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. After all, the first depictions of supernatural events appeared in several of the silent shorts created by the film pioneer Georges Méliès in the late 1890s, best known being Le Manoir du Diable, which is sometimes credited as being the first horror film. Since thousands of films have followed and in the present day, you can easily count over 100 theatrically released each year worldwide. It is impossible to make a definitive list of the best horror films but what follows is a list of my personal 200 favorite horror films 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. Enjoy!
Special Mention: Clean, Shaven
Directed by Lodge H. Kerrigan
Screenplay by Lodge H. Kerrigan
Lodge H. Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is not an easy film to watch. Kerrigan, who wrote, produced and directed this unsettling psychological thriller, traps us inside the mind of a madman for the entire viewing experience. Peter Winter (Peter Greene) appears to be a killer–even worse, a child killer–but 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. 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. In the most unforgettable scene, Peter slowly mutilates his body in order to remove what he believes are a receiver in his scalp and a transmitter under his fingernails that were 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.
200. Q The Winged Serpent
Directed by Larry Cohen
Written by Larry Cohen
Genre pioneer Larry Cohen takes a stab at the giant-monster genre with Q, The Winged Serpent, a first-rate grade-Z schlock masterwork, which successfully combines a film noir crime story with good old-fashioned creature effects. The title refers to the winged Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, represented here as a dragon-like, flying serpent hovering over New York City. Given his budgetary restrictions, Coen directs Q much like Spielberg directed Bruce in Jaws. We see a shadow here and there across the sides of skyscrapers and along the Brooklyn Bridge, and we catch a glimpse of it’s giant claws, but Cohen keeps the creature mostly offscreen for the first two acts. The cinematography by Robert Levi and Fred Murphy makes the most of the Big Apple atmosphere, and the aerial photography representing Q’s-point-of-view is especially impressive given the low budget. The monster itself looks silly, brought to life by a combination of stop-motion animation and prosthetics (courtesy of David Allen) – but the homemade, Ray Harryhausen-like quality only adds to the pic’s odd charm. What makes Q such an enjoyable film is not so much its gore nor its creature, but rather Cohen’s sense of humour and Michael Moriarty’s knockout performance. The film lights up every second Moriarty is onscreen as the small-time criminal, down on his luck, and on the run from the mob. His performance is so good that the story becomes more about Jimmy than the giant serpent terrorizing a city. Cohen used what little resources and money he had and made the most of it. Q is a movie crammed with witty dialogue, bizarre plot twists, and some great ideas. Sleazy, entertaining, and guerrilla filmmaking at its best.
199. The Fury
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by John Farris
In this action-suspense picture packed with paranormal activity, Kirk Douglas plays government agent Peter Sandza, whose telepathic son (Andrew Stevens) has been kidnapped by his colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), working for a CIA-like secret government agency that plans to exploit the boy’s psychic abilities for warfare. Sandza’s desperate search for his son brings him into contact with a teenage girl named Gillian (Amy Irving), who also has strong ESP powers. He gains her trust, and together, they join forces in the hope of saving his son Robin before it’s too late. Brian De Palma’s immediate successor to Carrie was The Fury, a supernatural horror/espionage/occult/mindfuck of a movie, which, like Carrie, manages a similar variation on the theme of teenagers using telekinetic powers to exercise repressed feelings. And The Fury, not unlike Carrie, is on some level about the need to symbolically kill your parents to set yourself free. The Fury is the movie Armond White said is impossible not to completely, wholly love if you have any shred of understanding of the medium of film and how it works. But when released in 1978, The Fury was viewed by most critics as being a definite disappointment. The Fury is a film of sprawling incoherence, with characters severely underwritten, and often doesn’t make much sense. De Palma based it on the 1976 novel by horror writer John Farris, who adapted his complex 350-page thriller into a 118-page screenplay. The results are messy, but The Fury is an entirely satisfying and always entertaining film. More than that, it shows De Palma working out personal themes that have consistently appeared throughout his entire career. With The Fury, De Palma allowed his imagination free rein. The Fury, at times, is as visually expressive as anything De Palma has ever directed, dominated by one incredible set-piece after another. It’s best, in fact, to ignore the inconsistencies of the plot and focus instead on the astounding visuals: De Palma experiments with techniques like split screen, signature bird’s-eye views, 360 degree pans, and lots of great slow-motion – and as with Carrie, De Palma saves the real money shot for last. Its denouement is well worth the wait.
