The internet has become fascinated with the opinions of legendary film director Martin Scorsese. For a multitude of reasons, the musings of the Goodfellas director have enraptured and angered a whole host of film fanatics and online commenters. Whether it be his opinions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or why he’s continued to finance and produce the next generation of young filmmakers, it seems like so many people are waiting on bated breath to hear what this man thinks. The one area of critique that you might not think to look at Scorsese’s opinion on, however, is a genre that he has no direct ties to: that of horror.
While Scorsese has never directed an out-and-out horror film, he’s a cinephile through-and-through, who respects all genres to some degree. And being that Scorsese has been around the film industry since the late-60s, there’s a long written and oral history of his opinions on some of the best (and scariest) the horror genre has to offer. With such a luminary figure in the film world, his word may as well function as gospel: so when he says something is good, one should listen. So, in the spirit of holding up that mantra, here is a list of the 10 movies that were so good, they scared Martin Scorsese.
While its reputation may precede it, even the most hard-edged and effusive of horror fans can recognize the importance of Psycho in the scary movie canon. The Alfred Hitchcock classic has terrified and mystified audiences consistently ever since its release in 1960, even if the constant parodies and homages to the film have reduced its staying power somewhat. For people of a certain generation, however, Psycho was scarier than anything else they had seen up to that point: breaking convention and forming the archetype of the slasher genre in the process.
Psycho is, in part, about the exploits of mild-mannered, yet concerningly so, motel operator Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and the people who cross paths with him and his establishment. What makes it so scary is what happens within the confines of the motel — the horrors of which were like nothing audiences had ever seen up to that point. When asked about his opinion on Hitchock’s masterwork, Scorsese had this to say: “…you’re really, you’re taken down a path [in Psycho]. But, what’s great about it is that your expectations are taken and turned upside down.”
9 The Exorcist
Often cited as one of the scariest films of all time, William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece The Exorcist scared a lot more people than just Scorsese when it came out. It’s hard to fully describe how monumental the release of The Exorcist was: grossing the current-day equivalent of over $1 billion and launching a franchise of film and television that has continued into the 21st Century. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, the legacy of the film is colored by all of its controversies, influential aspects, and, of course, its ability to scare the hell out of almost everyone who saw it.
The Exorcist is about a young girl who suddenly becomes possessed by an evil spirit, which brings her mother to seek the help of two priests who promise they can remove the demonic presence from the girl. What ensues is a cavalcade of crassness, violence, and a lot of vomit and blood as the priests take it upon themselves to exorcise the demon from the girl, causing destruction and pain in the process. Scorsese is noted as saying (in reference to The Exorcist) that the film is “as utterly horrifying as it was the day it came out.”
8 The Innocents
The Innocents is a film that many might not expect to be on a list like this, but is marked as a favorite of quite a few directors, like Guillermo Del Toro and, of course, Scorsese. Directed by Jack Clayton (who also directed the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby), The Innocents is an adaptation of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. It follows the exploits of a governess (Deborah Kerr) as she watches over two children in a massive estate that she becomes increasingly convinced is haunted by an evil presence.
When asked about what he really loves about The Innocents, Scorsese said that the adaptation was “beautifully crafted and acted, immaculately shot by Freddie Francis, and very scary.” Scorsese isn’t the only one who believes this to be true either, as del Toro says that The Innocents remains one of his favorite horror films and was also a huge influence on his 2015 gothic horror film Crimson Peak.
7 Night of the Demon
This 1957 Jacques Tourneur film might look quaint by today’s standards, but managed to scare the living daylights out of a whole host of young people when it came out, including a young Scorsese. Night of the Demon is adapted from an M.R. James short story titled Casting the Runes, but functions as a sort of creature feature (which was among one of the more popular B-movie genres of the period). As such, the film was originally billed as a double feature on the back of other B-movie fare like The True Story of Lynn Stuart or The Revenge of Frankenstein.
The film concerns itself with the adventures of an American psychologist who travels to England in order to investigate a satanic cult who are suspects in the murder of quite a few innocent victims. What makes Night of the Demon stand out even now is the really engaging lead performances and the killer puppet made to depict the titular demon. Scorsese said as much when asked about the film, remarking that “Tourneur made this film toward the end of his career, but it’s just as potent [as his older films]. Forget the demon…it’s what you don’t see that’s powerful.”
6 The Shining
What can be said about Stanley Kubrick’s masterful adaptation of this Stephen King novel that hasn’t already been said? The Shining follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in a career-defining performance) as he takes up a position as the winter caretaker of a remote ski lodge, The Overlook Hotel, and brings his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). As we all know, things don’t go quite as planned, as Jack begins to lose his grip and reality and enacts his frustrations on his wife and son.
