Are these the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time?
Special Mention: Häxan
Häxan (a.k.a The Witches or Witchcraft Through The Ages) is a 1922 silent documentary about the history of witchcraft, told in a variety of styles, from illustrated slideshows to dramatized reenactments of alleged real-life events. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, and based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, Häxan is a fine examination of how superstition and the misunderstanding of mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. At the time, it was the most expensive Scandinavian film ever made, costing nearly 2 million Swedish krona. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what was considered, at that time, graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. Depending on which version you’re watching, the commentary is either in the form of inter-titles or narration recorded in the mid-1960s by William S. Burroughs. Haxan is a fascinating historical document and one of the earliest films that use misogyny and sexual repression as its main subject.
100. Dead Of Night
The classic British chiller Dead of Night, featuring five stories of supernatural terror from four directors, is considered in many circles as the greatest horror anthology ever made. Alberto Cavalcanti’s story about a mad ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave is the best of the bunch, a brilliant precursor to Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring an early uncensored gay relationship. And unlike most (maybe all) horror anthologies, Dead of Night ends with a bravura final sequence which ties wonderfully into all five subsets, ultimately making them all feel like a unified whole.
The Reflecting Skin is not your average vampire movie. This independent feature was the directorial debut of Philip Ridley, a British painter-illustrator-novelist who had supplied the script to Peter Medek’s mesmerizing 1990 gangster film The Krays. The Reflecting Skin was celebrated as one of the unique films of its year and received a good deal of favorable reviews. Part horror story and part coming of age tale, The Reflecting Skin is a true American Gothic, shot from the point of view of an impressionable young boy named Seth and crammed with twisted religious symbolism. Ridley is said to have conceived The Reflecting Skin at a time in his life when he was reading Alice in Wonderland and studying the paintings by Andrew Wyeth. The influence of Lewis Carroll is evident with its hyper-imaginative child roaming about what appears to be a dark fairy tale; meanwhile, Wyeth is even more apparent with the overall aesthetic. The Reflecting Skin is many things, and one of the most beautiful and most intriguing films of the 1990’s thanks to the stunning cinematography from the legendary Dick Pope. The breathtakingly blue skies, majestic shots of golden wheat fields and beautiful landscapes are a strong contrast to the universally bleak story. The film seems relentlessly pessimistic and offers absolutely no hope or any sort of happiness for Seth and his family. It appears to be a film about the trauma of growing up, and more importantly, growing up with a dysfunctional family that is haunted by their past, and Ridley fills each frame with metaphors that boil just below the surface. But what it all means is left for the viewer to decide. I believe The Reflecting Skin argues that we are all vampires, sucking the life out of one another, day to day. In the final reel, Seth is seen running as fast as he can through the golden fields. It soon becomes evident that no matter how fast he runs, Seth has nowhere to go. You can’t escape death, and in the end, we are all just rotting away.
98. Dust Devil
Dust Devil was the much-anticipated follow-up to director Richard Stanley’s sci-fi horror Hardware and wound up cursed with troubles from the minute the studio realized what he intended to do. Repeatedly dogged with production problems, rewrites, and a steadily declining budget, Dust Devil is a film that almost defies classification. While the film follows the formula of the serial killer subgenre, it juxtaposes murder, magic and South African politics in the form of a Spaghetti Western and features an incredible score (courtesy of Simon Boswell) and exquisite imagery — all of which is heavily influenced by the work of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leonne. Some have described Dust Devil as a post-apocalyptic interpretation of Eastwood’s The Man with No Name while others described it as “Tarkovsky on acid”. For Stanley, Dust Devil was a far more personal and ambitious project than the killer android debut Hardware, and what began as a student film developed into a twenty-year project. Dust Devil was released in a number of different forms, but the only version you should watch is the limited collector’s director cut prepared by Richard Stanley himself.
