The List of the Greatest Horror Movies Continues…
Special Mention: Seconds
John Frankenheimer’s ultimately terrifying Twilight Zone-like, futuristic thriller Seconds, received mixed reviews and was critically panned at the Cannes Film Festival. But what do they know? This provocative film underscores the Faustian theme – the yearning for youth and desire to live life over again – and the price to pay for everything gained. Seconds is a chilling character study and a distressing examination of happiness, loneliness, consumerism, and the American dream. Thankfully, repeated showings on late-night television helped the film find a much-deserved cult following. Seconds features dazzling, disorienting, rich, black-and-white cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe, whose use of long takes, wide-angle lenses, and skewed framing gives Seconds the feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Saul Bass contributes a spectacularly haunting title sequence that immediately sets the mood along with the edgy jangle of Jerry Goldsmith’s excoriating score. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) directs Seconds as a nightmare, heightening every shot to maximum discomfort. The unbroken hand-held camerawork on many angst-ridden sequences, including an outdoor orgy, gives Seconds a unique, rough feel of the ‘60s and ‘70s underground. And the echoing sound effect of a drill near the end will make you scream.
Frankenheimer’s claustrophobic hellish vision of an unhappy man examining his life to see what went wrong is essential viewing. Rock Hudson’s portrayal of a tortured soul (now an abstract painter) struggling to fill in the blank canvas of what he calls life, is a tour de force performance. Seconds is a masterpiece and one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made.
140. The Long Weekend
The Long Weekend marked the beginning of a solid run of good Australian horror films penned by Everett De Roche, who also wrote Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981) and Razorback (1984). The Long Weekend is an extremely tense thriller that doesn’t rely on the usual standard shock strategy to deliver its scares. A well-executed and innovative film (for the time), The Long Weekendranks as one of the best “nature vs.man” films – steeped in the mid-70s statements of environmentalism, and hinting at a broader ecological agenda with mention of nuclear testing and oil exploration. The small cast all pull in great performances and the sound design is carefully layered gradually escalating to increase the tension. But the best thing about The Long Weekend is the camera work by cinematographer Vincent Monton which gives the pic a realistic feel with voyeuristic documentary-quality shots of the outback surroundings. Not a typical horror film in the standard sense but this small masterpiece is a must-see for its slow, eerie pacing and atmosphere.
139. Tetsuo: The Ironman
This 1989 Japanese cyberpunk film by cult-film director Shinya Tsukamoto combines Eraserhead’s monochrome industrial landscapes with David Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror. Tetsuo established Tsukamoto internationally and garnered him a worldwide cult following. Shot on 16 mm and on a shoestring budget, the underground experimental pic is unquestionably a feat of imagination with its creative imagery, homoerotic, nutty visuals, frenetic stop-motion, sharp editing, and strong industrial musical score. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is completely surreal and off-kilter and quite unlike any sci-fi/horror film you’ll ever see.
From genre director Pete Walker (The Flesh, Blood Show, House Of Whipcord, and The Confessional) comes Frightmare, one of my personal favorite British horror films ever made. Apart from border-lining the slasher genre, Frightmare displays an overwhelming distrust of psychiatry and related professions and examines the idea of nature vs. nurture. There’s an artistry to Peter Walker’s work — his fluid studied camera movements and intentionally abrupt edits, project the gore and provides a disarming atmosphere. The entire cast delivers superb performances, but this is Sheila Keith’s show. Her Dorothy is the epitome of the passive-aggressive mother, alternating between smart and feeble-minded, attentive and disoriented and so on. But don’t be easily fooled, as she eventually makes it very clear that she is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Frightmare is a marvel, a genuinely shocking film that features a fabulous ending.
Patrick was not only a pivotal film and a commercial success but it was nominated in three categories, including Best Film, at the 1978 AFI Awards and director Richard Franklin took home the Best Director prize at the prestigious Sitges Fantasy Film Festival in Spain. Patrick is a truly original film in that its villain remains in a comatose for the entire film. Everett De Roche’s script is surprisingly vivid and punchy; developing its characters well beyond your usual fright-flick archetypes and Richard Franklin’s direction is elegant and suspenseful, relying on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and gore. The strong cast includes some of Australia’s finest actors, from Julia Blake as the mastiff of a matron to Robert Helpmann as the dangerous doctor. As the titular character, Robert Thompson is utterly mesmerizing on screen despite the fact that he doesn’t utter a single word and Susan Penhaligon who plays the feisty nurse pulls off a rather difficult act of looking convincing while having a conversation with a man in a coma.
For the uninitiated, Zombi 2 is a 1979 horror film directed by Lucio Fulci. It is perhaps the best-known of Fulci’s films, banned in some countries, censored in others and is, in my opinion, one of the best zombie films ever made. Fulci’s direction is confident, the makeup and special effects were done by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani are fantastic (especially for the time) and the pulsating electronic score courtesy of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci is one of the best in horror history. The movie also features two very famous scenes: One features an eyeball-popping out of the socket and the other has an underwater sequence in which a shark battles a zombie.
135. Next of Kin
The slow, measured pacing may be too much for mainstream moviegoers but if you have the patience to sit it out, Next of Kin offers one of the best payoffs of any film mentioned on this list. Next of Kin starts as a gothic style mystery-thriller with a hint of the supernatural and then jumps to a full-on Giallo-style third act – culminating with an unforgettable final shot. While it may be influenced by Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Next of Kin is the closest I have seen to matching the atmosphere of The Shining. Along with an absolutely breathtaking distinctive musical score by Klaus Schulze (drummer of Tangerine Dream) and incredible, stylish visual imagery, Next of Kin is a must-see.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s 1976 cult classic Who Can Kill a Child?, which was adapted from Juan Jose Plans’ novel, is arguably one of the best Spanish horror films ever made. Due to haphazard distribution and the studio constantly changing the title (including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play), Serrador’s film barely surfaced but despite the limited exposure, the film eventually found a devoted following. Horror aficionados passed around bootleg VHS copies and occasionally the film would appear on late night television until it would receive an uncut release on DVD in 2007. Working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Who Can Kill A Child takes place in a remote Spanish island where children who are afflicted by a kind of supernatural plague begin to kill the entire adult population. Replace the flesh-eating walking dead with killer kids, and the result is genuinely unsettling.
133. Tenebrae / Unsane
Tenebrae was a return to the classic Giallo formula for Dario Argento, who had previously directed two films with supernatural themes back to back (Suspiria and Inferno). The film is filled with the director’s trademarks and the over-the-top stylish motifs you’d expect from Giallo: homicidal maniacs, black leather gloves, a killer’s point of view, convoluted plot twists, pulse-pounding music, colorful cinematography with garish, bright reds, greens, and yellows and even a twist ending. It is said to be Argento’s most personal film (Tenebrae was reportedly inspired after Argento was stalked by a fan) – but more importantly, Tenebrae is his most self-reflexive work and sees Argento responding to the numerous critics who found the violence in his film to be problematic. Unfortunately, as with many of his movies, it seems Argento wrote Tenebrae keeping each set-piece in mind and wasn’t too concerned with whether or not the plot made any logical sense. Regardless, the set pieces are incredible, specifically, the long crane shot which reportedly took three days to film. (Fans of Argento’s work might be interested to know that Tenebrae was shot by Luciano Tovoli who was also the director of photography on Suspiria).
Adapted from a play written by Maisie Mosco titled Happy Family, Girly is an offbeat, low-key horror melodrama about a family of psychos who lure strangers into their home and plays twisted mind games with their playmates before murdering them. One man who has been drawn in realizes his precarious situation and decides to beat them at their own game and turn the various members of the family against each other. Girly (also known as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) was directed by Freddie Francis, who first became famous for his work as the cinematographer on The Innocents, The Elephant Man, Dune and Cape Fear before directing such notable films as The Skull and Tales from the Crypt. Girly is one of the best and most bizarre films of the early ’70s Brit psycho-horror entries, stuffed with clever dialogue (that often rhymes), great performances, and confident direction. But Vanessa Howard steals the show as the titular character, alternating between childlike simplicity, teasing sexuality and downright crazy. Sadly she would retire from acting a few after starring in Girly. Watch for the “axe through the door scene” which predates The Shining.
