Greatest Horror Films

150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 80)

The Best Horror Movies You Should Stream This Halloween

Thundercrack!

Special Mention: Thundercrack!

Thundercrack! is by far the most obscure film you will find on this list. It is without a doubt one of the true landmarks of underground cinema. With a screenplay by veteran underground filmmaker George Kuchar (story and characters by Mark Ellinger) and directed Curt McDowell (a student of Kuchar), Thundercrack! is a work of a mad genius. While it starts out as an atmospheric gothic horror tale, it quickly turns into an ultra-bizarre, ultra-low-budget pornographic black comedy. Thundercrack! is raunchy, graphic, and extremely warped. Because of its graphic content including masturbation, and sex between heterosexual and homosexual couplings, the film is unavailable in many areas of the world. The inclusion of full hardcore sex runs the gamut of crude, messy, and honest, but the sex is masterfully weaved into the film’s structure and becomes an essential element of the plot. You won’t soon forget Mrs. Hammond’s voyeuristic bedroom, which includes a vacuum-operated ‘blow job’ device, nor the collection of dildos and blow-up dolls. Crass, sick, and hilarious, this no-budget black and white feature revels in taboo-shattering shocks. Imagine if John Waters and Jack Smith had a child and their deranged offspring grew up to direct a film while smoking crack! It’s wonderful!

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80. The Exorcist III

William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, wrote and directed this creepy thriller, based on his novel Legion. Thankfully, he ignores the events of John Boorman’s disappointing Exorcist II: The Heretic, and abandons cheap scares altogether, instead, allowing the events to unfold like a detective story about one man’s search for faith. The Exorcist III isn’t quite as good as the first film, but thanks to powerful performances by Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer and George C. Scott as the priest, Blatty directs a picture that is just as frightening.

There are several stand-out scenes: the dream sequence with Scott moving through Heaven delivers a strong punch, and the moment where he enters the ward and the camera pans upwards to reveal one of the patients crawling on the ceiling is spooky as hell. However, the most memorable scene comes when a nurse investigates strange noises during her graveyard shift. Blatty shows great patience in holding a long shot for an ample amount of time while making good use of ominous sounds heard in the distance. The sequence culminates with not one, but two of the best jump scares that will have you jolt from your seat. In the climactic exorcism scene, Blatty fought with the producers, who demanded a frenzy of special effects. In retrospect, this might be one of the rare times in which the studio made the right choice and not the director. After all, what is an Exorcist film without an exorcism? Those looking for a truly creepy picture, look no further. The Exorcist III will get under your skin.

the-brood

79. The Brood

David Cronenberg’s 1979 effort The Brood might provide the biggest genre-movie highlight reel of his entire body of work, with killings perpetrated by bizarre down-syndrome-mutant, pig-faced dwarves. The last scene in this movie, in which a mother bites through her psycho-plasmic placenta to lick the birth fluids from her angry spawn, is worth the price of admission alone. The Brood is visceral, highly disturbing, and downright disgusting. It was Cronenberg’s first major success and a highly personal one as well. It is also the director’s most bitter, uncompromising statement about gender politics, children, and sexuality. Often described as Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Brood is a definitive metaphor for the harsh realities of an acrimonious divorce. The premise is simple – a crazy woman’s psychoses creates these evil murderous creatures. The husband is left to clean up the mess. Do yourself a favour and rent it if you haven’t yet seen it.

LastHouseOnTheLeft

78. The Last House on the Left

Much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Spit On Your Grave, Last House on the Left is a prime example of the unfair censorship in independent horror films. The film developed such a bad reputation that it was banned in several countries due to scenes of sadism and violence, and in 1982 was put on the “video nasties” list by the Department of Public Prosecutions. But thanks to critics such as Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert, who praised the film as an important piece of work, it eventually picked up a rabid cult following and is still ranked by many as one of Craven’s best. Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the exploitation flick follows two teenage girls (on route to scoring some weed before a rock concert), who cross paths with a makeshift family of rootless criminals. They abduct, torture, rape and brutally murder the girls. The twist comes in the second half of the when the criminals try to find shelter and wind up at the house of the family of one of two victims. In classic “backwoods” horror style, the parents quickly clue in that they’re in the presence of the perpetrators, and take justice into their own hands, only their revenge is even more barbaric than the crimes committed against their daughter. The final half achieves its unshakable effect through a combination of things including oral sex, disembowelment, and death by chainsaw, but critics who protested about the level of violence were misunderstanding Craven’s intentions. Last House is extremely graphic, but the violence is never played for thrills. The violence, after all, is the central theme. The film emerged a few years after the Manson Family massacre and in the wake of the Vietnam war, and Craven intended it to be an evaluation of the decay of American Culture, onscreen violence, class divides and the naivete of the free-love-hippie era. Last House is a cutthroat, bleak cautionary tale, presented in an honest, albeit provocative, way.