The debut feature by writer/director Fred Dekker is notable as an earnest attempt at a B-movie and a throwback to the genre. Paying tribute to his favorite movies of the past and the filmmakers that created them, Fred Dekker throws in alien parasites, zombies, extra-terrestrials, a sorority house, Prom Night and a 50?s opening prologue involving an axe murder. Dekker goes so far as to pay tribute to his idols by naming every character after a famous filmmaker. There is the love interest, Cynthia Cronenberg, a police sergeant named Raimi, three other characters named Miller, Carpenter, Landis and of course, Detective Cameron, played by Tom Atkins. Atkins steals the show, delivering the film’s most memorable lines including the classic: ‘I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.’ He perfectly embodies the hardboiled detective – worn out, all attitude, sarcastic and tough as nails. Meanwhile, Jason Lively’s likable lead Chris Romero, and Steve Marshall as his sidekick J.C. (James Carpenter) share some sharp and witty dialogue and work well off each other, particularly in a couple of scenes that prove quite unexpected and touching (one involving a message on a tape recorder). Working on a shoestring budget, Dekker and award-winning make-up artist David Miller (Thriller music video) manage to deliver some quality effects and enough gore and blood to please horror aficionados. Visually, the film is a treat, from the opening grainy black and white photography to the vintage ’80s neon colors to the long tracking shots and the nostalgic period detail. Although never considered a genuinely scary horror film, Night of the Creeps was a film that caught attention for its original screenplay, special effects and it’s campiness. Dekker succeeded in making a horror movie that has it all: a dash of romance, scares, lighthearted comedy, nostalgia, camp, a touch of drama and a bit of gore.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is an overlooked, extremely eerie low-budget chiller, and one of the finest horror pictures of the 1970s. Director John D. Hancock is more content with examining the pure madness of the human psyche than he is with bloodshed or cheap shocks and thrills. The more somber, subdued approach may disappoint many, but patient moviegoers will find themselves rewarded with the smart direction and slow-burning tension. Like its central protagonist, it is a movie that remains extremely ambiguous. Is Jessica just outright insane or is there something more sinister at work in the small country town?
A blockbuster retelling of the legendary tale, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Francis Ford Coppola’s erotic, blood-soaked feast, and his last great movie (although I really like Tetro). Here, Count Dracula is played masterfully by an irresistible Gary Oldman and the eccentric Professor Van Helsing is played by none other than Anthony Hopkins. Oldman’s Dracula comes in all shapes and sizes including a menacing old Count, a wolf, as mist, as a younger version of himself and even the devil himself. Meanwhile, Tom Waits also makes a scene-stealing appearance as the lunatic R.M. Renfield, the solicitor who travels to Transylvania and slowly loses his mind while obtaining an insatiable appetite for maggots and flies. The casting alone (even if Keanu isn’t great) is worth the price of admission, and we are also treated to some of the best art direction, cinematography and effects in any horror film. Just the fact that Coppola opted to do all the visual effects in-camera, utilizing shadow puppets, smoke machines, miniature sets, and other classic tricks of the trade, is more reason to see this. Shot almost entirely on sound stages, the film has the feel of an old-fashioned, 1930s, studio production and Thomas Sanders’ production design, Michael Ballhaus’ lensing, Michele Burke’s makeup, and the old-school special effects all help make this one of the most stunning features on this list. I especially love how Dracula’s shadow moves about independent of its owner!
Adapted by director Wolf Rilla from John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, Village of the Damned, certainly has dated, but regardless it is a seminal piece of work and a timeless classic. Like most effective horror movies, Village of the Damned actually preys on modern everyday fears and insecurities and is outright creepy thanks to some eerily effective opening scenes, its atmospheric Black & White cinematography and the chilling performances by the unknown cast of blank-eyed child actors. What I love most about the film is how at times it makes viewers sympathetic and at times unsympathetic to the children. “Those eyes, those screams.” Village of the Damned arrived in cinemas in 1960 at the same time as the equally memorable and ground-breaking Psycho. Both were landmark films that marked the beginning of new sub-genres, yet Village of the Damned has attracted fewer disciples and is rarely ever talked about. A shame, since this truly is a horror milestone, not just for its unique and well-executed concept, but also for the director’s willingness to push the standards of the day.
