100. ERASERHEAD (1977)
David Lynch set a very clear tone for the terror to come with his 1977 debut film, Eraserhead. From the moment he introduces the industrial dreamscape in which protagonist Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives, there’s an underlying anxiety generated in the soundtrack full of industrial noise burning at the edges. The sparse, traditional home, then, is made that much more unsettling by the smallest twists, like flickering lights and greasy dirt — oh, and the viscerally upsetting baby that enters Spencer’s life. The prop is impossibly real and yet wholly impossible. It moves as if alive, part preserved fetus, part decomposing sheep head. The film wraps the fear of growing up, of parenthood, of a world contaminated by industry, of failure, of dependence all into that slick, tiny bundle, the rest of the world spinning in and out of cohesion and clarity around it.
99. THE HOWLING (1981)
Invaluable for proving that werewolves, with their pronouncedly rotating interior/exterior lifestyles, are ideal candidates for adopting the yuppie-outdoorsman pretension usually favored by more conventional weekend warriors who aren’t burdened with sprouting hair and teeth and claws upon the rise of the full moon. One of the most purely enjoyable of all horror films, The Howling is also one of the more free-spirited and tonally elastic movies of director Joe Dante’s career, which is saying something. Playful, erotic, scary, and even ultimately quite mournful, this film reminds us that postmodernism needn’t always be a haughty dirty word.
98. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)
A true sleeper cell among Friday the 13th clones, Sleepaway Camp gets more attention for its unintentional humor than its capacity to scare audiences. Admittedly, the mockery isn’t misplaced (a certain cop’s prop moustache is frequently ridiculed yet so unabashedly adored by horror hounds that it might as well have its own Twitter account), but amid the hokey dialogue and wooden performances—save, of course, for Desiree Gould’s deliciously over-the-top turn as Angela Baker’s manic Aunt Martha—lies an unnerving depiction of teenage sexual anxiety. The unspoken tension and unusually sadistic acts of violence culminate in a most disturbing final shot, an image forever burned on the retinas of those who’ve seen it and a moment that obliterates the film’s pseudocomic tone.
97. THE INNKEEPERS (2011)
When you’re working in indie horror, a big part of success is learning how to turn your budgetary limitations into a positive—to rely less heavily on effects and setting and more on characterization and filmcraft. Ti West understands this better than most, which is part of what made his earlier House of the Devil so effective. The Inkeepers has some of the same DNA, but it’s rawer and more “real,” following the mostly unremarkable exploits of two friends (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) as they work in a dingy old bed & breakfast and conduct nightly.
96. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
Before Dracula and the official birth of Universal Horror, there was Phantom of the Opera. (By the way: It sucks that none of the major streamers, including Netflix and Shudder, have the rights to show all of the classic Universal Monster series. I want to be able to watch Son of Frankensteinor The Wolf Man streaming on demand some day, guys! Get those licensing deals in place!) Regardless, it’s nice that Shudder has at least one of these old classics, on account of it being in the public domain. This is the original version of Phantom, starring Lon Chaney Sr., the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” The pace is slow, the acting style on display is rather alien to watch today— overdramatic holdovers from the vaudeville era—and you know how the classic story goes, but man: Chaney’s face. t’s one of the truly iconic faces of horror, right alongside Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Chaney’s own son, Lon Chaney Jr., who would go on to play The Wolf Man. Phantom of the Opera is indispensable for Chaney’s self-devised makeup, which reportedly had theater patrons fainting in the aisles in 1925.
95. 13 GHOSTS (2001)
Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham plays Cyrus, a wild-eyed ghostbuster type. We see him barking orders in an incoherent prologue, and then, following the credits, we see a happy family that falls on hard times after the mother is killed in a fire. The next thing you know, math teacher dad, Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), death-obsessed son Bobby (Alex Roberts) and nanny Maggie (Rah Digga) find out that their rich uncle Cyrus has died and left them his home. The house is all made of glass etched with mysterious inscriptions. At first, the family is delighted. But then, with the help of psychic Daniel Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) and special glasses (a nod to the earlier version), they see that terrifying ghosts are in the basement.
94. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Roger Ebert memorably described the effect George A. Romero’s charter zombie film had on a group of Saturday matinee kids, wrote that their accelerating awareness that the film wasn’t going to play nice—and was, in fact, going to plunge a garden trowel deep into Mommy’s chest cavity—drove them to hysterical tears. Perhaps they subconsciously recognized in the political and social subtext of the film the many ways adults were failing them, how upheavals were destroying all illusions of social stasis, how the arms race was pushing the Doomsday Clock toward midnight, how the nuclear family unit was on its deathbed. Or maybe Romero’s pitch-black, impressionistic, gory depiction of the living under siege by the dead simply was and remains among the scariest goddamned movies ever made.
93. THE FLY (1986)
A beautifully poignant tale of love and heartbreak cocooned in the outré trappings of its maker’s distinctive splatter-punk aesthetic, The Fly represents the apotheosis of David Cronenberg’s early obsessions. The story of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), who, in a fit of drunken jealousy, tests his new teleporter only to find himself fused with a housefly, it’s a testament to the elastic properties of genre as metaphor. Cronenberg reappropriates the original’s schlocky damsel-in-distress plot as the delivery system for a thoughtful, witty, and literate consideration of his pet preoccupations: sex, death, technology, biology. It’s tragedy pitched at an operatic scale, body horror at its most visceral, pop philosophy at its most insightful. Insect politics for a blockbuster age
92. VIDEODROME (1983)
“Just torture and murder: No character, no plot—I think it’s the future.” Predicting an entire cottage industry of torture porn, not to mention presaging an untold number of contemporary corporate conspiracies and government-surveillance controversies, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome fused a generation’s nascent fascination with the entertainment value of the perverse into a hallucinatory hybrid horror-thriller with vast cinematic and social intent. When James Woods’s underground television producer stumbles upon a sadistic network transmission, his attempts to co-opt the program leads to a procession of double-crosses and waking nightmares, the implications of which the character can never escape and which cinema has yet to reconcile.
91. THE WICKER MAN (1973)
A film that’s become synonymous with British horror, The Wicker Manfollows a conservative Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) seeking a missing girl on a Hebridean island inhabited by pagans. The first half has an (intentional) air of the faintly ridiculous about it, embodied equally by Christopher Lee’s gloriously campy portrayal of the cult’s leader and the life-on-the-island sequences that are Pythonesque in their absurdist look at culture clash. But the film’s impish wit and soft, Arcadian glow belie its cruel streak. The gathering clouds of unease building into a shocking third act that’s aesthetically and structurally reminiscent of the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, possibly the highest praise one can give to the conclusion of a horror film.
90. THE BROOD (1979)
A film that externalizes all its subtexts like nervous welts in order to mock the burgeoning self-help and divorce crazes that had parents everywhere willfully unable to look beyond their own navels, David Cronenberg’s dark comedy The Brood is as perverse as it is incisive. The message that, no matter what parents try to do to internalize their own therapies and protect their loved ones from the messes they’re inside, there’s no possibility for a clean separation from the beds they make coincided with Cronenberg’s own divorce, which may account for the film’s transitional tone, alternately savage and chilly.
89. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein incited many vital developments in our consideration of cinema. Besides ushering in the concept of the modern American horror film, it also made a star of Boris Karloff, sent director James Whale off on a lengthy career in both film and theater, and brought censorship into the cultural conversation as no film had ever previously done. But on a more elemental level, it remains an intimate accomplishment in character-based drama and ethical inquisitiveness, spawning a legacy diverse enough to accommodate the likes of everyone from Victor Erice to Bill Condon, not to mention a franchise character in no threat of extinction.
