Putting together a list of my favourite horror films was an exercise in humility. It made me realize that not only are there dozens of celebrated movies in the genre that I haven’t seen (Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Haunting, An American Werewolf In London etc) but there are whole sub-genres and bodies of work that I’ve not seen either.
I’ve barely seen any Vincent Price horror films and he made over fifty in his career! I’ve only seen a couple of Christopher Lee films and he was a staple of the horror genre in the Sixties and Seventies. I’ve hardly seen any of Wes Craven’s iconic horror films (Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes) and he’s one of the best known and most influential horror film directors of all time. There’s always more movies that I want to watch than I can ever get around to seeing.
Having said that, it was also really easy to put together a list of fifty. In fact, I scribbled down about eighty films of the top of my head and then had to start trimming the list as I mentally categorized my top fifty (sorry Idle Hands, Army of Darkness, Sunshine, 28 Weeks Later). I wanted a list that captured the best of what this vast genre has to offer. I love the old Universal monster movies! I like psychological thrillers that deals with unseen horrors that creep in the recesses of your mind. I love schlocky zombie movies. Spanish horror. Japanese horror. Supernatural horror. Horror comedy. Stephen King. Alfred Hitchcock.
Anyway, here’s what I came up with. My fifty favourite horror films. Happy Halloween!
50. [REC] 
Found footage horror films can be pretty polarizing. I’m quite partial to them but I know some people that really hate the lot of them. Usually its a suspension of disbelief thing. Can you really accept that a person would walk around in a scary situation filming everything they see? Of all the best known examples in the genre (The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity) I think my favourite would have to be the Spanish mockumentary film [REC].
TV host Angela and her cameraman Pablo film a show called While You Were Sleeping, a series that focuses on the jobs of people who work night shifts. They are shooting an episode about firemen who are called into an apartment block where an elderly lady is reportedly trapped in her room and screaming. They follow the firemen into the building and….that’s when things start to get interesting.
Like any horror film worth its salt, [REC] had a terrible American remake and endless sequels that milked the franchise to death. Don’t be put off by any of that though, the original is still well worth checking out.
49. The Devil’s Backbone 
Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro appears a couple of times in this list. He is one of my favourite directors working today and his creepy, gothic horror sensibilities really shine throughout all of his works but perhaps none moreso than in one of his earliest films – El espinazo del diablo or The Devil’s Backbone.
Set in the Spanish civil war, it tells the story of Carlos, a boy who arrives at an orphanage that houses a large cache of gold and is secretly funding the loyalists to the Republic in the war. Carlos begins to see strange apparitions at the orphanage and his inquisitive nature threatens to reveal some dark secrets kept by the adults.
The Devil’s Backbone is a wonderfully creepy tale that has a camp fire ghost story quality to it. It blends supernatural themes with the horrors of real life warfare and explores them through the eyes of a young child. In many ways, it is easy to see The Devil’s Backbone as the blueprint for what was to come with Del Toro’s classic Pan’s Labyrinth.
48. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night 
2015 was the year that Netflix finally arrived in Australia and one of the finest hidden gems in its catalogue is the Iranian vampire horror western A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Set in the ghost town of Bad City, a blood sucking shape shifting vampire prowls the streets at night, to the peril of the hapless men who cross her path. As you can probably guess by its genre categorisation, A Girl Walks Home Along At Night is worth watching because of its unique premise, eye catching visuals and effortless cool.
47. The Wolf Man 
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) returns to his hometown in Wales upon learning about the death of his brother. There he reconnects with his father John Talbot (Claude Rains) and falls in love with Gwen, a local shopkeeper. The townsfolk are a superstitious lot and there are murmurings of an enourmous wolf-like creature that roams the forests.
One night, Larry saves a woman from an attack by a pack of wolves but he gets bitten in the process. Larry survives the attack but soon he does not feel himself. He’s a lot hairier. He becomes prone to violent outbursts. And when there’s a full moon, his body undergoes a strange and painful transformation.
The Wolf Man is one of the pioneering werewolf films and like most Universal monster movies of the era, it is a handsomely made production with outstanding special effects and a cast of talented actors. I’m not a huge fan of Lon Chaney but Claude Rains owns bones and the transformation scenes are brilliant.
46. Teeth 
Dawn is a very special teenager. Not only is she is the spokesperson for her Christian abstinence group The Promise but she has also has an unusual medical condition – ‘vagina dentata’ – which is pretty much what it sounds like. She comes to discover her condition when a schoolmate Tobey tries to take advantage of her and her body retaliates with a bloody and swift retribution. What follows is a very dark, horror comedy in which the sweet natured Dawn continually turns to various boys and men for help, only to be let down, led on or taken advantage of. But as each man learns in painful and life-scarring fashion, Dawn is neither vulnerable nor a person to be messed with. A most unique horror film.
45. Freaks 
Despite its name and carny roots, Freaks is a film that is very sympathetic to its subjects. I remember reading a book about the Barnum and Bailey circus troupe and how the performers embraced the moniker ‘freak’ because at the time, the medical fraternity literally referred to them as monsters.
In Tod Browning’s film, a gold digging trapeze artist Cleopatra marries a wealthy, lovesick midget named Hans. She plans on taking the money and leaving him for the circus strongman Hercules but when she accidentally reveals her deception at the wedding reception, Hans and the other freaks hatch a plot to enact a horrific retribution.
