What are the greatest horror films?
The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of the 150 greatest horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. This is part one.
Special Mention: Thriller
Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking dance routines and unique vocals have influenced generations of musicians, dancers, and entertainers. He was one of the entertainment’s greatest icons, and like most gifted individuals, he was always pushing boundaries, reinventing himself, and testing his limits. One of his biggest accomplishments was Thriller, a 14-minute short film featuring choreographed zombies performing alongside Jackson. The campy horror-fest was directed by John Landis, who had previously directed the hit film An American Werewolf in London, and was choreographed by Michael Peters, who worked with Jackson on his previous video Beat It. The video contains a spoken word performance by horror film veteran Vincent Price, and co-stars former Playboy centerfold Ola Ray. The short was shot on 35mm film, includes expensive sets, multiple shooting locations, and impressive dance choreography. Landis would also call in a favor from American Werewolf in London collaborator Rick Baker (the Oscar-winning makeup artist behind the creature effects) and ask him to design Jackson’s man-to-werewolf transformation. Incidentally, the short also contains original music by Elmer Bernstein, the man who composed the score to American Werewolf in London. The video’s high-in-demand reception, whipped up by multiple daily showings on MTV, would more than double album sales, driving Thriller to become the biggest selling LP of all time, a record it holds to this day. In January of 2010, it was designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry. After its release, music videos would never be the same again.
Blood and Black Lace may be light on story, but it’s rich in style and is one of Bava’s most accomplished works. The film is a beautiful piece of workmanship executed with dazzling, unparalleled use of bright colours and deep shadows and choreographed with cruel precision, with an always mobile camera (mounted on a child’s wagon due to a lack of budget). Some argue this started the Giallo genre; others credit Bay Of Blood, but I argue The Girl Who Knew Too Much is the first true Giallo. Regardless, all three are incredible films and good examples as to why Bava is the true master of horror.
After the suspicious death of his sister’s ex-boyfriend, a teenage boy discovers the shocking reality behind the society that surrounds him. Directed by Bryan Yuzna and starring Billy Warlock, Society is a warped, mind-bending, and clever satire about paranoia, social outcasts, and the relationship between the upper and lower class. The over-the-top and utterly shocking final act with moments of incest, insane orgies, rabid cannibalism and more, must be seen to be believed. The scene finds Billy at a large, formal party where the upper-class guests who engage in shunting begin to physically deform into a writhing, liquefied mass of flesh before literally feeding on the poor, sucking their poor victims free of all nutrients. The last ten minutes, crammed full of Screaming Mad George’s special effects–have become famous in the annals of low-budget horror. When the truth is finally revealed, Society takes body horror to an extreme level of insanity so perversely grotesque that it’s no wonder the film was shelved for years. It’s a scene you’re sure to never forget, although you may wish you could.
148. Vampire Circus
By the beginning of the 1970s, British Hammer Films began to dwindle. William Hinds had retired from the company, and the studio struggled to produce successful films in the face of the shifting interests of young audiences. The post-modern movement was changing the cinematic landscape, and while the existing Dracula series continued to unleash a string of films, they were met with mixed results. So in the early ’70s filmmakers began to experiment with the vampire mythos in strange and innovative new ways in hopes of breathing new life into the genre. One of those entries is Vampire Circus.
English filmmaker Robert Young made his directorial debut with Vampire Circus, and while it features neither Peter Cushing nor Hammer counterpart Christopher Lee, it is one of the best Hammer films thanks to the direction of Young who keeps things stylish, gory, silly and right out entertaining. Less a standard Hammer melodrama, Vampire Circus is reminiscent of Jean Rollin’s erotic vampire series with its erotically charged imagery. There’s so much sex and nudity here that one could easily label this a ’70s sexploitation film, albeit with rich subtext and multiple readings. But above all, Vampire Circus is far more violent than previous entries in the Hammer canon. Throats are slashed, bodies are torn apart and characters have their heads blown off by shotgun blasts. Director Robert Young tosses in some striking set-pieces as well and shows a real flair for innovative kills. Along with its outlandish art direction, colourful cinematography (shot in Technicolor), lavish sets, circus freaks, and more, Vampire Circus is one of the studio’s most stylish and interesting projects. Undermentioned and underrated, Vampire Circus packs more punch than many of the other titles from the production house.
