Why horror? What is it about this genre that exerts such a hold on our imagination? What psychological need is served by the human desire to be frightened or unnerved? Perhaps some residue of our prehistoric consciousness, in which our hominid ancestors were stalked by ancient predators on the African savannahs, demands to be recognized as an evolutionary survival sense; or perhaps the perception of fear awakens certain synapses in the brain, igniting the spark of creative impulses that demand some form of outward expression. I do not know.
What I do know is that it is not easy for a filmmaker to awaken the sensation of fear. It is an emotion similar to a particular note on a violin, or some other stringed instrument. It must be sounded at precisely the right pitch, or the effect is lost; the virtuoso must be attuned to both his audience and his art, and he must execute his strokes with smoothness and confidence. He can be neither too heavy-handed, nor too indistinctly light. He must play upon the senses at the right pace, neither rushing the audience into a pit of horrors, nor withholding his sensational payoffs for too long. It is an art, and an underappreciated one at that.
Below I have listed what are my favorite horror movies. Since I also consider them to be nearly perfect specimens of the art of horror, I would also call them the greatest horror movies of all time. Of course, lists like this are always going to generate dispute. Horror can be very subjective: what one person finds terrifyingly effective, may arouse nothing but boredom in another viewer. Yet there is sufficient overlap in the cultural backgrounds of film-watchers to make the case that some things are universally frightening. I hope the choices below meet this standard. I have not arranged these movies in any particular order. The listing is not meant to imply any sequential arrangement of “better” or “worse.” I encourage readers to reflect on what they find terrifying, and why; and perhaps the answers will inspire them to draw up their own lists.
The Exorcist (1973). At this point, can anything more be said about one of the most terrifying and revolutionary horror films ever made? William Friedkin’s classic tale of demonic possession has been imitated—or ripped off—so many times for so many years, that it is difficult to appreciate how shocking the movie was when it was released in the early 1970s. But there is a true depth here that we find lacking in almost all other horror films. The extended prologue, so much a feature of Friedkin’s movies, establishes a kind of cosmic showdown between the forces of good and evil. The director then seamlessly launches us into a brutal tale of a young girl’s suffering that ends only when the spiritual battle is fully joined. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002). Is this really a horror movie? I think so. A Washington D.C. journalist (Richard Gere), grieving over the death of his wife, is pulled into a bizarre series of events that all point to one thing: the presence of elusive, prophetic supernatural entities that see humanity as their playthings. Director Mark Pellington maintains the tension and sense of dread with brilliant pacing. The more we are told of the mysterious “mothmen,” the more unnerved we become. One of the most atmospheric movies ever made, and yet one that has remained underappreciated.
Alien (1979). Director Ridley Scott broke new ground in 1979 when he blended science fiction and horror in a way that no one had ever done before. In this sense Alien (like many of the films on this list) was not only great horror, but a revolutionary film in its own right. A commercial spacecraft lands on an unexplored planet and encounters an alien organism that threatens to destroy them all. The sets are brilliantly constructed, the acting is first-rate, and the tone is intelligent and reserved. The real horror here comes from the idea of being trapped in a cage with an implacable predator, and in this regard Alien has never been surpassed.
Ju-On: The Grudge (2003). A Japanese horror masterpiece. The basic plot involves an angry spirit seeking revenge, but what makes this movie so flesh-crawlingly terrifying is the manner in which the vengeful spirit is portrayed on screen. Once you have seen this movie, no other ghost story will quite be able to measure up. Director Takashi Shimizu draws on old Japanese folk tales, kabuki theater techniques, and jerky, contortionist movements to lead viewers on a truly fearful journey. See the original, not the US remake.
The Thing (1982). Claustrophobia and paranoia have never been so effectively portrayed on screen. Without doubt, John Carpenter’s supreme achievement, and one of the most teeth-grindingly tense movies in history. A group of hapless men at an Antarctica station stumble upon an extraterrestrial life form in the ice, apparently frozen for aeons. Unfortunately for them, it begins to thaw out and reconstitute itself, taking on the appearance of any living thing it comes into contact with. This sets the stage for a scorched-earth showdown in which no one will emerge alive. The special effects have received much attention over the years, but the real horror here lies in the oppressive sense of doom hanging over everything.
Halloween (1978). Another masterpiece by John Carpenter, and the granddaddy of all subsequent “slasher” films. The plot: a mute, mysterious killer named Michael Myers has escaped from confinement, and returns to his hometown to pursue a reign of terror. The suspense never lets up for one second. Carpenter’s real achievement here is his expert cinematography. The layout of the scenes, the use of shadows, and the deadpan camera angles all contribute to a heart-pounding sense of terror.
Kill List (2011). What a truly brilliant movie this is. Director Ben Wheatley expertly blends Celtic and Druidic lore with supernatural horror in a creation that is so original, so mind-blowingly bizarre, that viewers will need several viewings just to appreciate all its nuances. Two raggedy hitmen (wonderfully played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) are hired to kill a seemingly random list of targets. But what begins as a straightforward mission soon descends into an irrational nightmare that threatens to consume their very souls. The ending has to be seen to believed, and even then you will need a re-watching.
Night of the Living Dead (1968). The first, and for some, the best, of all the “zombie” genre films. George Romero’s gift to the world was this incredibly effective low-budget movie that has been endlessly imitated. The dead begin to rise from their graves and feast on the living. A group of random individuals take refuge in a farm house and try to fend off an all-out zombie attack. Human emotion is pared down to its essentials here, and we see both heroism and cowardice; this is a morality tale as much as a horror tale. The remorseless, grim ending is in keeping with the cynicism of the late 1960s.