Considering its age, Freaks is still a very confronting exploitation film. There isn’t really anything like it and nor do I expect a major film studio to make anything like this again. The original cut of the film is dark and nihilist to the core but the shortened (and sweetened) re-releases have softened the films edges and made it more palatable for modern audiences. Regardless of which version you see, it is one of the most memorable and culturally significant horror films in cinema history.
44. The Ring 
I mentioned earlier that there are plenty of classic horror films that I haven’t seen yet. Close to the top of my Pile of Shame list is Ringu, the Japanese horror film on which The Ring is based.
I’d like to think I’ll get around to seeing that film one day but regardless, I still found Gore Verbinski’s American adaptation to be a memorably frightening experience. The iconic image of a long dark haired girl stepping out of a television set to claim your soul is not something thats easily forgotten but for me, the scariest shot of the film came early on when a closet is slid open and we see the face of a young girl who is described as being literally ‘frightened to death’.
It’s a strange thing. I don’t really think of The Ring as a particularly old film and yet a crucial plot point rests on the widespread use of VHS tapes and swapping tapes between friends. Almost all great horror films invariably get revisited later on and I wonder if some enterprising young director can find a way to make the story work in a social media saturated modern culture. A dark haired girl creeping out of the Youtube video on your smart phone doesn’t quite inspire the same sense of horror.
43. Suspiria 
Probably the most artfully shot horror film on this list would be Dario Argento’s Suspiria, an eye catching Italian horror film about a double homicide in a ballet school. I’ve seen Suspiria three times and yet the little details of the film always end up escaping me and instead I mostly recall the dream like mood, the prog rock score by Goblin and the exquisite cinematography. With Suspiria, the style is the substance. The saturated technicolour colour palette, the unconventional camera angles and the distinctive soundtrack make this a nightmarish feast for the senses.
42. Julia’s Eyes 
Guillem Morales’ Los ojos de Julia (Julia’s Eyes) is a criminally underrated Mexican horror film that came along five years ago and unfortunately didn’t find much of an audience. The film begins with the death of Sara, a blind woman who is tormented by an unseen stranger. The exact moment of her death causes a reaction in her twin sister Julia who senses that Sara has been murdered.
Sara is found hanging from a noose and her death is ruled to be a suicide but Julia suspects foul play and begins investigating her sister’s final days. Before long, Julia begins to suspect that an unseen evil is following her and her own life may be in danger. Unfortunately for Julia, as the stress of the situation takes its toll, it gradually causes her eyesight to deteriorate.
I love horror films that are patient in their torment of the protagonist and the audience. The unseen big bad in this film is kept in the shadows for a considerable length of time, causing unbearable tension to both Julia and the audience. As her condition worsens to the point of near total blindness, every noise, every shifting shape in the background causes panic and anxiety. Its extraordinary to think that this is Morales’ first feature film as he shows a great talent for playing with the audiences expectations and ratcheting up the tension. Julia’s Eyes is a wonderfully constructed horror film that more people should see.
41. Cube 
Cube is a low budget Canadian sci-fi horror that is perhaps the most economical film on this list both in terms of budget and production values. The entire film is shot in a single room.
The film begins with several strangers waking from a deep sleep to find themselves in a mysterious cube. Each room in the cube has a puzzle that has to be solved to unlock a passageway into the next chamber. Failure to solve the puzzle can result in a fatal punishment.
I really enjoyed Cube. It’s a clever and imaginative film which entertains both with its nifty premise as well as its colourful cast of characters who initially seem to be drawn as simplistic stereotypes (the good natured cop, a logically minded doctor, an autistic savant) before they begin to shift and subvert audience expectations as the pressure of the Cube begins to take its toll on the group.
40. The Host 
The Host is one of the highest grossing films at the Korean box office and is the work of Boon Joon-ho who found international success with Mother and Snowpiercer. The film is an entertaining hodge podge of genres – a giant mutant creatures wreaks havoc in down town Seoul and amongst this carnage and mayhem is a family drama involving the feckless and dim-witted Park Gang-du and his long suffering family.
The Host has so much going for it. The sequences involving the creature ransacking Seoul are genuinely exhilarating and action packed (and Weta Workshop produced). Gang-du and his family are great company as they bicker and put one another down endlessly before uniting to try and bring down the creature and save the city. It’s easy to see why this film was such a heavyweight at the box office and counts the likes of Quentin Tarantino amongst its admirers.
39. Cabin In The Woods 
If you can help it, don’t read anything about Cabin In The Woods before seeing this film. Much in the same way that Scream turned the genre on its head in 1996 with its post-modern sense of self awareness, Cabin In The Woods is a film that looks very much like one thing before completely doing a 180 and ending up as a very different proposition entirely.
I’ve already said too much about the plot. But talking more broadly, this is a horror buff’s horror film. It is very savvy about its audience and delights in celebrating the horror genre tropes and conventions with them.
38. The Skin I Live In 
The Skin I Live In is hands down the creepiest film on this list. It has minimal bloodshed or much by the way of jump scares. It doesn’t need them. It tells the story of a mad plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard – played brilliantly by Antonio Banderas – who captures a thief in his mansion named Vicente before subjecting him to a series of operations. Vicente’s appearance changes radically over time as the audience slowly realizes to their horror what Ledgard is doing to him.