When a Stranger Calls originally started out as The Sitter, a short film made by director Fred Walton, but because of the massive success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was expanded to form the basis of a feature. The slow-burn approach is book-ended by some truly excellent classic horror movie moments – the opening alone serves as the entire basis for Wes Craven’s Scream — andWalton does an incredible job of mounting the tension almost entirely using sound. Everything from the constant phone ringing to the killer’s creepy voice to the powerhouse score keeps viewers at the edge of their seats. Charles Durning gives a more than capable performance – virtually stealing the show when he breaks down, completely nude, in front of his reflection in the washroom mirror. Highly recommended!
Special Mention: The Last Wave
The tagline reads, “The Occult Forces. The Ritual Murder. The Sinister Storms. The Prophetic Dreams. The Last Wave.”
Peter Weir follows up on his critically acclaimed masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock with this visually striking and totally engrossing surrealist psychological thriller. Much like Picnic, The Last Wave is built around a mystery that may have a supernatural explanation. And like many Peter Weir movies, The Last Wave explores the conflict between two radically different cultures; in this case, that of Aboriginal Australians and the white Europeans.
It is about a white lawyer, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), whose seemingly normal life is rattled after he takes on a pro bono legal aid case to defend a group of Aborigines from a murder charge in Sydney. The mystery within the mystery surrounding the death leads the story down a rainstorm of apocalyptic proportions. Neither Picnic at Hanging Rock nor The Last Wave feature a conventional ending and truth be told, The Last Wave’s ending can be a dealbreaker for some. Unlike Picnic, which lends itself to multiple interpretations, The Last Wave seems to offer only one possible explanation in the end. Still, the film is an interesting mixture of dreams and reality – of occult tribal rituals and of modern-day society – and of mental telepathy.
130. My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine was made at the height of the slasher/holiday trend and is noteworthy as one of the most distinctly Canadian horror films ever made. Produced by Happy Birthday To Me gurus John Dunning and André Link, and directed by George Mihalka, My Bloody Valentine is one of the best in the slasher genre for several reasons: Mihalka’s direction is first-rate; the score by Paul Zaza is effectively creepy; the small-town location and mining mill makes for a refreshingly unique setting; the film features a decent body count (though not much blood); and finally, the killer has bragging rights on wearing the best costume of all slasher villains (the unstoppable miner’s identity is hidden by a gas mask and he has a construction helmet complete with its own headlight). My Bloody Valentine is competently made, well shot, expertly paced and features a great cast along with some creative ways to kill them off one by one.
Lucio Fulci’s stylish, modern-day murder mystery about a child killer on a rampage in a remote southern Italian village is a clever and complex social commentary on the effects of mob mentality on vigilante justice, pedophilia, traditional values, and the ignorance of modern thinking. Not only does Fulci toss around themes of Catholic guilt, sexual repression, psychological trauma, small-town narrow-mindedness, and hypocrisy, but Don’t Torture a Duckling also features some of the best directed scenes in the filmmaker’s canon (which is saying a lot). The most powerful scene follows the local townsmen who stalk Maciara, a local woman who is rumored to be a witch and just released from police custody after having been deemed innocent and harmless. When the men catch up to her, they each take turns beating her viciously with chains and whatever else is within their reach. Don’t Torture A Duckling is unforgiving at times as a few scenes are crude, bloody and extremely unsettling. Nevertheless, it acts as a powerful social commentary and might just be Fulci’s best, and most underrated film.
Bernard Rose had already impressed horror audiences with his little-seen 1988 film Paperhouse, but in 1992, the writer/director took everyone by surprise with Candyman, a dark horse hit that had critics and audiences talking for months. Based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, Candyman is one of the few horror films released in the early ’90s that was not only original but truly terrifying. The pic examines the power of myth and the role of imagination in fear while using the Chicago projects as a backdrop for racial injustice. The titular legend involves the son of a slave who was tortured and murdered for impregnating a white woman. Out for revenge, the townspeople cut off Candyman’s hand and covered his entire body with honey before leaving him to the bees. He has since haunted the bedtime stories and nightmares of his Chicago burial ground, shedding innocent blood when his name is spoken five times into a mirror. Candyman works on so many levels. Not only is it a sophisticated, engaging story but it also gave the horror world a tragic new boogeyman to fear in Tony Todd’s ominous portrayal of Candyman. Tony Todd’s work as Candyman is one of the best of modern horror. Rose produces a number of startling shocks and scares, but what makes Candyman send shivers down your spine is the brooding atmosphere that drips through every frame. Candyman also features a haunting and depressing soundtrack by Phillip Glass, which perfectly mirrors the film’s boogeyman, and the top-notch make-up and practical effects are considered remarkable for the day.
127. Just Before Dawn
Just Before Dawn doesn’t do anything new in terms of backwoods horror slashers, but fuck is it ever good. The film is beautifully shot, competently acted — and it features great locations, a brooding atmosphere, and early work from music composer Brad Fiedel, who wrote and performed the film’s eerie minimalist score. It’s also deeply unsettling, and the twist ending is surprisingly effective. Just Before Dawn carefully plays with gender roles and queer stereotypes and by the time the climax rolls along, the passive, quiet good-girl-next-door type (played by Deborah Benson) is kicking ass and taking names. Lieberman cites the 1972 filmDeliverance as the main influence and calls Just Before Dawn his personal favorite of his works.
After a strong debut with the paranoid thriller Shivers (1975), David Cronenberg crafted Rabid starring former adult film star Marilyn Chambers as Rose, an attractive young woman who becomes horribly injured in a motorcycle accident and is rushed to a clinic where a pair of experimental plastic surgeons make Rose an unwitting guinea pig in an operation that grafts genetically modified tissue into her body. The tissue is grafted to fire-damaged areas in the hope that it will differentiate and replace the damaged skin and organs only there are unusual side effects: Rose unexpectedly develops an orifice under her armpit and a thirst for human blood. Vampire-like, she roams the city of Montreal, using her beauty to attract victims who fall prey to an incurable, highly contagious disease that turns them into rabid zombies. The disease spreads at an alarming rate and soon, the city is under martial law. David Cronenberg’s second film continues to develop his fascination with bodily horror and explores the relationships between sex and violence, and the slow corrosion of modern society. Rabid is an unconventional vampire film, but it showcased Cronenberg’s distinct aesthetic signature and is the movie that really launched his career. It’s dark, twisted, ugly and includes some disturbing visuals and a plethora of symbolic sexual imagery. There’s no glamour to be found here – even the beautiful Marilyn Chambers spends most of her screentime covered in blood.
The House With Laughing Windows opens and ends as a meditation on suffering and art. The film begins with a series of highly disturbing images juxtaposed with the opening title cards. The first scene (which plays out in sepia tones) features a man chained, tortured and repeatedly stabbed by two hooded figures. We hear his tormented cries of pain amidst the blurry imagery, and a grating voiceover speaks: “colours, my colours, they run from my veins, colours, sweet colours.” Right from the start, it becomes clear that The House With Laughing Windows isn’t your typical Giallo. While it does feature a familiar meta-narrative with a mystery homicidal maniac stalking in the night and a half dozen or so suspects at large, the premise borrows from H.G. Lewis’s Bloodfeast and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and follows a killer who is obsessed with capturing on canvas the reactions of people at the precise moment of their death. The House With Laughing Windows suffers from a middle section rooted too deeply in an unconvincing love interest, but it’s the bookends that make this picture great. The intricate plot will keep you guessing until the very end, and the shocking conclusion (and I do mean shocking), will burn in your memory for a very, very, long time.
After the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the Italian film industry set out to produce a slate of thrillers with animal-related titles. One of the first was Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Despite its Giallo status, Fulci’s film is a different beast from those made by his colleagues, and earned a reputation as one of Fulci’s finest works, though its climax falls somewhat short. The strength of the movie (as with most Giallos) lies in the visuals. Fulci’s innovative camera work helps reinforce the sense of illusion throughout, and Ennio Morricone’s score complements the picture’s strange mood perfectly. The highlight of the film is an 11-minute nerve-wracking chase sequence through the catacombs of a church, ending with a bloody rooftop encounter. At times it’s a bit slow, but Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a unique and wild experience. Keep an eye out for the obvious ripoff/homage of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
British director Stephen Norrington helmed this David S. Goyer adaptation of the Marvel Comics character created in 1973 by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan. Though some may find the plot a bit lacking, Blade is a dark, edgy, thoroughly watchable action movie featuring jaw-dropping fight sequences, a hip techno soundtrack and perfect casting for its titular character. The production design and cinematography are worth special attention and I especially love the blood-drenched nightclub sequence. Blade is not only one of the most enjoyable vampire films but one of the best comic book movie adaptations yet.
