The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of my personal 150 favorite horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. This is part four.
Special Mention: Häxan
Directed by Benjamin Christensen
Denmark / Sweden, 1922
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 Haxan is a fascinating historical document and one of the earliest films that use misogyny and sexual repression as its main subject.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
Written and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (segments “Christmas Party” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”), Charles Crichton (segment “Golfing Story”), Basil Dearden (segments “Hearse Driver” and “Linking Narrative”), Robert Hamer (segment “The Haunted Mirror”)
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.
99. The Reflecting Skin
Directed by Philip Ridley
Written by Philip Ridley
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 from 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
Directed by Richard Stanley
Screenplay by Richard Stanley
1992, South Africa / UK
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.
97. Night Of The Creeps
Directed by Fred Dekker
Screenplay by Fred Dekker
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.
96. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Directed by John D. Hancock
Written by John D. Hancock and Lee Kalcheim
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?
95. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by James V. Hart
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!
94. Village of the Damned
Directed by Wolf Rilla
Written by John Wyndham, Stirling Silliphant
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.
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson
1996, New Zealand / USA
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.
92. Cannibal Holocaust
Directed by Ruggero Deodato
Screenplay by Gianfranco Clerici
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.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro
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
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski
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
Directed by Michael Haneke
Written by Michael Haneke
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
Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by John Carpenter
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.”
88. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Screenplay by Werner Herzog
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
Directed by Robert Hiltzik
Screenplay by Robert Hiltzik
Sleepaway Camp is just one of the many entries from the classic heyday of slasher films released in the early 80’s 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 80’s 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)
Directed by Gary Sherman
Screenplay by Ceri Jones
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‘s success 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
Directed by Richard Donner
Screenplay by David Seltzer
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 1970’s. 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 which 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.
84. The Hills Have Eyes
Directed by Wes Craven
Screenplay by Wes Craven
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
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by John Sayles
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).
82. In the Mouth of Madness
Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by Michael De Luca
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.
81. Alucarda, La Hija De Las Tinieblas / Innocents From Hell
Directed by Juan López Moctezuma
Written by Alexis Arroyo and Juan López Moctezuma
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 scene 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
Directed by Lodge H. Kerrigan
Screenplay by Lodge H. Kerrigan
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.
150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 20)
The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of my personal 150 favorite horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. This is part eight.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw star in this terrifying thriller about an enormous man-eating Great White Shark that terrorizes the fictional coastal summer resort town of Amity, Long Island on the Fourth of July weekend. Based on the trashy best-selling novel by Peter Benchley (who wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), Jaws was a surprise cash cow thanks to a sophisticated, unrelenting publicity campaign, and was the first film to rake in over $100 million (it grossed more than $260 million at the domestic box office and nearly $475 million worldwide). It went on to spawn three sequels (all terrible), laid out a blueprint for summer blockbusters, and put Steven Spielberg onto the A-list of Hollywood directors. Spielberg doesn’t serve up mass quantities of blood and gore, but what makes Jaws work is his confident direction, which draws the audience into relaxing at precisely all the wrong moments. Spielberg’s meticulous attention to creating suspense recalls the best of Hitchcock. Jaws remains tense by not showing audiences the shark for the majority of the film. For the first hour, the only glimpses we catch of the beast are fleeting and indistinct. The camera doesn’t dwell on it until the final act. We are only treated to a long hard look at the shark when it passes by the deck of the ship, setting up the film’s most memorable line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” In the final scenes, it becomes apparent why the shark gets so little screen time – it looks fake. Spielberg openly admits that if the technology had been better, he would have shown the shark more often. Ironically, it is this handicap that resulted in the film’s greatest strength. By keeping it hidden from the audience, the movie effectively builds suspense and the end result is an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Like all of Cronenberg’s films, Videodrome works on several levels: It is a morality tale, a neo-noir, and a virtual reality sci-fi horror film about a sleazy cable TV producer who’s searching for perverse sexual content to boost the ratings on his TV cable network. Videodrome has a lot to say about the danger of media overexposure and its effect within. Cronenberg views how people are not only influenced by media but how they can also become addicted to it. In a way, Videodrome foretold of popular reality TV shows that would emerge a decade later. The film was so ahead of its time, it even predates The Matrix in its exploration of a flesh-and-blood world merging with cyberspace. And while Cronenberg’s obsession with the relationship between machinery and man reappears in several of his films, Videodrome is a bit more raunchy, walking a fine line between pornography and sadomasochism. Videodrome might just be Cronenberg’s most visionary and audacious film of his early career, and in hindsight, it might just very well be his best. This is a remarkable film that continues to be debated and analyzed, and one of the smartest and most bizarre films ever produced.
18. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel
This high-octane, ferocious gross-out semi-sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead nearly eclipsed its predecessor’s reputation thanks to an endless barrage of visual gags, hyperkinetic camerawork, rapid-fire editing, kegs of jet-propelled blood, slapstick gore, and the demented comic genius of Bruce Campbell (aided by an impressive arsenal of weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw). Campbell’s performance shifts to match the needs of the script spitting out the greatest one-liners of any horror comedy. Evil Dead 2 is so outrageously over-the-top that it attains a level of dizzying surrealism. This is a must-see for any self-respecting moviegoer.
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Halloween is a historical milestone that single-handedly shaped the future of the entire genre. This seminal horror flick actually gets better with age and holds up as an effective thriller that stands head and shoulders above the hundreds of imitators to come. Halloween was produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossed over $100 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable independent films ever made. In 2006, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Halloween had one hell of an influence on the entire film industry. You have to admire how Carpenter avoids explicit onscreen violence, yet amplifies the suspense almost entirely through visual means; Carpenter’s widescreen frame, expert hand-held camerawork, and terrifying foreground and background imagery, along with the simple but moody piano melodies, is what makes Halloween a resounding success.
Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron
Big-budget special effects, expert direction, swiftly paced action, and a distinct feminist subtext from writer/director James Cameron turned what could have been a by-the-numbers sequel into a box office blockbuster and a seven-time Oscar nominee. Aliens offers a little bit of everything, and apart from the opening half-hour of exposition, Cameron barely gives viewers a chance to catch their breaths as he plunges his characters from one dangerous situation to the next. Cinephiles will forever argue as to which is the better film, Alien or Aliens, and truthfully, I myself cannot decide which I prefer. But one thing is for sure- Ridley Scott developed Alien as a horror film whereas Aliens is more of a straightforward action thriller. The horror elements are still there, but while Alien was a marvel of slow-building, atmospheric tension, Aliens packs a much more visceral punch. However, when James Cameron does get down to the suspense, Aliens becomes an extremely intense film indeed. Shot under red emergency lighting inside a narrow complex with low-gridded roofs and cramped airshafts, Cameron develops a powerful, claustrophobic sense of atmosphere. Whether it’s during the chaotic action sequences within the aliens’ hive or the big climax when Sigourney Weaver faces off against the giant mother alien on the edge of a depressurizing airlock, Aliens will have viewers gripping their armrests.
15. An American Werewolf in London
Written and directed by John Landis
US / USA , 1981
Directed by the brilliant John Landis, and made well before the advent of CGI, An American Werewolf in London features the greatest werewolf transformation ever put to screen, thanks to the special effects by Rick Baker. The various prosthetics and robotic body parts used during the film’s extended werewolf transformation impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences so much, they decided to add a category for make-up and effects, which of course Baker deservedly won. Landis, who was 19 when he penned the first draft, delivers a pitch-perfect mix of comedy and genuine scares. Apart from the thrills, atmosphere, romance and witty assemblage of moon-themed songs (“Blue Moon”, “Bad Moon Rising,” “Moondance”), An American Werewolf In London remains the best werewolf movie, if only, for the very tragic ending.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Lawrence D. Cohen
This classic horror movie based on Stephen King’s novel about a pubescent girl with telekinetic powers remains Brian De Palma’s best. This landmark of cinematic horror gives us a terrifying look at high school cruelty. Many films have featured school bullies, but Carrie is one of the first to focus on the cruelty inflicted by teenage girls. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations for their performances, a rarity in the horror genre. Spacek showcases her range of acting talent with her convincing portrayal of Carrie’s pain and longing for acceptance. Carrie would be little without her ability to convey enormous conviction. Her performance in the title role is close to perfection, balancing the difficult task of playing both vulnerable and menacing. She was 27 when the film was shot, but looks half her age, and her uncanny combination of maturity and innocence makes us like and fear her all at once. Meanwhile, Laurie powers through the picture as the fiercely religious, sexually repressed, and unbalanced single mom. Brian De Palma is at the top of his game here as a master of visual flamboyance. Carrie brims with stylistic flourishes, including his trademark slow-motion and effective split-screen sequences. The film’s audacious technical excesses and homages to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some to be the film’s greatest strengths, while others criticize De Palma as a hack. Carrie is arguably the most stylish of De Palma’s films, featuring two (if not three) memorable scenes that have entered the pop-culture lexicon.
13. Bride Of Frankenstein
Directed by James Whale
Written by William Hurlbut
“She hate me,” he growls, “Just like others!”
The irony of James Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein is that Frankenstein’s creation is called the Monster, yet he is the least menacing presence in the film. Boris Karloff dominates the screen with a powerhouse performance, managing to invest his character with emotional subtleties that are surprisingly nuanced. Bride of Frankenstein provides a searing citation of man’s inhumanity to man and still finds room for self-parody, social satire, and comedy. This is the second greatest of all Frankenstein movies and some would argue the best horror film of the 1930s. Bride Of Frankenstein has spectacular direction, a thoughtful script, wonderful performances, and is enhanced by the vivid Franz Waxman musical score. Whale’s genius holds it all together until the tragic, inevitable finale.