Like the final scene of the cult classic Oldboy, the revelation near the end of The Skin I Live In will likely cause you to squirm uncontrollably before you regather your thoughts, pause the film, set your media device alight in a bonfire before casting it out the window in revulsion at what you’ve just witnessed. This is a psychological horror of the most memorable kind.
I’m still scarred by the events of this film.
37. American Psycho 
Patrick Bateman is a successful investment banker who immerses himself in a world of expensive designer clothes, fine dining restaurants, phony friends and material excess. In a hilarious pastiche of the hedonistic economic boom period of the Eighties, Bateman extols the virtues of an absurdly complicated beautification and exercise routine, talks at length about the finer points of pop songs by Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News and endlessly obsesses over how the shade of white on his business card compares with his colleagues.
Frustrated with his vapid social circle and unsatisfying lifestyle, Bateman turns to murder – prostitutes and work colleagues who bug him – to desperately try and rediscover any sense of feeling.
I’ve always thought that it was an interesting and inspired choice to have America Psycho directed by a female. Mary Harron does an admirable job bringing Brett Easton Ellis’ book to the screen, setting the tone of the film just on the right side of absurdity so that the film’s darkest scenes avoid feeling too exploitative.
The film is best remembered for Christian Bale’s delightfully unhinged performance as Patrick Bateman. That moment when he delivers a rambling critique of The Power of Love, carefully lines his sofa with a plastic tarp so it won’t get any blood stains on it before brutally taking an axe to his co-worker Paul Allen is one of the most darkly funny scenes in the entire film.
36. The Babadook 
A single mother and her son begin to wonder if there really is a monster under the bed at night. The Babadook is an Australian directorial debut financed on Kickstarter for just $35,000. It features a fine performance from Essie Davis (almost unrecognizable from her usual role as detective socialite Miss Fisher) and from young Noah Wiseman.
I remember the BBC film critic Mark Kermode refer to his favourite film The Exorcist as having outstanding craftsmanship ‘like a solid, well put together chair’. I feel the same way about The Babadook. A creature feature with a spooky kid is not an original premise by any means but its the fashion in which director Jennifer Kent crafts this tale that makes it so good.
The film is also a feel good story for the Australian film industry. After being released to commerical indifference in Australia, the film found a new lease on life after it landed on Netflix and received favourable reviews from the New York Times and by the BBC’s flagship film review show.
35. The Descent 
You get good value for money with The Descent. It’s two horror movies for the price of one!
Six women go on a hiking holiday together in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. When they decide to explore an unmapped cave system, disaster strikes as the cave collapses, trapping the women inside. Forced to press on deeper into the cave to find an alternative way out, the friends find themselves in a race against time as their supplies run low and their equipment begins to fail.
For the first hour of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the film works perfectly fine as a thriller about women versus nature, battling the elements and using their wits and teamwork to stay alive. Marshall expertly weaves an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia as the women get trapped deeper and deeper into the cave’s network, lost and desperate for a way out.
Eventually, a secondary threat is introduced that turns the film on its head. It appears in one of the most pants-shittingly shocking jump scares that I can ever recall experiencing in a cinema. This added complexity ratchets up the tension a couple of hundred notches. After getting a perfectly good thriller, the film transforms into an outstanding horror.
This film got me good with its jump scares. There’s about four of them and each one brought me out of my seat. The Descent can be unbearable to watch in the best possible way.
34. Drag Me To Hell 
Who knew that declining a gypsie lady her request for an extension on her mortage repayment could cause so many problems? Drag Me To Hell is a glorious horror/comedy that harkens back to a simpler time before Sam Raimi was making Hollywood blockbusters like Oz the Great and Powerful and the Spider-man trilogy.
After reluctantly denying the old woman her mortgage repayment extension to show her manager that she’s ready for a promotion, Christine Brown has a curse placed on her, condemning her to be dragged into the literal pits of hell after three days. Christine and her boyfriend turn to a hilariously cash-strapped psychic for help and dabble in some ritual sacrifice to appease the demons with mixed results.
I love this movie. It revels in its silliness so comfortably and after doling out a bunch of gags it serves up a couple of genuinely effective jump scares. My only hope is that before Raimi retires, he revists this genre once or twice more. It’d be a shame not to.
33. Attack the Block 
Horror comedies are a rare thing but when they’re done well, there’s nothing better. Attack the Block is a film by Joe Cornish that has the unusual premise of an alien invasion set in a council flat in London. Equal parts funny and scary, this is a real treat and one of my favourite British horror films. It launched the career of John Boyega who is now on the cusp of movie stardom as the lead in the upcoming Star Wars Force Awakens. Given his charismatic performance here as the gang leader Moses, its not hard to see why Hollywood came calling.
32. Re-Animator 
There’s something about the actor Jeffrey Combs that makes him perfect for a film like Re-Animator. Not unlike Leslie Nielsen of Naked Gun fame, Combs looks like he could or should be a sensible, credible actor. He has the presence and manner of speech of a classically trained stage performer. As it so happens, director Stuart Gordon has cast him in a movie about a mad scientist who reanimates the dead.
