Here we go, the 20 Greatest Horror Movies
Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw star in this terrifying thriller about an enormous man-eating Great White Shark that terrorizes the fictional coastal summer resort town of Amity, Long Island on the Fourth of July weekend. Based on the trashy best-selling novel by Peter Benchley (who wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), Jaws was a surprise cash cow thanks to a sophisticated, unrelenting publicity campaign, and was the first film to rake in over $100 million (it grossed more than $260 million at the domestic box office and nearly $475 million worldwide). It went on to spawn three sequels (all terrible), laid out a blueprint for summer blockbusters, and put Steven Spielberg onto the A-list of Hollywood directors. Spielberg doesn’t serve up mass quantities of blood and gore, but what makes Jaws work is his confident direction, which draws the audience into relaxing at precisely all the wrong moments. Spielberg’s meticulous attention to creating suspense recalls the best of Hitchcock. Jaws remains tense by not showing audiences the shark for the majority of the film. For the first hour, the only glimpses we catch of the beast are fleeting and indistinct. The camera doesn’t dwell on it until the final act. We are only treated to a long hard look at the shark when it passes by the deck of the ship, setting up the film’s most memorable line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” In the final scenes, it becomes apparent why the shark gets so little screen time – it looks fake. Spielberg openly admits that if the technology had been better, he would have shown the shark more often. Ironically, it is this handicap that resulted in the film’s greatest strength. By keeping it hidden from the audience, the movie effectively builds suspense and the end result is an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Like all of Cronenberg’s films, Videodrome works on several levels: It is a morality tale, a neo-noir, and a virtual reality sci-fi horror film about a sleazy cable-TV producer who’s searching for perverse sexual content to boost the ratings on his TV cable network. Videodrome has a lot to say about the danger of media overexposure and its effect within. Cronenberg views how people are not only influenced by media but how they can also become addicted to it. In a way, Videodrome foretold of popular reality TV shows that would emerge a decade later. The film was so ahead of its time, it even predates The Matrix in its exploration of a flesh-and-blood world merging with cyberspace. And while Cronenberg’s obsession with the relationship between machinery and man reappears in several of his films, Videodrome is a bit more raunchy, walking a fine line between pornography and sadomasochism. Videodrome might just be Cronenberg’s most visionary and audacious film of his early career, and in hindsight, it might just very well be his best. This is a remarkable film that continues to be debated and analyzed, and one of the smartest and most bizarre films ever produced.
This high-octane, ferocious gross-out semi-sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead nearly eclipsed its predecessor’s reputation thanks to an endless barrage of visual gags, hyperkinetic camerawork, rapid-fire editing, kegs of jet-propelled blood, slapstick gore, and the demented comic genius of Bruce Campbell (aided by an impressive arsenal of weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw). Campbell’s performance shifts to match the needs of the script spitting out the greatest one-liners of any horror-comedy. Evil Dead 2 is so outrageously over-the-top that it attains a level of dizzying surrealism. This is a must-see for any self-respecting moviegoer.
Halloween is a historical milestone that single-handedly shaped the future of the entire genre. This seminal horror flick actually gets better with age and holds up as an effective thriller that stands head and shoulders above the hundreds of imitators to come. Halloween was produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossed over $100 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable independent films ever made. In 2006, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Halloween had one hell of an influence on the entire film industry. You have to admire how Carpenter avoids explicit onscreen violence, yet amplifies the suspense almost entirely through visual means; Carpenter’s widescreen frame, expert hand-held camerawork, and terrifying foreground and background imagery, along with the simple but moody piano melodies, is what makes Halloween a resounding success.
Big-budget special effects, expert direction, swiftly paced action, and a distinct feminist subtext from writer/director James Cameron turned what could have been a by-the-numbers sequel into a box office blockbuster and a seven-time Oscar nominee. Aliens offers a little bit of everything, and apart from the opening half-hour of exposition, Cameron barely gives viewers a chance to catch their breaths as he plunges his characters from one dangerous situation to the next. Cinephiles will forever argue as to which is the better film, Alien or Aliens, and truthfully, I myself cannot decide which I prefer. But one thing is for sure- Ridley Scott developed Alien as a horror film whereas Aliens is more of a straightforward action thriller. The horror elements are still there, but while Alien was a marvel of slow-building, atmospheric tension, Aliens packs a much more visceral punch. However, when James Cameron does get down to the suspense, Aliens becomes an extremely intense film indeed. Shot under red emergency lighting inside a narrow complex with low-gridded roofs and cramped airshafts, Cameron develops a powerful, claustrophobic sense of atmosphere. Whether it’s during the chaotic action sequences within the aliens’ hive or the big climax when Sigourney Weaver faces off against the giant mother alien on the edge of a depressurizing airlock, Aliens will have viewers gripping their armrests.