12. Rosemary’s Baby
Written and directed by Roman Polanski
When Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968, it was lauded by critics and was a massive success at the box office, but religious circles denounced the film for its shocking content, calling it a perverted and distorted view of fundamental Christian beliefs. This spellbinding tale of Satanism and pregnancy (adapted from Ira Levin’s horror bestseller) was Roman Polanski’s first American film and went on to be nominated for two Oscars, winning Best Supporting Actress for Ruth Gordon. Supremely mounted, the film benefits from its strong atmosphere, haunting soundtrack, claustrophobic apartment setting, and polished cinematography by William Fraker. The cast is equally brilliant, with Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as the young couple playing opposite Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, the elderly neighbours. The most frightening aspect of Rosemary’s Baby is the way in which Rosemary loses total control of her mind and body. Her pregnancy dramatically alters her appearance and psyche until she is barely able to recognize herself. Take notice of the recurring motif of reflections throughout the film: when we are first introduced to Rosemary looking in a mirror, she is giddy and confident, but by the end, her reflection has become so alien to her that it makes her physically sick. With Rosemary’s rape, the distinctions between good and evil, reality and nightmares, begin to blur. In the end, Rosemary’s surrender to the anti-Christ represents the ultimate synthesis of good and evil. Rosemary is ultimately responsible for bringing evil into the world, but her unconditional motherly love allows her to accept her fate, rocking the baby to sleep in the final minutes. And yet, without ever seeing the child, how can we the viewers, even be sure there was a child?
Directed by James Whale
Written by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
Frankenstein will forever be regarded as the definitive film version of Mary Shelley’s classic tale of obsession, madness, and perverted science. From the standpoint of the subtext, commentary, story, cast, direction, editing, score and photography, the picture is nearly perfect. Frankenstein is certainly an atmospheric horror film, but it works best as a parable about an outcast, and anyone who ever felt like an outsider will certainly relate. The God complex raises eyebrows as well, questioning how far a man will go in the name of science. Far too many people to this day associate the title Frankenstein not to the scientist from whom the name is drawn, but instead to the monster he creates. Boris Karloff’s legendary, frightening performance as the childlike monster made him an overnight star and created a new icon of terror, but without Colin Clive as the monster’s creator, Frankenstein would be half as good. Clive’s over-the-top, theatrical style might seem excessive by today’s standards but was typical for the time of its release. Despite his flamboyant tendencies, Clive creates a complex and sympathetic character and his performance may very well be the ultimate portrayal of a mad scientist. His crazed scream of “It’s alive!” is as famous as the creature he brings to life. In the end, The Monster is at once Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest achievement and greatest failure – and their inability to coexist is the ultimate tragedy.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O’Bannon
UK / USA, 1979
Boasting one of the greatest taglines of all time – “In space, no one can hear you scream” – Alien blends science fiction, horror, and bleak poetry into what could have easily turned into a simple B-monster movie. In fact, the movie was pitched to producers as Jaws in space, but thankfully Ridley Scott, who was stepping behind the camera for only the second time, took the film far more seriously. Like Steven Spielberg’s great thriller, most of the running time relies on the viewer’s imagination since Scott carefully restricts how little we see of the creature. Be warned: Alien can test a viewer’s patience. This is an extremely slow burn and unusual for the genre. Despite the budget, stellar effects, and ambitious set design, Alien in a sense, is a minimalist film – from the simple opening title sequence to the first 45 minutes, it is all dialogue. There is no horror and there is certainly no action. But despite a slow start, the first half still conjures up a sense that something very, very bad is going to happen. The second half of the film, however, is a technical marvel: tense, horrifying, and visually breathtaking. Despite not featuring any big names at the time, the cast for Alien is comprised of credible actors, including Ian Holm and John Hurt. Alien also has a distinction of being one of the first films to feature a female action hero. Of all the actors, Sigourney Weaver would go on to be the most memorable, playing Ripley, the tough, resourceful, and independent crew member who strikes back against the creatures with a deadly vengeance. But the real stars of Alien are the production designers. Michael Seymour designed the perfect ship for the creature to terrorize, a maze of dark passages that enhance the sense of claustrophobia and mounting tension. The titular alien designed by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger is one of unparalleled terror. Giger’s design for the Alien evoked many contradictory sexual images and creates a twisted vision of sex and death. The script, written by Dan O’Bannon, (who based the screenplay upon Star Beast, a story that he had written earlier on in his career), is also cluttered with Freudian and sexually charged symbolism and images, that the creature itself was designed with a phallic tongue and an open vaginal mouth. Note that in the film’s most shocking scene, it is a man who becomes impregnated by the creature as a surrogate mother. Also, note that the name for the starship’s computer interface that awakens the crew members is simply called “Mother” (or MU-TH-R 182). The decision to not give the alien any eyes only enhance its creepiness, while its metallic, reptilian body, razor-sharp teeth, and missing eyes make it one of the most memorable visions ever to appear in a movie. Alien also contains its fair share of genuine scares. The first occurs when the face-hugger leaps out of the egg and attaches itself to Kane. The second is when the alien explodes through Kane’s chest. But the best scene in the film comes when Ash (Ian Holm), calls it a “perfect organism matched only by its hostility,” and goes on to say: “I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions”. Alien was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning Best Visual Effects but losing in Best Art Direction – and because of the film’s success, Scott was able to finance his next futuristic film, Blade Runner.
9. The Thing
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Bill Lancaster
The Thing was John Carpenter’s first theatrical film for a major studio (Universal) but was a tremendous box office flop during its initial release. Thankfully, the film gained a large cult following over the years and many consider it one of the best entries into the genre of sci-fi horror. The Thing is a paranoid masterpiece and that rare remake that surpasses the original. The film works on a visceral level, and not just because of the blood and gore but because Carpenter’s knack for creating suspense is honed to perfection. Throughout the entire story, the monster remains an amorphous blob, able to adapt and take the shape of anything it comes across. We are never sure where it is at any given time, and in the end, its true appearance is never revealed. The elaborate special effects (designed by then 22-year-old Rob Bottin) set a high standard for films that followed and these ground-breaking special effects feature some of the most spectacular scenes of body horror ever put on screen. A pivotal moment comes when a man’s head disengages itself from its body, sprouts legs, and transforms into a crab-like creature. In another scene, a stomach splits open to reveal a razor-toothed jaw. The Thing is now recognized as a nerve-shredding masterclass of suspense, paranoia and outright, nihilistic terror. Ennio Morricone’s Carpenteresque synth score of simple drones and repetitive bass lines punctuates the picture, as does the touch of comedic dialogue uttered by a fabulous ensemble cast, a cast led by the one and only Kurt Russell. The Thing can be viewed in many ways: a film about social alienation, fear of disease, over-reliance on science, a monster movie, a conspiracy thriller, a whodunit, and even a Western. Carpenter calls this the first of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which also includes Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, and it’s easy to see why. The film is relentlessly grim, refusing to provide an easy out or a true ending. When the credits roll, you can’t help but think you’ve just witnessed the beginning of the end of the mankind.
7. The Exorcist
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by William Peter Blatty
The phenomenon that was The Exorcist was a studio’s dream come true. With rumors that it was supposedly based on a true story, mass audience walk-outs, protests, vomiting and fainting in theaters, and even the legendary claims that the production was cursed, all helped make The Exorcist the second highest-grossing film at the time ($441 million to be exact). The film earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning two (Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay), before losing Best Picture to The Sting. The film was released during a cycle of ‘demonic child’ movies produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s and featured the incredibly talented cast of Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair, whose transformation from sweet innocent to demonic incarnate is one of the most terrifying performances of all time. This ever-haunting journey into demonic possession is likely as disturbing today as it was back then, and will always be an important film historically. A must-see for any true horror aficionado, The Exorcist is creepy, atmospheric, and contains some truly unforgettable and viscerally shocking scenes – not to mention spectacular special effects for its time.
6. The Vanishing (Spoorloos)
Directed by George Sluizer
Written by Tim Krabbé
Netherlands and France, 1988
Based on Tim Krabbe’s The Golden Egg, this clinical, maddening descent into the mind of a serial killer left audiences buzzing with excitement over its ending. The Vanishing could very well be the most intelligent but least influential serial killer film of all time. This is one of the most interesting character studies of obsession: both Gene Bervoets’ obsession with the missing Johanna Ter Steege and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s obsession with stalking young women. Written in a nonlinear fashion, the egg-shaped overlapping narrative tells the same story from two points of view: the perpetrators and the victims. If it seems complex, it is, but the facts are laid out in a straightforward manner since we know so much so early in the film. The Vanishing is a simple story but manages to build one great idea over another throughout. The mystery isn’t who the kidnapper is, but why he took her, and more importantly, where she is now. Every key sequence, every beat, foreshadows the appalling dénouement. The Vanishing is a brilliantly crafted intellectual thriller that will leave you gasping for a breath of fresh air when over.
5. The Shining
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
UK and USA, 1980
Unlike Stephen King’s book which focuses heavily on the supernatural, Stanley Kubrick’s film is more ambiguous and less definitive in the interpretations the film offers. Jack Torrance only kills one person here, yet he is the monster of the film. No one ever questions Wendy, who not only repeatedly hits Jack over the head with a baseball bat, but also lashes after him with a knife, finally leaving him to die of hypothermia. The morality of The Shining is so fuzzy that the film never offers us any answers as to what is real and what could be fabrications of the family’s increasingly warped imaginations. Much of The Shining is presented from Jack’s point-of-view, and it becomes apparent that Kubrick wants us to become bogged down in his turmoil. Of course, a good chunk of the film is also seen from the point of view of Jack’s family; a necessary choice, if only to generate suspense. But it can be argued that the hotel itself has a rather puzzling mind of its own. It’s equally uncertain whether the images seen by Danny are real. There have been many books devoted to Kubrick’s work, and even a recent documentary about several crackpot theories that attempt to decode the hidden symbols and messages buried in the late director’s film. The beauty of The Shining is the ambiguity, and how so many of us walk away with various interpretations. With that said, The Shining is best viewed as a character study of a man haunted by the demons of alcohol and authority issues. Notice there’s a mirror in every scene in which Jack sees a ghost. Does this mean that those spirits are reflections of his tortured psyche? Putting aside speculation and theories, The Shining boasts a brilliant performance by Jack Nicholson, unimpeachable set design, a superb score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, and flawless cinematography by John Alcott. But the real star of The Shining is Kubrick’s direction. Kubrick creates an atmosphere in which suspense and dread infest every frame with a sense of the macabre. By the end of the film, every inch of the hotel hints at something sinister. The final chase through the snowy hedge labyrinth, Jack’s swinging of the axe, and the creepy teenage girls are just a few reasons why The Shining remains one of the most suspenseful and intense movies ever made.
