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Greatest Horror Films

150 Greatest Horror Films of the 20th Century (Top 60)

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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.

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DeadRingers

Special Mention: Dead Ringers
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider
Canada, 1988

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.

Reanimator

60. Re-Animator
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Written by Dennis Paoli
USA, 1985

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.

The-Blair-Witch-Project

59. The Blair Witch Project
Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
1999, USA

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.

Dead-Alive

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.

KingKong

57. King Kong
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose
USA, 1933

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.

Threads-Movie

56. Threads
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Barry Hines
UK, 1984

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.

Carnival-of-Souls

55. Carnival Of Souls
Directed by Herk Harvey
Written by John Clifford
USA, 1962

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.

caligari11

54. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
1928, Germany

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.

near-dark

53. Near Dark
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow
1987, USA

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!

The-sixth-sense

52. The Sixth Sense
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan
1999, USA

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.

Se7en

51. Se7en
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
USA, 1995

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.

shock-corridor

Special Mention: Shock Corridor
Written and directed by Samuel Fuller
USA, 1963

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.

NightoftheDemon

50. Night of the Demon
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay by Hal E. Chester and Charles Bennett
1957, UK

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!

KillBabyKill

49. Kill, Baby… Kill! (Operazione paura)
Directed by Mario Bava
Screenplay by Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale, and Mario Bava
1966, Italy

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.

Repulsion-Polanski-1965

48. Repulsion
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski
UK, 1965

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.

Possession1981

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 AntichristPossession 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.

dawn-of-the-dead-1978

46. Dawn of the Dead
Written and directed by George A. Romeo
USA, 1978

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.”

AliceSweetAlice

45. Alice Sweet Alice / Communion
Directed by Alfred Sole
Written by Rosemary Ritvo and Alfred Sole
USA, 1976

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.

gojira

44. Gojira (Godzilla)
Written and directed by Ishirô Honda
Japan, 1954

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.

thefly

43. The Fly
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Canada, 1986

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.

eraserhead

42. Eraserhead
Written and directed by David Lynch
USA, 1977

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.

ANightmareOnElmStreet

41. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Written and directed by Wes Craven
USA, 1984

Wes Craven intended Nightmare On Elm Street to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only does Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it is a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark) and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.” Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series. One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. Freddy quickly became one of the most recognizable modern horror villains with his horribly barbecued visage, his ragged slouch hat, his dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and his sense of humor as sharp as his metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger. In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary for a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here, the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia. The ultimate revelation is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake figuratively and literally, and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions. They instead bury their memories of the crime they once committed so deep down inside, it allows Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever-present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims, and a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). Nightmare is also the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langenkamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat, hovering somewhere between Gothic, supernatural imagery, and the typical 80s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody setpieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well-executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror. Finally, there’s Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.

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Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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