122. The Devil Rides Out
Often cited as the best film that Terence Fisher and Hammer ever made together, The Devil Rides Out is my personal favorite from the legendary studio. Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out was one of a number of British films during the 60’s that touched upon occult matters and is crammed with a half dozen or so memorable set pieces, and a series of great scenes, including a car chase that is interrupted by the use of black magic – and the rescue of a young couple who become victims to an outdoor Satanic orgy. There is also a superb scene in where Charles Gray’s Mocata comes to visit the house and uses hypnosis on Sarah Lawson’s Marie Eaton. With the tranquility of his voice, he puts her in a trance; meanwhile, his influence is felt upstairs as he urges two sleeping victims to commit murder. This long sequence, wherein he gradually puts his victim under his spell, is superbly, acted and directed – culminating with the best line of the film: “I won’t be returning – but something else will.” Fisher gets the most mileage from his small budget, creating some wonderful scenes involving the powers of black magic and the occult. The finest sequence is the suspenseful extended climax, set around a protective pentacle drawn on the floor. In order to protect themselves, the group of friends must stay within the diagram throughout the entire night. Meanwhile, Mocata tries to break in by preying on them psychologically. The scene is pure cinematic gold as we watch Christopher Lee’s brave duke do battle with a coven of Satanists out to disrupt the balance between good and evil. Truthfully, the manifestations of evil are a bit dated, but the storytelling does a fine job of setting the stakes high, and Fisher has a lot of fun with this slice of black magic. With a screenplay adapted by the great Richard Matheson — and with Fisher (arguably the best auteur of Hammer Studios) behind the camera — along with Christopher Lee in front of it — the film is indeed essential viewing for fans of Horror. In his long career, Lee has appeared in over 300 films, but this is one of the few roles where he plays the good guy. It is a masterful performance and one of his best.
Considered one of Spain’s hottest directors in the late 1990s, Alex de la Iglesia hasn’t slowed down one bit over time. He’s continuously directed genre-bending, imaginative films, laced with black humour and often sharp satire for over two decades. His tongue-in-cheek sci-fi thriller The Day of the Beast won no fewer than six of the Oscar equivalent, the Goyas. Best described as a comic precursor to End of Days, The Day of the Beast follows a Catholic priest and professor of theology (Alex Angulo) who tries to thwart the coming of Satan on Christmas Eve. In a rather slapdash manner, he befriends a metalhead record store clerk (Santiago Segura) and the host of a paranormal-themed TV talk show (Armando DeRazza) to help him on his quest. Convinced that Satan’s spawn will be born somewhere in Madrid, Father Angel sets out into the streets, conducting acts of evil, to earn his way into the Devil’s inner circle, and to destroy Satan himself. This ambitious horror film has garnered a sizeable cult following over the years, and with good reason. Comprised of equal parts high-concept horror and scathing social satire, The Day of the Beast remains the director’s finest work to date – and the best holiday horror film ever made. It was a box office smash in Spain and earned de la Iglesia the gig to direct the sequel to Wild At Heart, titled Perdita Durango. Much like the director’s peer and former collaborator Pedro Almodovar, de la Iglesia throws in a tidal wave of black comedy. While the film is rife with violence and profanity, Day is fuelled by de la Iglesia’s fast-paced slapstick sensibilities – and brought to life by the incredible performances from his cast. De la Iglesia borrows from Russ Meyer, The Exorcist, Network, H.P. Lovecraft, Larry Cohen, and Sam Raimi, to name a few, but his style isn’t all homage; the genre of Biblical prophecies concerning themselves with The Book of Revelations, the Anti-Christ, The Rapture and the Number of the Beast, has never looked so fresh. The Day of the Beast is one of the most original horror films made in the past 30 years and after 104 minutes of de la Iglesia’s mayhem, you’ll be wishing for more. Day moves at a fast pace, and every frame is used to maximum effect – every character, gag, line of dialogue, prop, and location serves to move the plot forward. And boy does de la Iglesia push forward, despite the limited budget. Delirious, demented and diabolically funny, The Day of the Beast is essential viewing.
Special Mention: Wait Until Dark
Directed by Terence Young, this well-made thriller is based on the hit play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote Dial M for Murder). Wait Until Dark stars Audrey Hepburn as a young blind woman who is terrorized in her apartment by two men (Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna) searching for heroin that made its way into a doll given to her as a gift. Hepburn is mesmerizing in the lead and earned her fifth (and last) Best Actress nomination, losing to her mother, Katharine Hepburn. The film is filled with spell-binding tension, and its climax is ranked tenth on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Wait Until Dark is innovative, highly entertaining, and full of suspense. It may be best classified as a thriller but it receives a special mention on this list for literally giving birth to the term “jump scare.”
Greatest Horror Movies
150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 20)
Things are about to get a little scary…
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.
(see the full list on one page here)
Greatest Horror Movies
150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 40)
Scream now, while there’s still room to breathe.
The 40 Greatest Horror Films
Special Mention: Un chien andalou
The dream – or nightmare – has been a staple of horror cinema for decades. In 1929, Luis Bunuel joined forces with Salvador Dali to create Un chien andalou, an experimental and unforgettable 17-minute surrealist masterpiece. The film went on to influence the horror genre immensely. After all, even as manipulative as the “dream” device is, it’s still a proven way to jolt an audience. Just ask Wes Craven, who understood this bit of cinematic psychology when he dreamt of the central force behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film intended to be an exploration of surreal horror. David Lynch is contemporary cinema’s most devoted student of Un chien andalou – the severed ear at the beginning of Blue Velvet is a direct allusion to Buñuel’s blood-curdling famous closeup on the slashing of an eyeball with a razor. Technically, that scene alone could classify Un chien andalou as the first splatter film. Though it is not a horror film per se, the film does contain a number of disturbing images: an army of ants crawling through a hole in a man’s hand, dead animals strung on top of a piano, and children playing with dismembered hands. Buñuel and Dalí compile images and scenes that will make you cringe and, in the case of the splitting eyeball, look away. Buñuel exploits the viewer through these horrific images, understanding that people enjoy seeing something macabre.
40. The Devils
Ken Russell’s The Devils originally carried an X rating— even after several scenes were removed. An entire sequence referred to as “The Rape of Christ” was never shown until recently restored for a special screening at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2010. It remains one of the most powerful and most confrontational films ever to lay assault on the crimes and hypocrisies of the Church. Adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, the story revolves around a liberal-thinking priest in 17th-century France whose womanizing exploits make him unpopular with the Catholic clergy and whose political views make him a liability for Cardinal Richelieu. He is denounced and accused of consorting with the Devil and having sexual activities with the nuns in the town’s convent, most notably Sister Jeanne, an unsatisfied, humpbacked nun who’s fallen in love with him. The Devils, however, is not an attack on religious belief, but an attack on governmental misuse and perversion of religion for its own selfish goals. As Cardinal Richelieu says, “You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns. You have perverted the innocent.” Apart from Ken Russell’s genius direction, the entire village of Loudon is wholly created by legendary filmmaker Derek Jarman. The film always looks great thanks to his dazzling eye-catching sets, and if that wasn’t enough, Russell hired avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies to do the score. Along with Oliver Reed’s powerful, sexually driven performance, and Vanessa Redgrave’s daring portrayal of Sister Jeanne, The Devils is a hypnotizing film and one you’ll never forget.
Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted to the big screen numerous times. In 1956, innovative director Don Siegel gave us the first adaptation. His tense, offbeat psychological sci-fi thriller is superbly crafted and remains potent to this day. It can be read as a political metaphor or enjoyed as an efficient, chilling blend of sci-fi and horror; either way, it works. The 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman, and starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, and Leonard Nimoy, is even better. It is one of those rare sequels that holds on to both the spirit and political allegory of the original. The film was also a box office success and is considered by many to be among the greatest film remakes. This is a classic – a must-see and features one of the greatest endings to any horror film.