Re-Animator takes its inspiration from Frankenstein but then transposes that story into a college setting with over the top gore and gratuitous nudity. Of course there’s a million films like this that came out in the Eighties but the reason people remember Re-Animator is because it really is the best at what it does. People can turn their nose up at its campy and shameless content but not unlike Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead films, Stuart Gordon clearly has a great eye for this type of film and he absolutely nails the film’s humour, pacing and psycho-sexual content.
31. It Follows 
It Follows is a fantastic teen horror film that draws its inspiration from the works of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi whilst still maintaining an identity of its own. Writer and director David Robert Mitchell shows a real flair for understanding how to set the stage for a supernatural horror of this kind. There’s a terrifying killer on the prowl, it has strict rules it must adhere to and then there’s a cast of young naive teenagers who are its prey. The film is handsomely put together with some evocative cinematography that gives It Follows the look of a Seventies or Eighties teen slasher film. The tension is cranked up to another level when you add in the fantastic pulse pounding synth score from Disasterpeace. Watch this movie in the dead of night with the lights out for maximum effect.
30. The Silence of the Lambs 
Nearly twenty five years on, The Silence of the Lambs remains the standard bearer of cerebral horror films thanks to Anthony Hopkins mesmerizing performance as Hannibal Lecter. His mannerisms and his one liners have become part of popular culture and he is one of the great cinematic anti-heroes. Director Jonathan Demme’s restrained and carefully crafted adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel has made The Silence of the Lambs one of the most critically lauded horror films of all time. I revisited this film last year and it has lost none of its potency and the exchanges between FBI agent Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster) and Hannibal Lecter are as tense and absorbing as ever.
29. Dawn of the Dead 
I don’t much care for Zack Snyder as a director. Most of his recent films – Suckerpunch, Man of Steel, Watchmen – I find to be frustrating, misguided or downright boring.
But I’ll always hold out hope that he recaptures his early form because I am a huge fan of his debut feature – an improbably great remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Anchored by a terrific lead performance from indy scene actress Sarah Polley, Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead keeps the satirical subtext of Romero’s films about human nature but the film stands tall on its own merits thanks to the strong performances from the cast and Snyder’s trademark visual flair.
The film also has one of my favourite final acts when the survivors make a bolt for survival out of the shopping mall as they ram through the sea of zombies in a heavily weaponized bus that wouldn’t look out of place in Mad Max. It’s a sequence of wild, unhinged mayhem that I can’t help but love.
28. Scream 
The A.V Club recently published an article making a case for the modern era of horror films – It Follows, Let The Right One In, The Babadook etc – being one of the best decades in the history of the genre. Whether you agree with that assertion or not, it’s easy to forget that after the glut of horror films in the Eighties, the entire genre cratered and ceased to be for a number of years. Horror films laid dormant until the old master Wes Craven brought them back with a bang thanks to Scream – a brilliant post modern take on the teen slasher genre where the killer was inspired by real Hollywood horror movies and the teen cast showed actual self awareness and understood the tropes of horror films (“don’t split up, don’t investigate the strange noise in the dark” etc).
Scream and Scream 2 still hold up well as some of the best teen slashers of the Nineties and Neve Campbell remains one of my favourite scream queens of the genre.
27. Jaws 
Ah, Jaws. The pioneer of the summer blockbuster and a film so successful at scaring the bejeezus out of everyone that it inadvertently endangered actual sharks for a number of years as a result (the author would go on to express deep regret over his work and became an advocate of great whites).
Jaws is a great case study in what makes a great horror film. The special effects for Bruce the Shark were never that great which is why director Steven Spielberg wisely opts to keep him off screen for large portions of the film and instead the audience is left to stew over whats in the water thanks to some inspired point of view shots paired with that memorable score from John Williams.
26. Let The Right One In 
Let The Right One In is a fantastic Swedish horror film that melds the vampire genre with a touching coming of age story about a meek young boy named Oskar who is finding his place in the world.
Against the backdrop of Stockholm in the Eighties, Oskar comes from a broken home and he has a hard time at school where he gets picked on by a group of bullies. Oskar imagines what it would be like getting revenge one day but he is too weak and puny to do anything about his plight. His life is irrevocably changed when he meets Eli, a soft spoken but self assured young girl who tries to resist becoming friends with Oskar but ultimately warms to his sweet nature.
A significant portion of this film is spent observing the blossoming friendship between Oskar and Eli. They share a heart warming and sincere chemistry together. But there remains the ever present threat of the bullies who continue to torment Oskar. If only he had someone he could turn to, to bail him out of trouble…
I have a real soft spot for this film and it is one of my favourite vampire films of the 21st century. If you’re having a hard time tracking it down, the American remake Let Me In is a respectable adaptation worth checking out also.
25. Kwaidan 
Kwaidan is a horror film anthology made in Japan in the Sixties. It clocks in at around three hours and tells four ghost stories – each well known and a part of Japanese folklore. At least two of them – Hoichi the Earless and Woman In The Snow – I remember reading about when I was a kid.