daughters_of_darkness

77. Daughter of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges)

Belgium’s premier horror filmmaker Harry Kümel directs this lesbian-themed vintage vampire flick starring Delphine Seyrig. Having appeared in a number of art-house hits, including Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year At Marienbad, Seyrig stars as the Countess, a character-based, in part, on Elizabeth Báthory, labeled the most prolific female serial killer in history, who bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. If anything, her performance is reason enough to see this movie. Seyrig evokes a sense of twisted, evil aristocracy that projects instant credibility, and her presence leaves a lasting impression. Best described as a European art-house film that sways far away from the traditional vampire movie (the word “vampire” is never once mentioned), the film boasts bold strokes of atmosphere and psycho-sexuality. Cinematographer Eduard van der Enden, who shot Jacques Tati’s Trafic, infuses the film’s imagery with a pervading sense of the modern gothic. Daughters of Darkness is lit with a gorgeous color palette and even the setting, which takes place in a deserted out-of-season Belgian resort, predates The ShiningDaughter of Darkness is, unlike other lesbian vampire films, subdued rather than exploitative. Unlike most entries in the genre, Daughters of Darkness is not only worth watching but worth revisiting.

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76. Day of the Dead

Having to follow in the footsteps of two of the two most highly regarded zombie movies in history, George A. Romero delivers what is unquestionably the most controversial and divisive entry in his original trilogy. During production, Romero openly admitted that the script he ended up with was far different from his original vision. The comic relief of Dawn is nowhere to be found, and the director’s obsession with a social decline in Day is the most opinionated of his canon. In Day, Romero comments on racism, tribalism, and social and governmental concerns. Unlike most of the films within the subgenre, the movie is concerned more with existentialism and gender/political divides than scares. Romero chose to directly address the nature of human emotions and prejudices, resulting in bitter and cynical characters barricading themselves in concrete bunkers, and forced to hide like an oppressed minority. Day of the Dead is bitter and its characters are cynical, unpleasant, violent, and unpredictable, reminding us of mankind’s instinctual tendency to destroy itself. Romero’s government agents and military behave worse than the walking dead; in fact, the most likable character in Day, is the childlike zombie Bub, a pet/lab-rat to Dr. Logan who sets out to find a cure. The Bub and Logan characters become a fascinating take on Dr. Frankenstein and his monster and thanks to the fine performances given by Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman, viewers not only sympathize in their relationship but believe there can be hope for a better future. Another great performance comes courtesy Joe Pilato as Captain Rhodes, the military head of an underground scientific complex who loses his mind while trying to save mankind. But although Pilato, Liberty, and Sherman are uniformly great, they are not the stars. That honor belongs to Lori Cardille, as the tough researcher who, after being isolated, must struggle to stay sane and alive. Gore wizard Tom Savini has identified this film as his magnum opus, and it helped Savini to become an idol in modern horror filmmaking. The climax features some of the most spectacular and disgusting onscreen effects ever filmed. This is not recommended for those with weak stomachs.