38. The Evil Dead
This advantageous feature debut from out-of-school filmmaker Sam Raimi remains a benchmark of modern horror. While many will argue the sequel is far more entertaining, The Evil Dead works far better as a straight-up horror film. It actually received an X rating (mostly due to the infamous tree-rape sequence), was banned in many countries, and was later cited as a video nasty. One of the most remarkable things about The Evil Dead is how much it was able to accomplish on such a small budget. The film was shot on 16mm in the woods of Tennessee for around $350,000, and yet the final product looks five times more expensive than the cost. Injecting considerable black humor, Raimi brings his pic to life by drenching the screen in copious amounts of fake blood. The woods come alive with the imaginative camerawork devised by Raimi and cinematographer Tim Philo, and Tom Sullivan’s amazing make-up effects climax remains a thing of beauty.
37. God Told Me To
In writer/director Larry Cohen’s occult/sci-fi thriller, Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection, The 7-Ups) plays police Lieutenant Nicholas, who unravels a mysterious spree of murders in New York City, committed by regular citizens who each claim that God compelled them to commit the crimes. Cohen wrote and produced, as well as directed, this weird low-budget B-movie that blends sci-fi, occultism, pseudo-religion, crime mystery, and horror. Other elements that Larry Cohen throws into this melting pot of genres and themes include infidelity, paranoia, religion, extraterrestrial abductions and even a supernatural ‘Christ’-like figure with a vagina in his ribcage who was the product of a virgin birth. This stark police procedural succeeds thanks to all its truly bizarre otherworldly themes, surprising twists, solid direction and strong performances.
36. Cat People
One of the first films to reference the work of Sigmund Freud was Cat People, a story about an American man who marries a Serbian immigrant who fears that she will turn into a cat-like person if they are sexually intimate. Cat People plays out as a dark and fearless study of sexual repression and anxiety, underlining what would later make psycho-sexual supernatural horror popular. It was ahead of its time in many ways, and it was also the first film in a series of nine brilliant literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the ’40s. Of the nine, it is arguably the best, and an evocative reminder of how powerful ‘less is more’ can be. Take for example the scene in which Alice is stalked by the feline Irena through the city streets at night. Just as the threat seems to creep up behind her, the sudden arrival of a bus terrifies her. It’s so simple yet so effective because Lewton is a master at creating mood and atmosphere. After Cat People was released, cinephiles would refer to jump scares as the “Lewton Bus” moment. The film is also blessed with the beautiful expressionistic cinematography courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, and Roy Webb’s melancholy score, which accents the romantic and tragic love story at the center.
The king of Italian horror, Dario Argento, directs what many consider to be his masterpiece. Suspiria is one of the most important and influential genre movies ever made and essential viewing for all horror fans. Suspiria’s overall charm resides in its technical triumphs and visual style. Taking his cues from Mario Bava, Argento, together with his director of photography Luciano Tovoli, creates a vibrant, colorful film apart from the standards of the genre. Argento’s masterful use of intense primary colors (he acquired 1950s Technicolor stock to get the effect) and stunning set designs gives the whole film a hallucinatory intensity. The dissonant, throbbing score, composed by Argento and performed by his frequent collaborators, Italian rock band Goblin, drives the picture with the occasional distorted shriek of “Witch!” A strange combination of the arthouse and horror film, Suspiria, although cited as one of the scariest movies ever made is, ironically, one of Argento’s least violent films. It relies more on tone and atmosphere than on blood and gore. Surreal and frightening, Suspiria still shocks audiences decades after its original release.
Many will argue Suspiria is Argento’s full-fledged masterpiece, but Deep Red is a slightly better film. Argento’s trademarks are all visible here in copious amounts; every elaborate stylistic choice he would carry on for the remainder of his career is present and accounted for. From a technical standpoint, Deep Red is a masterwork, featuring stunning cinematography and a superb, jazzy score by Argento’s band Goblin. Deep Red is one of the most distinct sounding and looking horror films of the 70s and undoubtedly Argento’s finest picture. But more importantly, the film also excels where most Giallos fall short: it carries an engaging narrative heightened by an unpredictable course of events and a truly surprising twist ending.
Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, may be the finest of all vampire films; it’s certainly one of the best horror films ever made. In addition to being one of the first horror movies to delve into the mythology of vampirism, it’s one of the first horror movies, period. Nosferatu is the definitive screen adaptation of Dracula. And, while other versions, such as the 1931 Bela Lugosi interpretation or the 1958 Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Horror of Dracula, have their adherents, none can match Murnau’s take. Nosferatu still holds up surprisingly well, including the special effects to represent the sun rising, or doors opening by themselves — all of which were ahead of its time. Nosferatu is a valuable milestone in the history of cinema. It is additionally a fascinating study of mood and carefully constructed mise en scene, using shadows and mirrors to construct a weighty sense of impending doom. Mentioning Max Schreck’s unforgettable portrayal of Count Orlok deserves to be the final word on Nosferatu. Whereas vampires usually are viewed as seductive, dangerous creatures whose sexuality goes hand-in-hand with their need for blood, Orlok is just as grotesque on the outside as he is on the inside. That his insatiable hunger prevails despite his off-putting demeanor lends the film an added macabre touch missing from future vampire stories. Schreck doesn’t so much play the character as he seemingly becomes him. It is because of him, above all else, that ensures Nosferatu will live on in the annals of horror’s history forever.
Vampyr is just one of many reasons why Carl Theodor Dreyer is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and ranks in many circles as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Almost entirely devoid of the outright scares we’ve come to expect of the genre, it creates instead a sense of unease, even more now than 75 years after its release. With the help of Rudolph Maté’s luminous photography, Dreyer creates a poetic psychological horror film. The coffin-carrying sequence and live-burial scene towards the end will forever be etched in your memory.
31. The Wicker Man
There is no denying that this early ’70s British export crisscrosses genres as easily as it defies audience expectations. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is a film that rejects categorization; it can be considered a horror film, but also a psychological thriller, a musical, a melodrama, but perhaps it is best described as a prime example of a short-lived sub-genre known as folk horror. Arguably one of the greatest cult films to emerge from England, The Wicker Man presents the pagan elements objectively and accurately – accompanied by authentic and stirring traditional Celtic music, a believable, contemporary setting (shot around a remote Scottish isle), and with riveting performances by the ensemble cast. The film’s production history is as infamous as the movie itself. The Wicker Man was a misunderstood work of art passed through several unsympathetic distributors, butchered through several versions, and receiving only a minor, apathetic release, before being shelved outright. It has seemingly defied the odds, picking up a powerful reputation along the way and surviving despite what feels like a conspiracy to erase it from cinematic history: The master negative was lost when it was accidentally packaged along with a shipment of disposable material buried beneath the under-construction M3 freeway. Thankfully, The Wicker Man has endured, in large part due to the persistence of actor Christopher Lee, who calls it the best film he ever appeared in. First-time director Robin Hardy does a stellar job; his modest directing keeps things tense and scary, despite giving the film a brightly lit, sunny shine. The movie is chilling but bloodless – there is evil here, lurking about, but it doesn’t become quite clear until the unforgettable and shocking third act. The ending is brilliantly realized, keeping things provocative, unsettling, and outright bizarre. Those final images will burn in your memory long after the end credits roll, a scene as painful to watch as is the expression on the detective’s face. Like many of the best horror/thrillers, The Wicker Man works best in continuously surprising audiences by relying on carefully disciplined suspense rather than cheap, theatrical shocks. The Wicker Man is quite simply a one of a kind, a masterpiece and a film that demands to be seen.
Special Mention: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Commonly referred to as Salò, this 1975 Italian film written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini with uncredited writing contributions by Pupi Avati, is one of the most controversial films ever made and banned in several countries to this day. If there was ever a film that earned such a notorious reputation, it would be Salò. Pasolini was a visionary, a provocateur, a poet, and a social critic. This was Pasolini’s last film as he was murdered shortly before Salò was released, and many still believe it was Pasolini’s political views and the content of Salò that got him killed. Based on the book The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, Salo is quite easily one of the most shocking movies ever, depicting intensely graphic violence, sadism, and sexual depravity. This is a film of conviction, focussing on a place where demented values are brutally enforced. The “circle of shit” segment is usually when most people walk out vomiting. But seriously, this is the greatest movie you’ll see but never want to watch again. As Pasolini once said, “Artists must create, critics defend and Democratic people support work so extreme that it becomes unacceptable to even the broadest minds of the new state.” Anyone familiar with Michael Haneke’s work will understand why he calls Salo one of his three favorite films of all time. By watching to the very end, we become voyeurs, witnessing the most sickening finale of any motion picture to date.