Directed by the brilliant John Landis, and made well before the advent of CGI, An American Werewolf in London features the greatest werewolf transformation ever put to screen, thanks to the special effects by Rick Baker. The various prosthetics and robotic body parts used during the film’s extended werewolf transformation impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences so much, they decided to add a category for make-up and effects, which of course Baker deservedly won. Landis, who was 19 when he penned the first draft, delivers a pitch-perfect mix of comedy and genuine scares. Apart from the thrills, atmosphere, romance and witty assemblage of moon-themed songs (“Blue Moon”, “Bad Moon Rising,” “Moondance”), An American Werewolf In London remains the best werewolf movie, if only, for the very tragic ending.
This classic horror movie based on Stephen King’s novel about a pubescent girl with telekinetic powers remains Brian De Palma’s best. This landmark of cinematic horror gives us a terrifying look at high school cruelty. Many films have featured school bullies, but Carrie is one of the first to focus on the cruelty inflicted by teenage girls. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations for their performances, a rarity in the horror genre. Spacek showcases her range of acting talent with her convincing portrayal of Carrie’s pain and longing for acceptance. Carrie would be little without her ability to convey enormous conviction. Her performance in the title role is close to perfection, balancing the difficult task of playing both vulnerable and menacing. She was 27 when the film was shot, but looks half her age, and her uncanny combination of maturity and innocence makes us like and fear her all at once. Meanwhile, Laurie powers through the picture as the fiercely religious, sexually repressed, and unbalanced single mom. Brian De Palma is at the top of his game here as a master of visual flamboyance. Carrie brims with stylistic flourishes, including his trademark slow-motion and effective split-screen sequences. The film’s audacious technical excesses and homages to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some to be the film’s greatest strengths, while others criticize De Palma as a hack. Carrie is arguably the most stylish of De Palma’s films, featuring two (if not three) memorable scenes that have entered the pop-culture lexicon.
“She hate me,” he growls, “Just like others!”
The irony of James Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein is that Frankenstein’s creation is called the Monster, yet he is the least menacing presence in the film. Boris Karloff dominates the screen with a powerhouse performance, managing to invest his character with emotional subtleties that are surprisingly nuanced. Bride of Frankenstein provides a searing citation of man’s inhumanity to man and still finds room for self-parody, social satire, and comedy. This is the second greatest of all Frankenstein movies and some would argue the best horror film of the 1930s. Bride Of Frankenstein has spectacular direction, a thoughtful script, wonderful performances, and is enhanced by the vivid Franz Waxman musical score. Whale’s genius holds it all together until the tragic, inevitable finale.
12. Rosemary’s Baby
When Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968, it was lauded by critics and was a massive success at the box office, but religious circles denounced the film for its shocking content, calling it a perverted and distorted view of fundamental Christian beliefs. This spellbinding tale of Satanism and pregnancy (adapted from Ira Levin’s horror bestseller) was Roman Polanski’s first American film and went on to be nominated for two Oscars, winning Best Supporting Actress for Ruth Gordon. Supremely mounted, the film benefits from its strong atmosphere, haunting soundtrack, claustrophobic apartment setting, and polished cinematography by William Fraker. The cast is equally brilliant, with Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as the young couple playing opposite Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, the elderly neighbours. The most frightening aspect of Rosemary’s Baby is the way in which Rosemary loses total control of her mind and body. Her pregnancy dramatically alters her appearance and psyche until she is barely able to recognize herself. Take notice of the recurring motif of reflections throughout the film: when we are first introduced to Rosemary looking in a mirror, she is giddy and confident, but by the end, her reflection has become so alien to her that it makes her physically sick. With Rosemary’s rape, the distinctions between good and evil, reality and nightmares, begin to blur. In the end, Rosemary’s surrender to the anti-Christ represents the ultimate synthesis of good and evil. Rosemary is ultimately responsible for bringing evil into the world, but her unconditional motherly love allows her to accept her fate, rocking the baby to sleep in the final minutes. And yet, without ever seeing the child, how can we the viewers, even be sure there was a child?