Poltergeist (1982). I saw this movie in theaters when it was first released. I was 14 years old, and I remember being bolted to my seat in terror the entire time. A suburban California family is tormented by a veritable army of angry spirits. Although the directing credits are given to Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg played a major role in the making of this movie. The genius of the movie lies in its ability to transfer traditional gothic and baroque ghost-tale motifs to the landscape of American suburbia. But beneath that placid suburban surface, there is seething supernatural rage, and when that rage breaks through the surface, nothing is safe.
28 Days Later (2002). This movie essentially reinvented the zombie genre. Instead of having his zombies stumble along slowly in George Romero fashion, director Danny Boyle made them fast, ferocious, and contagious. The opening scenes of London’s deserted streets still pack a powerful punch, and the viewer is alternately hit with apocalyptic despair and blinding terror.
The Fog (1980). Yet another John Carpenter masterpiece. A small California coastal town celebrates its centenary. But when an unexplained fog bank rolls in, the legacy of an ancient crime is pushed to the forefront. Vengeance is coming, and those who seek it from their watery graves will not be denied. Atmospheric and brooding, The Fog also transmits a powerful moral message.
Psycho (1960). Terrifying in 1960, Psycho has lost some of its power today, but still remains very potent. It may be the last word on the psychological horror film genre. Anthony Perkins has never been equaled in his depiction of warped sexuality, skittish nervousness, and repressed rage. Just seeing him try to carry on conversations with Janet Leigh makes one’s flesh crawl with discomfort. The plot: a Phoenix secretary steals money from her employer and goes on the run. When she stops at an isolated motel, she encounters a hidden menace beyond her conception.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It is with some reservation that I add this film to our list. Some have called it a callous and brutal exploitation film. It contains scenes of documentary-style, explicit violence that are repugnant. Yet few can deny its effectiveness in evoking pure horror. The plot: a psychotic man (Michael Rooker) is released from jail, teams up with another low life named Otis, and goes on a senseless killing spree. What makes this such a disturbing film is our sense that there really are monsters out there like these men. Not for every viewer, but a must-see for devotees of the genre.
The Ring (1998). Hideo Nakata directed this landmark supernatural horror film that has seen a stream of US remakes and sequels. The plot: a reporter sets out to investigate a cursed videotape that, when watched, causes the deaths of its viewers. As the investigation gets closer to the truth, an ancient secret comes to the fore. But some secrets, the characters soon discover, are better left unknown.
Exorcist III (1990). Inept marketing caused this brilliant film to be swept under the rug in the early 1990s. Yet it contains scenes of such heart-leaping terror that it deserves a place on any list of the greatest horror movies ever made. Burdened with the “Exorcist” name, the movie is not so much a sequel as it is a separate story unto itself. A series of strange murders leads police detective Kinderman (George C. Scott) to believe that the infamous “Gemini” killer may still be very much alive. Director William Peter Blatty protested at the inclusion of an unnecessary “exorcism” scene in the finale, but this does little to detract from the atmosphere of evil and fear that hangs like a cloud over every shot in this movie.
Rec (2007). Probably the best of all the “found footage” movies that were so popular in the mid-2000s. This Spanish film’s premise is a great one: there is an outbreak of a mysterious virus in an apartment complex that turns people into raging maniacs. A reporter and her cameraman are trapped in the building, and document an avalanche of mind-numbing horrors. Everything points to one point of origin, but the true nature of the evil is something that goes beyond the realm of science and medicine. A fantastic movie in every way.
Duel (1971). A strange and inventive early Steven Spielberg effort that delivers in every way. An innocent, mild-mannered salesman accidentally crosses paths with a greasy oil tanker. Soon the driver of the tanker (whom we never see) begins to pursue him with murderous intent. The very irrationality of the premise is one of the sources of the movie’s strength. It is a nightmare that could be played out on any American highway today, and in that sense it is prophetic.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). An early Peter Weir film that centers around the real-life disappearance of a group of schoolgirls on a field trip in the early 1900s. This psychological horror film, a triumph of Australian cinema, is a masterpiece of atmosphere and repressed emotion. Viewers expecting conventional thrills and jolts are going to be disappointed; what matter here are psychological truths and hidden lusts. The tale is told with a lyric beauty and stylish charisma that defy easy categorization.
Misery (1990). This movie is actor James Caan’s finest hour. Director Rob Reiner succeeds brilliantly in bringing Stephen King’s novel of the same name to the screen. Author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) survives a car crash, only to be “rescued” by a lunatic nurse who makes him her prisoner. Confined to bed and deliberately kept there, Sheldon must deploy every ounce of cunning and resourcefulness to escape the terrible fate his jailer intends for him.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990). A Vietnam veteran (Tim Robbins) is tormented by flashbacks and horrifying visions. Nothing makes any sense until he makes contact with other veterans who are having similar experiences. The strength of this movie is its terrifying imagery, conveyed with an intensity and realism that will catch first time viewers off guard. Director Adrian Lyne offers a resolution at the end that may leave some unsatisfied, but this matters little, since the disturbing power of the film’s images are what will linger in the minds of viewers.
Take a look at the complete collection of essays from 2016 to early 2020, Digest:
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