Eyes Without a Face pioneered the theme of the mad surgeon and spawned countless imitators, including Circus of Horrors and many Jesus Franco pictures such as Faceless and The Awful Dr. Orloff series. Eyes also influenced the Japanese art-house film The Face of Another. It was the feature-length directorial debut of Georges Franju, who had previously made a number of shorts – his best-known being The Blood of the Beasts (1949), a documentary that unraveled the horrors inside a slaughterhouse (available in the Criterion DVD release of Eyes Without A Face). The screenplay is credited to five writers, among them Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a duo of popular French writers who adapted a number of classics including Les Diaboliques, Vertigo, and even Body Parts. Along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (all released in 1960), this mad-scientist fairy tale helped shape the modern slasher film with its dark themes, general air of malevolence, visual lyricism, jarring score (by Maurice Jarre), and its fairly graphic scenes of slicing through the skin. The film’s title has a double meaning, referring both to the surgical procedure of removing facial features and to the character of the daughter played brilliantly by Edith Scob: because of the mask, she wears, her eyes are the only visible moving part of her face.
29. Les Diaboliques
Les Diaboliques is a timeless classic. Henri-Georges Clouzot delivers a despairing character study masquerading as a thriller, jacking up the suspense with grueling intensity and presenting a bleak world full of suspicion, manipulation, fear, and loathing. Much like Hitchcock’s work, Les Diaboliques is peppered with perverse atmosphere and dark humor. The lead performances are all incredible, particularly Clouzot’s wife Vera Clouzot, who stars as the vulnerable lead. The twist ending is shocking –and one of the greatest of all time. Even more surprising is that the murder plot is in many ways the least disturbing element at play. Henri-Georges Clouzot (dubbed the French Hitchcock) created this masterpiece in 1955 – a film which served as the template upon which most psychological thrillers that were made in the aftermath of the success of Psycho were based. Hitchcock reportedly wanted to make this movie himself, but Clouzot bought the film rights to the novel Celle Qui N’etait Pas, supposedly beating Hitchcock by only a matter of hours, and asked Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac to adapt it. Not wanting to miss another opportunity, the Master of Suspense snapped up the rights to Boileau and Narcejac’s next thriller, D’entre les Morts, which would become Vertigo.
Fritz Lang’s M is not, strictly speaking, a horror film, but a radical, analytical film that entertains many of Lang’s cinematic obsessions. A simple way to classify it would be a crime drama, but M is far more ambitious. M was Lang’s first sound film and he took the liberty to experiment with the new technology. Here is a movie that knows when silence is more effective than noise. It is a film that features a complex soundtrack including many sounds occurring off-camera and suspenseful moments of silence before a sudden burst of loud noise. In M, a simple whistle or ring of a bell will set the audience off-balance. The director also experiments with pacing. While it begins with fast edits and some brilliant montage work, it slows down with time. Legendary cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, who shot several films for Lang (as well as Murnau and Pabst) does some of his best work here. Lang did not want to show any acts of violence or deaths of children onscreen and relied heavily on Wagner to suggest rather than show with the brilliant use of shadows and composition. Like Hitchcock, Lang implies violence and mayhem instead. For a movie with a simple title, there lie plenty of intricacies: the innovative use of sound; the detail of police procedural, and the parallels drawn between the law holders and the criminal underworld. Like the very best horror films, M works on many levels – it is a crime drama, but it’s also a commentary on German society masquerading as a suspense thriller. Mostly responsible for the horror portion of the film is actor Peter Lorre, whose bone-chilling performance is always the prime focus, even when he is not on screen. Equally frightening is Lang’s use of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt.” This is the tune Lorre whistles throughout the film whenever he is on the prowl. Much can be said about M. The film has become a classic which Lang himself considered his finest work. It’s an impeccable film and a model of psychological suspense.
27. The Innocents
The Innocents, which was co-written by Truman Capote, is the first of many screen adaptations of The Turn of the Screw. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel bad because most people haven’t – but The Innocents deserves its rightful spot on any list of great horror films. Here is one of the few films where the ghost story takes place mostly in daylight and the lush photography, which earned cinematographer Freddie Francis one of his two Oscar wins, is simply stunning. Director Jack Clayton and Francis make great use of long, steady shots, which suggest corruption is lurking everywhere inside the grand estate. The Innocents also features three amazing performances; the first two come courtesy of child actors Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House), and Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned). Stephens’s goodnight kiss to Deborah Kerr lasts a little longer than normal, and his reading of poetry and dispensing words of wisdom seems far too advanced for his young age. Meanwhile, Franklin seems always distant, lost in her inner thoughts while never fully aware of her surroundings. The third powerhouse performance, of course, comes from Kerr, playing Ms. Giddens. Most of the film is seen through her point of view and so we are never sure what to believe. The few times we do catch any glimpse of an apparition, it is seen only through her eyes. And so it is never made clear whether the house is haunted, the children are possessed or if Ms. Giddens has simply gone mad. The Innocents opens in a most unsettling way – a creepy song written by Paul Dehn and Georges Auric is heard before and during the opening credits. The tune becomes a reoccurring motif throughout the film, played by a music box, hummed by a child, or faintly heard in the distance. The music only heightens the children’s strange behavior and Ms. Giddens’s increasing anxiety. The song alone is enough to send shivers up the spine. The Innocents is truly one of the greatest ghost stories of all time, blessed with one of the most risqué and devastating finales of any horror film. Stylish, intelligent, and creepy, The Innocents will haunt you long after the lights have been turned back on.
26. Peeping Tom
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is a methodical look at the psychology of a killer and a meditation on violence and voyeurism. The extremely controversial picture was branded as “sick” and “nasty” by major critics upon its 1960 release and banned in the UK. These harsh and despicable responses effectively destroyed Powell’s career, but later generations embraced the film and many regards it as a chilling work of voyeuristic cinema. The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women while using a portable movie camera with a blade attached to its tripod. In doing so, he is able to record their dying expressions of terror. Peeping Tom has been praised for its psychological complexity. On the surface, the film is about the Freudian relationship between the protagonist and his father, and the protagonist and his victims. However, several critics argue that the film is as much about the voyeurism of the audience as they watch the protagonist’s actions. A thoroughly opaque and gritty London atmosphere permeates the grisly proceedings, carried off by a powerful performance from Carl Boehm, who has the difficult task of convincing us he is a cold-blooded killer while eliciting sympathy for the trauma of his childhood. Powell’s roaming camera work and Otto Heller’s shadowy cinematography makes Peeping Tom a work of cinematic art.
It seems that every decade has at least one incredibly bleak, indie, low-budget masterpiece of horror cinema that comes out of nowhere and surprises everyone. In the 1960’s it was Goerge A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — and in the 70’s it was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the 1980s John McNaughton made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, his acclaimed but extremely controversial thriller, loosely based on the true-life story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Like many of the great horror films, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was banned in several countries and it took three years to finally get a release in the United States. What makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer so disturbing isn’t so much the graphic killings, but its documentary-like feel. Many of the killings are presented as crime scenes, with only the sounds of the murder echoing on the soundtrack, and most of the film follows Henry stalking his victims and spending time with his only friend Otis and his sister Becky, who Henry takes a liking to. That said, the few murders that do appear onscreen will no doubt, shock and disturb most viewers — specifically the notorious home invasion scene filmed by the killers themselves and seen only on playback on a television set. John McNaughton did not dress his direction up in horror film trappings — instead, his movie is free of overt sensationalism and slasher clichés, setting it apart from almost every film made about a famous psychopath. Instead, the camera seems to just blankly focus on the characters, specifically, the titular character played with incredible restraint by Michael Rooker. His performance naturally garnered most of the attention for his still, quiet work as Henry, but Tracy Arnold as Becky and Tom Towles as her repulsive brother Otis, are equally great. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is powerful viewing, and one of the most disturbing and terrifying examinations of mass murderers ever filmed. Not for the weak of heart.