Japanese cinema of this era is something of an acquired taste. The performances tend to be highly exaggerated and put on, as if they were a pantomime stage production. But I hope that won’t discourage any horror buffs from checking out Kwaidan because these stories have a timeless quality to them that reward the patient viewer. Each fable functions as a morality tale and there is often a dark or painful twist at its conclusion as the protagonist fails to heed a warning or lets their impulses get the better of them. You’ll also see the roots of a lot of iconic modern imagery from Japanese horror – think the girl from The Ring – in Kwaidan. The film has outstanding production values and has plenty of eery imagery that will linger in the mind long after the credits roll.
24. Shaun of the Dead 
I kind of tossed up whether to include this on a top fifty ‘horror’ list but what the hell. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is a hilarious love letter to zombie films that lampoons many of the common genre tropes but does so in a decidedly British flavour with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s ne’er-do-well characters having a shockingly blasé attitude to the zombie apocalypse and all their plans involve doing as little work as possible and ending up at the local pub as the final destination. The duo are so oblivious to the zombies overrunning society that they don’t even notice it at first and their first takedown of a zombie involves the use of a cricket bat which is pretty much the greatest thing.
23. The Mist 
The Mist is a Frank Darabont adaptation of a Stephen King novella that I feel doesn’t get nearly enough love. Granted it was never going to attain the level of adoration and critical acclaim that The Shawshank Redemption received but its still one of my favourite creature features that the duo have worked on. And its arguably one of these few instances where a film has improved on its literary source. Darabont was inspired by Fifties era sci-fi horror flicks and you can really appreciate the look he was going for if you pick up The Mist on Blu Ray as it comes with a version of the film shot in black and white. It improves the atmosphere of the film immeasurably and is by far my preferred way to enjoy this film.
22. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 
You’ll notice this list of horror films has an absence of ‘torture porn’ films (the Saw series, Hostel, any Eli Roth film really) as I don’t much care for that subset of the horror genre. For that reason I steered clear of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for quite a long time as I assumed it was of a similar ilk. Turns out I was way off the mark. Toby Hooper’s horror classic not only has one of the most intimidating names in cinema history, it is also surprisingly well made. Hooper shows a keen understanding of how to build suspense, using plenty of restraint in stringing the audience along before he finally lets Leatherface off the leash. It speaks volumes that the films most memorable and unsettling scene isn’t anything to do with a chainsaw attack but instead revolves around the world’s creepiest family dinner.
21. Eraserhead 
I like horror films; I like being spooked by horror films; but rarely do horror films actually get into my subconscious and cause me to lose sleep. Eraserhead is one of the few films to make me do so.
It is a goddamn creepy experience on a level that few other films can ever hope to be. The story is simple enough – a browbeaten jobsworth named Henry hangs out with his tempermental girlfriend Mary and their weird, noisy space baby. But director David Lynch creates an uncomfortable, jarring and disorienting experience for the viewer with his use of grimy industrialized landscapes, strange hallucinogenic visuals and bizarre organ-droning musical score. I only ever saw this film once but I remember it vividly.
20. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn 
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is the perfect horror comedy. I wouldn’t change a thing. When Sam Raimi secured the funding to make a second feature film, I’m not sure what prompted him to revisit his first film with the same lead, the same location but with a slapstick tone. I’m just glad he did it. Bruce Campbell is in career best form as the rubber faced anti-hero Ash – a coward and a buffoon – who is tormented by the demons unleashed by the Book of the Dead before he eventually transforms into cinema’s greatest one-handed bad ass, taking the fight to his possessed friends armed with a shotgun and a chainsaw.
It remains one of the most quotable horror films of all time.
19. Frankenstein 
It’s hard to imagine anyone ever making a film about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that will top James Whales’ adaptation from 1931. Over eighty years later, Boris Karloff remains the most widely remembered actor to take up the mantle of Frankenstein’s monster and even people who haven’t seen the entire film are probably familiar with Colin Clive’s manic cries of ‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ in his outstanding performance as Henry Frankenstein.
Not unlike King Kong, the story of Frankenstein really strikes a chord with me. He’s vilified as a monster by the townsfolk but really the big guy is simply misunderstood. All he wants is to be left alone and he never asked to be brought into this world.
Director James Whale was firing on all cylinders during this era where he made a handful of classic horror films all within the span of about ten years. They all have a fantastic supporting cast of character actors plucked from both Broadway and Hollywood, legendary creature design and wonderful, heartfelt storytelling. Frankenstein is no different. In fact, its one of his very best.
18. The Orphanage 
What’s your favourite ‘creepy kid’ horror film? Is it Rosemary’s Baby? The Omen? The Village of the Damned? I think mine would be The Orphanage because of this guy right here – Tomas.
This Spanish horror film from 2007 rightfully won plenty of awards and critical adulation when it first hit the festival circuit. Its basically a ghost story for adults. A woman named Laura moves her family to her childhood home which used to be an orphanage for disabled children. Her adopted son Simon begins conversing with ‘an imaginary friend’ but of course we know better.
One of the games the children play in The Orphanage is a Spanish variant of ‘Statues‘. When the film chips away at your nerves and you’re becoming increasingly paranoid that there’s a ghost in their midst, it becomes one of the most nerve shattering scenes to watch in the entire film. You just know Tomas is going to appear eventually and the anticipation just wrecks you.
