouring those in their path. The actors (Thomas Jane, Andre Braugher, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, William Sadler) keep the material grounded as the film eventually becomes a meditation on how fear leads to religious extremism. Toss in some truly spine-tingling, horrifying imagery (the monsters are really scary folks, be it in color or the black and white version available on DVD/Blu Ray), plus one of the most obscenely-grim endings in cinema history, and you have the makings of a genuine horror classic.
And that's a wrap for this year. There are several worthy pictures that almost made the list (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Descent, etc), but I had to limit it somehow. I'm sure I left off a favorite or two of yours, so let's have at it in the comments section.