147. Q The Winged Serpent
Genre pioneer Larry Cohen takes a stab at the giant-monster genre with Q, The Winged Serpent, a first-rate grade-Z schlock masterwork, which successfully combines a film noir crime story with good old-fashioned creature effects. The title refers to the winged Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, represented here as a dragon-like, flying serpent hovering over New York City. Given his budgetary restrictions, Coen directs Q much like Spielberg directed Bruce in Jaws. We see a shadow here and there across the sides of skyscrapers and along the Brooklyn Bridge, and we catch a glimpse of it’s giant claws, but Cohen keeps the creature mostly offscreen for the first two acts. The cinematography by Robert Levi and Fred Murphy makes the most of the Big Apple atmosphere, and the aerial photography representing Q’s-point-of-view is especially impressive given the low budget. The monster itself looks silly, brought to life by a combination of stop-motion animation and prosthetics (courtesy of David Allen) – but the homemade, Ray Harryhausen-like quality only adds to the pic’s odd charm. What makes Q such an enjoyable film is not so much its gore nor its creature, but rather Cohen’s sense of humour and Michael Moriarty’s knockout performance. The film lights up every second Moriarty is onscreen as the small-time criminal, down on his luck, and on the run from the mob. His performance is so good that the story becomes more about Jimmy than the giant serpent terrorizing a city. Cohen used what little resources and money he had and made the most of it. Q is a movie crammed with witty dialogue, bizarre plot twists, and some great ideas. Sleazy, entertaining, and guerrilla filmmaking at its best.
146. The Fury
In this action-suspense picture packed with paranormal activity, Kirk Douglas plays government agent Peter Sandza, whose telepathic son (Andrew Stevens) has been kidnapped by his colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), working for a CIA-like secret government agency that plans to exploit the boy’s psychic abilities for warfare. Sandza’s desperate search for his son brings him into contact with a teenage girl named Gillian (Amy Irving), who also has strong ESP powers. He gains her trust, and together, they join forces in the hope of saving his son Robin before it’s too late. Brian De Palma’s immediate successor to Carrie was The Fury, a supernatural horror/espionage/occult/mindfuck of a movie, which, like Carrie, manages a similar variation on the theme of teenagers using telekinetic powers to exercise repressed feelings. And The Fury, not unlike Carrie, is on some level about the need to symbolically kill your parents to set yourself free. The Fury is the movie Armond White said is impossible not to completely, wholly love if you have any shred of understanding of the medium of film and how it works. But when released in 1978, The Fury was viewed by most critics as being a definite disappointment. The Fury is a film of sprawling incoherence, with characters severely underwritten, and often doesn’t make much sense. De Palma based it on the 1976 novel by horror writer John Farris, who adapted his complex 350-page thriller into a 118-page screenplay. The results are messy, but The Fury is entirely satisfying and always entertaining. More than that, it shows De Palma working out personal themes that have consistently appeared throughout his entire career. With The Fury, De Palma allowed his imagination free rein. The Fury, at times, is as visually expressive as anything De Palma has ever directed, dominated by one incredible set-piece after another. It’s best, in fact, to ignore the inconsistencies of the plot and focus instead on the astounding visuals: De Palma experiments with techniques like split-screen, signature bird’s-eye views, 360 degree pans, and lots of great slow-motion – and as with Carrie, De Palma saves the real money shot for last – a denouement well worth the wait.
One of the most self-assured directorial debuts of the 70’s was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Not only was it a breakthrough film for the master of Giallo, but it was also a box office hit and had critics buzzing, regardless if they liked it or not. Although Argento would go on to perfect his craft in later films, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage went a long way in popularizing the Giallo genre and laid the groundwork for later classics like Deep Red. A difficult film to discuss without spoiling many of its most impressive and famous scenes, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, albeit with many twists, turns and one of the best surprise endings of all time. But Argento’s thriller is just that — a thriller and not really a horror film — and though it is miles ahead of many of its imitators, it never reaches the heights of Tenebrae, Opera or Deep Red. These films function on a higher level, whereas Bird With the Crystal Plumage never quite transcends its origins in pulp fiction.