88. HALLOWEEN II (2009)
An alternate title for this film could be Sympathy for the Devil. If Michael Myers was almost a phantom presence in John Carpenter’s Halloween, here he’s unmistakably and chillingly real. Throughout, Michael suggests a nomad single-mindedly driven by a desire to obliterate every connection to his namesake, and the scope of his brutality suggests a clogged id’s flushing out. In this almost Lynchian freak-out, whose sense of loss comes to the fore in a scene every bit as heartbreaking as its violence is discomfiting in its graphic nature, Rob Zombie’s prismatic aesthetic is cannily rhymed with Michael’s almost totemic mood swings, every obscenely prolonged kill scene a stunning reflection on an iconic movie monster’s psychological agony.
87. THE HITCHER (1986)
A young man (C. Thomas Howell) drives through the El Paso desert on a rainy night, nearly falling asleep, when a stranger (Rutger Hauer, in top leering form) materializes by the side of the road, thumbing a ride. And that’s enough of a setup for director Robert Harmon in The Hitcher to craft a veritable waking nightmare of endless highways, contorted bodies, and one man’s sheer evil seeping through another’s skin. At times an uncanny abstraction of asphalt, battered earth, and splattered blood, at others a companion piece to that year’s Blue Velvet, the film looms as menacingly over pallid ’80s horror fare as the titular boogeyman does over his hapless victim.
86. CONTRACTED (2013)
Contracted is a 2013 American body horror film directed and written by Eric England. It was first released on November 23, 2013, in the United States and stars Najarra Townsend as a young woman that finds herself suffering from a mysterious sexually transmitted disease after a rape. It has been compared to the 2012 film Thanatomorphose, with which it shares similarities. Twitch Film has criticized the movie for its marketing, in which England describes the character Samantha’s rape as a “one night stand
85. PUMPKINHEAD (1988)
Stan Winston, the special effect dude behind the creatures in Aliens helms his first film. It’s a triumph. This is a grim movie that doesn’t shy away from emotions. We understand Ed’s pain and also understand the teens situation. This flick could have easily fell into the slasher mold but it avoids all the pitfalls. The teens are not horny and the teens do the right thing “they run”. The movie feels old fashioned, almost like a children’s tale. The witch in the woods, the nursery rime, the demon buried in the pumpkin patch, all those elements contribute to that. Another thing that elevates the movie a notch higher is “Lance Henriksen”. The man is a great actor and his heartfelt, angry, bitter performance hits all the right notes.
The setting of the film is very creepy. A forest never felt scarier. And the demon…wow…Pumpkinhead never looks like an effect. He looks like a breathing 10 foot demon. I love that they gave Pumpkinhead a personality. This demon loves toying with his victims, taunting them and he clearly enjoys his work.
84. THE VANISHING (1988)
A disquieting expression of pragmatism as proof of godlessness. Director George Sluizer devises a mystery that very purposefully collapses in on itself; the terror of this film resides in its ultimate revelation that there isn’t any mystery at all, a development that carries obviously existential notes of despair. There’s no guiding motivation behind the disappearance that drives the film, and no cathartic purging of guilt or triumph of good; there isn’t even really a triumph of evil. A few things randomly happen, then a few more things, then nothing. The end. That non-ending, though, is one of the greatest in all of cinema and the source of many a nightmare.”
83. THE FOG (1980)
In the first shot of John Carpenter’s underrated follow-up to Halloween, a crusty campfire-side storyteller snaps a pocket watch shut with a start, a gesture that announces Carpenter’s intentions to unfurl his pirate ghost story on his own anachronistic timetable. Tinged with pioneer American folklore even as it delivers the wormy goods (reportedly at the studio’s behest), The Fog is at its best when it strips away the mechanics and focuses on atmospheric locations, uncannily imbalanced compositions, and syncopated scare rhythms, proving just how much unnerving mileage a director can get from simple, old-fashioned craft.