24. Don’t Look Now
Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, 1973?s Don’t Look Now is one of the great horror masterpieces that are criminally overlooked. The film stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, wrapped in an emotional blanket of fear, anger, guilt, and love. While the plot of the film is preoccupied with misinterpretation and mistaken identity, its primary focus is on the psychology of grief, and the effect the death of a child can have on a relationship. Directed by noted cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now arguably bears resemblance to giallos, but it leans more toward creepy than gory; patiently building suspense with haunting imagery and a chilling score by legendary composer Pino Donaggio (who won Best Soundtrack for his work). Roeg designs his film like an intellectual puzzle with a distinctive color scheme. Watch closely as recurring visual motifs combined with unorthodox editing techniques foreshadow key events that follow. Roeg’s ingenious editing job when cutting between flashbacks and flash-forwards creates a haunting meditation on fear, death, and the beyond. Don’t Look Now is frequently regarded as his greatest film, and its influence can be felt everywhere from Peter Weir’s The Last Wave to Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man. If you are seeking a film with a unique directorial style, stunning imagery, and powerful performances, look no further.
Though Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the brilliant sociopath has always been the film’s calling card, his performance pales in comparison to Brian Cox’s less-celebrated Lecter from Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Foster’s Clarice Starling, on the other hand, deserves all the praise. She is the true star of the film, elevating The Silence Of The Lambs to greatness. To track Buffalo Bill, Clarice has to get inside Lecter’s mind; to catch a psychopath you have to be able to think like a psychopath, but in return, she must allow Lecter into her mind as well. What starts as a few effortless mind games quickly spirals into a fascinating back-and-forth game of chess, and mutual need. In Silence, it is a woman who is the hero and pursuer rather than the victim, and the pursued, a rarity in the genre. Clarice’s vulnerability and determination make her a winning combination and the spellbinding time spent between her and Hopkins is genuinely riveting. Hopkins is no doubt still a blast to watch, but it’s entirely to Foster’s credit that she holds her own during scenes of spine-chilling chatter. Based on the novel of the same name, The Silence of the Lambs grossed over $272 million and is one of the few movies to score Oscars in all five major categories: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Silence is a smart, taut thriller and features one of the most memorable prison break sequences. This is no doubt Jonathan Demme’s best film.
22. Blue Velvet
David Lynch mixed film noir with horror in Blue Velvet, placing a heavy emphasis on camera placement and sound to articulate the emotional state of his characters. This hallucinogenic thriller probes beneath the belly of suburban America to uncover the moral rot underlying the American Dream. Dennis Hopper stars as Frank Booth, one of cinema’s most memorable maniacs, and Lynch directs his greatest achievement – a film both poetic and powerful. A controversial film often criticized for its depiction of aberrant sexual behavior, this surrealistic, psychosexual small-town film is really a coming of age story, specifically a phase of transition from adolescence to adulthood, juxtaposed against sadomasochistic violence, corruption, drug abuse, mental illness, and prostitution. This is a must-see for Lynch’s breathtaking command of sight and sound and his idiosyncratic style, along with the lush cinematography by Frederick Elmes, the seedy production design by Patricia Norris, and the insinuating score by Angelo Badalamenti. Famously, Roger Ebert denounced Blue Velvet as “sadistic” and “marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots.” Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called it “the work of a genius naïf.” Where do you stand?
Loosely based on Tod Robbins’ 1923 short story Spurs, Freaks is the 1932 American Pre-Code horror film about sideshow performers. The film was directed and produced by Tod Browning, who had been a member of a traveling circus at a young age. He drew inspiration from his personal experiences and instead of using costumes and makeup, he chose to cast real people with deformities as the sideshow ‘freaks’. This peek behind the curtains of a circus sideshow caused quite the outrage on its initial release and still manages to shock and touch viewers to this day due to its unflinching portrayal of disability. But it isn’t the physically deformed who are the monsters here, but rather two of the seemingly “normal” members of the circus group who conspire to murder a colleague and obtain his large inheritance.
Greatest Horror Films
150 Greatest Horror Movies of the 20th Century (Top 60)
“When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth”
…and remember, the next scream you hear may be your own.
Special Mention: Dead Ringers
Dead Ringers is arguably David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, and Jeremy Irons gives the most highly accomplished performance of his entire career – times two. This is the story of Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Irons), identical twins who, since birth, have been inseparable. Together, they work as gynecologists in their own clinic, and literally, share everything between them including the women they work and sleep with. Jealousy comes between the two when Beverly falls in love with a new patient and decides he no longer wants to share his lady friend with Elliot. The twins, who have always existed together as one, have trouble adapting and soon turn against one another. As the tag-line reads, “Separation Can Be A Terrifying Thing.” Unlike the director’s previous films, the biological horror in Dead Ringers is entirely conveyed through the psychological exploration of the two main characters. Cronenberg’s film is actually based on the 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which is, in turn, based on a true story. The real-life twins died by committing suicide together in their Manhattan apartment, but Cronenberg’s ending seems ideally appropriate. In Dead Ringers, the identities of the Mantle twins have become so embroiled that they can no longer go on living with each other, and so they do everything in their power to separate themselves. Cronenberg’s true-life tale is wholly original and quite disturbing.
Stuart Gordon’s first feature film has since become a cult favorite, driven by fans of both Jeffrey Combs and H. P. Lovecraft. While Re-Animator fails as a faithful adaptation, the injection of grisly humor, disgusting visual gags, and extreme gore make this one incredibly demented take on body horror. Gordon gleefully plays laughter against fear, as Dr. Hebert West raises the dead back to life with a glowing green liquid injected directly into the brain of a recently deceased specimen. Combs delivers an iconic performance as the would-be Frankenstein, updating the mad scientist role for a whole new generation. His performance stands in the same league as Bruce Campbell’s Ash in the Evil Dead series. From the opening sequence of a head being sawed open and a brain removed, Re-Animator is littered with a barrage of special effects gore. In the most famous scene, heroine Barbara Crampton is tied naked to a morgue slab as a corpse slowly takes its decapitated head to perform cunnilingus on her. This scene was regarded as so outrageous it was originally censored when released.
Perhaps no film has used the found footage gimmick to create fresh scares better than The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 horror film presented the narrative as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage, filmed in real-time. The film relates the story of three young student filmmakers who hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch, and subsequently go missing. The viewer is told that the three were never found, although their video and sound equipment (along with most of the footage they shot) was discovered a year later. The film caused a major stir at Sundance for its offbeat, energetic, and eye-opening approach to filmmaking. Artisan quickly picked it up for distribution, and with the help of a ground-breaking campaign that took to the Internet to suggest the film was real, The Blair Witch Project grossed $248,639,099 worldwide. With a final production budget of only $25,000, Blair Witch became the third-highest-grossing independent film of all time. The Internet swarmed with Blair Witch fan sites, web boards, mailing lists, newsgroups, trailer sites, and general excitement about the movie months before its release. The torrent of online talk about the movie aroused the curiosity of the offline press, and the anticipation for the movie’s opening drove ticket sales through the roof. Nielson NetRatings had listed the official site as the 45th most visited location on the Web for the week ending August 1, with a reported 10.4 million page views and an astounding average visit of 16 minutes and 8 seconds. However, the primary reason for its success is that it keeps audiences in the dark about its titular villain. The Blair Witch Project remembers that nothing onscreen can be as scary as your own imagination. It understands how to build anticipation and deliver the scares at precisely the right moment. Unlike most horror films, The Blair Witch Project isn’t simply designed to make you jump, nor ever gross you out. Instead, the film focuses on having the viewer feel discomfort, nausea, and terror – and thus some people respond by saying it is the scariest film of all time simply because it feels so real. The Blair Witch Project is a clever, entertaining stunt, and a terrific calling card for its fledgling filmmakers that opened up the genre for many more future filmmakers to come.