Following the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson returned to directing horror/comedy with Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox as Charlatan Frank Bannister, a supernatural private eye who investigates staged hauntings and poltergeists in and around his hometown. Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s version of Ghostbusters, only with far more violence and slightly better special effects thanks to Jackson’s New Zealand company Weta Digital, who, of course, went on to do the effects for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson directs at a breakneck pace and the cast all deliver fine performances – with Fox, doing a better than adequate job in the lead, and Jeffrey Combs as the over-the-top Special Agent Milton Dammers. Poltergeists, Ghostbusters, serial killers, gore, laughs and a murder mystery are just some of what you will find in The Frighteners, and every second of it is a joy to watch. The Frighteners is simply awesome, and a criminally underrated horror-comedy that deserves far more praise.
Cannibal Holocaust was for years berated as one of the most repulsive and morally corrupt movies of the 1970s spate of cannibal films. Like all films of the found footage genre, the events onscreen are seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, who often speak off-screen, causing many naive moviegoers at the time to consider it real. The effect, which is by now familiar, was incredibly shocking back in 1980, and after premiering in Italy, the film was seized by a local magistrate, and Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges. He was later accused of making a snuff film due to rumors which claimed that certain actors were killed on camera. The film was later banned in Italy, the UK, Australia, and several other countries due to its graphic depiction of gore, sexual violence, and the inclusion of six genuine animal deaths. Ruggero Deodato’s exploitation opus questions the power of the media in general by commenting on the manipulation of violence in both the news and documentary filmmaking. The film is effective in turning voyeurism into horror and so it’s deserving of its cult status.
Cronos introduced the dark genius of Guillermo del Toro to the world. This stylish and innovative take on the familiar vampire movie marked the directorial debut of the Mexican filmmaker, and what a great first impression it makes. The film garnered international acclaim and several awards, and many of the aesthetic qualities and thematic devices that del Toro became famous for are to be found here. Cronos is simply one of the most beautiful, compelling, hypnotic and creepy films listed here, and a must-see.
Special Mention: The Tenant
Le Locataire (The Tenant) is the final film in Polanski’s unofficial ‘Apartment Trilogy’ following Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Polanski stars as Trelkovsky, a Polish-born French citizen who moves into a spooky apartment whose previous tenant (a beautiful young woman) committed suicide. His neighbours eye him with suspicious dislike and over the course of the film, Trelkovsky becomes increasingly paranoid believing that the other tenants are engaged in a conspiracy to drive him to suicide. The Tenant was poorly received on its release and even today it is still overshadowed by Polanski’s more famous efforts, but the film is a perfectly crafted paranoid nightmare about a man’s loss of identity and descent into madness. Polanski expertly places viewers in the head of Trelkovsky in the same way that he placed us inside Catherine Deneuve’s mind in Repulsion and the result is often maddening. The Tenant is often described as a cross between Franz Kafka and William Castle, and if that isn’t enough to sell you, the shocking twist ending will leave you with plenty to discuss after the credits roll.
90. Funny Games
Two psychotic young men terrorize a family of three (a mother, father, and son), hold them hostage and then force them to play sadistic games for their own amusement. There’s no more difficult filmmaker in the world than Michael Haneke today, and Funny Games (later remade in the US by the director himself) remains one of his most controversial and divisive films to date. We are not given any explanations for the killers’ behaviour and Haneke doesn’t care to — instead he explores both the emotional and physical effects of violence and questions our own motives in watching violent movies. Near the end of the film, when one of the victims gets the upper hand, the killer demands that the movie is rewound, and the scenario plays out again, only with a much darker and barbaric twist. Compelling, radical, provocative, frustrating, challenging, condescending, Funny Games is bound to elicit a strong reaction from an audience — but nevertheless, Funny Games is a fine piece of filmmaking – even if Haneke thinks you’re in the wrong to enjoy watching it.
89. They Live
Writing under the pseudonym Frank Armitage —a reference to a character from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror — John Carpenter based his script for They Live on a Ray Nelson short story called Eight O’Clock In the Morning. Although it’s really a Western in disguise, Carpenter’s action-sci-fi-horror becomes a biting satire on Reaganomics and the New Right politics of the 1980s. The aliens here stand for mindless greed and corruption, and they run the planet like it’s a giant corporation, harvesting our resources and reducing citizens to mindless, compliant consumers who unknowingly obey the rules and otherwise surrender their consciousness and will. The idea that the rich eat the poor is not exactly a new one, but Carpenter pulls it off with aplomb. Put aside the social and political commentary, They Live is one hell of a cool action movie with some arresting, chilling, visuals and a lot of dry humor running throughout. It also features two of the most famous scenes in genre cinema – the first being the prolonged alleyway fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David, and the second being the famous line reading: “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Werner Herzog, the celebrated German director of such films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, considered Murnau’s Nosferatu to be the greatest film ever to come out of Germany, and was eager to follow in the filmmaker’s footsteps with his own stylish adaptation. In 1979, by which time the copyright for Dracula had entered the public domain, Herzog proceeded with his updated version of the classic German film with frequent collaborator and close friend Klaus Kinski in the leading role. Nosferatu the Vampyre represented his first venture into the realm of genre filmmaking, and Herzog did a marvelous job in honoring the conventions of the vampire genre while crafting a feature of substance and meaning. While the film is set primarily in 19th-century Wismar, Germany, and Transylvania, Kinski’s Dracula is unlike any other interpretation of the character. Visually, he resembles Max Schreck, but that’s where the similarity ends. In the Herzog version, the crucial difference is that Nosferatu becomes more and more decayed and desiccated as the film progresses. Unlike most vampire films, Nosferatu the Vampyre favors a slow, methodical, deliberate, and relentless pace. Some find that the film moves too slowly, but Herzog’s unwillingness to rush things allows the striking visuals by cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein and the haunting film score (composed by the German group Popol Vuh) to work their magic. Taking his cue from the German expressionist directors of the ’20s, Herzog also limits dialogue and allows the images and soundtrack to advance the story while building a powerful and foreboding sense of atmosphere. Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t as groundbreaking as the 1922 masterpiece, but it’s one of Herzog’s most bizarre, resonant and fascinating films. As a brief aside; There are two different versions of the film, one in which the actors speak English, and one in which they speak German.
87. Sleepaway Camp
Sleepaway Camp is just one of the many entries from the classic heyday of slasher films released in the early ’80s and recycles much of the same formula of Friday the 13th. The plot is fairly simple and follows a bunch of teens at a summer camp who are slaughtered one by one in what amounts to a whodunnit complete with Freudian trauma and gender-role confusion. There are about 11 murders in the movie, but writer/director Robert Hiltzik chooses to suggest the worst ones through shadow or by obscuring part of the action. For the gorehounds, there are a few definite gross-out jobs makeup-wise, but overall Sleepaway Camp has significantly less gore than most of the movies featured on this list. That said, it is one of the most entertaining slasher films from the ’80s and boy is it ever a memorable one due to its unexpected twist ending, which burns in your memory long after the credits roll. For those of you who have seen the movie and know the ending, I recommend reading up on “The Ricky Theory“.
86. Raw Meat (Death Line)
American-born, London-based filmmaker Gary Sherman (Dead & Buried) moved on from directing TV commercials to helm his first feature-length film, titled Death Line. Released in North America as Raw Meat, this seventies horror takes place in the London subway system where a cannibalistic sub-human survives on unsuspecting commuters and one high-profile death brings the police to investigate. Raw Meat is easily one of the best and most underrated horror films to emerge from Great Britain. Gary Sherman’s film is so ahead of its time it predates both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and like those films, Sherman has more on his mind than scaring viewers. Here he presents a 70s London populated by a ruling class greedily feeding off the poor. This is a city that not only suppresses its lower class but in doing so, creates in them monsters. The city above is a world of artifice and empty feeling, and no different than the dark matrix of tunnels located below, and Sherman wisely takes his time in making his cannibalistic killer sympathetic, and in many ways, more likeable than the other characters we follow along. Raw Meat‘ssuccess is due to a number of factors, not least of which is the cinematography. There’s some truly spectacular camerawork on display, including a remarkable single-take sequence through the tunnels below London. Raw Meat also boasts a great comic turn by Donald Pleasance, who plays the grumpy working-class Inspector Calhoun who is assigned to investigate the murders and disappearances of citizens commuting on the London Tube. Meanwhile, Christopher Lee plays upper-class MI5 agent Stratton-Villiers who wants to keep a lid on the crimes being reported. If you’re looking for a dark, well-acted and visually stunning shocker, you could do a lot worse than Sherman’s low-budget creeper.
85. The Omen
Ambassador Gregory Peck discovers that he’s adopted the Antichrist in The Omen, one of the finest of the many demonic thrillers released in the 1970s. For many, The Omen represents the final installment in Hollywood’s unofficial ‘Devil Trilogy’ that began with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and burst into the mainstream with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Released theatrically by 20th Century Fox in June 1976, The Omen received acclaim from critics and was a commercial success, grossing over $60 million at the box office and becoming one of the highest-grossing films of the year. The film earned two Academy Award nominations and won for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Jerry Goldsmith is one of the greatest composers and his score for The Omen is his finest, a haunting collection of tunes that feature a strong choral segment, with a foreboding Latin chant. Richard Donner avoids physical gore and relies on heavy religious symbolism and creepy music to send shivers down your spine. That’s not to say there isn’t any bloodshed — The Omen contains some of the most memorable untimely deaths in any film appearing on this list, but Donner had more on his mind than just scaring audiences. While The Omen is without question a film about the Devil’s son, Donner wisely approached the material as that of a father’s worst nightmare, an unsettling story of a prominent man of political importance who believes he is being punished for committing an act five years earlier.
Horror auteur Wes Craven’s blood-and-bone thriller about an all-American family at the mercy of cannibal mutants in the middle of the Nevada desert is unrelenting, gritty, dark and downright disturbing at times. Much like Sam Peckinpah’s classic, Straw Dogs, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch the nice family being terrorized. Not for the squeamish, the 1977 shocker’s most horrifying segment is without a doubt, the trailer raiding scene, where the young Brenda Carter (Suze Lanier-Bramlett) is defiled by the feral savage Pluto (Michael Berryman) as another one of the savages breaks into the trailer and tortures the women of the family, all while trying to kidnap their baby. Craven’s willingness to prolong the sequence of torture caused the MPAA to award this film with their dreaded “X” rating. But what makes Hills so effective is how Craven manages to create an all-encompassing atmosphere of dread long before he unleashes the true terror. The late director’s sophomore effort is a demented morality fable with a heady mix of allegory and nail-biting tension and in my opinion his second-best film.
83. The Howling
Based on the best-selling novel by Gary Brandner, Joe Dante’s The Howling makes effective use of the classic werewolf tale but more importantly, The Howling deserves respect simply for being the first to actually show the lycanthrope transformation process in slow, painstaking detail through a combination of clever edits and animatronics by Rob Bottin. The Howling may not be as polished or effective as John Landis’ 1981 An American Werewolf in London, but the film delivers on action, gore, and true scares. What makes The Howling so bloody entertaining is how it manages to balance humor into the proceedings without detracting from the scare factor. The script comes from John Sayles, who also wrote Joe Dante’s Piranha, and does a fine job in including dozens of sight gags and inside jokes that only the most dedicated horror aficionados will notice. Made for $1 million, The Howling grossed $18 million and led to seven schlock sequels, none of which were any good (although the third is awfully fun).