17. 28 Days Later 
In 2002, everyone remembered Danny Boyle’s zombie film 28 Days Later for two things. Firstly, we all knew someone who confused the film for Sandra Bullock’s rom-com 28 Days that didn’t end up with the date night movie they thought they were getting. Secondly, that incredible opening scene in which Cillian Murphy walks around an empty London.
When 28 Days Later was first released, zombie films weren’t particularly in vogue (ah, life before The Walking Dead) and it was a pioneer in transforming zombies from slow, lumbering corpses into fast paced virus-addled psychopaths.
28 Days Later is an excellent zombie apocalypse thriller. Great actors, tight script, intense action. Don’t forget, the sequel 28 Weeks Later is a worthy successor too.
16. Under The Skin 
For a good portion of Under The Skin there are really only two things to hold your attention in Jonathan Glazer’s erotic sci-fi thriller – Scarlett Johansson’s semi-naked body and the hypnotic atmosphere created by the combination of Glazer’s stark, stripped back visuals and Mica Levi’s pulsing and unsettling soundtrack.
Under The Skin moves along at a very deliberate pace, repeating itself and settling the audience into an uncomfortable and gruesome pattern. Once we understand the routine, it then throws a curveball with a pulsating last act where the rules become subverted and the game is turned on its head. One of the most memorably dark and creative horror films I’ve ever seen.
15. Night of the Hunter 
It’s the damnedest thing that Charles Laughton, a legendary actor in Hollywood who has over sixty film credits and starred in the likes of Mutiny on the Bounty and Witness For the Prosecution made precisely one film as a director and it ended up becoming one of the most revered horror films of its era.
The Night of the Hunter is a sublimely eerie thriller in which Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a terrifying serial killer who takes on the guise of a Reverend to win over the trust of his impending victims. You probably know plenty of contemporary characters based on Powell. He has L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles and he masks his threats in recitations of bible verses.
Powell comes to learn that two young children – John and Pearl – are in possession of a large sum of money that their late father stole during a train robbery. Powell charms his way into the family home and woos the bereaved mother Willa while engaging in a game of cat and mouse with the children.
The Night of the Hunter is an outstanding Southern gothic horror and the performance by Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell won’t soon be forgotten.
14. Aliens 
Sci-fi horror doesn’t get more terrifying, more intense or more visceral than the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise. James Cameron’s sequel is a more action oriented than Ridley Scott’s masterpiece but it absolutely retains the integrity of the original and the moment-to-moment scares as just as intense. When Ripley and her crew are on LV-426 and they hear their proximity tracker start to bleep with ever increasing frequency as the xenomorphs zero in on them, you can’t help but get goosebumps. It can be pretty hard to pick to a superior film between Alien and Aliens but what James Cameron’s film has going for it is a gigantic fourteen foot tall Alien Queen. The showdown between Ripley and the Queen is the stuff of legends.
13. Carrie 
High school can be a tough time when you’re an awkward teenager. Nearly forty years after its release, Stephen King’s Carrie remains one of the definitive teen horror stories. The daughter of a disturbed Christian fundamentalist, Carrie is tormented at school by the girls in her class and life is just as bad if not worse at home where her mother has a decidedly Old Testament approach to disciplining her child. Carrie is a slice of Seventies Americana with its cast including the likes of John Travolta and its storyline which is centred around high school proms and homecoming kings and queens. What I like about Carrie is the effectiveness of Sissy Spacek’s performance as the long suffering Carrie and that the film resists the temptation to explain her powers. If you make her mad you pay the price. That’s all you need to know.
12. Battle Royale 
I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and her signature role as Catniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise but lets be honest – Battle Royale got there first as judged purely on the merits of a horror film that runs with the concept, it did it better. Set in a dystopian future where the adults in Japan are openly warring with the dissenting youth of the country, a randomly selected class of grade schoolers are sent to an island and told they must kill one another in a game of survival.
What follows is a memorably bloody, anarchic Lord of the Flies inspired melodrama in which various high school scores are settled and often with unexpected results. A classroom nerd confronts the bully. A bashful introvert confesses their love to their crush. A group of friends make a pact to try and survive together. What’s great about Battle Royale is that it has an enourmous cast and makes time for all these various subplots to play out.
Battle Royale was Kinji Fukasaku’s final film and unfortunately he passed away just as began work on a sequel which was eventually completed by his son. It should be noted that for all of Battle Royale‘s qualities, the sequel is one of the worst films I have ever seen. Avoid at all costs.
11. The Birds 
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is a rather unconventional horror film but perhaps thats what has made it stand the test of time. I can’t really think of any other film that has attempted to cast birds as the primary antagonist and yet upon reflection, I know plenty of people who are terrified of them. And if the thought of getting attacked by a single bird when you’re cycling or hiking sounds bad, you can imagine Tippi Hedren’s horror when a whole swarm of them descend upon a town and begin to take it apart, piece by piece and person by person.
As with many of the films in this list, the key to the films success is the craftsmanship. Hitchcock introduces us to a cast of characters, give us a reason to care about them and then gradually clues the audience into the fact that something is amiss before bringing the house down in a bloody, feathery crescendo.