198. Only Lovers Left Alive
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Only Lovers Left Alive, the latest film from cult indie director Jim Jarmusch, stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve, two-century-old vampires. Adam is an underground musician with a dedicated cult following. In his past time, he drives through the city in his classic Jaguar, collects music memorabilia, photographs, books, vintage musical instruments and old vinyl. He lives in an isolated home in the ruins of Detroit Michigan where he reunites with his enigmatic lover Eve. There, he enlists the help of one of his most dedicated fans (Anton Yelchin) to help collect the analog equipment he needs, and his doctor (Jeffrey Wright) to provide him with a steady supply of his favourite drink, type O-negative. Immortality is weighing on him and thoughts of suicide slowly take over. Not much happens, and not much needs to. Like most of Jarmusch’s films, Only Lovers Left Alive is really a mood piece, a sweet but slight hipster love story about bloodsucking vampires. There isn’t much in the way of scares or thrills, but Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic version of a genre film is worth mentioning no less. Only Lovers reminds us that great art and culture is everywhere, and more accessible than ever before to anyone who’s interested in looking. Beautifully shot by Yorick le Saux, and designed by Marco Bittner Rosser, Only Lovers Left Alive is richly atmospheric, and one of the most stylish productions in years. Its soundtrack ranks with Jarmusch’s most idiosyncratic, and the performances are all first-rate. This is a must see.
197. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Directed by Dario Argento
Screenplay by Dario Argento
One of the most self-assured directorial debuts of the 70’s was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Not only was it a breakthrough film for the master of Giallo, but it was also a box office hit and had critics buzzing, regardless if they liked it or not. Although Argento would go on to perfect his craft in later films, The Bird With The Crystal Plumagewent a long way in popularizing the Giallo genre and laid the groundwork for later classics likeDeep Red. A difficult film to discuss without spoiling many of its most impressive and famous scenes, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, albeit with many twists, turns and one of the best surprise endings of all time. But Argento’s thriller is just that — a thriller and not really a horror film — and though it is miles ahead of many of its imitators, it never reaches the heights of Tenebrea, Opera or Deep Red. These films function on a higher level, whereas Bird With the Crystal Plumage never quite transcends its origins in pulp fiction.
196. I Walked With A Zombie
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Curt Siodmak, Ardell Wray
In I Walked With A Zombie, a young Canadian nurse named Betsy Connell visits the West Indies to care for the wife of a plantation manager who seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever. Betsy soon discovers her patient isn’t normal – her vital signs are all intact, but she has no emotional or mental awareness. Desperate to cure her, she consults a powerful group of local voodoo practitioners who unleash their black magic. Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Night of the Demon), working with cinematographer J. Roy Hunt, paints a beautiful if haunting motion picture via sight and sound and uses Caribbean folklore and strange religious imagery to transcend the conventions of the horror genre. The lighting, acting, shadows, exotic setting and music all contribute to creating atmosphere and suspense through suggestion. Despite the title, there are no monsters to be found here; I Walked With A Zombie instead addresses slavery and local superstition built around the moral dilemma of the Christian concept of right and wrong. Tourneau’s direction is incredible and inspiring.
Get ready for the craziest, punk-rock zombie flick you’ll ever see! Helmed by noted counter-culture-video-director Takeuchi Tetsuro (known as Mr. MTV in Japan), this low-budget horror production starring the cult Japanese rock band Guitar Wolf along with hundreds of non-professional actors, was shot over a 3-week period with an estimated budget of $50,000, and a small team of dedicated and talented computer effects artists by their side. The zombie extras in the film are a treat to watch – with the Thai military and their families standing in for the walking dead. You haven’t seen strange until you’ve seen Wild Zero — this exuberantly silly Japanese punk trash flick, reportedly made with a cast and crew who drank themselves silly while on set, will leave you staring in amazement. If The Ramones had decided to make a movie for Troma, the results might look similar to Wild Zero. (One of the first images in the film is, in fact, the Ramones album cover Subterranean Jungle). Think Rock And Roll High School crossed with Night of the Living Dead, crossed with The World’s End. “Thrill, Speed, and Stupid Zombies” is the tagline, but Wild Zero offers so much more, including transgendered love, fire-breathing motorbikes, and a guitar that doubles as a deadly energy sword used to fight off an alien mother ship.