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75. Santa Sangre

Santa Sangre somehow manages to make Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult hit El Topo look mainstream. Sangre is a bitter allegory of self-discovery and a satire on church hypocrisy and colonial predation. It is also a twisted thriller about the unhealthy bond between mother and son. The film follows Fenix, a young man raised in the circus. His dad Orgo is the owner of the carnival and his mother is a semi-famous trapeze artist. After Concha discovers Orgo is having an affair, she takes revenge by throwing acid on his crotch. He immediately responds by cutting off her arms. Years later, Fenix is sent to a mental hospital in hopes that the doctors can rehabilitate him from his childhood trauma, only he quickly escapes and rejoins his handicapped mother. Against his will, he “becomes her arms” and the two undertake a terrifying campaign of murder and revenge. The plot then gets even weirder. As it turns out, Santa Sangre features a far more coherent narrative than any of Jodorowsky’s previous films, but it’s no less a total mindfuck. And even the brief plot synopsis doesn’t do it justice. Supposedly, it is inspired by a Mexican serial killer who wanted Jodorowsky to make a movie about his life, but Jodorowsky also brings his personal background into the film, since one of his first jobs was working as a clown for a circus in Chile, where he learned the arts of trapeze and miming. Unlike Jodorowsky’s previous efforts El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre can easily be placed in the category of horror. There are obvious influences such as Robert Weine’s The Hands of Orloc, James Whale’s The Invisible Man, and Todd Browning’s Freaks, but thematically and stylistically the film is best described as a cross between Federico Fellini’s carnival-style and Luis Bunuel’s knack for surrealism. This isn’t an easy film to stomach, however; there is a fair amount of graphic horror, tormented sexuality, and bodily mutilation. Jodorowsky has never been known for his subtlety and there are times here when he pushes boundaries like never before. But there are also several moments of genuine tenderness found throughout the film. One of the film’s most riveting sequences features a funeral for a dying elephant where it is then torn apart by starving villagers. There is also a sequence involving children with Downs Syndrome snorting cocaine and then taken to see an overweight prostitute. And there’s also a scene where a man tears off his own ear and tries to force-feed it to a deaf-mute. Finally, in another memorable setpiece, one character wraps himself in bandages in hopes of becoming invisible. Daniele Nanuzzi’s color cinematography is as astonishing and as beautiful as anything Jodorowsky has ever done. Simon Boswell also deserves praise for his atmospheric score and Tolita Figueroa’s lavish costumes and Alejandro Luna’s sets only enhance the surrealism of it all. Bold, audacious, and pushing past the boundaries of good taste, Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is an Oedipal nightmare, filtered through a hallucinatory lens.

Ringu

74. Ringu 

Long before Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, Hideo Nakata gave us Ringu, a truly unnerving supernatural thriller about the anxieties of modern technology. The film’s irresistible urban legend takes root in the opening sequence with a campfire story told by two schoolgirls which immediately sets the tone. From there on out, it’s 90 minutes of sheer, shivering terror. The story of a cursed videotape that kills the viewer within seven days was a notable success in Japan, where it broke box-office records and eventually caused a sensation with mainstream Western audiences, almost single-handedly capturing our current obsession with Japanese horror. Ringu has an uncanny ability to draw the viewer into its world with its sparse, tense, surreal atmosphere, simple flash-cuts, and a well-timed musical score that set up quite a few jolts throughout. Nakata proved he’s a master of suspense by creating a sense of dread in even the quietest of moments. The amount of tension created immediately after the telephone rings, for example, is nothing short of breathtaking. And while it is almost entirely free of visual horror, Ringu was one of the creepiest films released in the ’90s. This beautifully shot, near colorless pic — punctuated with stark blacks and whites, and driven by a nail-biting score — is a masterpiece of edgy surrealism!

Poltergeist

73. Poltergeist

Poltergeist has become legendary for two major reasons other than being a great film: first, there were rumors that co-producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg took over as director midway through production. Secondly, its young co-star Dominique Dunne was murdered just before the film hit theaters. I will always remember Poltergeist, however, as the film that left me sleepless for a week as a child. As Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) says near the climax of Poltergeist, “It knows what scares you.” The words by the psychic medium, reflect what makes Tobe Hooper’s supernatural thriller so good! Poltergeist is a film that knows how to scare you, and more importantly, knows what scares us. Hooper’s directing skill combined with Spielberg’s ability to make anything family-friendly, no matter how horrifying, makes this one of the few entries on this list that the entire family might theoretically enjoy. But Poltergeist achieves greatness beyond mere genre thrills because of the double social critiques it explores with such dedication and humor. Someone once famously said that Poltergeist does for TV sets what Psycho does for showers. I never had a problem taking a shower, but I don’t like leaving the TV set left open overnight.

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72. The Mask of Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death is one of the seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by producer-director Roger Corman between 1960 and 1964, and it is Corman’s most extravagant and visually impressive picture. Take note of the superb cinematography by future film director Nicolas Roeg, and the diabolic performance from Vincent Price. Many will argue there are better films from the king of exploitation (Bucket of Blood for starters), but there is just something about Masque that marks it as a truly unique cult classic. It is a superb film, both visually and thematically, and for my money, this is the best of Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies.