4. The Birds
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Evan Hunter
Although not as shocking as Psycho, The Birds is a far more complex, ambitious, and sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark in the prolific career of the master of suspense. The Birds is a precursor to nature vs. man horror films as Psycho was to slashers. It is also the second masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town thrillers – the first being Shadow of a Doubt. Perhaps the aspect that stands out the most is the long pauses between dialogue. When one thinks of a Hitchcock film, one remembers the long conversations between the characters. In The Birds, there are countless scenes in which the actors express more through physicality than words. Hitch apparently wanted The Birds to be a silent film or was flirting with the idea but decided it wouldn’t be marketable or profitable. Hitchcock was also experimenting with the idea to not include a score in his film and instead opted for sounds created on the mixtrautonium, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Oskar Sala. Along with Remi Gassmann, they composed a piece that consists primarily of screeching bird sounds, which provides a nerve-wracking, surrealistic backdrop to the sordid proceedings. Although the special effects are dated, they were still impressive for the time. Ray Berwick was responsible for training hundreds of birds, gulls, crows, and more to act like they were attacking without hurting anyone (although apparently, they did). By employing thousands of real birds intermixed with fakes, Hitchcock was able to create the illusion of a mass attack on the quiet community – the result is remarkable, featuring 370 effects shots, with the final shot composed of 32 separately filmed elements. Two images featured prominently in the film are cages and glass: the cage representing Melanie’s closed-minded way of thinking, and the broken glass that suggests the vulnerability of human life. Finally, what makes The Birds a true masterpiece is the final shot. The film does not finish with the usual “THE END” title because Alfred Hitchcock wanted to give the impression of unending terror, and boy, does he succeed.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Joseph Stefano
There are many reasons why Psycho is a masterpiece: One of the principal reasons is its structure. We follow one apparent protagonist only to have her killed off abruptly. Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under our feet, in one of the most shocking scenes in cinematic history. The shower scene in which Janet Leigh is murdered has gone on to become the single most famous scene in any horror film. And yes, Psycho is considered the first psycho-thriller / slasher film, by most – Psycho invoked Freudian psychology as motivation for the killer and gave its murderer Freudian childhood traumas, split personalities, and confused gender roles, everything that would inspire the slasher films of the 70s and 80s. Psycho is pure perfection: Bernard Herman’s score, the shower scene, the mother in the cellar, the knife-wielding maniac, the creepy old house, the twist ending, and even the credits font. Psycho also proved an unexpected sleeper hit, largely due to a clever promotional campaign where Hitchcock managed to get theaters to sign a contract that refused to let people in after the film had started. He took the idea from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who did the same back in France with Les Diaboliques. Unfortunately, although Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, he, of course, left the ceremony empty-handed. Regardless, he had the last laugh since Psycho stands the test of time!
2. Night Of The Living Dead
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo
George Romero set a new standard for horror with his low-budget directorial debut. The film, made in 1968, broached many taboos (cannibalism, incest, and necrophilia) and changed the face of American horror movies forever while setting the template for zombie films to come. Despite the shoestring budget, Night looks better than the majority of its future imitators and the racial subtext speaks volumes even today. As it was released the same year as Martin Luther King’s assassination, Romero’s film had a profound impact on audiences due to its underlining theme of race relations. Allegory aside, this dark look at human nature generates some claustrophobic terror as its human characters trap themselves within a boarded house, while the walking dead attempt to claw their way in. This is one of the best films of the 60?s, and possibly the most influential horror movie ever made. Even more, Night Of The Living Dead gets better with age.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
When someone hears the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they might pass it off as just another inane slasher flick, but Texas is much more; it’s a relentlessly agonizing, bleak masterpiece of horror cinema. Texas isn’t merely interested in scaring its audience; it’s an intelligent and visceral experience that examines the darker impulses found in people, a movie where unspeakably horrific acts take place mostly outside of the frame. Shot on a tiny budget of $83,000, director Tobe Hooper’s stylish debut achieves maximum effect through a combination of Daniel Pearl’s appropriately gritty cinematography, shrieking sound design, and an unnerving concrète score that will ring in your ears long after the end credits roll. The shaky, eerie documentary-style camerawork, practical effects, and the age-old trick of suggestion help lend the film an alarming and utterly believable quality. Hooper’s film is implicit, rather than graphic, but his directorial style will have you walking away thinking it was bloodier than it is. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, and a punishing assault on the senses via the most vivid extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Marilyn Burns’s doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory as will the horror icon it produced, the raging chainsaw wielding lunatic Leatherface. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror films of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever.
(see the full list on one page here)
150 Greatest Horror Movies of the 20th Century
The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of my personal 150 favorite horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. Please let me know in the comments if there is a movie you feel I overlooked.
Start the countdown by clicking below, or if you like, see the full list of movies below that. Enjoy!
Greatest Horror Movies (Full List)
Special Mention: Michael Jackson’s Thriller
150. Blood and Black Lace
148. Vampire Circus
147. Q The Winged Serpent
146. The Fury
145. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
144. I Walked With A Zombie
143. Wild Zero
142. Dressed to Kill
Special Mention: Night of the Hunter
Special Mention: Seconds
140. The Long Weekend
149. Tetsuo: The Ironman
136. Zombi 2
135. Next of Kin
134. Who Can Kill A Child
132. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, And Girly (aka Girly)
131. When A Stranger Calls
Special Mention: The Last Wave
130. Bloody Valentine
129. Don’t Torture a Duckling
127. Just Before Dawn
125. The House With Laughing Windows
124. A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin
122. The Devil Rides Out
121. Day of the Beast
Special Mention: Wait Until Dark
Special Mention: Man Bites Dog
Special Mention: Manhunter
Special Mention: Haxan
100. Dead of Night
99. The Reflecting Skin
98. Dust Devil
97. Night of the Creeps
96. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
95. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
94. The village of the Damned
92. Cannibal Holocaust
Special Mention: The Tenant
Special Mention: Clean, Shaven
Special Mention: Thundercrack
Special Mention: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Special Mention: The Most Dangerous Game
Special Mention: Dead Ringers
Special Mention: Shock Corridor
Special Mention: Un Chien Andalou
Special Mention: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 40)
The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of my personal 150 favorite horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. This is part seven.
Special Mention: Un chien andalou
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel
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
Written and directed by Ken Russell
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.
39. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Directed Phillip Kaufman
Written W.D. Richter
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
Written and directed by Sam Raimi
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
Directed by Larry Cohen
Screenplay by Larry Cohen
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
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
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.
Director: Dario Argento
Written by Daria Nicolodi and Dario Argento
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.
34. Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (The Hatchet Murders)
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Bernardino Zapponi
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.
33. Nosferatu (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens)
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Screenplay by Henrik Galeen
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.
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by Christen Jul
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
Directed by Robin Hardy
Written by Anthony Shaffer
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
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Written by Sergio Citti
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.
30. Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage)
Directed by Georges Franju
Written by Pierre Boileau
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
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi
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.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou
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
Directed by Jack Clayton
Written by William Archibald and Truman Capote
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
Directed by Michael Powell
Written by Leo Marks
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.
25. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Directed by John McNaughton
Screenplay by John McNaughton and Richard Fire
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 1980’s 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
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Allan Scott
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.
23. Silence Of The Lambs
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Ted Tally
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
Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
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?
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins
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.
150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 60)
The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of my personal 150 favorite horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. This is part six.
Special Mention: Dead Ringers
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider
Dead Ringers is arguably David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, and Jeremy Irons gives the most highly accomplished performance of his entire career – times two. This is the story of Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played by Irons), identical twins who, since birth, have been inseparable. Together, they work as gynecologists in their own clinic, and literally, share everything between them including the women they work and sleep with. Jealousy comes between the two when Beverly falls in love with a new patient and decides he no longer wants to share his lady friend with Elliot. The twins, who have always existed together as one, have trouble adapting and soon turn against one another. As the tag-line reads, “Separation Can Be A Terrifying Thing.” Unlike the director’s previous films, the biological horror in Dead Ringers is entirely conveyed through the psychological exploration of the two main characters. Cronenberg’s film is actually based on the 1977 novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which is, in turn, based on a true story. The real-life twins died by committing suicide together in their Manhattan apartment, but Cronenberg’s ending seems ideally appropriate. In Dead Ringers, the identities of the Mantle twins have become so embroiled that they can no longer go on living with each other, and so they do everything in their power to separate themselves. Cronenberg’s true-life tale is wholly original and quite disturbing.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Written by Dennis Paoli
Stuart Gordon’s first feature film has since become a cult favorite, driven by fans of both Jeffrey Combs and H. P. Lovecraft. While Re-Animator fails as a faithful adaptation, the injection of grisly humor, disgusting visual gags, and extreme gore make this one incredibly demented take on body horror. Gordon gleefully plays laughter against fear, as Dr. Hebert West raises the dead back to life with a glowing green liquid injected directly into the brain of a recently deceased specimen. Combs delivers an iconic performance as the would-be Frankenstein, updating the mad scientist role for a whole new generation. His performance stands in the same league as Bruce Campbell’s Ash in the Evil Dead series. From the opening sequence of a head being sawed open and a brain removed, Re-Animator is littered with a barrage of special effects gore. In the most famous scene, heroine Barbara Crampton is tied naked to a morgue slab as a corpse slowly takes its decapitated head to perform cunnilingus on her. This scene was regarded as so outrageous it was originally censored when released.