194. Dressed To Kill
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma’s films, like Tarantino’s, are a cinematic mash-up of influences from the past, and in De Palma case he borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock. Obsession is De Palma’s Vertigo, Blow Out his Rear Window, and with Dressed to Kill the director set his sights on Psycho. Dressed To Kill is more thriller than horror, but what a stylish and twisted thriller it is! The highlight here is an amazing ten-minute chase sequence set in an art gallery and conducted entirely without dialogue. There are a number of other well-sustained set pieces, including a race in the subway system and even, yes, a gratuitous shower murder sequence. Dressed To Kill features an excellent cast (Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson), a superb score (courtesy of Pino Donaggio) and a shocking finale — but the reason to see this film is for the fabulous camera work by Ralf Bode and De Palma’s direction.
193. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Written by Ana Lily Amirpour
This accomplished debut feature shot in gorgeous black-and-white, and from U.S.-based writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, is the first feminist Iranian Vampire Western ever made. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night blends elements of Lynchian neo-noir, Jim Jarmusch cool, graphic novels and even spaghetti Westerns; yet, even as Amirpour draws heavily from various films from the past, she breathes new life by channeling them through Iranian culture. You’ll fall in love with the monochrome visuals and exquisite use of the widescreen canvas by cinematographer Lyle Vincent; as well as the soundtrack which consists of Middle Eastern fusion beats to the underground Iranian rock, to 60’s inspired guitar Ennio Morricone western music from Portland-based Federale.
192. The Lords of Salem
Written and directed by Rob Zombie
Rob Zombie has always been a controversial figure and perhaps the most polarizing director in modern horror, but The Lords Of Salem represents a major step forward for the writer/director. Salem is a gaudy dance between the macabre and the art-house, too violent for the mainstream moviegoer and too bizarre for the common gore-fiend — and it just so happens to be the director’s best film to date, showcasing his versatility as a filmmaker. The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s most patient and mature film and a textbook study on how to do horror right, largely bypassing the gore galore until the climax and avoiding cheap scares that directors employ far too often. With Salem, Zombie creates a suffocating sense of foreboding dread. Much like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, mood and atmosphere are his primary concern. As the film progresses, things grow increasingly strange by the minute. Heidi’s nightmares recall the best of Alejandro Jodorowsky and the surrealistic moments (specifically within the apartment) spring up comparisons to early Polanski. The haunting soundtrack supplied by composer John 5 (Zombie’s guitarist) and music supervisor Tom Rowland is the driving force of the madness. Together, they have truly created one of the most effective and unique themes to any horror film. Along with the art direction, costume design, and Brandon Trost’s cinematography, The Lords of Salem is a fiercely imagined nightmare. Salem is essentially a 70s-style European art-house horror flick culminating with an air of ambiguity, with a take-no-prisoners final act painted with moments of crazed inspirations. Salem is an old-school horror flick sporadically interested in experimental decor and the end result is a work of phantasmagorical cinema.
191. Session 9
Directed by Brad Anderson
Written by Stephen Gevedon and Brad Anderson
If there was ever a perfect setting for a horror movie, it would be the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital. Built in 1878 on an isolated site in rural Massachusetts, it was a multi-acre, self-contained psychiatric hospital rumored to have been the birthplace of the pre-frontal lobotomy. The hospital is the setting for the 2001 horror film Session 9, where an asbestos clean-up crew discover a series of nine tapes, which have recorded a patient’s psychiatric evaluations revealing his multiple personalities — all of which are innocent, except for number nine. With a shoestring budget and little special effects, Session 9 relies strictly on psychological horror to make its point. Director-writer Brad Anderson (The Machinist) knows how to pull all the strings to keep the audience guessing and squirming making this one genuinely creepy thriller.
Special Mention: Misery
Directed by Rob Reiner
Screenplay by William Goldman
Elevated by standout performances from James Caan and Kathy Bates, Misery remains one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date. Director Rob Reiner is clearly more interested in the dark humour and humanity than the gory detail in King’s novel, but make no mistake about it, Misery is a tough watch soaked in sharp dialogue, a brooding atmosphere, and disturbing bodily harm inflicted on James Caan by sweet old Kathy Bates. I can still feel his pain.