10. The Evil Dead 
The Evil Dead is one of the all time classic horror films. Made on a shoe string budget, it is a master class in economic film making and understanding how to get the most out of a handful of young, inexperienced actors and a single location – a dank, unremarkable looking log cabin. When Ash and his four friends travel to the cabin for a holiday retreat, they discover Necronomicon Ex-Mortis – the Book of the Dead – and accidentally bring the demons to life by playing a recording of someone reading its passages.
What follows is a lean, mean eighty five minute horror show where the young teenagers are put through the ringer. It was banned and declared as a ‘video nasty’ when it first arrived on British shores. ‘It’s not exactly Gone With The Wind but it’ll do’ remarked Raimi’s distributor. What The Evil Dead ended up turning into is one of the definitive horror films of the Eighties, an indelible part of pop culture and one of the most beloved low budget scary movies ever made.
9. Halloween 
Production designer Tommy Lee Wallace purchased a ‘Captain Kirk’ mask from a local store for $1.98, painted it white and slapped it onto the outfit for masked killer Michael Myers and the rest is history.
John Carpenter’s Halloween is the quintessential teen slasher film and people have been borrowing liberally from its copybook ever since. The masked killer, the gratuitous topless scene, the expendable cast, the virginal protagonist. All of the rules that the kids in Scream talk about and riff on were written first by Carpenter with this film.
Happily, the film has a timeless quality to it and is just as scary to watch today. And I think we can all agree it has the greatest theme song of any horror film ever made.
On a side note – the sequels are of varying quality but I do quite like Halloween II and it has the novelty of picking up immediately after the first film. You could basically stitch them together to make a single film.
8. The Shining 
The Shining was not exactly a box office hit when it first released in theatres in 1980 and famously, author Stephen King expressed disappointment at Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel. Point blank, King said he “hated it”. Over the years however, appreciation has continued to grow for Kubrick’s film and nowadays it is considered one of the finest horror films ever made. Even King recanted some of his criticism. Why is this?
I think like any horror film worth its salt, The Shining can be viewed as a parable with various themes underlying what is at face value a writer’s descent into madness at an empty resort. King wrote the story as a semi-autobiographical work during the height of his alcoholism. In his story, Jack Torrance finds some redemption in his battle with grog. In Kubrick’s film, Torrance is an irredeemable monster to the very end. My guess is that King didn’t appreciate the inference.
Regardless, what become apparent when watching The Shining and reading interpretations of the film later (or watching the recent documentary Room 237) is that the film is a rich seam of themes and ideas, filled with symbolism and imagery that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Its purposeful ambiguity – everyone in the Torrence family is an unreliable narrator surrounded by ghostly apparitions – has meant that discussions about what the film is about has continued for over thirty years after its release. And how many films do you know that can lay claim to that kind of accomplishment?
7. The Thing 
Aesthetically speaking, one of my favourite eras for horror films would be the Eighties. This was the twilight of tangible special effects being used in film before they would largely come to be replaced by computer generated imagery. I appreciate that CGI is cheaper, faster and generally more economical to use but I miss the look and feel of films like The Thing.
John Carpenter’s legendary sci-fi horror about a group of scientists at an Alaskan research station under attack from a shape shifting alien is surely the pinnacle of physical effects. The film employs the use of miniatures, a $1.5 million dollar make up budget, sophisticated animatronics and stop motion technology. When you see the cast react in revulsion at that mutant dog thing or when the alien transforms a human body into a misshapen ten foot creature all made of sinew and limbs, you know thats actually a physical prop that the designers have made. It gives the film a distinctive look and feel of a bygone era that sadly modern horror films can’t hope to match (case in point, 2011 version of The Thing).
6. The Bride of Frankenstein 
The Monster lives! Like another film on this list – Halloween II – The Bride of Frankenstein picks up immediately after the end of the first film. It turns out the Monster survived the fire at the old windmill and neither he nor Frankenstein are dead.
The Bride of Frankenstein is considered to be one of the best Universal monster films and it probably has one of the most fleshed out narratives (no pun intended) of the lot. If I was to draw a comparison to modern super hero films, most Universal monster movies are ‘origin stories’ which are largely focused on how the creatures came into existence. The Bride of Frankenstein is the Dark Knight of its era. With audiences now familiar with the character of The Monster – a sentient creature hated and rejected by society but one who craves companionship – this film develops his character further as he saves a young girl from drowning, is taught to speak by a blind hermit and then is presented with the possibility of finding happiness when Frankenstein creates The Bride.
I find the bitter sweet ending to this film rather affecting. Not many films in this list have tender moments but the final act in Bride of Frankenstein may have caused some dust to get caught in my eye. I just want the poor Monster to be happy, dammit.
5. The Exorcist 
There will never, ever again be a bold and creatively challenging era for mainstream cinema like the Seventies in America. Thanks to focus testing groups, lucrative licensing deals and ballooning production costs, modern cinema is an endless conveyor belt of super hero films and remakes that trade heavily on nostalgia. In the Seventies, mainstream fare wasn’t afraid to explore ideas about war, sexuality and religion. Mainstream fare in the Seventies was Platoon, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Last Tango In Paris, The Godfather and of course, The Exorcist.