59. The Blair Witch Project
Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Perhaps no film has used the found footage gimmick to create fresh scares better than The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 horror film presented the narrative as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage, filmed in real time. The film relates the story of three young student filmmakers who hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch, and subsequently go missing. The viewer is told that the three were never found, although their video and sound equipment (along with most of the footage they shot) was discovered a year later. The film caused a major stir at Sundance for its offbeat, energetic, and eye-opening approach to filmmaking. Artisan quickly picked it up for distribution, and with the help of a ground-breaking campaign that took to the Internet to suggest the film was real, The Blair Witch Project grossed $248,639,099 worldwide. With a final production budget of only $25,000, Blair Witch became the third-highest grossing independent film of all time. The Internet swarmed with Blair Witch fan sites, web boards, mailing lists, newsgroups, trailer sites, and general excitement about the movie months before its release. The torrent of online talk about the movie aroused the curiosity of the offline press, and the anticipation for the movie’s opening drove ticket sales through the roof. Nielson NetRatings had listed the official site as the 45th most visited location on the Web for the week ending August 1, with a reported 10.4 million page views and an astounding average visit of 16 minutes and 8 seconds. However, the primary reason for its success is that it keeps audiences in the dark about its titular villain. The Blair Witch Project remembers that nothing onscreen can be as scary as your own imagination. It understands how to build anticipation and deliver the scares at precisely the right moment. Unlike most horror films, The Blair Witch Project isn’t simply designed to make you jump, nor ever gross you out. Instead, the film focuses on having the viewer feel discomfort, nausea, and terror – and thus some people respond by saying it is the scariest film of all time simply because it feels so real. The Blair Witch Project is a clever, entertaining stunt, and a terrific calling card for its fledgling filmmakers that opened up the genre for many more future filmmakers to come.
58. Dead Alive (Braindead)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Stephen Sinclair
New Zealand, 1992
New Zealand’s wunderkind and enfant terrible Peter Jackson made his big splash on the cult-movie scene with Dead Alive. Originally released as Braindead, Dead Alive is the godfather of Kiwi gore and the magnum opus of Jackson’s early career. Jackson’s second feature achieved truly remarkable heights: not only does it eclipse the gross-out quotient of his low-budget-shocker-debut Bad Taste, but of any movie ever made before or since. The finale is the greatest gore-fest ever put on celluloid, using 300 litres of fake blood pumped at five gallons per second. Tim Balme wades into battle with a bone-grinding lawnmower, taking out every zombie in sight and drenching an entire living room in showers of blood. The film is a work of both a perverse genius and a hopeless romantic. Yes, guts fly, heads rolls and blood spills, but amidst all the carnage, Braindead is really just a sweet story of innocent love set against a tale of suppression. After annihilating every other zombie at the party, Lionel watches his overbearing mother erupt into an enormous blob-of-a-beast who pulls her son back into her womb. Lionel must fight his way back out, this time separating the umbilical cord once and for all.
57. King Kong
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose
The granddaddy of all monster movies is arguably King Kong. Decades after its release, no other monster movie approached the high standard of this one. King Kong remains not only a milestone of movie-making but a heartbreaking experience. The stop-motion photographic effects by Willis O’Brien were groundbreaking and the title character, along with Fay Wray, captivated audiences of all ages worldwide. Kong is structured around the classic and familiar theme of Beauty and the Beast, but it is also a movie about making movies. In fact, this movie works as a meta-commentary. Robert Armstrong’s character Carl Denham is modeled on co-director Merian C. Cooper and like him, he is seeking out Kong in hopes to star him in the world’s greatest motion picture. And that is exactly what King Kong became. Every time we watch Kong climb the Empire State Building with the damsel in distress wrapped gently in his giant palm, we hope that things will end well, even though deep down inside, we know it won’t.
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Barry Hines
Is there anything more terrifying than the aftermath of global thermonuclear war? The 80s brought with it several cautionary tales about the onset of World War III, and the horrors of nuclear warfare including The Day After, Testament, and Special Bulletin. But Threads is the most harrowing movie of the decade. The British television drama was produced by the BBC in 1984 and although it was never picked up by any of the major American networks, Threads was widely distributed in the US through the auspices of cable mogul Ted Turner. The film’s title refers to the tenuous connections that keep our modern society running, and how easily they can fall apart. This documentary-style account of its effects on the city of Sheffield in northern England makes it one of the most unsettling films you’ll ever see. Make no mistake about it, this film is relentlessly grim. Director Mick Jackson and writer Barry Hines pull no punches in showing you, in stupefyingly graphic reality, the end of days.
55. Carnival Of Souls
Directed by Herk Harvey
Written by John Clifford
This low-budget, independently made black-and-white film, produced and directed by Herk Harvey, for an estimated $33,000, did not gain any widespread attention when originally released, making it one of the greatest under-seen horror movies ever made. It has been cited as a major influence on the films of David Lynch and George A. Romero and without Carnival Of Souls, you would have no Sixth Sense. Set to the funereal organ score by Gene Moore, Carnival of Souls relies strictly on an atmosphere of melancholic, surreal dread to create a mood of unease and foreboding. The film’s subdued photography contributes considerably to its creeping mood of eerie otherworldliness and poetic nightmarish palate. This is a must-see for lovers of ghost movies.
54. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema. Carl Mayer, an Austrian scenarist, and Hans Janowitz, a Czech poet, conceived the tale of a psychotic hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who takes control of another human being (Conrad Veidt) and drives him to murder. At 71 minutes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is pretty straightforward by today’s standards, but the script was inspired by various experiences from the lives of Janowitz and Mayer, both pacifists who were left distrustful of authority after their experiences with the military during World War I. The film’s design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one. The film’s dark and twisted visual style is stunning. Robert Wiene, along with a team of brilliant production designers, incorporated sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines and structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles. Roger Ebert described the sets as “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives”. It’s a seminal work and defined many of the tropes that went on to form the basis of modern horror films.
53. Near Dark
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow
What Near Dark does better than so many other vampire movies is keeping viewers off-balance by never knowing what to expect next. It is an amalgam of tropes and motifs from familiar genres, mixing in the likes of vampire legends and westerns, but reconstructed in such a way that the end result is creepy, smart, and at times funny. The film also benefits from some wonderful performances, stunning visual textures, and music by Tangerine Dream. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark has been often described as “the best vampire movie you’ve never seen.” If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out soon!
52. The Sixth Sense
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan
By now, most cinephiles know the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who is able to see and speak to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him. The film established M. Night Shyamalan as a writer and director and introduced the public to his traits, most notably his affinity for twist endings. The film was the second highest-grossing film of 1999 (behind Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), grossing about $293 million domestically and $672 million worldwide. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. There are some people out there who think once you’ve seen the movie and know the twist, The Sixth Sense is no longer a movie you could enjoy watching again, but I wholeheartedly disagree. One can find enjoyment on repeat viewings by carefully examining how well Shyamalan covers his tracks and blocks every shot to perfection. In fact, the look of the film is just as brilliant as the last minute revelation. Shyamalan and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs) focused on what is important for the viewer to see at that moment. In The Sixth Sense, the camera literally feels like our eye, and each frame is meticulously composed and artfully constructed, allowing audiences to take their time sorting things out. Cinema literates know when to expect the unexpected in a thriller, but very few people saw the twist coming thanks to Shyamalan’s careful direction. The Sixth Sense is not only a creepy horror film but a deeply moving drama, and the true reason for its success is that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan cares about his characters and more importantly, makes us care.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
David Fincher’s Se7en is a dark, stylish thriller that boasts enough genre trappings to justify its presence on this list. Se7en pales in comparison to Fincher’s best film Zodiac, but regardless, it is one of the 1990s’ most influential box-office successes. This creepy and relentlessly grim shocker features a taut performance by Morgan Freeman, polished gore effects, and an unforgettable ending that not even Brad Pitt’s terrible acting could ruin. Se7en has all the hallmarks of the Giallo or serial killer genres – red herrings, a whodunit mystery, gruesome murders, and a surprise twist ending – but thankfully, it also turns out to be less predictable. One of its strongest aspects is the visuals. There are many unusual and innovative cinematographic techniques, including the opening credit sequence (one of the best of all time) and outstanding production, art, and set design – all of which focus on the seedy, depressing side of Se7en’s anonymous big-city setting. Even the closing credits, which run backward, are noteworthy. Only Fincher’s second feature, after Alien 3, Se7en goes well beyond the usual police procedural or serial killer film thanks to its great script, by first-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. This claustrophobic, gut-wrenching thriller about two policemen’s desperate efforts to stop a serial killer whose work is inspired by gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and wrath, is one of a handful of films based on the seven deadly sins, but also the best.
Special Mention: Shock Corridor
Written and directed by Samuel Fuller
Shock Corridor stars Peter Breck as Johnny Barrett, an ambitious reporter who wants to expose the killer at the local insane asylum. To solve the case, he must pretend to be insane so they have him committed. Once in the asylum, Barrett sets to work, interrogating the other patients and keeping a close eye on the staff. But it’s difficult to remain a sane man living in an insane place, and the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the closer he gets to insanity. Shock Corridor is best described as an anti-establishment drama that at times is quite funny. The film deals with some timely issues of the era it was made in, specifically the atom bomb, anti-communism, and racism, and it can be dissected and discussed at various levels: psychological, sociological, and symbolic. It features everything from a raving female love-crazed nympho ward, opera-singing psycho patients, fetishism of all sorts, electroshock therapy, racially-incited brawls, and classic prison-style riots. So why it include it as a special mention? The final scene, without giving anything away, could very well label Shock Corridor a psychological horror film. Either way, it is an amazing film that everyone should see and features some brilliant camera-work by Stanley Cortez, who also shot another film featured on this list, The Night of the Hunter.
50. Night of the Demon
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay by Hal E. Chester and Charles Bennett
The black and white Curse of the Demon (originally called Night of the Demon) made its American debut in 1958 as the bottom half of a double bill with the Hammer sequel Revenge of Frankenstein. It’s too bad it wasn’t appreciated for all its greatness upon release, but thankfully it went on to earn a reputation as one of the finest horror films to come out of Great Britain. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this adaptation of the M. R. James story Casting the Runes revolves around an American psychologist investigating a satanic cult suspected of more than one murder. Night of the Demon is one of those movies that professors should show their film students, particularity those interested in screenwriting. The screenplay by Hal E. Chester and Charles Bennett is near flawless with not one wasted moment. Every conversation, every frame, every word advances the plot. There’s not a drop of blood to be seen and there are few jump scares, but the sense of unease that permeates through every frame is remarkable — all caused by superstitions and the insecurities it springs from those who believe in them. Brilliant!