82. THE LOVED ONES (2012)
Lola Stone asked Brent Mitchell to the prom, but Brent said no, and now he’s screwed. What happens when Lola doesn’t get what she wants? She enlists Daddy’s help to throw a prom of her own where she is queen and Brent is king, whether he likes it or not. The Loved Ones is what happens when puppy love goes horribly, violently wrong. Brent should have said yes
81. THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
Aside from the campy elements that mark Craven creations, there is a great deal of socially-liberal commentary in The People Under the Stairs. The struggling family is poor and black, the evil landlords are rich, wacky and lily white. The oppressed neighbors that descend on the house to demand fair treatment are predominantly dark skinned and the landlords use racial expletives here and there. This movie was made in 1991, a time when a social statement could be made where specific racial elements were defined specifically to the statement – something that could never happen in today’s (2008) politically-correct atmosphere without a visit to Al Sharpton’s radio studio. This film is a dinosaur in terms of PC sensibility, but don’t blame Craven…nobody knew how easily offended people were back then.
80. PARASITE (1982)
Set in an undeterminate year in the far future, a nuclear war in 1992 has reduced the world to poverty. Instead of a government, America is run by an organization called the Merchants, who exploit the degenerate remains of society. (Silver coins and bullion is used as currency, what food that is available is rationed, and gasoline costs an upwards of $40-per-gallon for super-unleaded). In order to keep control of the populace, the Merchants force Dr. Paul Dean (Robert Glaudini), a scientist living in the ruins of Los Angeles, to create a new life form, a parasite that feeds on its host. Realizing the deadly potential of such a being, Dean escapes from the Merchant-operated laboratory with the parasite, accidently infecting himself in the process.
79. WRONG TURN (2003)
Late for a meeting and stuck in traffic, medical student and professional brooder Chris (Harrington) takes a back woods road as a short cut and accidentally crashes into another car belonging to two couples and a tough chickadee (Dushku). Our fashionably dressed gang find themselves stranded in the woods and luckily for us, three deformed, inbred psycho loonies are there to keep them warm and fuzzy company. Take out the axe and give out some loving!
78. THE BLOB (1988)
The Blob is a 1988 American science-fiction horror film written and directed by Chuck Russell, co-written with Frank Darabont, and starring Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch, Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark and Joe Seneca. The film’s title depicts an amorphous acidic amoeba-like organism that devours and dissolves anything in its path as it grows, where it begins to feed on the residents of the fictional town of Arborville, California.
A remake of the 1958 horror film of the same name, the film was theatrically released in 1988, and was a box office disappointment, earning $8.2 million. It received mixed reviews but was praised for its special effects. Much like the original film, the remake has since gained a cult following.
77. TRICK ’R TREAT (2007)
One might call Trick ’r Treat the best kind of anthology—one that features plenty of disparate, interesting stories, but also ties its stories together in a distinctly satisfying, chronology-bending way. Director Michael Dougherty’s debut film sat on the shelf after being delayed for years, which was a great shame, as it’s far and away the best horror anthology of the last decade. Somewhat less concerned with outright scares, it’s instead a celebration of Halloween, the idea of the holiday and of fright itself. The stories and characters intertwine on the same small town throughout Halloween night, intersecting in ways both classical (the ghosts of a long ago tragedy return) and modern (a coven of female werewolves, out on the town). Sly comedy and great performances from an array of familiar faces (Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin) power each of the segments, and none of them overstay their welcome. Indeed, Trick ’r Treat is actually best enjoyed through repeat viewings, which reveal the crossovers between each story even better. In the middle of it all is Sam (Quinn Lord), the disturbing but somehow lovably round-headed spirit of Halloween, who observes in silence and punishes those who trample over the holiday’s traditional observances. It’s seminal “Halloween night” viewing—spooky but approachable, and fun in all the right ways. Here’s hoping that the long-discussed sequel actually shows up one of these days.
76. RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
Ironically, the most entertaining take on H.P. Lovecraft is the least “Lovecrafty.” Stuart Gordon established himself as cinema’s leading Lovecraft adaptor with a juicy take on the story “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” about a student who concocts a disturbingly flawed means of reviving the dead. Re-Animator more closely resembles a zombie film than Lovecraft’s signature brand of occult sci-fi, but it boasts masterful suspense scenes, great jokes and Barbara Crampton as a smart, totally hot love interest—i.e., it’s a near-perfect ’80s horror movie. Jeffrey Combs as West is brilliant, establishing himself as the Anthony Perkins of his generation, a hilariously insolent and reckless genius whom he played in two Re-Animator sequels. The actor even played Lovecraft in the anthology film Necronomicon. The film is a near-perfect crystallization of best aspects of ’80s horror, from its delight in perversion to its awesome practical effects.
