So far, my list has included The Thing (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and Psycho (1960). Now we jump ahead to 1975 for the scariest movie ever made by one of America’s best filmmakers of the past century. It is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, Jaws. The script is terrific, the ensemble acting is wonderful, the editing is award-winning, and the fear factor in the film mounts steadily, at its own pace, bringing you to white-knuckled near-hysteria by the final scenes. A dread inevitability starts to take hold about midway through, and you are not certain that anyone will survive this experience—including the audience.
Spielberg did some nice Hitchcock homages, like the tracking shot of Roy Scheider as he’s sitting on the beach in a chair and he spots a shark fin in the shallow waters. I love that the shark has its own musical theme, which precedes its appearances just to let you know it’s time to be scared again. And when “Bruce,” the name given to the mechanical shark that played stand-in for the great white, is finally seen in all of its horrific glory and enormous length, you shrink back in your seat and are convinced that this brave, mismatched trio of would-be heroes are all going to die. Then you laugh when Roy Schieder reacts to it by saying, “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.” But it’s gallows laughter. (It’s also one of my all-time favorite lines of movie dialogue.)
Jaws, too, has the classic gothic horror set-up of a trapped group being knocked off one at a time. The first time I saw the movie I was convinced that they would all die—and I knew better, having read the novel. How scary was the film? People stayed away from beaches that summer in droves. And the summer after that.
Next up on my list is another film that uses the classic gothic horror set-up, only this time in outer space. It is Ridley Scott’s best film, the brilliant Alien from 1979. This movie is scary from the opening shots of the deep-space mining and cargo vessel Nostromo waking up, along with its crew, as it nears a planetary destination. Not only is the creature in this movie scary, it gets scarier as it grows—which it does, of course, by steadily eating members of the crew.
Part of Scott’s tour de force is how he handles the Ripley character, played by Sigourney Weaver. Despite the presence of macho men on board the ship, it is Ripley who ultimately saves the day, defeats the bad guy and gets to go home. But first, of course, she must conquer her fear; then she must face up to the monster. Then, just when you think “it’s safe to go back in the water,” (a phrase still in the lexicon, thanks to Jaws), when Ripley is at her most vulnerable, the monster reappears and has her trapped in an even smaller space, with nowhere to run. She must defeat it with her steely nerves and keen mind.
And then it’s over. And Ripley goes back to sleep. But you know that she will have bad dreams. And she does.