190. Bubba Ho-Tep
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli
If you’re tired of conventional horror movies, try Bubba Ho-Tep, a cinematic oddity from director Don Coscarelli. Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell), is an old man living in an East Texas retirement home, having switched identities with impersonator Dan Haff some time before his apparent death. The problem is he never got the chance to switch back. He teams up with fellow resident Jack (Ossie Davis), who believes himself to be John F. Kennedy, and the two of them battle an evil Egyptian mummy who attempts to take over their retirement home and use it as a hunting ground for souls on which to subsist. Featuring a bravura lead performance by Bruce Campbell, Bubba is a smart comedy that dares to take on the sublime and the ridiculous. It is kitschy, lowbrow, sharply written and surprisingly moving, but above all, it is a one-of-a-kind film experience.
189. The Long Weekend
Directed by Colin Eggleston
Written by Everett De Roche
The Long Weekend marked the beginning of a solid run of good Australian horror films penned by Everett De Roche, who also wrote Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981) and Razorback (1984). The Long Weekend is an extremely tense thriller that doesn’t rely on the usual standard shock strategy to deliver its scares. A well executed and innovative film (for the time), The Long Weekend ranks as one of the best “nature vs.man” films – steeped in the mid-70s statements of environmentalism, and hinting at a broader ecological agenda with mention of nuclear testing and oil exploration. The small cast all pull in great performances and the sound design is carefully layered gradually escalating to increase the tension. But the best thing about The Long Weekend is the camera work by cinematographer Vincent Monton which gives the pic a realistic feel with voyeuristic documentary-quality shots of the outback surroundings. Not a typical horror film in the standard sense but this small masterpiece is a must see for its slow, eerie pacing and atmosphere.
188. Tetsuo: The Ironman
Directed by Shin’ya Tsukamoto
Written by Shin’ya Tsukamoto
This 1989 Japanese cyberpunk film by cult-film director Shinya Tsukamoto combines Eraserhead’s monochrome industrial landscapes with David Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror. Tetsuo established Tsukamoto internationally and garnered him a worldwide cult following. Shot on 16 mm and on a shoestring budget, the underground experimental pic is unquestionably a feat of imagination with its creative imagery, homoerotic, nutty visuals, frenetic stop-motion, sharp editing and strong industrial musical score. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is completely surreal and off-kilter and quite unlike any sci-fi/horror film you’ll ever see.
187. Frightmare (Cover Up)
Directed by Peter Walker
Written by David McGillivray
From genre director Pete Walker (The Flesh, Blood Show, House Of Whipcord, and The Confessional) comes Frightmare, one of my personal favorite British horror films ever made. Apart from border-lining the slasher genre, Frightmare displays an overwhelming distrust of psychiatry and related professions and examines the idea of nature vs. nurture. There’s an artistry to Peter Walker’s work — his fluid studied camera movements and intentionally abrupt edits, project the gore and provides a disarming atmosphere. The entire cast delivers superb performances, but this is Sheila Keith’s show. Her Dorothy is the epitome of the passive-aggressive mother, alternating between smart and feeble-minded, attentive and disoriented and so on. But don’t be easily fooled, as she eventually makes it very clear that she is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Frightmare is a marvel, a genuinely shocking film that features a fabulous ending.
Directed by Richard Franklin
Screenplay by Everett De Roche
Patrick was not only a pivotal film and a commercial success but it was nominated in three categories, including Best Film, at the 1978 AFI Awards and director Richard Franklin took home the Best Director prize at the prestigious Sitges Fantasy Film Festival in Spain. Patrick is a truly original film in that its villain remains in a comatose for the entire film. Everett De Roche’s script is surprisingly vivid and punchy; developing its characters well beyond your usual fright-flick archetypes and Richard Franklin’s direction is elegant and suspenseful, relying on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and gore. The strong cast includes some of Australia’s finest actors, from Julia Blake as the mastiff of a matron to Robert Helpmann as the dangerous doctor. As the titular character, Robert Thompson is utterly mesmerizing on screen despite the fact that he doesn’t utter a single word and Susan Penhaligon who plays the feisty nurse pulls off a rather difficult act of looking convincing while having a conversation with a man in a coma.
185. Zombi 2 (also known as Zombie, Island of the Living Dead, Zombie Flesh-Eaters and Woodoo)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Elisa Briganti
For the uninitiated, Zombi 2 is a 1979 horror film directed by Lucio Fulci. It is perhaps the best-known of Fulci’s films, banned in some countries, censored in others and is, in my opinion, one of the best zombie films ever made. Fulci’s direction is confident, the makeup and special effects were done by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani are fantastic (especially for the time) and the pulsating electronic score courtesy of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci is one of the best in horror history. The movie also features two very famous scenes: One features an eyeball-popping out of the socket and the other has an underwater sequence in which a shark battles a zombie.