75. IT (2017)
It’s detractors — and yes, there are more than you think — point to its CGI and endless stream of scare sequences as hindrances. To that, I say there isn’t that much CGI, and even if there was, the novel has always been a work of maximalist horror. Without the bigness and circus-like, almost cartoonish vibe of Pennywise’s reign of terror (the guy’s a clown, for God’s sake!), the intimate character work wouldn’t stand out. You need both elements for the movie to work. So, sorry, naysayers. When you’re praising the natural performances of the film’s kids, you’re praising the spectacle of Bill Skarsgård’s cosmic boogeyman, too.
74. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)
When drafting this list of 100, we decided to keep horror comedies by and large out of the fold—this is a list of “horror films,” pure and simple. There was no room for beloved parodies such as Shaun of the Dead, but The Cabin in the Woods is the exception that proves the rule, capable in some moments of being frightening while primarily functioning as one of the best-crafted meta-commentaries that the genre has ever seen. It’s shocking that Drew Goddard hasn’t directed a film since, even though he’s been flying high while penning the likes of The Martian. But his deep knowledge and clearly slavish devotion to the tropes of the horror genre that are on display in Cabin in the Woods, which neatly breaks down the “five man band” of camp-style slashers while being simultaneously uproarious and gratifyingly unique. Another film that sat in development hell after completion because studios weren’t sure how to market it, the movie can probably thank the Hollywood ascendancy of Chris Hemsworth for the fact that it eventually got a release, but the powerhouse performances come from Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, and especially Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, whose wry commentary as this horror story’s puppet masters is indispensable and never short of side-splitting. In the end, it’s the little things that Cabin in the Woods does so right—from the properly grizzled “harbinger” who warns the kids of their impending doom, to the running jokes around mermaids that finally see themselves to a very satisfying conclusion. Every loose thread is accounted for en route to a decidedly punk rock finale.
73. THE MONKEY’S PAW
Jake Tilton (C.J. Thomason) works at an industrial supply warehouse in which his boss is married to his ex-girlfriend, Olivia (Michelle Pierce). This of course is never good for Jake’s self esteem but he has good friends like Catfish (Corbin Bleu), Gillespie (Daniel Hugh Kelly) & Tony Cobb (Stephen Lang) to make his days go by a bit easier. After being fired by warehouse boss Kevin (Andy Favreau), Gillespie entrusts Jake with the titular object. After explaining that it grants its owner 3 wishes and how he’s held onto it for years without ever using it, he tells Jake that it might be better if he doesn’t use it either as his family paid a hefty price when his dad used it decades earlier. Of course, Jake doesn’t listen.
72. CUJO (1981)
In the novels for both Cujo and Jaws, a rogue animal embodies the small-town unhappiness of its characters. On film, only Cujo keeps that central conceit. Luckily, a nuanced performance from Dee Wallace prevents heroine Donna Trenton from being unlikable in her misery, and the rabid St. Bernard of the title rivals Bruce the Shark in its natural terror. Whatever the filmmakers used to create the symptoms of rabies in poor ol’ Cuge, it works. Armed with congealing slobber, matted fur, bloodshot eyes, and oh-those-teeth, Cujo is a machine of both slaughter and infectious disease. Screenwriters Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier also wisely borrowed another tactic from Steven Spielberg by toning down the starkness of the book’s ending in favor of something more Hollywood and crowd-pleasing.