The Exorcist is a hugely ambitious film about a young girl Regan who her mother comes to fear has become possessed by a demon. Part of what makes William Friedkin’s film so unnerving is that it isn’t really shot as a horror film and instead it is presented as something more realistic and grounded. The scenes with Regan’s long suffering mother struggling to cope and Father Merrin’s reluctance and introspection about performing the exorcism intellectualizes the film in a way that makes it transcend the genre. It is a terrifying tale that mixes religion, science, sexuality and vulgarity with extraordinary confidence and finesse. The end result is one of the all time classic horror films.
4. The Invisible Man 
My favourite film by legendary director James Whale is The Invisible Man. It is one of only a handful of films I can think of where I’ve watched it endlessly and thought ‘I wouldn’t change a thing‘. Everything about the look and feel of the characters, the writing, the way each scene plays out is note perfect.
Claude Rains is one of my all time favourite Hollywood actors (Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, Notorious) and The Invisible Man is his debut as a lead actor although we only get to hear his voice for most of the film. He plays Jack Griffin, a brilliant scientist who creates a serum that turns people invisible…and also criminally insane. For most of the film we see him torment and run rings around the feckless locals who can’t resist prying into his affairs as he tries to find a way to reverse the effects of his condition. He also has a love interest – the beautiful Flora (the old woman from Titanic!) – who desperately tries to convince the local authorities to capture him without using lethal force.
I love the style and sensibilities of Victorian era sci-fi and horror stories as written by H.G Wells. Not only did he give us The Invisible Man but also The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau. With The Invisible Man, Whale and Rains have done a wonderful job bringing his creations to life. Of all the famous creature features of the Thirties and Forties – including the likes of Dracula, Frankstein, The Mummy and The Creature From The Black Lagoon – The Invisible Man stands tall as my pick of the bunch.
3. Psycho 
There are plenty of influential horror films on this list but perhaps none moreso than Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror film Psycho. It surely has the most famous onscreen murder of any film in cinema history. The infamous shower scene where Norman Bates stabs Marion Crane transcends the popularity of the film itself. Even people who haven’t seen Psycho know that scene.
I’ve read that the film itself shocked and stunned audiences upon its initial release. Although made with a modest budget and a relatively low key cast, the film completely flips the script on the audience by boldly killing off the protagonist just forty minutes into the film. The only modern day comparison that I could think of is Eddard Stark’s death in Game of Thrones.
The film is a bona fide classic and remains a compelling watch to this day. Even by modern standards Norman Bates is a wonderfully unnerving movie villain – best remembered for his detached manner of speech and his creepy devotion to his mother.
Alfred Hitchcock made dozens of outstanding horror and thriller films in his career. None were better than Psycho.
2. Pans Labyrinth 
When Guillermo Del Toro decided to make a spiritual successor to The Devil’s Backbone, a ‘fairytale for adults’, the result was Pan’s Labyrinth which to my mind is the greatest fantasy horror film ever made. Set in war torn Spain in 1944, it tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who lives in a military outpost with her mother Carmen and her monstrous step father Captain Vidal, who we are first introduced to in the film when he callously executes two prisoners of war in gruesome fashion.
Like The Devil’s Backbone before it, Pan’s Labyrinth is a story set during a time of great bloodshed and conflict and then views that world through the eyes of a child who retreats into their imagination to help cope with and process what they see before them. But as good as The Devil’s Backbone was, it’s no Pan’s Labyrinth. It doesn’t have The Pale Man. Or the giant toad. Or a truely frightening presence like Captain Vidal.
What elevates Pan’s Labyrinth to greatness is the care and detail that Del Toro lavishes onto every aspect of the film. The character design is second to none. Everyone will remember Pale Man not just for how he looks but also how he moves. Captain Vidal is a terrifying antagonist because he doesn’t feel like a cartoon villain but a genuine sadist with bad intentions. The film has a careful balancing act as a horror film, a fantasy film, a period drama and a child’s fairytale. It sounds like it shouldn’t work but Del Toro is able to make it come together successfully.
1. Alien 
Hands down, the scariest creature in cinema history is the xenomorph from Alien.
Ridley Scott’s 1978 masterpiece took a ragtag group of blue collar works, cast them adrift in space aboard the spaceship Nostromo, and then locked them inside with a horrifying, remorseless killing machine born from the imagination of HR Giger.
Alien is the greatest horror film ever made and I wonder if it can ever be topped. Not only does it have an unfair advantage thanks to the incredible vision of HR Giger who designed the chest burster, the alien eggs and the xenomorphs, it also has cinema’s greatest action movie heroine in Ripley – played by Sigourney Weaver.
Ridley Scott’s film has so much quality to unpack in its 116 minute running time that it is an embarrassment of riches. The special effects hold up superbly well, the jump scares remain as terrifying as ever and the film’s script and themes exploring gender politics, class politics and corporate ethics remains as razor sharp and pointed as ever.
Alien is one of the greatest films ever made and is my pick for the greatest horror movie ever made. Bar none.
Longlisted Films That Didn’t Make the Cut
- King Kong
- Children of the Corn
- Nightmare On Elm Street
- Dr Giggles
- Pet Cemetery
- Idle Hands
- The Blair Witch Project
Noteworthy Horror Films I Haven’t Seen Yet (Which Is Probably Why They Aren’t On This List)
- Rosemary’s Baby
- Night of the Living Dead
- Dawn of the Dead
- The Fly
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers