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.