184. The Children
Directed by Tom Shankland
Screenplay by Paul Andrew Williams and Tom Shankland
Many of the greatest horror films ever made revolve around the concept of killer kids (The Omen, Home Movie, The Exorcist, The Innocents and Village of the Damned), and many others take place during the holidays (Silent Night, Deadly Night, Halloween). The Children just happens to fall into each of these categories. The film is directed by Tom Shankland who also adapted the script from a story by Paul Andrew Williams, the director and writer of London to Brighton and The Cottage. Shankland delivers a simple film, with a simple set-up and a simple pay off. What’s not simple is how well he cleverly blends the two subgenres together. The Children delivers a fair share of legitimate scares, a bit of gore and some truly creepy moments while mostly avoiding genre clichés. Solid work in the departments of cinematography, editing, and score help make this one of the best horror films of the decade and a film destined to become a Brit Classic.
183. Next of Kin
Directed by Tony Wilson
Written by Tony Wilson
The slow, measured pacing may be too much for mainstream moviegoers but if you have the patience to sit it out, Next of Kin offers one of the best payoffs of any film mentioned on this list. Next of Kin starts as a gothic style mystery-thriller with a hint of the supernatural and then jumps to a full on giallo-style third act – culminating with an unforgettable final shot. While it may be influenced by Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Next of Kin is the closest I have seen to matching the atmosphere of The Shining. Along with an absolutely breathtaking distinctive musical score by Klaus Schulze (drummer of Tangerine Dream) and incredible, stylish visual imagery, Next of Kin is a must see.
182. Who Can Kill A Child? (Island of the Damned)
Directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Written by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s 1976 cult classic Who Can Kill a Child?, which was adapted from Juan Jose Plans’s novel, is arguably one of the best Spanish horror films ever made. Due to haphazard distribution and the studio constantly changing the title (including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play), Serrador’s film barely surfaced but despite the limited exposure, the film eventually found a devoted following. Horror aficionados passed around bootleg VHS copies and occasionally the film would appear on late night television until it would receive an uncut release on DVD in 2007. Working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Who Can Kill A Child takes place in a remote Spanish island where children who are afflicted by a kind of supernatural plague begin to kill the entire adult population. Replace the flesh-eating walking dead with killer kids, and the result is genuinely unsettling.
181. Tenebrae / Unsane
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento
Tenebrae was a return to the classic Giallo formula for Dario Argento, who had previously directed two films with supernatural themes back to back (Suspiria and Inferno). The film is filled with the director’s trademarks and the over-the-top stylish motifs you’d expect from Giallo: homicidal maniacs, black leather gloves, a killer’s point of view, convoluted plot twists, pulse-pounding music, colorful cinematography with garish, bright reds, greens, and yellows and even a twist ending. It is said to be Argento’s most personal film (Tenebrae was reportedly inspired after Argento was stalked by a fan) – but more importantly, Tenebrae is his most self-reflexive work and sees Argento responding to the numerous critics who found the violence in his film to be problematic. Unfortunately, as with many of his movies, it seems Argento wrote Tenebrae keeping each set-piece in mind and wasn’t too concerned with whether or not the plot made any logical sense. Regardless, the set pieces are incredible, specifically the long crane shot which reportedly took three days to film. (Fans of Argento’s work might be interested to know that Tenebrae was shot by Luciano Tovoli who was also the director of photography on Suspiria).
Special Mention. Stoker
Directed by Chan-wook Park
Written by Wentworth Miller
Chan-wook Park’s Stoker is a Gothic fairy tale, a family drama, and a beautifully twisted, pitch-black coming-of-age story, all at once. This slow-burning psychological thriller isn’t afraid to cross into uncomfortable places, often edging close to taboo territory. Park wants his audience to twitch in their seats and the master director is able to accomplish this with the greatest of ease. Along with first-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller, Park weaves a coming-of-age tale through a tangled, murderous family plot, with sexual subtext and upper-class entitlement. People disappear, a landscape of family secrets are revealed, and Park teases the audience into anticipating the worst.