New Zealand’s wunderkind and enfant terrible Peter Jackson made his big splash on the cult-movie scene with Dead Alive. Originally released as Braindead, Dead Alive is the godfather of Kiwi gore and the magnum opus of Jackson’s early career. Jackson’s second feature achieved truly remarkable heights: not only does it eclipse the gross-out quotient of his low-budget-shocker-debut Bad Taste, but of any movie ever made before or since. The finale is the greatest gore-fest ever put on celluloid, using 300 litres of fake blood pumped at five gallons per second. Tim Balme wades into battle with a bone-grinding lawnmower, taking out every zombie in sight and drenching an entire living room in showers of blood. The film is a work of both a perverse genius and a hopeless romantic. Yes, guts fly, heads rolls and blood spills, but amidst all the carnage, Braindead is really just a sweet story of innocent love set against a tale of suppression. After annihilating every other zombie at the party, Lionel watches his overbearing mother erupt into an enormous blob-of-a-beast who pulls her son back into her womb. Lionel must fight his way back out, this time separating the umbilical cord once and for all.
57. King Kong
The granddaddy of all monster movies is arguably King Kong. Decades after its release, no other monster movie approached the high standard of this one. King Kong remains not only a milestone of movie-making but a heartbreaking experience. The stop-motion photographic effects by Willis O’Brien were groundbreaking and the title character, along with Fay Wray, captivated audiences of all ages worldwide. Kong is structured around the classic and familiar theme of Beauty and the Beast, but it is also a movie about making movies. In fact, this movie works as a meta-commentary. Robert Armstrong’s character Carl Denham is modeled on co-director Merian C. Cooper and like him, he is seeking out Kong in hopes to star him in the world’s greatest motion picture. And that is exactly what King Kong became. Every time we watch Kong climb the Empire State Building with the damsel in distress wrapped gently in his giant palm, we hope that things will end well, even though deep down inside, we know it won’t.
Is there anything more terrifying than the aftermath of a global thermonuclear war? The 80s brought with it several cautionary tales about the onset of World War III, and the horrors of nuclear warfare including The Day After, Testament, and Special Bulletin. But Threads is the most harrowing movie of the decade. The British television drama was produced by the BBC in 1984 and although it was never picked up by any of the major American networks, Threads was widely distributed in the US through the auspices of cable mogul Ted Turner. The film’s title refers to the tenuous connections that keep our modern society running, and how easily they can fall apart. This documentary-style account of its effects on the city of Sheffield in northern England makes it one of the most unsettling films you’ll ever see. Make no mistake about it, this film is relentlessly grim. Director Mick Jackson and writer Barry Hines pull no punches in showing you, in stupefyingly graphic reality, the end of days.
This low-budget, independently made black-and-white film, produced and directed by Herk Harvey, for an estimated $33,000, did not gain any widespread attention when originally released, making it one of the greatest under-seen horror movies ever made. It has been cited as a major influence on the films of David Lynch and George A. Romero and without Carnival Of Souls, you would have no Sixth Sense. Set to the funereal organ score by Gene Moore, Carnival of Souls relies strictly on an atmosphere of melancholic, surreal dread to create a mood of unease and foreboding. The film’s subdued photography contributes considerably to its creeping mood of eerie otherworldliness and poetic nightmarish palate. This is a must-see for lovers of ghost movies.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema. Carl Mayer, an Austrian scenarist, and Hans Janowitz, a Czech poet, conceived the tale of a psychotic hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who takes control of another human being (Conrad Veidt) and drives him to murder. At 71 minutes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is pretty straightforward by today’s standards, but the script was inspired by various experiences from the lives of Janowitz and Mayer, both pacifists who were left distrustful of authority after their experiences with the military during World War I. The film’s design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one. The film’s dark and twisted visual style is stunning. Robert Wiene, along with a team of brilliant production designers, incorporated sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines and structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles. Roger Ebert described the sets as “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives”. It’s a seminal work and defined many of the tropes that went on to form the basis of modern horror films.
53. Near Dark
What Near Dark does better than so many other vampire movies is keeping viewers off-balance by never knowing what to expect next. It is an amalgam of tropes and motifs from familiar genres, mixing in the likes of vampire legends and westerns, but reconstructed in such a way that the end result is creepy, smart, and at times funny. The film also benefits from some wonderful performances, stunning visual textures, and music by Tangerine Dream. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark has been often described as “the best vampire movie you’ve never seen.” If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out soon!
52. The Sixth Sense
By now, most cinephiles know the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who is able to see and speak to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him. The film established M. Night Shyamalan as a writer and director and introduced the public to his traits, most notably his affinity for twist endings. The film was the second highest-grossing film of 1999 (behind Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), grossing about $293 million domestically and $672 million worldwide. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. There are some people out there who think once you’ve seen the movie and know the twist, The Sixth Sense is no longer a movie you could enjoy watching again, but I wholeheartedly disagree. One can find enjoyment on repeat viewings by carefully examining how well Shyamalan covers his tracks and blocks every shot to perfection. In fact, the look of the film is just as brilliant as the last minute revelation. Shyamalan and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs) focused on what is important for the viewer to see at that moment. In The Sixth Sense, the camera literally feels like our eye, and each frame is meticulously composed and artfully constructed, allowing audiences to take their time sorting things out. Cinema literates know when to expect the unexpected in a thriller, but very few people saw the twist coming thanks to Shyamalan’s careful direction. The Sixth Sense is not only a creepy horror film but a deeply moving drama, and the true reason for its success is that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan cares about his characters and more importantly, makes us care.
David Fincher’s Se7en is a dark, stylish thriller that boasts enough genre trappings to justify its presence on this list. Se7en pales in comparison to Fincher’s best film Zodiac, but regardless, it is one of the 1990s’ most influential box-office successes. This creepy and relentlessly grim shocker features a taut performance by Morgan Freeman, polished gore effects, and an unforgettable ending that not even Brad Pitt’s terrible acting could ruin. Se7en has all the hallmarks of the Giallo or serial killer genres – red herrings, a whodunit mystery, gruesome murders, and a surprise twist ending – but thankfully, it also turns out to be less predictable. One of its strongest aspects is the visuals. There are many unusual and innovative cinematographic techniques, including the opening credit sequence (one of the best of all time) and outstanding production, art, and set design – all of which focus on the seedy, depressing side of Se7en’s anonymous big-city setting. Even the closing credits, which run backward, are noteworthy. Only Fincher’s second feature, after Alien 3, Se7en goes well beyond the usual police procedural or serial killer film thanks to its great script, by first-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. This claustrophobic, gut-wrenching thriller about two policemen’s desperate efforts to stop a serial killer whose work is inspired by gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and wrath, is one of a handful of films based on the seven deadly sins, but also the best.
Special Mention: Shock Corridor
Shock Corridor stars Peter Breck as Johnny Barrett, an ambitious reporter who wants to expose the killer at the local insane asylum. To solve the case, he must pretend to be insane so they have him committed. Once in the asylum, Barrett sets to work, interrogating the other patients and keeping a close eye on the staff. But it’s difficult to remain a sane man living in an insane place, and the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the closer he gets to insanity. Shock Corridor is best described as an anti-establishment drama that at times is quite funny. The film deals with some timely issues of the era it was made in, specifically the atom bomb, anti-communism, and racism, and it can be dissected and discussed at various levels: psychological, sociological, and symbolic. It features everything from a raving female love-crazed nympho ward, opera-singing psycho patients, fetishism of all sorts, electroshock therapy, racially-incited brawls, and classic prison-style riots. So why it include it as a special mention? The final scene, without giving anything away, could very well label Shock Corridor a psychological horror film. Either way, it is an amazing film that everyone should see and features some brilliant camera-work by Stanley Cortez, who also shot another film featured on this list, The Night of the Hunter.
The black and white Curse of the Demon (originally called Night of the Demon) made its American debut in 1958 as the bottom half of a double bill with the Hammer sequel Revenge of Frankenstein. It’s too bad it wasn’t appreciated for all its greatness upon release, but thankfully it went on to earn a reputation as one of the finest horror films to come out of Great Britain. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this adaptation of the M. R. James story Casting the Runes revolves around an American psychologist investigating a satanic cult suspected of more than one murder. Night of the Demon is one of those movies that professors should show their film students, particularity those interested in screenwriting. The screenplay by Hal E. Chester and Charles Bennett is near flawless with not one wasted moment. Every conversation, every frame, every word advances the plot. There’s not a drop of blood to be seen and there are few jump scares, but the sense of unease that permeates through every frame is remarkable — all caused by superstitions and the insecurities it springs from those who believe in them. Brilliant!