49. Kill, Baby… Kill! (Operazione paura)
Directed by Mario Bava
Screenplay by Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale, and Mario Bava
There’s a reason why Mario Bava has more of his films appearing on this list than any other filmmaker. Bava is without a doubt, the true master of horror and Kill, Baby… Kill! is all the evidence one needs to earn him that distinction. By 1970, Bava gave the world a different view of vampires and witchcraft and redefined space-opera. The Italian director planted the seeds for both the Giallo and the slasher genre, and in doing so, he also made one of the best anthology films I’ve ever seen. In Mario Bava’s masterpiece, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart stars as a doctor summoned to perform an autopsy in a remote European town, but he discovers that the superstitious villagers are frightened over the ghost of a little girl. The mystery at the center of Kill Baby … Kill! is what makes this movie so special, as all of the victims have actually been manipulated into killing themselves one by one. As with all his films, the plot takes a back seat to the mood and atmosphere, and Kill Baby … Kill! is also his most visually stunning work. The mansion itself is absolutely incredible; conceived 14 years before Kubrick would erect the Overlook and 50 years before Del Toro gave us the Allerdale Hall. The set is used masterfully during the frenzied, nightmarish climax with the characters running about in circles and getting lost in the vertigo-inducing staircases. Kill, Baby, Kill is a marvelous showcase of bizarre sights and sounds that inspire, surprise and thrill audiences with every frame. One of the great ghost stories in the history of cinema, the haunting power of Kill, Baby… Kill! resonates to this very day. Mario Bave is the master of Gothic horror and Kill, Baby, Kill! is his best film.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski
This subtle horror film follows an isolated, sexually repressed, schizophrenic woman’s descent into madness, played by Catherine Deneuve, who gives her best performance at the age of 22. There are no explanations of Deneuve’s behavior and more importantly, one cannot make any clear distinction between reality and hallucination. Watching the film, we are entirely situated inside the mind of a mad woman. The sense of isolation we feel through Deneuve’s performance is only heightened by Roman Polanski’s astonishing control of the medium of film. This marks his first entry in his “apartment trilogy” (Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant being the other two), and for some, it is the best. The apartment itself becomes a deranged character of sorts, as the very dimensions of the surroundings continue to change. Hallways extend to infinity, rooms enlarge or shrink, and the floors slowly tilt. If you can’t trust the floorboards beneath your feet and the walls that surround you, you know you’ve got some serious issues.
47. Possession (The Night the Screaming Stops)
Written and directed by Andrzej Zulawski
France and Germany, 1981
Think of Possession as an intense drama of marital collapse amidst occult happenings, intricate political conspiracies, and using the Berlin Wall as a backdrop. Andrzej Zulawski has stated that he wrote the screenplay in the midst of a messy divorce, and it is quite apparent. At Cannes, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or (taken that year by another Polish film, Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron) and won a Best Actress award for Isabelle Adjani. The feature earned a place on the list of 39 ‘Video Nasties’ banned in the UK under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. The film draws similarities to David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and in a way is a precursor to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Possession also features special effects from Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Flesh for Frankenstein. Here, he designed an ominous, eroticised tentacular monster that looks like it was lifted from one of Cronenberg’s wet dreams. Most impressive of all is the cinematography by Bruno Nuytten, who uses ambitious hand-held takes, extensive dollies, and infinite tracking shots. The shape-shifting monsters reflect a film that is an amalgam of family tragedy, political thriller, and body horror.
46. Dawn of the Dead
Written and directed by George A. Romeo
Released 10 years after Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead sets itself apart in several ways from its predecessor. Not only is it tonally distinct but Romero abandons the eerie black-and-white photography of its forefather in favor of a brightly lit color canvas. Romero also moves away from the small country setting and into the city. In fact, most of the film takes place in a shopping mall. Working on a much bigger budget, Romero was able to cram in more horror, action, comedy, and social satire than Night. Romero also expands on how he uses his walking dead as metaphors. The film effectively evokes the tensions between pacifist movements and more aggressive social orders of the time while also working as a denouncement of consumer culture. Make-up artist Tom Savini, who also has a small role, created groundbreaking gore effects that set a standard for realism. This time out, the actors are uniformly strong, particularly Ken Foree, who turns in a great performance as Peter. Gaylen Ross shines as Francine, a strong female role, unlike the weak, helpless, and neurotic Barbara from the first film, and gives women someone they can look up to, as Francine becomes a key player in determining the group’s survival. From the spectacular opening newsroom sequence to the shocking National Guard shoot-out in the urban city apartment complex, Dawn sets a tone of impending, inevitable doom. And while some of its cast do make it out alive, the ending of Dawn feels far more depressing than Night, leaving the outlook for humanity as a whole unclear. Fun fact: The film was a collaboration of sorts between Romero and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who helped arrange to finance in exchange for foreign distribution rights. Argento also provided an original score performed and composed by Goblin, the Italian progressive rock group whose music was so effective in Suspiria and Deep Red. Stephen King placed Dawn at the top of his list of the ten best horror films of the year while Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing review, proclaiming it “one of the best horror films ever made.” While admitting Dawn of the Dead to be “gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling,” Roger Ebert pointed out that “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
45. Alice Sweet Alice / Communion
Directed by Alfred Sole
Written by Rosemary Ritvo and Alfred Sole
Originally titled Communion, Alice Sweet Alice, despite its considerable cult following, has slipped into relative obscurity. Released in 1976, it was given glowing reviews by critics and won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film was made not long after The Exorcist and it capitalized on that film’s themes of Catholicism and evil children. Alice features some of the more disquieting set pieces in any movie appearing on this list and also features the big-screen debut of Brooke Shields at age 11. The most memorable aspect of Alice comes from the tour-de-force performance given by the killer, one of the absolute best in the pantheon of movie murderers.
44. Gojira (Godzilla)
Written and directed by Ishirô Honda
Ishiro Honda’s grim, black-and-white post-Hiroshima nightmare stands the test of time. This allegory for the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bomb is quite simply a powerful statement about mankind’s insistence to continue to destroy everyone and everything the surrounds us. With just one shot (a single pan across the ruins of Tokyo), Honda manages to express the devastation that Godzilla represents. Since its debut, Godzilla has become a worldwide cultural icon, but very little is said about actor Takashi Shimura, who adds great depth as Dr. Yamane; his performance is stunning. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya originally wanted to use classic stop-motion animation to portray Godzilla, but time and budget limitations forced him to dress actors up in monster suits. Despite this minor setback, Tsuburaya’s scale sets of Tokyo are crafted with such great attention to detail, that in some scenes they don’t even appear to as effects. The film spawned 27 sequels (and counting), inspired countless ripoffs, imitations, parodies, homages, video games, comic books, cartoons, a series of novels for young adults, an American remake, and even an American reboot, soon to be released.
43. The Fly
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Cronenberg’s The Fly is more a re-imagining as opposed to a remake. The movie uses the premise found in the original short story and the original film but changes everything else including names and basic plot points. Cronenberg has always been fascinated with the reshaping of the human body in various forms and the horror that comes with that change. With The Fly, Cronenberg focuses on the slow transformation and decomposition of a mad scientist, both mentally and physically. Chris Walas’ groundbreaking makeup and creature effects won him an Oscar, but they would be nothing without Jeff Goldblum’s strong emotional performance. In the last act, The Fly veers into a more traditional horror setting, but the picture is less about the gory effects than it is about Cronenberg’s obsessions. The Fly was released in what could arguably be called the most fertile period of David Cronenberg’s career. To date, it is still his most commercially successful motion picture and even spawned a sequel a few years later.
Written and directed by David Lynch
Filmed intermittently over the course of a 5-year period, David Lynch’s radical feature debut mixes Gothic horror, a pounding score, surrealism and darkly expressionist mise-en-scène to create a bizarre and disturbing look into a man’s fear of parenthood. Or maybe not. Lynch claims that not one critic has come close to his own interpretation of his film. Lynch has called it a “dream of dark and troubling things” and his “most spiritual movie.” First shown at Filmex 1977, the movie was not widely seen until 1978, when it ran for years as a midnight attraction at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theatre. It is known, alongside El Topo, Pink Flamingos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as one of the first true midnight movies and in 2004, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
41. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Wes Craven intended Nightmare On Elm Street to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only does Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it is a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark) and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.” Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series. One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. Freddy quickly became one of the most recognizable modern horror villains with his horribly barbecued visage, his ragged slouch hat, his dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and his sense of humor as sharp as his metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger. In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary for a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here, the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia. The ultimate revelation is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake figuratively and literally, and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions. They instead bury their memories of the crime they once committed so deep down inside, it allows Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever-present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims, and a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). Nightmare is also the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langenkamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat, hovering somewhere between Gothic, supernatural imagery, and the typical 80s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody setpieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well-executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror. Finally, there’s Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.
150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 80)
The history of horror is vast and perhaps a list of the 200 greatest horror films is a foolhardy thing to tackle. I’ve been watching horror movies since I was a very young kid and I think it is safe to say that I’ve watched more than the average person. Yet, as hard as I try, there are still many films that I still haven’t seen. What follows is a list of my personal 150 favorite horror films of the 20th century accompanied by a few special mentions, mostly documentaries, short films and a few features that some people would qualify as horror, but really aren’t. This is part five.
Special Mention: Thundercrack!
