There was a girl at my summer camp whose parents specifically requested she be removed from our group any time we decided to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Given that Alexander Camp’s movie library was fairly limited, this was something that happened at least twice every summer, usually on rainy days. To tell you the truth, I envied her. She got to flee to the arts and crafts room while the rest of us were tormented by the warped 1970s vision of Roald Dahl’s much less threatening book.
Sure, seeing Gene Wilder’s sweet crooning of “Pure Imagination,” juxtaposed with the gold ticket holders enviably gorging on sweets was always pleasurable, but there are moments in the film where eye-closing is not uncommon: the acid-trip boat ride on the chocolate river, the ominous punishments the kids received, and the oompa-freaking-loompas. I’d throw in a topical Snooki joke here, but I’m sure they’ve all been done before. When I finally read the book in the fourth grade and learned that those green-haired orange freaks were actually unassuming pygmies, they lost much of their repugnance, but the oompa-loompas — and their songs — made for many childhood nightmares.
Most of the movies that I consider terrifying are actually not meant to be scary, not in the horror/slasher/zombie/non-Twilight vampire sense. Instead, they cover more realistic themes. For example, the dangers of excess always make for intimidating subject matter.
Kids is the kind of movie you should watch if you’re looking to abstain from sex for a significant period of time, because of how sad and pointless and dangerous it makes sex seem. Requiem for a Dream has the same effect for heroin. I watched that one with a straight-edge friend, and you can only imagine how he took it. Then Thirteen is kind of a middle-ground between the two, but more angsty-teen-girl-centric and with less lethal drugs.
For a deeper terror, go for Michael Haneke. Few directors employ shock value as unforgivably as the Austrian. He does terrible things to his subjects, and he never explains why, which just adds to their terribleness. In Funny Games, an idyllic family of three is tortured by two seemingly idyllic young men in an idyllic lake house for no purpose other than to call out audiences on their love of torture porn. Choose the original German version over the American; the actors are less obviously attractive and therefore more human. Haneke’s Caché isn’t as bloody. In it, a couple is anonymously tortured with mysterious packages — mostly voyeuristic videotapes of their home — and the tension and paranoia builds in a slow burn. Ultimately, the characters are not destroyed by their unknowable tormenter; they destroy themselves.
And I’ve never had a movie-going experience quite like Children of Men. I saw it in the theater and spent much of the two hours gaping at the screen in front of me. I would have been embarrassed by this had I not turned around to see my male best friend clutching a hand to his own mouth at the catastrophe in front of us. Nothing terrifies me more than a government gone haywire, and that’s a theme covered in many equally frightening dystopian films besides this one; Brazil, V for Vendetta, and The Handmaid’s Tale (which was a much scarier book) all come to mind and are just as creepy in their own way. Children of Men stands out to me for the tense few minutes when Clive Owen and his band of merry infertility fighters enter the Bexhill refugee camp. Alfonso Cuarón intentionally uses Abu Ghraib and Holocaust imagery to show how even a supposedly civilized country can go so askew. But mostly, Children of Men is terrifying because it was so feasible. While it may be far-fetched that everyone in the world would simultaneously become sterile, it’s not hard to imagine a different situation that would turn human beings against each other in such a disgusting manner. Children of Men is scary because it made me feel scared. What would I do if I was desperate to protect myself, and others, from a violent death? Who the heck knows.
And while we’re at it, let’s just add anything Holocaust, or genocide, related to this story. Fewer things are more terrifying than that.