Spider-Baby

71. Spider Baby (The Maddest Story Ever Told )

Exploitation maverick Jack Hill, who went on to make some classic cult films like Switchblade Sisters, The Mack, and Foxy Brown, made his solo directorial debut with Spider Baby. Spider Baby is somewhat unclassifiable as it is quite unique. The premise concerns a strange family cursed with a regressive gene that causes them to become more and more like monsters as they age. As with Todd Browning’s Freaks, the viewer ends up siding with characters who would normally be the villains in most horror films. Shot in 1964, Spider Baby collected dust on the shelf until 1968, when it was briefly released as the second half of a horror double-bill. But it wasn’t until the early 80s when it was finally released on home video that it began to develop a cult following. Now it is regarded as one of the best films of swinging Sixties horror. The eerie black-and-white cinematography, freaky performances, and Lon Chaney’s bizarre song about cannibal orgies are just a few reasons why cinephiles should seek this out. As a brief aside, Spider Baby features one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s last performances, and although he was battling with alcoholism at the time, his screen presence is still quite charming.

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Special Mention: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

For the unfamiliar, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the film adaptation of a popular musical stage production composed and written by Richard O’Brien, a struggling actor at the time who was best known for his performances in such musicals as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. For O’Brien, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an homage to drive-in double features and science fiction B-movies of the fifties, and ironically, the film itself went on to become the ultimate midnight movie. Rocky Horror is a slice of unadulterated fun – but it’s also a groundbreaking and important film when taking into account its sexual themes and the relentless array of gay iconography. It’s a musical spin on Frankenstein about two clean-cut squares who never stepped outside their comfort zone until one day they happen to cross paths with Dr. Frank N. Furter and his strange circle of friends. The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped to open the conversation on issues of sexuality and gender, demonstrating that gender roles and stereotypes are socially constructed and that everyone would be happier if conformity was no longer the norm. But more than that, some would argue that the movie also addresses female empowerment. This gaudy pastiche of B-movie science fiction and horror is like no other. Everything from eccentric shooting angles, vibrant colors, cheap sets, cheap props, flamboyant costumes, and bright lighting fits perfectly with the overall tone of the film. Nearly every frame, every angle, every cut works despite the film’s many technical flaws. The set pieces are cheap, the props childish, the choreography is wonderfully out of sync — the film dialogue is clumsy and the acting is suspect, but the magic of Rocky Horror is emphasized by the fact that its creative team, writer/composer Richard O’Brien and director Jim Sharman were working on a low-budget with limited resources. They did what they could with what they had and the result is something truly special. Rocky Horror is a prime example of the right people working together at the right time and working out ways to create something without ever giving up. There had never been — and, since its release — never has been — a movie like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It isn’t something you can recreate, remake or try to imitate, although many have tried. The outrageous rock musical has become a staple of the pop culture scene and a one of a kind cult masterpiece. To this day, screenings held on and around its anniversary as well as on Halloween sell out. It has never been pulled by 20th Century Fox from its original 1975 release, and it continues to play in cinemas four decades after its premiere, making it the longest-running theatrical release in film history.

Onibaba

70. Onibaba

This landmark in fantasy cinema is bleak, sexually charged, and dripping with depravity. Symbolism runs rampant and the dialogue is minimal in this harrowing study about the rotten nature of humanity and the useless wars they wage. Kiyomi Kuroda’s startling black-and-white cinematography, the excellent, percussive jazz soundtrack, and the final twist (one which might seem obvious today but not back then) is reason enough to watch this gem.