Directed by Curt McDowell
Written by George Kuchar
Thundercrack! is by far the most obscure film you will find on this list. It is without a doubt one of the true landmarks of underground cinema. With a screenplay by veteran underground filmmaker George Kuchar (story and characters by Mark Ellinger) and directed Curt McDowell (a student of Kuchar), Thundercrack! is a work of a mad genius. While it starts out as an atmospheric gothic horror tale, it quickly turns into an ultra-bizarre, ultra-low-budget pornographic black comedy. Thundercrack! is raunchy, graphic, and extremely warped. Because of its graphic content including masturbation, and sex between heterosexual and homosexual couplings, the film is unavailable in many areas of the world. The inclusion of full hardcore sex runs the gamut of crude, messy, and honest, but the sex is masterfully weaved into the film’s structure and becomes an essential element of the plot. You won’t soon forget Mrs. Hammond’s voyeuristic bedroom, which includes a vacuum operated ‘blow job’ device, nor the collection of dildos and blow-up dolls. Crass, sick, and hilarious, this no-budget black and white feature revels in taboo-shattering shocks. Imagine if John Waters and Jack Smith had a child and their deranged offspring grew up to direct a film while smoking crack! It’s wonderful!
80. The Exorcist III
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty
William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, wrote and directed this creepy thriller, based on his novel Legion. Thankfully, he ignores the events of John Boorman’s disappointing Exorcist II: The Heretic, and abandons cheap scares altogether, instead allowing the events to unfold like a detective story about one man’s search for faith. The Exorcist III isn’t quite as good as the first film, but thanks to powerful performances by Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer and George C. Scott as the priest, Blatty directs a picture that is just as frightening.
There are several stand-out scenes: the dream sequence with Scott moving through Heaven delivers a strong punch, and the moment where he enters the ward and the camera pans upwards to reveal one of the patients crawling on the ceiling is spooky as hell. However, the most memorable scene comes when a nurse investigates strange noises during her graveyard shift. Blatty shows great patience in holding a long shot for an ample amount of time while making good use of ominous sounds heard in the distance. The sequence culminates with not one, but two of the best jump scares that will have you jolt from your seat. In the climactic exorcism scene, Blatty fought with the producers, who demanded a frenzy of special effects. In retrospect, this might be one of the rare times in which the studio made the right choice and not the director. After all, what is an Exorcist film without an exorcism? Those looking for a truly creepy picture, look no further. The Exorcist III will get under your skin.
79. The Brood
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by David Cronenberg
1979, Canada / 1986, Canada
David Cronenberg’s 1979 effort The Brood might provide the biggest genre-movie highlight reel of his entire body of work, with killings perpetrated by bizarre down-syndrome-mutant, pig-faced dwarves. The last scene in this movie, in which a mother bites through her psycho-plasmic placenta to lick the birth fluids from her angry spawn, is worth the price of admission alone. The Brood is visceral, highly disturbing, and downright disgusting. It was Cronenberg’s first major success and a highly personal one as well. It is also the director’s most bitter, uncompromising statement about gender politics, children, and sexuality. Often described as Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Brood is a definitive metaphor for the harsh realities of acrimonious divorce. The premise is simple – a crazy woman’s psychoses creates these evil murderous creatures. The husband is left to clean up the mess. Do yourself a favour and rent it if you haven’t yet seen it.
78. The Last House on the Left
Directed by Wes Craven
Screenplay by Wes Craven
Much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Spit On Your Grave, Last House on the Left is a prime example of the unfair censorship in independent horror films. The film developed such a bad reputation that it was banned in several countries due to scenes of sadism and violence, and in 1982 was put on the “video nasties” list by the Department of Public Prosecutions. But thanks to critics such as Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert, who praised the film as an important piece of work, it eventually picked up a rabid cult following and is still ranked by many as one of Craven’s best. Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the exploitation flick follows two teenage girls (on route to scoring some weed before a rock concert), who cross paths with a makeshift family of rootless criminals. They abduct, torture, rape and brutally murder the girls. The twist comes in the second half of the when the criminals try to find shelter and wind up at the house of the family of one of two victims. In classic “backwoods” horror style, the parents quickly clue in that they’re in the presence of the perpetrators, and take justice into their own hands, only their revenge is even more barbaric than the crimes committed against their daughter. The final half achieves its unshakable effect through a combination of things including oral sex, disembowelment, and death by chainsaw, but critics who protested about the level of violence were misunderstanding Craven’s intentions. Last House is extremely graphic, but the violence is never played for thrills. The violence, after all, is the central theme. The film emerged a few years after the Manson Family massacre and in the wake of the Vietnam war, and Craven intended it to be an evaluation of the decay of American Culture, onscreen violence, class divides and the naivete of the free-love-hippie era. Last House is a cutthroat, bleak cautionary tale, presented in an honest, albeit provocative, way.
77. Daughter of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges)
Written and directed by Harry Kümel
Belgium’s premier horror filmmaker Harry Kümel directs this lesbian-themed vintage vampire flick starring Delphine Seyrig. Having appeared in a number of art-house hits, including Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year At Marienbad, Seyrig stars as the Countess, a character based, in part, on Elizabeth Báthory, labeled the most prolific female serial killer in history, who bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. If anything, her performance is reason enough to see this movie. Seyrig evokes a sense of twisted, evil aristocracy that projects instant credibility, and her presence leaves a lasting impression. Best described as a European art-house film that sways far away from the traditional vampire movie (the word “vampire” is never once mentioned), the film boasts bold strokes of atmosphere and psycho-sexuality. Cinematographer Eduard van der Enden, who shot Jacques Tati’s Trafic, infuses the film’s imagery with a pervading sense of the modern gothic. Daughters of Darkness is lit with a gorgeous color palette and even the setting, which takes place in a deserted out-of-season Belgian resort, predates The Shining. Daughter of Darkness is, unlike other lesbian vampire films, subdued rather than exploitative. Unlike most entries in the genre, Daughters of Darkness is not only worth watching but worth revisiting.
76. Day of the Dead
Written and directed by George A. Romeo
Having to follow in the footsteps of two of the two most highly regarded zombie movies in history, George A. Romero delivers what is unquestionably the most controversial and divisive entry in his original trilogy. During production, Romero openly admitted that the script he ended up with was far different from his original vision. The comic relief of Dawn is nowhere to be found, and the director’s obsession with a social decline in Day is the most opinionated of his canon. In Day, Romero comments on racism, tribalism, and social and governmental concerns. Unlike most of the films within the subgenre, the movie is concerned more with existentialism and gender/political divides than scares. Romero chose to directly address the nature of human emotions and prejudices, resulting in bitter and cynical characters barricading themselves in concrete bunkers, and forced to hide like an oppressed minority. Day of the Dead is bitter and its characters are cynical, unpleasant, violent, and unpredictable, reminding us of mankind’s instinctual tendency to destroy itself. Romero’s government agents and military behave worse than the walking dead; in fact, the most likable character in Day, is the childlike zombie Bub, a pet/lab-rat to Dr. Logan who sets out to find a cure. The Bub and Logan characters become a fascinating take on Dr. Frankenstein and his monster and thanks to the fine performances given by Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman, viewers not only sympathize in their relationship but believe there can be hope for a better future. Another great performance comes courtesy Joe Pilato as Captain Rhodes, the military head of an underground scientific complex who loses his mind while trying to save mankind. But although Pilato, Liberty, and Sherman are uniformly great, they are not the stars. That honor belongs to Lori Cardille, as the tough researcher who, after being isolated, must struggle to stay sane and alive. Gore wizard Tom Savini has identified this film as his magnum opus, and it helped Savini to become an idol in modern horror filmmaking. The climax features some of the most spectacular and disgusting onscreen effects ever filmed. This is not recommended for those with weak stomachs.
75. Santa Sangre
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written by Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento, and Alejandro Jodorowsky
Santa Sangre somehow manages to make Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult hit El Topo look mainstream. Sangre is a bitter allegory of self-discovery and a satire on church hypocrisy and colonial predation. It is also a twisted thriller about the unhealthy bond of mother and son. The film follows Fenix, a young man raised in the circus. His dad Orgo is the owner of the carnival and his mother is a semi-famous trapeze artist. After Concha discovers Orgo is having an affair, she takes revenge by throwing acid on his crotch. He immediately responds by cutting off her arms. Years later, Fenix is sent to a mental hospital in hopes that the doctors can rehabilitate him from his childhood trauma, only he quickly escapes and rejoins his handicapped mother. Against his will, he “becomes her arms” and the two undertake a terrifying campaign of murder and revenge. The plot then gets even weirder. As it turns out, Santa Sangre features a far more coherent narrative than any of Jodorowsky’s previous films, but it’s no less a total mindfuck. And even the brief plot synopsis doesn’t do it justice. Supposedly, it is inspired by a Mexican serial killer who wanted Jodorowsky to make a movie about his life, but Jodorowsky also brings his personal background into the film, since one of his first jobs was working as a clown for a circus in Chile, where he learned the arts of trapeze and miming. Unlike Jodorowsky’s previous efforts El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre can easily be placed in the category of horror. There are obvious influences such as Robert Weine’s The Hands of Orloc, James Whale’s The Invisible Man, and Todd Browning’s Freaks, but thematically and stylistically the film is best described as a cross between Federico Fellini’s carnival style and Luis Bunuel’s knack for surrealism. This isn’t an easy film to stomach, however; there is a fair amount of graphic horror, tormented sexuality, and bodily mutilation. Jodorowsky has never been known for his subtlety and there are times here when he pushes boundaries like never before. But there are also several moments of genuine tenderness found throughout the film. One of the film’s most riveting sequences features a funeral for a dying elephant where it is then torn apart by starving villagers. There is also a sequence involving children with Downs Syndrome snorting cocaine and then taken to see an overweight prostitute. And there’s also a scene where a man tears off his own ear and tries to force feed it to a deaf-mute. Finally, in another memorable setpiece, one character wraps himself in bandages in hopes of becoming invisible. Daniele Nanuzzi’s color cinematography is as astonishing and as beautiful as anything Jodorowsky has ever done. Simon Boswell also deserves praise for his atmospheric score and Tolita Figueroa’s lavish costumes and Alejandro Luna’s sets only enhance the surrealism of it all. Bold, audacious, and pushing past the boundaries of good taste, Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is an Oedipal nightmare, filtered through a hallucinatory lens.