There’s a reason why Mario Bava has more of his films appearing on this list than any other filmmaker. Bava is without a doubt, the true master of horror and Kill, Baby… Kill! is all the evidence one needs to earn him that distinction. By 1970, Bava gave the world a different view of vampires and witchcraft and redefined space-opera. The Italian director planted the seeds for both the Giallo and the slasher genre, and in doing so, he also made one of the best anthology films I’ve ever seen. In Mario Bava’s masterpiece, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart stars as a doctor summoned to perform an autopsy in a remote European town, but he discovers that the superstitious villagers are frightened over the ghost of a little girl. The mystery at the center of Kill Baby … Kill! is what makes this movie so special, as all of the victims have actually been manipulated into killing themselves one by one. As with all his films, the plot takes a back seat to the mood and atmosphere, and Kill Baby … Kill! is also his most visually stunning work. The mansion itself is absolutely incredible; conceived 14 years before Kubrick would erect the Overlook and 50 years before Del Toro gave us the Allerdale Hall. The set is used masterfully during the frenzied, nightmarish climax with the characters running about in circles and getting lost in the vertigo-inducing staircases. Kill, Baby, Kill is a marvelous showcase of bizarre sights and sounds that inspire, surprise and thrill audiences with every frame. One of the great ghost stories in the history of cinema, the haunting power of Kill, Baby… Kill! resonates to this very day. Mario Bave is the master of Gothic horror and Kill, Baby, Kill! is his best film.
This subtle horror film follows an isolated, sexually repressed, schizophrenic woman’s descent into madness, played by Catherine Deneuve, who gives her best performance at the age of 22. There are no explanations of Deneuve’s behavior and more importantly, one cannot make any clear distinction between reality and hallucination. Watching the film, we are entirely situated inside the mind of a madwoman. The sense of isolation we feel through Deneuve’s performance is only heightened by Roman Polanski’s astonishing control of the medium of film. This marks his first entry in his “apartment trilogy” (Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant being the other two), and for some, it is the best. The apartment itself becomes a deranged character of sorts, as the very dimensions of the surroundings continue to change. Hallways extend to infinity, rooms enlarge or shrink, and the floors slowly tilt. If you can’t trust the floorboards beneath your feet and the walls that surround you, you know you’ve got some serious issues.
Think of Possession as an intense drama of marital collapse amidst occult happenings, intricate political conspiracies, and using the Berlin Wall as a backdrop. Andrzej Zulawski has stated that he wrote the screenplay in the midst of a messy divorce, and it is quite apparent. At Cannes, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or (taken that year by another Polish film, Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron) and won a Best Actress award for Isabelle Adjani. The feature earned a place on the list of 39 ‘Video Nasties’ banned in the UK under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. The film draws similarities to David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and in a way is a precursor to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Possession also features special effects from Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Flesh for Frankenstein. Here, he designed an ominous, eroticised tentacular monster that looks like it was lifted from one of Cronenberg’s wet dreams. Most impressive of all is the cinematography by Bruno Nuytten, who uses ambitious hand-held takes, extensive dollies, and infinite tracking shots. The shape-shifting monsters reflect a film that is an amalgam of family tragedy, political thriller, and body horror.
46. Dawn of the Dead
Released 10 years after Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead sets itself apart in several ways fromits predecessor. Not only is it tonally distinct but Romero abandons the eerie black-and-white photography of its forefather in favor of a brightly lit color canvas. Romero also moves away from the small country setting and into the city. In fact, most of the film takes place in a shopping mall. Working on a much bigger budget, Romero was able to cram in more horror, action, comedy, and social satire than Night. Romero also expands on how he uses his walking dead as metaphors. The film effectively evokes the tensions between pacifist movements and more aggressive social orders of the time while also working as a denouncement of consumer culture. Make-up artist Tom Savini, who also has a small role, created groundbreaking gore effects that set a standard for realism. This time out, the actors are uniformly strong, particularly Ken Foree, who turns in a great performance as Peter. Gaylen Ross shines as Francine, a strong female role, unlike the weak, helpless, and neurotic Barbara from the first film, and gives women someone they can look up to, as Francine becomes a key player in determining the group’s survival. From the spectacular opening newsroom sequence to the shocking National Guard shoot-out in the urban city apartment complex, Dawn sets a tone of impending, inevitable doom. And while some of its cast do make it out alive, the ending of Dawn feels far more depressing than Night, leaving the outlook for humanity as a whole unclear. Fun fact: The film was a collaboration of sorts between Romero and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who helped arrange to finance in exchange for foreign distribution rights. Argento also provided an original score performed and composed by Goblin, the Italian progressive rock group whose music was so effective in Suspiria and Deep Red. Stephen King placed Dawn at the top of his list of the ten best horror films of the year while Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing review, proclaiming it “one of the best horror films ever made.” While admitting Dawn of the Dead to be “gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling,” Roger Ebert pointed out that “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
Originally titled Communion, Alice Sweet Alice, despite its considerable cult following, has slipped into relative obscurity. Released in 1976, it was given glowing reviews by critics and won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film was made not long after The Exorcist and it capitalized on that film’s themes of Catholicism and evil children. Alice features some of the more disquieting set pieces in any movie appearing on this list and also features the big-screen debut of Brooke Shields at age 11. The most memorable aspect of Alice comes from the tour-de-force performance given by the killer, one of the absolute best in the pantheon of movie murderers.
Ishiro Honda’s grim, black-and-white post-Hiroshima nightmare stands the test of time. This allegory for the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bomb is quite simply a powerful statement about mankind’s insistence to continue to destroy everyone and everything the surrounds us. With just one shot (a single pan across the ruins of Tokyo), Honda manages to express the devastation that Godzilla represents. Since its debut, Godzilla has become a worldwide cultural icon, but very little is said about actor Takashi Shimura, who adds great depth as Dr. Yamane; his performance is stunning. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya originally wanted to use classic stop-motion animation to portray Godzilla, but time and budget limitations forced him to dress actors up in monster suits. Despite this minor setback, Tsuburaya’s scale sets of Tokyo are crafted with such great attention to detail, that in some scenes they don’t even appear to as effects. The film spawned 27 sequels (and counting), inspired countless ripoffs, imitations, parodies, homages, video games, comic books, cartoons, a series of novels for young adults, an American remake, and even an American reboot, soon to be released.
43. The Fly
Cronenberg’s The Fly is more a re-imagining as opposed to a remake. The movie uses the premise found in the original short story and the original film but changes everything else including names and basic plot points. Cronenberg has always been fascinated with the reshaping of the human body in various forms and the horror that comes with that change. With The Fly, Cronenberg focuses on the slow transformation and decomposition of a mad scientist, both mentally and physically. Chris Walas’ groundbreaking makeup and creature effects won him an Oscar, but they would be nothing without Jeff Goldblum’s strong emotional performance. In the last act, The Fly veers into a more traditional horror setting, but the picture is less about the gory effects than it is about Cronenberg’s obsessions. The Fly was released in what could arguably be called the most fertile period of David Cronenberg’s career. To date, it is still his most commercially successful motion picture and even spawned a sequel a few years later.
Filmed intermittently over the course of a 5-year period, David Lynch’s radical feature debut mixes Gothic horror, a pounding score, surrealism and darkly expressionist mise-en-scène to create a bizarre and disturbing look into a man’s fear of parenthood. Or maybe not. Lynch claims that not one critic has come close to his own interpretation of his film. Lynch has called it a “dream of dark and troubling things” and his “most spiritual movie.” First shown at Filmex 1977, the movie was not widely seen until 1978, when it ran for years as a midnight attraction at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theatre. It is known, alongside El Topo, Pink Flamingos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as one of the first true midnight movies and in 2004, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Wes Craven intended Nightmare On Elm Street to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only does Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it is a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark) and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.” Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series. One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. Freddy quickly became one of the most recognizable modern horror villains with his horribly barbecued visage, his ragged slouch hat, his dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and his sense of humor as sharp as his metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger. In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary for a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here, the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia. The ultimate revelation is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake figuratively and literally, and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions. They instead bury their memories of the crime they once committed so deep down inside, it allows Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever-present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims, and a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). Nightmare is also the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langenkamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat, hovering somewhere between Gothic, supernatural imagery, and the typical 80s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody setpieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well-executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror. Finally, there’s Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.
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