the-fog

69. The Fog

Following up on his groundbreaking hit Halloween, John Carpenter eschewed the slasher genre in favor of The Fog, an atmospheric tale about a small California coastal town that becomes literally haunted by its past. Although it was received well in its time, The Fog failed to garner the same cult enthusiasm as many of Carpenter’s later works, and yet it features one of his best screenplays. The script by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill is unique in that it features several stories within stories and Carpenter immediately sets the tone perfectly in the prologue, opening with a campfire ghost tale about Elizabeth Dane delivered by storyteller John Houseman. From here on out, every character in this film has their own story to tell, and every story, no matter how big or small, somehow ties into the bigger picture. There’s more than just undead pirates lurking beneath the surface; The Fog is really about history’s inescapable influence on the present and the way in which the church preserves itself through un-Christian-like ways. Chris Justice put it best when he described the brick wall that hides the journal that Father Malone discovers as a stark visual reminder of how many layers of lies, stories, and time people will construct to conceal such dangerous historical facts. Fog is often a staple in horror movies but never has fog itself become a metaphor for our capacity to obscure and/or conceal the truth. The Fog is also one of Carpenter’s best-looking films (maybe his best). The cinematography by Dean Cundey is gorgeous, putting to use the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen framing, and making the most of the coastal town setting. I especially love the isolated picturesque Lighthouse, acting as a radio station and capturing the glowing fog as it silently moves across the bay. The score is also one of Carpenter’s best, and the editing is so sharp, the film runs a brisk 89 minutes. The Fog is held together by Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter’s then-wife) as the husky-voiced late-night DJ who’s able to who warn listeners about the invasion; Tom Atkins, a local truck driver and Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis who shares the screen with her real-life mom Janet Leigh (Psycho).

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68. Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) (One Against All)

I Stand Alone, a French nouveau Taxi Driver, is sure to arouse controversy with its scenes of explicit sex and bloody violence. The film is a visually violent and verbally vulgar assault on the senses, but the far more deeply disturbing element at play isn’t the onscreen violence, but how Noé takes us inside the mind of the protagonist. And so what elevates I Stand Alone from an average horror film is the way it refuses to cut away from the butcher’s head-space. We get his point of view from the first frame to the very last. The butcher never becomes a sympathetic character and Noé doesn’t try to justify or excuse his behavior. Philippe Nahon’s performance is strong and fearless, and Nahon does a fine job staying clear of stereotypes and movie killer clichés. The flashy scope cinematography; the twisted, bitter, and cynical voiceover; the aggressive shooting style; the deliberate widescreen close-ups; the endless shots of empty corridors, vacant industrial streets; the repeated uses a swish pan or a skip frame; and the marvelous score accompanied by sharp electronic sounds of gunshots all help make I Stand Alone one of the nastiest entries into the genre you will ever see. Three-quarters into the film, Noé takes a page from legendary schlockmeister William Castle’s 1961 Homicidal by giving the audience a 30-second warning to either leave the theater or avert their eyes, before continuing to the film’s bloody climax. Those with weak stomachs should heed the warning.

hardware

67. Hardware

Upon its initial release, Hardware was dismissed by most as a rip-off of The Terminator, but in fact, the film was actually inspired by a 2000 AD comic called SHOK! Walter’s Robo-Tale. Richard Stanley’s bizarre post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller has rightfully earned a cult following through the years and for sci-fi fans growing up in the 90s, Hardware was a hidden gem that found an audience on VHS. The low-budget indie horror has its roots in earlier films featuring killer robots but adds components of spaghetti westerns, 80?s slashers, and even ’70s exploitation cinema – and the bag of influences results in a film which is, in many ways, very original. Stanley stretches his shoestring budget to impressive lengths, creating a despairing, barren future under blood-red skies, radiation clouds, and desert wastelands. Despite being restricted by financial realities, Hardware still remains one of the most stylized science fiction film films of all time. Stanley’s retro-futuristic set design takes some visual and thematic cues from the films of James Cameron and Ridley Scott, but incorporates color schemes that mirror Giallo films of the 1970s. Composer Simon Boswell does an admirable job providing a churlish mood with his synth guitar solos, and the soundtrack became a personal favorite amongst the industrial and metal music scene, with music by Iggy Pop, Motörhead, Ministry and Public Image Limited. Also, worth noting is the guest appearances by Lemmy (of Motörhead) as a taxi driver, Carl McCoy (of Fields of the Nephilim) as a zone tripper, and Iggy Pop as Angry Bob, a radio personality. Hardware sees a society under Big Brother surveillance and population control and amidst the violence and chaos, it features some social and biblical commentary. This is a movie about man and machine in a time where it’s difficult to tell the two apart. Fans of sci-fi action will admire Stanley’s cyberpunk thriller. He delivers an action-packed, thought-provoking and quite disturbing thrill ride with the American flag painted on its killer android and a hero sporting a duster, a robotic hand, and a sawed-off shotgun.

kwaidan

66. Kwaidan

Based on stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales, the 1964 Japanese portmanteau film Kwaidan directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is an impressively mounted anthology horror film consists of four separate and unrelated stories. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Kwaidan’s haunting poetry is conveyed with gorgeous images, making it one of the most beautiful horror films you will ever see. Avoiding outright scares and gore, Kobayashi favors slow buildups of tension and quiet suspense and his use of artificial sets and colorful backdrops which stand-in for many of the outdoor scenes, give the film an almost fairytale-like quality.  The soundtrack is equally impressive, and although it might not outright scare, you can’t help but admire the craft and artistry.