Directed by Hideo Nakata
Screenplay by Hiroshi Takahashi
Long before Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, Hideo Nakata gave us Ringu, a truly unnerving supernatural thriller about the anxieties of modern technology. The film’s irresistible urban legend takes root in the opening sequence with a campfire story told by two schoolgirls which immediately sets the tone. From there on out, it’s 90 minutes of sheer, shivering terror. The story of a cursed videotape that kills the viewer within seven days was a notable success in Japan, where it broke box-office records and eventually caused a sensation with mainstream Western audiences, almost single-handedly capturing our current obsession with Japanese horror. Ringu has an uncanny ability to draw the viewer into its world with its sparse, tense, surreal atmosphere, simple flash-cuts, and well-timed musical score that set up quite a few jolts throughout. Nakata proved he’s a master of suspense by creating a sense of dread in even the quietest of moments. The amount of tension created immediately after the telephone rings, for example, is nothing short of breathtaking. And while it is almost entirely free of visual horror, Ringu was one of the creepiest films released in the 90’s. This beautifully shot, near colorless pic — punctuated with stark blacks and whites, and driven by a nail-biting score — is a masterpiece of edgy surrealism!
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Michael Grais and Steven Spielberg
Poltergeist has become legendary for two major reasons other than being a great film: first, there were rumors that co-producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg took over as director midway through production. Secondly, its young co-star Dominique Dunne was murdered just before the film hit theaters. I will always remember Poltergeist, however, as the film that left me sleepless for a week as a child. As Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) says near the climax of Poltergeist, “It knows what scares you.” The words by the psychic medium, reflect what makes Tobe Hooper’s supernatural thriller so good! Poltergeist is a film that knows how to scare you, and more importantly, knows what scares us. Hooper’s directing skill combined with Spielberg’s ability to make anything family-friendly, no matter how horrifying, makes this one of the few entries on this list that the entire family might theoretically enjoy. But Poltergeist achieves a greatness beyond mere genre thrills because of the double social critiques it explores with such dedication and humor. Someone once famously said that Poltergeist does for TV sets what Psycho does for showers. I never had a problem taking a shower, but I don’t like leaving the TV set left open overnight.
72. The Mask of Red Death
Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell
USA / UK, 1964
The Masque of the Red Death is one of the seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by producer-director Roger Corman between 1960 and 1964, and it is Corman’s most extravagant and visually impressive picture. Take note of the superb cinematography by future film director Nicolas Roeg, and the diabolic performance from Vincent Price. Many will argue there are better films from the king of exploitation (Bucket of Blood for starters), but there is just something about Masque that marks it as a truly unique cult classic. It is a superb film, both visually and thematically, and for my money, this is the best of Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies.
71. Spider Baby (The Maddest Story Ever Told / Attack of the Liver Eaters)
Written and directed by Jack Hill
Exploitation maverick Jack Hill, who went on to make some classic cult films like Switchblade Sisters, The Mack, and Foxy Brown, made his solo directorial debut with Spider Baby. Spider Baby is somewhat unclassifiable as it is quite unique. The premise concerns a strange family cursed with a regressive gene that causes them to become more and more like monsters as they age. As with Todd Browning’s Freaks, the viewer ends up siding with characters who would normally be the villains in most horror films. Shot in 1964, Spider Baby collected dust on the shelf until 1968, when it was briefly released as the second half of a horror double-bill. But it wasn’t until the early 80s when it was finally released on home video that it began to develop a cult following. Now it is regarded as one of the best films of swinging Sixties horror. The eerie black-and-white cinematography, freaky performances, and Lon Chaney’s bizarre song about cannibal orgies are just a few reasons why cinephiles should seek this out. As a brief aside, Spider Baby features one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s last performances, and although he was battling with alcoholism at the time, his screen presence is still quite charming.
Special Mention: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Directed by Jim Sharman
Screenplay by Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman
For the unfamiliar, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the film adaptation of a popular musical stage production composed and written by Richard O’Brien, a struggling actor at the time who was best known for his performances in such musicals as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. For O’Brien, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an homage to drive-in double features and science fiction B-movies of the fifties, and ironically, the film itself went on to become the ultimate midnight movie. Rocky Horror is a slice of unadulterated fun – but it’s also a groundbreaking and important film when taking into account its sexual themes and the relentless array of gay iconography. It’s a musical spin on Frankenstein about two clean-cut squares who never stepped outside their comfort zone until one day they happen to cross paths with Dr. Frank N. Furter and his strange circle of friends. The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped to open the conversation on issues of sexuality and gender, demonstrating that gender roles and stereotypes are socially constructed and that everyone would be happier if conformity was no longer the norm. But more than that, some would argue that the movie also addresses female empowerment. This gaudy pastiche of B-movie science fiction and horror is like no other. Everything from eccentric shooting angles, vibrant colors, cheap sets, cheap props, flamboyant costumes, and bright lighting fits perfectly with the overall tone of the film. Nearly every frame, every angle, every cut works despite the film’s many technical flaws. The set pieces are cheap, the props childish, the choreography is wonderfully out of sync — the film dialogue is clumsy and the acting is suspect, but the magic of Rocky Horror is emphasized by the fact that its creative team, writer/composer Richard O’Brien and director Jim Sharman were working on a low-budget with limited resources. They did what they could with what they had and the result is something truly special. Rocky Horror is a prime example of the right people working together at the right time and working out ways to create something without ever giving up. There had never been — and, since its release — never has been — a movie like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It isn’t something you can recreate, remake or try to imitate, although many have tried. The outrageous rock musical has become a staple of the pop culture scene and a one of a kind cult masterpiece. To this day, screenings held on and around its anniversary as well as on Halloween sell out. It has never been pulled by 20th Century Fox from its original 1975 release, and it continues to play in cinemas four decades after its premiere, making it the longest-running theatrical release in film history.
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô
This landmark in fantasy cinema is bleak, sexually charged, and dripping with depravity. Symbolism runs rampant and the dialogue is minimal in this harrowing study about the rotten nature of humanity and the useless wars they wage. Kiyomi Kuroda’s startling black-and-white cinematography, the excellent, percussive jazz soundtrack, and the final twist (one which might seem obvious today but not back then) is reason enough to watch this gem.
69. The Fog
Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Following up his groundbreaking hit Halloween, John Carpenter eschewed the slasher genre in favor of The Fog, an atmospheric tale about a small California coastal town that becomes literally haunted by its past. Although it was received well in its time, The Fog failed to garner the same cult enthusiasm as many of Carpenter’s later works, and yet it features one of his best screenplays. The script by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill is unique in that it features several stories within stories and Carpenter immediately sets the tone perfectly in the prologue, opening with a campfire ghost tale about Elizabeth Dane delivered by storyteller John Houseman. From here on out, every character in this film has their own story to tell, and every story, no matter how big or small, somehow ties into the bigger picture. There’s more than just undead pirates lurking beneath the surface; The Fog is really about history’s inescapable influence on the present and the way in which the church preserves itself through un-Christian-like ways. Chris Justice put it best when he described the brick wall that hides the journal that Father Malone discovers as a stark visual reminder of how many layers of lies, stories, and time people will construct to conceal such dangerous historical facts. Fog is often a staple in horror movies but never has fog itself become a metaphor for our capacity to obscure and/or conceal the truth. The Fog is also one of Carpenter’s best-looking films (maybe his best). The cinematography by Dean Cundey is gorgeous, putting to use the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen framing, and making the most of the coastal town setting. I especially love the isolated picturesque Lighthouse, acting as a radio station and capturing the glowing fog as it silently moves across the bay. The score is also one of Carpenter’s best, and the editing is so sharp, the film runs a brisk 89 minutes. The Fog is held together by Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter’s then-wife) as the husky-voiced late-night DJ who’s able to who warn listeners about the invasion; Tom Atkins, a local truck driver and Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis who shares the screen with her real-life mom Janet Leigh (Psycho).
68. Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) (One Against All)
Written and directed by Gaspar Noé
Genre: Serial Killer
I Stand Alone, a French nouveau Taxi Driver, is sure to arouse controversy with its scenes of explicit sex and bloody violence. The film is a visually violent and verbally vulgar assault on the senses, but the far more deeply disturbing element at play isn’t the onscreen violence, but how Noé takes us inside the mind of the protagonist. And so what elevates I Stand Alone from an average horror film is the way it refuses to cut away from the butcher’s head-space. We get his point of view from the first frame to the very last. The butcher never becomes a sympathetic character and Noé doesn’t try to justify or excuse his behavior. Philippe Nahon’s performance is strong and fearless, and Nahon does a fine job staying clear of stereotypes and movie killer clichés. The flashy scope cinematography; the twisted, bitter, and cynical voiceover; the aggressive shooting style; the deliberate widescreen close-ups; the endless shots of empty corridors, vacant industrial streets; the repeated uses a swish pan or a skip frame; and the marvelous score accompanied by sharp electronic sounds of gunshots all help make I Stand Alone one of the nastiest entries into the genre you will ever see. Three-quarters into the film, Noé takes a page from legendary schlockmeister William Castle’s 1961 Homicidal by giving the audience a 30-second warning to either leave the theater or avert their eyes, before continuing to the film’s bloody climax. Those with weak stomachs should heed the warning.