John Carpenter’s ten-year run writing, directing and producing such films as Halloween in 1978 all the way up to They Live in 1988 is easily the most impressive of any American genre filmmaker. But the director still had one great movie left in him and that was his 1995 sleeper In the Mouth of Madness. Written on spec by New Line Cinema exec Michael De Luca, In The Mouth of Madness was basically Carpenter’s attempt to make an H.P. Lovecraft film, only it is better described as a distant cousin to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. In Nightmare, the dream world provided the doorway into Freddy’s world. In Hellraiser, it was a puzzle box guarded by Pinhead that opened up another dimension. In Mouth, the entryway comes by way of novels written by hugely popular pulp horror author Sutter Cane, whose work takes on the power to alter reality. Sam Neil plays insurance investigator John Trent, who believes the writings of the popular novelist are the source of the chaos, and as the mystery unravels, it becomes apparent that Cain’s writing is indeed somehow responsible. It’s a very high-concept storyline, and Carpenter fills the screen with equal amounts of unsettling atmosphere and requisite cheap shocks, while at the same time successfully walking the tightrope that veers away from camp. Of course, it’s not perfect, but the film’s faults are easily overshadowed by its many strengths including Neill’s performance, Carpenter’s direction, and the practical effects by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger, who should be applauded for their work. All in all, In the Mouth of Madness, is a fun, clever horror picture with one hell of a bleak ending that any true fan of the filmmaker will enjoy.
Part nunsploitation, part possession/Satanism movie, and part vampire flick, Alucarda (“a Dracula” spelled backward) finds Satanic going-ons in a convent after orphan Justine is seduced by another orphan named Alucarda. Director Juan López Moctezuma came along during the new wave of 70s Mexican genre pics that expressed radical and subversive views. Alucarda never received much attention from critics nor audiences, but over the years became something of an underground cult classic. Moctezuma (who also produced Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Fando Y Lis) was an important intellectual figure in Mexico in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and his three horror films (which also includes Mansion of Madness, and the American co-production Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary) were all distinctive works. The film was independently financed outside of the Mexican mainstream industry and was shot with an English-speaking cast. The set design and art direction are stunning as well as Xavier Cruz’s cinematography and the gruelling exorcism conclusion to Alucarda reminds one of the final scenes in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. While it is not widely known by many cinephiles, many fans who have seen it, consider it an unrecognized gem. Seriously, this movie is batshit crazy and a must see!
Special Mention: Clean, Shaven
Lodge H. Kerrigan, who wrote, produced and directed this unsettling psychological thriller, traps us inside the mind of a madman for the entire viewing experience. That madman is Peter Winter (Peter Greene) who appears to be a killer, and worse, a child killer. Not much about him is objectively clear, and we are never sure if what we are seeing is real or a product of his tormented imagination and the film heightens the tension by restricting its focus to Peter’s unsettling, confused, and angry view of the world. The most gruesome violence inflicted on Peter comes by his own hand and in the most unforgettable scene, Peter slowly mutilates his body in order to remove what he believes is a receiver implanted in his scalp and a transmitter under his fingernail that was implanted inside him while he was locked away in a mental hospital. It’s hard to forget the infamous fingernail scene; the gruesome moment made festival audiences scream, squirm, hide their eyes, and run for the exits. Legend has it that audience members at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival fainted, and as a result of this thirty-second sequence (which the filmmaker refused to edit out), it took nearly two years to acquire a distributor. Working on a minimal budget, Kerrigan brilliantly captures Peter’s paranoia through sporadic edits, eerie reflections, and a soundtrack that reverberates with static, hums, electrical noises, distant screams, and distorted voices. Kerrigan also makes great use of the technique of doubling to add to the confusion. In the beginning, we watch as Peter observes himself in his car’s rear-view and side-view mirrors. He does not like the sight of his own reflection and uses newspaper to tape up every reflective surface that surrounds him. But try as he might, Peter can’t escape the sights and sounds that bring back memories of his missing daughter. Clean, Shaven is a movie that powerfully conveys the disturbed mental state and will leave an indelible imprint long after the closing credits roll. It’s disgusting and unbearable at times, but nevertheless Clean, Shaven is a fundamentally humane movie.