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65. House (Hausu)

Inspired by an idea from his 7-year-old daughter, first-time director Nobuhiko Obayashi (who had a background in both art and advertising) concocted this fantasy about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other unimaginable horrors. House is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed — this 1977 Japanese haunted-house flick is delirious, bizarre, demonic, deranged, gonzo and downright brilliant. It took over three decades before House surfaced in North America in 2010 when it screened at various film festivals in advance of the Criterion DVD release. Why it took so long is beyond me. House is a spooky experimental fairy tale mixed with martial arts battles, colorful set pieces that call to mind Dario Argento’s Suspiria, black-and-white flashbacks, and a piano that literally devours one of the girls. House is the perfect midnight movie – it’s baffling, bloody, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Imagine a Sam Raimi horror film as filtered through the mind of Guy Maddin, and you have an idea of what to expect.

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64. Black Christmas

We never did find out who Billy was. Maybe it’s for the best since they never made any sequels to Bob Clark’s seminal slasher film, which predates Carpenter’s Halloween by 4 years. Whereas Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released the same year, blends backwoods horror with the slasher formula, Black Christmas is widely considered the first proper slasher and is noted as one of the earliest films to present some of the subgenre’s defining characteristics: a mysterious stalker, a set of adolescent or young-adult victims, a secluded location with little or no adult supervision, point-of-view camera shots representing the “killer’s perspective,” and graphic depictions of violence and murder. Like Carpenter, Clark avoids graphic bloodshed, focusing instead on suggestion and careful mise-en-scene and editing. There’s something special about how he leads us through a labyrinth of red herrings and his skillful handling of such plot devices such as obscene phone calls from within the house leave much to our imagination. More importantly, unlike many of the slashers that followed, Black Christmas cannot easily be accused of misogyny; the violence against the female protagonists isn’t the picture’s raison d’etre. If there was ever a character from a slasher film to be chosen for a thesis on feminist work, it would have to be the film’s “final girl,” Jessica.

ITSALIVE

63. It’s Alive

Although not his first feature, It’s Alive helped establish Larry Cohen’s reputation as a director of ingenious low-budget genre films, which come with unexpected twists, conflicted anti-heroes, dark humor, and sympathy for monsters, both human and non-human. Cohen, writer and director of such projects as God Told Me To and Q, made his first foray into the horror genre with this low-budget cult favorite about a murderous mutant baby on a killing rampage. It’s Alive still remains provocative to this day, and leaves one with much to think about regarding unconditional love, parental responsibility, abortion, guilt, intolerance, and institutional care. The script also hints that the mutation was a result of either environmental pollution or inadequately tested fertility drugs, a concept later explored more fully in the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive – neither, however, was deeply terrifying as this. There are a number of standout scenes here, mostly crafted with superbly controlled widescreen compositions in Fenton Hamilton’s blurry, fish-eyed Baby-cam-cinematography. The initial delivery room scene is downright disturbing, beginning with a dolly down a long corridor showing a victim staggering out, to inside the bloodied operating room where the delivery team is dead and drenched in blood – and topped by the chilling line, “The umbilical cord’s been severed, but not surgically – it’s been chewed off”. It’s Alive is all the more effective with Cohen’s perverse reversal of paternal/infant imagery. The baby, although murderous, is desperately trying to find either food or its family, and while its bloody rampage is mostly kept offscreen, the attack on the milkman remains the pic’s highlight, with the sight of glass shattering and the combination of blood and milk flowing out of the milk truck straight to the sewer. These scenes, juxtaposed against Ryan’s need to prove to himself that the baby by extension is not his, are utterly heartbreaking. Cohen tells us no matter how monstrous the newborn is, it is innocent in its search for maternal love. Most fascinating is the ending where Ryan follows the creature to the finale’s underground L.A. sewer system which, by design, is reminiscent of a womb. His fathering instinct takes over, suddenly turning him from the baby’s assassin to its saviour. What elevates It’s Alive above being a typical piece of B-grade schlock is Ryan’s superb performance as the angst-ridden father. His performance is very moving and revealing and important to express the film’s central theme. Cohen masterfully juggles terror, comedy, and social commentary, leaving us with a more engrossing horror pic than the usual for this genre. Also, worth noting is legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s fine soundtrack and Rick Baker’s creepy-looking baby model effects.