Frankenstein will forever be regarded as the definitive film version of Mary Shelley’s classic tale of obsession, madness, and perverted science. From the standpoint of the subtext, commentary, story, cast, direction, editing, score and photography, the picture is nearly perfect. Frankenstein is certainly an atmospheric horror film, but it works best as a parable about an outcast, and anyone who ever felt like an outsider will certainly relate. The God complex raises eyebrows as well, questioning how far a man will go in the name of science. Far too many people to this day associate the title Frankenstein not to the scientist from whom the name is drawn, but instead to the monster he creates. Boris Karloff’s legendary, frightening performance as the childlike monster made him an overnight star and created a new icon of terror, but without Colin Clive as the monster’s creator, Frankenstein would be half as good. Clive’s over-the-top, theatrical style might seem excessive by today’s standards but was typical for the time of its release. Despite his flamboyant tendencies, Clive creates a complex and sympathetic character and his performance may very well be the ultimate portrayal of a mad scientist. His crazed scream of “It’s alive!” is as famous as the creature he brings to life. In the end, The Monster is at once Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest achievement and greatest failure – and their inability to coexist is the ultimate tragedy.
Boasting one of the greatest taglines of all time – “In space, no one can hear you scream” – Alien blends science fiction, horror, and bleak poetry into what could have easily turned into a simple B-monster movie. In fact, the movie was pitched to producers as Jaws in space, but thankfully Ridley Scott, who was stepping behind the camera for only the second time, took the film far more seriously. Like Steven Spielberg’s great thriller, most of the running time relies on the viewer’s imagination since Scott carefully restricts how little we see of the creature. Be warned: Alien can test a viewer’s patience. This is an extremely slow burn and unusual for the genre. Despite the budget, stellar effects, and ambitious set design, Alien in a sense, is a minimalist film – from the simple opening title sequence to the first 45 minutes, it is all dialogue. There is no horror and there is certainly no action. But despite a slow start, the first half still conjures up a sense that something very, very bad is going to happen. The second half of the film, however, is a technical marvel: tense, horrifying, and visually breathtaking. Despite not featuring any big names at the time, the cast for Alien is comprised of credible actors, including Ian Holm and John Hurt. Alien also has a distinction of being one of the first films to feature a female action hero. Of all the actors, Sigourney Weaver would go on to be the most memorable, playing Ripley, the tough, resourceful, and independent crew member who strikes back against the creatures with a deadly vengeance. But the real stars of Alien are the production designers. Michael Seymour designed the perfect ship for the creature to terrorize, a maze of dark passages that enhance the sense of claustrophobia and mounting tension. The titular alien designed by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger is one of unparalleled terror. Giger’s design for the Alien evoked many contradictory sexual images and creates a twisted vision of sex and death. The script, written by Dan O’Bannon, (who based the screenplay upon Star Beast, a story that he had written earlier on in his career), is also cluttered with Freudian and sexually charged symbolism and images, that the creature itself was designed with a phallic tongue and an open vaginal mouth. Note that in the film’s most shocking scene, it is a man who becomes impregnated by the creature as a surrogate mother. Also, note that the name for the starship’s computer interface that awakens the crew members is simply called “Mother” (or MU-TH-R 182). The decision to not give the alien any eyes only enhance its creepiness, while its metallic, reptilian body, razor-sharp teeth, and missing eyes make it one of the most memorable visions ever to appear in a movie. Alien also contains its fair share of genuine scares. The first occurs when the face-hugger leaps out of the egg and attaches itself to Kane. The second is when the alien explodes through Kane’s chest. But the best scene in the film comes when Ash (Ian Holm), calls it a “perfect organism matched only by its hostility,” and goes on to say: “I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions”. Alien was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning Best Visual Effects but losing in Best Art Direction – and because of the film’s success, Scott was able to finance his next futuristic film, Blade Runner.