We all know why The Shining is marked as one of the most important and notable horror movies of all time, but Scorsese has some things to say about it as well. He says that he never read the original novel and has no clue about how faithful of an adaptation the film is, but “Kubrick made a majestically terrifying movie.” Similar to his opinions on some of the other films here, he remarks that “it’s what you don’t see or comprehend that shadows every move the characters make.”
The internet was lit ablaze by the opinions of Scorsese when he called Marvel movies the filmic equivalent of “theme park rides,” but few would have expected that his opinion on a mid-budget horror film would have the same discourse-rousing effect. After the director saw Ti West’s film Pearl (a prequel to his other 2022 horror flick X), Scorsese remarked that it was “deeply disturbing, mesmerizing, and wild.” He even went as far to say that Pearl rendered him unable to sleep comfortably the night after he’d seen it, which is high praise from the man who’s probably seen everything under the sun.
Pearl is, as previously mentioned, the prequel story to Ti West’s film X. Following the origins of the villain of X — the fame-obsessed and repressed title character — Pearl serves as a peek into the events and circumstances that made the soon-to-be serial killer who she is. From facing the wrath of her domineering and scornful mother to pursuing a career in entertainment that just can’t quite seem to get off the ground, Pearl is rejected at every turn — that is, until she takes matters into her own hands.
4 The Changeling
Peter Medak’s supernatural horror film from 1980 The Changeling is often considered one of the greats of its era, especially by horror fanatics. Once again, both Scorsese and del Toro are quoted as saying that Medak’s film is one of the scariest things they’d ever seen. Scorsese says that The Changeling is “not just another haunted house movie, but one filled with sadness and dread.” Del Toro echoed a similar sentiment, remarking to Medak in 2018 that “You’re my mentor! Your movie, The Changeling, is a masterpiece!”
The Changeling follows a music composer (George C. Scott) who, after a tragic car accident takes the lives of his wife and son, is dragged into a mystery surrounding the circumstances of a young boys’ death in the secluded mansion he has taken up residency in. It’s a film that preys upon not only that natural fear of the creepy corners of a big house, but also the fear of losing those closest to you and being left to pick up the pieces of a broken life.
3 Dead of Night
An archetypal film in more ways that one, 1945’s Dead of Night is a legendary film in the genre for a multitude of reasons. Banned in its home country of Britain due to a moratorium on horror film production during the Second World War, Dead of Night serves as one of the first big controversial horror films. It is also one of the earliest anthology films, following multiple different storylines with an overarching story giving the film some kind of backbone. Not only that, the film has shades of comedy that make it one of the earliest examples of a horror comedy as well.
Scorsese remarked once that Dead of Night was “a British classic: four tales told by four strangers mysteriously gathered in a country house, each one extremely disquieting, climaxing with a montage in which elements from all the stories converge into a crescendo of madness.” Fellow director Edgar Wright is also a huge fan of Dead of Night, including it on his list of his 1000 favorite films of all time. Suffice to say, the somewhat forgotten precursor film has its share of fans.
2 The Haunting
A classic horror film that has been remade a handful of times (although never to as great of effect as managed in the original), 1963’s The Haunting is another one of Scorsese’s favorite scary movies. The first feature film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wise’s adaptation stands as one of the most well-remembered and scariest takes on the book. Following a paranormal investigator as he assembles a team of people to investigate the mysterious Hill House Manor, The Haunting is one of the archetypal haunted house films and stands the test of time without much scrutiny.
Scorsese is cited as saying that The Haunting is “absolutely terrifying”. This speaks to not only the films quality, but also to its longevity, as another adaptation of Jackson’s book was released on Netflix in 2018 (Mike Flanagan’s limited series The Haunting of Hill House). As Scorsese likes to say, the true horror of the film and the book comes in what you don’t see, as its deeply psychological premise is the greatest strength of the text and the film.
1 Isle of the Dead
Featuring a great performance from horror screen legend and Frankenstein himself Boris Karloff, 1945’s Isle of the Dead is one of Scorsese’s other favorite scary movies. Karloff plays a general who is stationed on a small, remote island in the early-1900s, where the whole island is trapped by a recent disease breakout, causing the whole island to quarantine in place. As all of this is happening, however, an even deadlier force preys upon the islanders: a fearsome vampire of sorts that leaves a path of destruction in its wake.
Scorsese remarked once that Isle of Dead was a film that “never fails to scare me.” Clocking in at just 72 minutes in length, Isle of the Dead is a film that is all killer and absolutely no filler. If it’s good enough for Scorsese, it should be good enough for us all.