haunting

62. The Haunting

One of the most highly regarded haunted house films ever produced is The Haunting, directed by Val Lewton disciple Robert Wise. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, the film weaves the dark tale of a questionably sane woman and a spooky old mansion that is rumored to hold terrifying dark secrets. The Haunting is an exercise in restraint and atmospherics and easily ranks among the finest supernatural suspense films ever made. Strip away all of its supernatural undertones, and the film remains a sophisticated and fascinating character study, and in addition to being a great ghost story, it’s also one of the greatest psychological thrillers. And apart from the generally neurotic group of characters, The Haunting further succeeds in that Wise makes the house itself, the central character of the story. Wise keeps this low-budget black-and-white film looking better than most modern films, and the cinematography and camera work by Davis Boulton recalls the best film noir, using shadows, clever lighting, Dutch angles, and widescreen compositions to make the viewers feel just as uncertain as to what is creeping around every corner and hiding behind every door. Along with the creepy, uncanny, disorienting visuals, comes one of the finest sound mixes in cinema, and many would argue the soundtrack is what actually makes the movie scary. The Haunting gets just about everything right –and manages to slither under your skin and make the hair on the back of your neck stand.

DELLAMORTE-DELLAMORE

61. Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man)

Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man is one of the three best Italian horror films ever made. Based on the wildly popular Italian comic book Dellamorte, Dellamore from Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog series, Cemetery Man is compelling, bizarre, and downright entertaining from start to finish. Technically a zombie film, but not really, Soavi’s avant-garde gothic flick weaves in so many unexpected directions, that it is quite unlike any horror film made before or after. This surreal fantasy from the director of Deliria (1987) unfolds like a very weird dream and never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to a beautifully rendered existential climax. You can take it as a horror picture or a black comedy or a story about friendship, identity, and love. Either way, it works. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli, concentrates on the human characters rather than the walking dead. In other words, Cemetery Man is a horror movie with character. There’s a quirky blend of romance, surrealism, black comedy, sex, violence, and haphazard plotting that only the Italians can get away with. Soavi is a well-known disciple of Italy’s master of horror Dario Argento, and it shows in every frame. The opening scene where Dellamorte disposes of the living dead as he casually chats on the phone is one of the best openings of any horror flick. From the color-drenched scenery and a kiss silhouetted by the full moon to a camera rotating around a table (ala Reservoir Dogs), or a steady tracking shot; almost every scene in Cemetery Man is a treat to watch. Even better is the score by Manuel de Sica, a prolific composer who has written over one hundred musical scores for television and film since 1969. His score is a curious blend of synthesizers and traditional instrumentation accompanied by a catchy theme song that’ll leave you humming long after the credits roll. Cemetery Man is the product of an expansive vision, a gorgeously rounded picture that passes through moments of genuine longing and existential crisis – right up to the film’s heart-wrenching mystic finale, in which Francesco will travel to the edge of the world to find some meaning in his cursed existence.

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Special Mention: The Most Dangerous Game

The first of many official and unofficial screen versions of Richard Connell’s short story of the same name, The Most Dangerous Game was made in 1932, in the era known as “Pre-Code Hollywood,” a time when filmmakers were able to get away with sexual innuendo, illegal drug use, adultery, abortion, intense violence, homosexuality, and much more. It was during this time that a film like The Most Dangerous Game was allowed to be made and shown to the general public without fear of censorship. The film was put together by producer Willis O’Brien while in pre-production on King Kong and features several of the same cast and crew members, as well as props and sets from Kong. Despite these obvious cost-cutting measures, Dangerous Game never feels like a second-rate production and features impressive effects, moody cinematography, smart dialogue, and fine acting. Running a lean 63 minutes, the film is constructed with hardly an ounce of fat, and the filmmakers waste no time, establishing the basic premise within the first 5 minutes. The plot concerns a big game hunter on an island who chooses to hunt humans for sport. The Most Dangerous Game might be a mindless action thriller, but it remains a genuine classic and a highly influential film of the genre. Many people have remade the story, some more successful than others, but none has matched the level of craft on display here.

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