9. The Thing
The Thing was John Carpenter’s first theatrical film for a major studio (Universal) but was a tremendous box office flop during its initial release. Thankfully, the film gained a large cult following over the years and many consider it one of the best entries into the genre of sci-fi horror. The Thing is a paranoid masterpiece and that rare remake that surpasses the original. The film works on a visceral level, and not just because of the blood and gore but because Carpenter’s knack for creating suspense is honed to perfection. Throughout the entire story, the monster remains an amorphous blob, able to adapt and take the shape of anything it comes across. We are never sure where it is at any given time, and in the end, its true appearance is never revealed. The elaborate special effects (designed by then 22-year-old Rob Bottin) set a high standard for films that followed and these ground-breaking special effects feature some of the most spectacular scenes of body horror ever put on screen. A pivotal moment comes when a man’s head disengages itself from its body, sprouts legs, and transforms into a crab-like creature. In another scene, a stomach splits open to reveal a razor-toothed jaw. The Thing is now recognized as a nerve-shredding masterclass of suspense, paranoia and outright, nihilistic terror. Ennio Morricone’s Carpenteresque synth score of simple drones and repetitive bass lines punctuates the picture, as does the touch of comedic dialogue uttered by a fabulous ensemble cast, a cast led by the one and only Kurt Russell. The Thing can be viewed in many ways: a film about social alienation, fear of disease, over-reliance on science, a monster movie, a conspiracy thriller, a whodunit, and even a Western. Carpenter calls this the first of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which also includes Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, and it’s easy to see why. The film is relentlessly grim, refusing to provide an easy out or a true ending. When the credits roll, you can’t help but think you’ve just witnessed the beginning of the end of mankind.
7. The Exorcist
The phenomenon that was The Exorcist was a studio’s dream come true. With rumors that it was supposedly based on a true story, mass audience walk-outs, protests, vomiting and fainting in theaters, and even the legendary claims that the production was cursed, all helped make The Exorcist the second highest-grossing film at the time ($441 million to be exact). The film earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning two (Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay), before losing Best Picture to The Sting. The film was released during a cycle of ‘demonic child’ movies produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s and featured the incredibly talented cast of Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair, whose transformation from sweet innocent to demonic incarnate is one of the most terrifying performances of all time. This ever-haunting journey into demonic possession is likely as disturbing today as it was back then, and will always be an important film historically. A must-see for any true horror aficionado, The Exorcist is creepy, atmospheric, and contains some truly unforgettable and viscerally shocking scenes – not to mention spectacular special effects for its time.
Based on Tim Krabbe’s The Golden Egg, this clinical, maddening descent into the mind of a serial killer left audiences buzzing with excitement over its ending. The Vanishing could very well be the most intelligent but least influential serial killer film of all time. This is one of the most interesting character studies of obsession: both Gene Bervoets’ obsession with the missing Johanna Ter Steege and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s obsession with stalking young women. Written in a nonlinear fashion, the egg-shaped overlapping narrative tells the same story from two points of view: the perpetrators and the victims. If it seems complex, it is, but the facts are laid out in a straightforward manner since we know so much so early in the film. The Vanishing is a simple story but manages to build one great idea over another throughout. The mystery isn’t who the kidnapper is, but why he took her, and more importantly, where she is now. Every key sequence, every beat, foreshadows the appalling dénouement. The Vanishing is a brilliantly crafted intellectual thriller that will leave you gasping for a breath of fresh air when over.
5. The Shining
Unlike Stephen King’s book which focuses heavily on the supernatural, Stanley Kubrick’s film is more ambiguous and less definitive in the interpretations the film offers. Jack Torrance only kills one person here, yet he is the monster of the film. No one ever questions Wendy, who not only repeatedly hits Jack over the head with a baseball bat, but also lashes after him with a knife, finally leaving him to die of hypothermia. The morality of The Shining is so fuzzy that the film never offers us any answers as to what is real and what could be fabrications of the family’s increasingly warped imaginations. Much of The Shining is presented from Jack’s point-of-view, and it becomes apparent that Kubrick wants us to become bogged down in his turmoil. Of course, a good chunk of the film is also seen from the point of view of Jack’s family; a necessary choice, if only to generate suspense. But it can be argued that the hotel itself has a rather puzzling mind of its own. It’s equally uncertain whether the images seen by Danny are real. There have been many books devoted to Kubrick’s work, and even a recent documentary about several crackpot theories that attempt to decode the hidden symbols and messages buried in the late director’s film. The beauty of The Shining is the ambiguity, and how so many of us walk away with various interpretations. With that said, The Shining is best viewed as a character study of a man haunted by the demons of alcohol and authority issues. Notice there’s a mirror in every scene in which Jack sees a ghost. Does this mean that those spirits are reflections of his tortured psyche? Putting aside speculation and theories, The Shining boasts a brilliant performance by Jack Nicholson, an unimpeachable set design, a superb score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, and flawless cinematography by John Alcott. But the real star of The Shining is Kubrick’s direction. Kubrick creates an atmosphere in which suspense and dread infest every frame with a sense of the macabre. By the end of the film, every inch of the hotel hints at something sinister. The final chase through the snowy hedge labyrinth, Jack’s swinging of the axe, and the creepy teenage girls are just a few reasons why The Shining remains one of the most suspenseful and intense movies ever made.
4. The Birds
Although not as shocking as Psycho, The Birds is a far more complex, ambitious, and sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark in the prolific career of the master of suspense. The Birds is a precursor to nature vs. man horror films as Psycho was to slashers. It is also the second masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town thrillers – the first being Shadow of a Doubt. Perhaps the aspect that stands out the most is the long pauses between dialogue. When one thinks of a Hitchcock film, one remembers the long conversations between the characters. In The Birds, there are countless scenes in which the actors express more through physicality than words. Hitch apparently wanted The Birds to be a silent film or was flirting with the idea but decided it wouldn’t be marketable or profitable. Hitchcock was also experimenting with the idea to not include a score in his film and instead opted for sounds created on the mixtrautonium, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Oskar Sala. Along with Remi Gassmann, they composed a piece that consists primarily of screeching bird sounds, which provides a nerve-wracking, surrealistic backdrop to the sordid proceedings. Although the special effects are dated, they were still impressive for the time. Ray Berwick was responsible for training hundreds of birds, gulls, crows, and more to act like they were attacking without hurting anyone (although apparently, they did). By employing thousands of real birds intermixed with fakes, Hitchcock was able to create the illusion of a mass attack on the quiet community – the result is remarkable, featuring 370 effects shots, with the final shot composed of 32 separately filmed elements. Two images featured prominently in the film are cages and glass: the cage representing Melanie’s closed-minded way of thinking, and the broken glass that suggests the vulnerability of human life. Finally, what makes The Birds a true masterpiece is the final shot. The film does not finish with the usual “THE END” title because Alfred Hitchcock wanted to give the impression of unending terror, and boy, does he succeed.
There are many reasons why Psycho is a masterpiece: One of the principal reasons is its structure. We follow one apparent protagonist only to have her killed off abruptly. Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under our feet, in one of the most shocking scenes in cinematic history. The shower scene in which Janet Leigh is murdered has gone on to become the single most famous scene in any horror film. And yes, Psycho is considered the first psycho-thriller / slasher film, by most – Psycho invoked Freudian psychology as motivation for the killer and gave its murderer Freudian childhood traumas, split personalities, and confused gender roles, everything that would inspire the slasher films of the 70s and 80s. Psycho is pure perfection: Bernard Herman’s score, the shower scene, the mother in the cellar, the knife-wielding maniac, the creepy old house, the twist ending, and even the credits font. Psycho alsoproved an unexpected sleeper hit, largely due to a clever promotional campaign where Hitchcock managed to get theaters to sign a contract that refused to let people in after the film had started. He took the idea from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who did the same back in France with Les Diaboliques. Unfortunately, although Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, he, of course, left the ceremony empty-handed. Regardless, he had the last laugh since Psycho stands the test of time!
George Romero set a new standard for horror with his low-budget directorial debut. The film, made in 1968, broached many taboos (cannibalism, incest, and necrophilia) and changed the face of American horror movies forever while setting the template for zombie films to come. Despite the shoestring budget, Night looks better than the majority of its future imitators and the racial subtext speaks volumes even today. As it was released the same year as Martin Luther King’s assassination, Romero’s film had a profound impact on audiences due to its underlining theme of race relations. Allegory aside, this dark look at human nature generates some claustrophobic terror as its human characters trap themselves within a boarded house, while the walking dead attempt to claw their way in. This is one of the best films of the 60?s, and possibly the most influential horror movie ever made. Even more, Night Of The Living Dead gets better with age.
When someone hears the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they might pass it off as just another inane slasher flick, but Texas is much more; it’s a relentlessly agonizing, bleak masterpiece of horror cinema. Texas isn’t merely interested in scaring its audience; it’s an intelligent and visceral experience that examines the darker impulses found in people, a movie where unspeakably horrific acts take place mostly outside of the frame. Shot on a tiny budget of $83,000, director Tobe Hooper’s stylish debut achieves maximum effect through a combination of Daniel Pearl’s appropriately gritty cinematography, shrieking sound design, and an unnerving concrète score that will ring in your ears long after the end credits roll. The shaky, eerie documentary-style camerawork, practical effects, and the age-old trick of suggestion help lend the film an alarming and utterly believable quality. Hooper’s film is implicit, rather than graphic, but his directorial style will have you walking away thinking it was bloodier than it is. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, and a punishing assault on the senses via the most vivid extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Marilyn Burns’s doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory as will the horror icon it produced, the raging chainsaw wielding lunatic Leatherface. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror film of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever.
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