In I Walked With A Zombie, a young Canadian nurse named Betsy Connell visits the West Indies to care for the wife of a plantation manager who seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. Betsy soon discovers her patient isn’t normal – her vital signs are all intact, but she has no emotional or mental awareness. Desperate to cure her, she consults a powerful group of local voodoo practitioners who unleash their black magic. Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Night of the Demon), working with cinematographer J. Roy Hunt, paints a beautiful if haunting motion picture via sight and sound and uses Caribbean folklore and strange religious imagery to transcend the conventions of the horror genre. The lighting, acting, shadows, exotic setting, and music all contribute to creating atmosphere and suspense through suggestion. Despite the title, there are no monsters to be found here; I Walked With A Zombie instead addresses slavery and local superstition built around the moral dilemma of the Christian concept of right and wrong. Tourneau’s direction is incredible and inspiring.
143. Wild Zero
Get ready for the craziest, punk-rock zombie flick you’ll ever see! Helmed by noted counter-culture-video-director Takeuchi Tetsuro (known as Mr. MTV in Japan), this low-budget horror production starring the cult Japanese rock band Guitar Wolf along with hundreds of non-professional actors, was shot over a 3-week period with an estimated budget of $50,000, and a small team of dedicated and talented computer effects artists by their side. The zombie extras in the film are a treat to watch – with the Thai military and their families standing in for the walking dead. You haven’t seen strange until you’ve seen Wild Zero — this exuberantly silly Japanese punk trash flick reportedly made with a cast and crew who drank themselves silly while on set, will leave you staring in amazement. If The Ramones had decided to make a movie for Troma, the results might look similar to Wild Zero. (One of the first images in the film is, in fact, the Ramones album cover Subterranean Jungle). Think Rock And Roll High School crossed with Night of the Living Dead, crossed with The World’s End. “Thrill, Speed, and Stupid Zombies” is the tagline, but Wild Zero offers so much more, including transgendered love, fire-breathing motorbikes, and a guitar that doubles as a deadly energy sword used to fight off an alien mothership.
142. Dressed To Kill
Brian De Palma’s films, like Tarantino’s, are a cinematic mash-up of influences from the past, and in De Palma’s case, he borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock. Obsession is De Palma’s Vertigo, Blow Out his Rear Window, and with Dressed to Kill the director set his sights on Psycho. Dressed To Kill is more thriller than horror, but what a stylish and twisted thriller it is! The highlight here is an amazing ten-minute chase sequence set in an art gallery and conducted entirely without dialogue. There are a number of other well-sustained set pieces, including a race in the subway system and even, yes, a gratuitous shower murder sequence. Dressed To Kill features an excellent cast (Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson), a superb score (courtesy of Pino Donaggio) and a shocking finale — but the reason to see this film is for the fabulous camera work by Ralf Bode and De Palma’s direction.
Elevated by standout performances from James Caan and Kathy Bates, Misery remains one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date. Director Rob Reiner is clearly more interested in the dark humour and humanity than the gory detail in King’s novel, but make no mistake about it, Misery is a tough watch, soaked in sharp dialogue, a brooding atmosphere, and disturbing bodily harm inflicted on James Caan by sweet old Kathy Bates. I can still feel his pain.
Special Mention: Night Of The Hunter
This American Gothic, Biblical tale of greed, innocence, seduction, and murder is based on the popular, best-selling 1953 Depression-era novel of the same name by the first-time writer Davis Grubb – and adapted for the screen by famed writer-author James Agee. Actor-turned-director Charles Laughton unfortunately never made another film, even though he demonstrated such promise and skill for a filmmaker. With Night of the Hunter, Laughton took many risks – the film was shot in only 36 days – in black and white when color was the new craze – and in standard ratio when theaters were beginning to show Cinemascope. The film did poorly at the box office and critics were extremely harsh in their reviews. Nevertheless, the film has found a wider audience over the years, and Robert Mitchum’s performance, in particular, has been praised and cited as one of cinema’s greatest villains. Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a pedophile, self-appointed preacher-turned-serial killer, who carries a switchblade and has “HATE” and “LOVE” tattooed on the knuckles of either fist. Mitchum’s portrayal of the obsessive sexually repressed misogynous maniac is often compared to Joseph Cotton’s performance in Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt. Both men are sleek monsters, but Mitchum’s Powell has a slight edge delivering one of the most chilling vocal performances ever put on film: his terrifying religious anthem “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” will make the hairs on your neck stand up. The Night of the Hunter is truly a compelling and haunting masterpiece and one of the greatest American films of all time; Experimental, sophisticated, avant-garde, dream-like, expressive and truly, a one of a kind.