The Greatest Horror Films

Today is the 76th anniversary of when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater performed War of the Worlds on CBS radio, touching off some level of panic (though likely not as much as is often reported) and providing the greatest piece of radio drama in history. I listen to it every year, and even in the digital age Welles’s radio drama remains compelling.

However, to most, this date is more importantly Hallowe’en, a day celebrated with grizzly costumes and horror films. Since the current film landscape is quite barren (for those of us who cannot yet see Birdman anyway), I thought I would do something terribly trite and write a list of the greatest horror films I have ever seen. Note that, like any list that I make, it’s going to be English-language and modern-centric, because I am after all an American under 30 and so I tend to have seen more English-language and more recent films. However, I am not intentionally so limiting the films.

To be technical, the horror genre is essentially defined as a monster movie. But that is most definitely not how it is used in common vernacular. I’m trying to be closer to the common usage, basing it on the IMDb’s classifications but not following them blindly.

11. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1968)

Zombies have become an incredibly overused monster in modern media, be it video games, films, or even novels. And part of the problem is that these newer  entries into the zombie canon never seem to realize what George Romero knew from the start: the zombies themselves are not the point. The people are the point. The zombies themselves are just a MacGuffin. Romero’s film about racial intolerance sets the stage for what zombie fiction can do when done right, which he continued to do through most of the film’s sequels. It’s just unfortunate that now the concept of zombies has overwhelmed everything he said about racism, consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), militarism (Day of the Dead), or the media (Diary of the Dead). His films stand out as a powerful outlier to a terribly disappointing genre, but his original still works far better than logic would suggest.

10. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012)

I reviewed this one already (see the title link), but I still think it’s a brilliant spoof of horror films. It does everything you can want a satire to do.

9. Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978)

This film modernized the monster movie in a way that even Jaws had not, because this monsters was bigger, more powerful, indefatigable, and seemingly immortal. And it was a monster that wasn’t here to enforce traditional economics–it was here to enforce traditional morals. It feels trite now because of the copycatting, but there is a reason that so many films since have repeated its pattern: Carpenter’s film is nothing short of brilliant. It’s a masterclass on cinematic composition that understands how to make violence most effective: build to it.

8. Vargtimmen (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1968)

It doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have a point. But god does it have an incredible atmosphere and the absolute scariest visuals in history. If you have questioned Bergman’s status as a cinematic genius (I don’t know why anyone would, but in case), this film will show you why he has it: he did himself no favors as a writer, but this is the scariest film I’ve ever seen, because the former playwright has that great of an eye.

7. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1963)

The Birds is all about tension. Much like The War of the Worlds that I mentioned in the introduction, its best moments are often moments of quiet dread and terror. Where The War of the Worlds has “Is anybody out there?,” this film has that silent drive into oblivion as its defining moment as an ode to mankind’s greatest fear: being alone. Interestingly, it’s a far less formalistic, manipulative film than much of Hitchcock’s work. It lets the audience create its own terror, and it works.

6. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA 1975)

For some bizarre reason, when this film shows up on these lists, people try to insist it’s not a horror film. Not only is it a horror film, but Jaws is about as traditional a horror film as you can find. It gives us a monster, characters who are clear allegories for particular aspects of society (Brody is the government, Hooper is science, and Quint is the working class), and a clear (and conservative) political message. It even uses its monster in much the same way George Romero has always used his zombies: as a method to isolate the lead characters because the story is ultimately about them and not the monsters. And it does all of this very skillfully. Spielberg does very little to indulge his typical predilection for turning all of his films into allegories for divorce, and the result is a wonderful, tightly-focused film about the perceived dangers of immigration.

5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1960)

If The Birds is about silence, Psycho is a testament to how powerful a score can be. Bernard Herrman’s incredible score has as much power and tension as just about any film, and–unpopular opinion alert–Hitchcock knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The simplicity of The Birds can be contrasted with Psycho, a film that never leaves “well enough” alone–it’s full of bizarre angles, manipulative cutting, strikingly unnatural lighting, and every other trick that could possibly be in a filmmaker’s bag. In addition, Anthony Perkins gives one of the finest performances in film history, giving a shockingly deep and sensitive portrayal of a decidedly disturbed and monstrous man. The film also stands as a monument against Robert Redford’s famous statement that the last 15 minutes are the most important of any film: the last 10-15 minutes or so really should have ended up on the cutting room floor–they’re present as a result of a pretentious writer wanting to show off his “edgy” intelligence by talking about hermaphroditism in then-current psychological language. However, the film is just so damn good before then that it just doesn’t matter.

4. Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997)

If any film has ever been as visually terrifying as Vargtimmen, it’s Lost Highway. And Lynch actually has a story to tell. He tells it in such a bizarre, Lynchian manner that it’s difficult to tell that it is a coherent story, but Lost Highway does make sense. It’s a film essentially set entirely in the mind of an insane person as he deals with his own confusion, anger, and guilt over murdering his wife, but you could be forgiven for not being able to tell–it’s that bizarre a narrative. I have said before that the later Mulholland Dr. (France/USA 2001) was essentially “Lost Highway for dummies” and while that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s invalid–everything that’s good about Mulholland Dr. (except for Naomi Watts, who is absolutely and utterly brilliant in the later film while no one is even good in the earlier one)—is even better in Lost Highway.

3. Barton Fink (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA 1991)

Never has a descent into hell felt so . . . hellish. It’s a film that has a lot in common in Mulholland Dr., but it keeps its focus better and isn’t quite so caught up in its own narrative cleverness. The Coens at their best are special, and this is them at their best.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980)

Stephen King famously complained that the atheist Kubrick couldn’t make a horror film, and this one was a failure because it was made by someone who “thought too much and felt too little.” If reading The Shining hadn’t already made me think King didn’t really know anything about his own genre, that statement would have (in spite of how great his giant bug statement is). Kubrick’s film is loaded with layer upon layer of complexity, with its intricate details working together to make a film about letting go of the past. The message of the film is appropriately simple–don’t hold on to the past too much lest you be consumed by it–and Kubrick focuses all of his energy on making that point, making his film an achievement that few have matched.

1. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France 1955)

When Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac published their novel Celle qui n’était plus in 1952, they received interest from a certain British-American filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately for Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man he would consider his greatest rival until Clouzot’s ill health forced him into only sporadic work, beat him to the punch. Supposedly, Hitchcock’s call arrived within hours of the agreement with Clouzot. Hitchcock and the authors were so enthralled with one another that they would later write D’entre les morts specially for Hitchcock, and he would use it as the basis for his film Vertigo (USA 1958).

And it’s easy to see what Hitchcock was so interested in–it’s a twisting, turning script that begins with a brooding melancholy that turns into a nightmarish tension and never lets up. That it ends with one of the great endings in the history of cinema is only a small part of the puzzle: this film is a masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: Mulholland Dr., The Omen (Richard Donner, USA 1976), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan 1964), Ringu 2 (Hideo Nakata, Japan 1999), Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 2007), Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1985), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, USA/Japan 1994), Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008)

Films that would have made it but I didn’t think they were “horror” enough but they are arguable: Gaslight (George Cukor, USA 1944), All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1950), Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994), Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA 2011), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA 2011), El labertino del Fauno (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico/USA 2006)

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