Directed by Richard Stanley
Written by Richard Stanley
Uk / USA – 1990
Upon its initial release, Hardware was dismissed by most as a rip-off of The Terminator, but in fact, the film was actually inspired by a 2000 AD comic called SHOK! Walter’s Robo-Tale. Richard Stanley’s bizarre post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller has rightfully earned a cult following through the years and for sci-fi fans growing up in the 90s, Hardware was a hidden gem that found an audience on VHS. The low-budget indie horror has its roots in earlier films featuring killer robots but adds components of spaghetti westerns, 80?s slashers, and even ’70s exploitation cinema – and the bag of influences results in a film which is, in many ways, very original. Stanley stretches his shoestring budget to impressive lengths, creating a despairing, barren future under blood-red skies, radiation clouds, and desert wastelands. Despite being restricted by financial realities, Hardware still remains one of the most stylized science fiction film films of all time. Stanley’s retro-futuristic set design takes some visual and thematic cues from the films of James Cameron and Ridley Scott, but incorporates color schemes that mirror Giallo films of the 1970’s. Composer Simon Boswell does an admirable job providing a churlish mood with his synth guitar solos, and the soundtrack became a personal favorite amongst the industrial and metal music scene, with music by Iggy Pop, Motörhead, Ministry and Public Image Limited. Also, worth noting is the guest appearances by Lemmy (of Motörhead) as a taxi driver, Carl McCoy (of Fields of the Nephilim) as a zone tripper, and Iggy Pop as Angry Bob, a radio personality. Hardware sees a society under Big Brother surveillance and population control and amidst the violence and chaos, it features some social and biblical commentary. This is a movie about man and machine in a time where it’s difficult to tell the two apart. Fans of sci-fi action will admire Stanley’s cyberpunk thriller. He delivers an action-packed, thought-provoking and quite disturbing thrill ride with the American flag painted on its killer android and a hero sporting a duster, a robotic hand, and a sawed-off shotgun.
Written and directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Based on stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales, the 1964 Japanese portmanteau film Kwaidan directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is an impressively mounted anthology horror film consists of four separate and unrelated stories. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Kwaidan’s haunting poetry is conveyed with gorgeous images, making it one of the most beautiful horror films you will ever see. Avoiding outright scares and gore, Kobayashi favors slow buildups of tension and quiet suspense and his use of artificial sets and colorful backdrops which stand in for many of the outdoor scenes, give the film an almost fairytale-like quality. The soundtrack is equally impressive, and although it might not outright scare, you can’t help but admire the craft and artistry.
65. House (Hausu)
Directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Screenplay by Chiho Katsura
Inspired by an idea from his 7-year-old daughter, first-time director Nobuhiko Obayashi (who had a background in both art and advertising) concocted this fantasy about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other unimaginable horrors. House is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed — this 1977 Japanese haunted-house flick is delirious, bizarre, demonic, deranged, gonzo and downright brilliant. It took over three decades before House surfaced in North America in 2010 when it screened at various film festivals in advance of the Criterion DVD release. Why it took so long is beyond me. House is a spooky experimental fairy tale mixed with martial arts battles, colorful set pieces that call to mind Dario Argento’s Suspiria, black-and-white flashbacks, and a piano that literally devours one of the girls. House is the perfect midnight movie – it’s baffling, bloody, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Imagine a Sam Raimi horror film as filtered through the mind of Guy Maddin, and you have an idea of what to expect.
64. Black Christmas
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Ray Moore
We never did find out who Billy was. Maybe it’s for the best since they never made any sequels to Bob Clark’s seminal slasher film, which predates Carpenter’s Halloween by 4 years. Whereas Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released the same year, blends backwoods horror with the slasher formula, Black Christmas is widely considered the first proper slasher and is noted as one of the earliest films to present some of the subgenre’s defining characteristics: a mysterious stalker, a set of adolescent or young-adult victims, a secluded location with little or no adult supervision, point-of-view camera shots representing the “killer’s perspective,” and graphic depictions of violence and murder. Like Carpenter, Clark avoids graphic bloodshed, focusing instead on suggestion and careful mise-en-scene and editing. There’s something special about how he leads us through a labyrinth of red herrings and his skillful handling of such plot devices such as obscene phone calls from within the house leave much to our imagination. More importantly, unlike many of the slashers that followed, Black Christmas cannot easily be accused of misogyny; the violence against the female protagonists isn’t the picture’s raison d’etre. If there was ever a character from a slasher film to be chosen for a thesis on feminist work, it would have to be the film’s “final girl,” Jessica.
63. It’s Alive
Written and directed by Larry Cohen
Although not his first feature, It’s Alive helped establish Larry Cohen’s reputation as a director of ingenious low-budget genre films, which come with unexpected twists, conflicted anti-heroes, dark humor, and sympathy for monsters, both human and non-human. Cohen, writer and director of such projects as God Told Me To and Q, made his first foray into the horror genre with this low-budget cult favorite about a murderous mutant baby on a killing rampage. It’s Alive still remains provocative to this day, and leaves one with much to think about regarding unconditional love, parental responsibility, abortion, guilt, intolerance, and institutional care. The script also hints that the mutation was a result of either environmental pollution or inadequately tested fertility drugs, a concept later explored more fully in the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive – neither, however, was deeply terrifying as this. There are a number of standout scenes here, mostly crafted with superbly controlled widescreen compositions in Fenton Hamilton’s blurry, fish-eyed Baby-cam-cinematography. The initial delivery room scene is downright disturbing, beginning with a dolly down a long corridor showing a victim staggering out, to inside the bloodied operating room where the delivery team is dead and drenched in blood – and topped by the chilling line, “The umbilical cord’s been severed, but not surgically – it’s been chewed off”. It’s Alive is all the more effective with Cohen’s perverse reversal of paternal/infant imagery. The baby, although murderous, is desperately trying to find either food or its family, and while its bloody rampage is mostly kept offscreen, the attack on the milkman remains the pic’s highlight, with the sight of glass shattering and the combination of blood and milk flowing out of the milk truck straight to the sewer. These scenes, juxtaposed against Ryan’s need to prove to himself that the baby by extension is not his, are utterly heartbreaking. Cohen tells us no matter how monstrous the newborn is, it is innocent in its search for maternal love. Most fascinating is the ending where Ryan follows the creature to the finale’s underground L.A. sewer system which, by design, is reminiscent of a womb. His fathering instinct takes over, suddenly turning him from the baby’s assassin to its saviour. What elevates It’s Alive above being a typical piece of B-grade schlock is Ryan’s superb performance as the angst-ridden father. His performance is very moving and revealing and important to express the film’s central theme. Cohen masterfully juggles terror, comedy, and social commentary, leaving us with a more engrossing horror pic than the usual for this genre. Also, worth noting is legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s fine soundtrack and Rick Baker’s creepy-looking baby model effects.
62. The Haunting
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding
1963, UK /USA
One of the most highly regarded haunted house films ever produced is The Haunting, directed by Val Lewton disciple Robert Wise. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, the film weaves the dark tale of a questionably sane woman and a spooky old mansion which is rumored to hold terrifying dark secrets. The Haunting is an exercise in restraint and atmospherics and easily ranks among the finest supernatural suspense films ever made. Strip away all of its supernatural undertones, and the film remains a sophisticated and fascinating character study, and in addition to being a great ghost story, it’s also one of the greatest psychological thrillers. And apart from the generally neurotic group of characters, The Haunting further succeeds in that Wise makes the house itself, the central character of the story. Wise keeps this low-budget black-and-white film looking better than most modern films, and the cinematography and camera work by Davis Boulton recalls the best film noir, using shadows, clever lighting, Dutch angles and widescreen compositions to make the viewers feel just as uncertain as to what is creeping around every corner and hiding behind every door. Along with the creepy, uncanny, disorienting visuals, comes one of the finest sound mixes in cinema, and many would argue the soundtrack is what actually makes the movie scary. The Haunting gets just about everything right –and manages to slither under your skin and make the hair on the back of your neck stand.
61. Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (Demons ’95) (Of Death, of Love)
Directed by Michele Soavi
Written by Gianni Romoli
Italy / France / Germany, (1996)
Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man is one of the three best Italian horror films ever made. Based on the wildly popular Italian comic book Dellamorte, Dellamore from Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog series, Cemetery Man is compelling, bizarre, and downright entertaining from start to finish. Technically a zombie film, but not really, Soavi’s avant-garde gothic flick weaves in so many unexpected directions, that it is quite unlike any horror film made before or after. This surreal fantasy from the director of Deliria (1987) unfolds like a very weird dream and never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to a beautifully rendered existential climax. You can take it as a horror picture or a black comedy or a story about friendship, identity, and love. Either way, it works. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli, concentrates on the human characters rather than the walking dead. In other words, Cemetery Man is a horror movie with character. There’s a quirky blend of romance, surrealism, black comedy, sex, violence, and haphazard plotting that only the Italians can get away with. Soavi is a well-known disciple of Italy’s master of horror Dario Argento, and it shows in every frame. The opening scene where Dellamorte disposes of the living dead as he casually chats on the phone is one of the best openings of any horror flick. From the color-drenched scenery and a kiss silhouetted by the full moon to a camera rotating around a table (ala Reservoir Dogs), or a steady tracking shot; almost every scene in Cemetery Man is a treat to watch. Even better is the score by Manuel de Sica, a prolific composer who has written over one hundred musical scores for television and film since 1969. His score is a curious blend of synthesizers and traditional instrumentation accompanied by a catchy theme song that’ll leave you humming long after the credits roll. Cemetery Man is the product of an expansive vision, a gorgeously rounded picture that passes through moments of genuine longing and existential crisis – right up to the film’s heart-wrenching mystic finale, in which Francesco will travel to the edge of the world to find some meaning in his cursed existence.
Special Mention: The Most Dangerous Game
Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Creelman
Genre: Survival Horror
The first of many official and unofficial screen versions of Richard Connell’s short story of the same name, The Most Dangerous Game was made in 1932, in the era known as “Pre-Code Hollywood,” a time when filmmakers were able to get away with sexual innuendo, illegal drug use, adultery, abortion, intense violence, homosexuality, and much more. It was during this time that a film like The Most Dangerous Game was allowed to be made and shown to the general public without fear of censorship. The film was put together by producer Willis O’Brien while in pre-production on King Kong and features several of the same cast and crew members, as well as props and sets from Kong. Despite these obvious cost-cutting measures, Dangerous Game never feels like a second-rate production and features impressive effects, moody cinematography, smart dialogue, and fine acting. Running a lean 63 minutes, the film is constructed with hardly an ounce of fat, and the filmmakers waste no time, establishing the basic premise within the first 5 minutes. The plot concerns a big game hunter on an island who chooses to hunt humans for sport. The Most Dangerous Game might be a mindless action thriller, but it remains a genuine classic and a highly influential film of the genre. Many people have remade the story, some more successful than others, but none has matched the level of craft on display here.
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