71. CREEPSHOW (1982)
The anthology is a film structure that has always been native to horror—it captures the campfire “spooky stories” aesthetic and often allows promising young directors a platform on which they can shoot what are essentially short films to launch their careers. On the flip side, however, anthologies rarely end up in “best film” discussions because every contemporary appraisal of any given anthology is always quick to highlight the exact same point: They are uneven in quality by their very nature. Creepshow, however, has an advantage here: It maintains a thematic and visual consistency because Romero directed all of the segments himself. Working with Stephen King in his screenwriting (and unfortunately, acting) debut, Romero dives deep into a childhood obsession and love for EC Comics horror series such as Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, using vibrant, phantasmagorical splashes of color in reaction shots in a way that almost parallels how Sam Raimi would eventually evoke comic book panels in Spiderman 2. The stories themselves are wonderful, pulpy fun, from the gothic, ghostly “Father’s Day” to the bloody, beastly conclusion of “The Box,” which features the death of a truly irritating Adrienne Barbeau. But the highlight is a murderous Leslie Nielsen, in the sort of pompous, villainous performance that fans of The Naked Gun or Airplane! have likely never seen before. You owe it to yourself to see Creepshow for him alone.
70. THE RING (2002)
The Ring helped shine a light to the inventive scares that were being created in Asian cinema at the time, leading the charge of remakes. While the original Japanese film, Ringu, is worth checking out, Gore Verbinski’s American reimagining upgrades its source material with masterful direction and a star-making performance from Naomi Watts, who was coming off of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (also on this list). One of Verbinski’s best talents, however, is drawing out the scares. The idea of Samara killing her victims seven days after they watching that haunted VHS tape is horrifying on its own, but the film is wise to not waste her menacing grip. Instead, the fear comes from the waiting. Once Watts’ son watches the tape, the race is on to solve the mystery before that drowned-in-a-well demon comes for him, and the film fills that time with imagery that slowly disturbs — horses, ladders, insects, and, of course, the titular ring. It’s methodically paced so that the essential moments — like, you know, when the ghost girl dives through a television set — hit like a rush of adrenaline.
69. THE BIRDS (1963)
In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated that all people are ornithophobic – that is, have a fear of birds – when enough wings and beaks are involved. Using a brilliant mix of trained birds and Disney animation, the horror auteur showed audiences just how vulnerable they’d be if the forces of nature turned on them. We never do learn what’s causing the horrible bird attacks in little Bodega Bay, which only makes the whole ordeal scarier. What we do discover is how claustrophobic a phone booth, car, home, or even a town can become as flocks of birds perch, amass, and attack. (In a sense, it’s the town’s residents who end up in cages.) As for a hopeful ending, we see thousands of our fine-feathered friends assembling as our heroes drive off in search of help and safety. It’s not unlike Hitchcock to leave us on this particular happy note: that the worst is yet to come. And this ending, like the film itself, is quite literally for the birds.
68. CANDYMAN (1992)
Tony Todd is one of horror’s greatest character actors, a towering presence with a raspy purr of a voice to match. As the Candyman, the vengeful ghost of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name, Todd oozes a deadly mystique that unsettles (and arouses) Virginia Madsen’s beleaguered researcher. Based on the Clive Barker story and sporting one of Phillip Glass’ very best scores, Candyman offers a particularly gory campfire story about urban legends and our obsession with them. Most fascinating is the Candyman’s surprising social relevance, however, particularly in the context of Chicago’s gentrification and the legacy of the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Situating the monster of your movie as an avenging angel of black rage and disenfranchisement is a ballsy move, but Candyman’s deep-seated undertones of white discomfort with/fetishization of black agency and sexuality still resonate in a deeply divided Chicago and the country at large.
67. DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
Sam Raimi’s post-Spider-man return to form arrived as one of the first cinematic reactions to the American mortgage crisis, and in its portrayal of a well-meaning (if promotion-chasing) young woman whose life is torn apart by an old woman’s vindictive curse, Drag Me to Hell swings the moral pendulum both ways. Atop it being one of the best post-2000 gross-out horror features, it takes the seemingly innocuous greed of people “just doing their jobs” to task even as it lingers on how rooting for their absolute punishment can lead to its own kind of moral rot. Plus, whatever you might say of the film, it’s impossible to deny that Raimi eventually delivers exactly the thing he promises in the title alone.
66. THE CONJURING 2 (2016)
While this very scary sequel is a bit on the long side, director James Wan is at the top of his game, taking a great idea and turning it into a rare, thoughtful chiller that ponders the metaphysical. It was evident in the original The Conjuring that the Warrens would make great “ghostbuster”-type characters for any number of sequels, and The Conjuring 2 has delivered on that promise. Farmiga and Wilson have made their husband-wife team interesting, engaging, and worth following into any haunted place.
Meanwhile, Wan has turned into an astounding genre director, perhaps the best of his generation, displaying a powerful grasp of visual space, rhythms, and sounds that deserves comparison with John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Even though The Conjuring 2 is quite long (133 minutes), it never overstays its welcome. Best of all, the “true story” aspect demands that viewers ask questions about the world we live in; how much do we really know to be true?
65. DON’T BREATHE (2016)
The first three-quarters of this simple, intense thriller are something close to masterful — and then it goes a little too over the top, with an outlandish reveal and elements of torture and gore. Director Fede Alvarez (the 2013 Evil Dead remake), starts Don’t Breathe with nary a misstep, using the desolate Detroit locations to strong effect and establishing the space of the veteran’s house clearly and concisely, never resorting to shaky-cam.
Plus, the crisp sound design highlights every creak and crack of the house, without an overuse of music. Character development is slight, but at least Rocky is sympathetic, with abuse in her past and a desire to protect her daughter. And for a long time, all of this is brilliantly sustained, suggesting a trust in the audience — but then the movie betrays that trust by unleashing a ridiculous back story for the victim, as well as unnecessarily heightened violence. A bit more thought could have made this a suspense classic, but at least it’s nearly there.
64. THE GRUDGE (2004)
THE GRUDGE is one of those “Don’t go into the house” movies, a remake of a popular Japanese horror film by Takashi Shimizu, the writer/director of the original. Shimizu makes good use of shifts in time to pull us into what little story there is. The usual ghost activities (messing up the house, stalking people) are updated a little bit. These ghosts can call a cell phone and get from the lobby to the 16th floor very quickly. There are some creepy images and gotcha scares, but nothing can disguise the fact that this is just a “who gets it next and how does he get it” movie. Too much of it is familiar, though, from the mysteriously feral child to the backwards-crab-crawling guy looking horrified at some looming presence. You know if a bloody jaw with teeth shows up, eventually we’re going to have to find out where it came from.
63. SILENT HILL (2006)
SILENT HILL follows the nightmarish story of Rose (Radha Mitchell), whose daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) is a longtime sleepwalker pulled by a mysterious force. Rose takes Sharon to Silent Hill, a coal mining town that appears to be haunting the girl. On the way, they encounter motorcycle cop Cybil (Laurie Holden), who follows Rose and Sharon to Silent Hill. Once there, they confront many misshapen, nightmarish creatures. At last Rose finds the head mistress in town, Christabella (Alice Krige). A self-identified witch-burner, she decides that Rose, Sharon, and anyone else from out of town needs to be burned at the stake. Hordes of folks recite and grab at Rose and Cybil as Christabella chants “We fight the demon,” and “We drew a line in the sand.” All the while, Rose keeps telling Sharon, “It’ll be okay, baby.” But it won’t.
62. THE CLINIC (2010)
James Rabbiits’s film The Clinic defies any true aspect of the horror genre since it mixes so many of them together into a nice little c**ktail of an Australian import. The story behind The Clinic takes aspects from a lot of the current trend of “survival splatter” horror films, yet it also throws in a large part of the “slasher” sub genre and even some emotional terror are all mixed together for a film that belongs on any fan of modern horrors shelf.
61. THE GATES OF HELL (1980)
A priest (Jovine) hangs his sorry ass in the town of Dunwich and consequently opens the gates of hell and lets pure evil in. It’s up to cigar-chomping journalist Peter (George) and a stunning heart-shaped assed psychic (MacColl) to hit the town and put a stop to the madness before gooey zombies murder the whole world. And I thought my week was rough!
60. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2
A young model survives a brutal gang rape in New York City, and seeks bloody vengeance on her attackers in this sequel to 2010’s I Spit on Your Grave. Katie (Jemma Dellender) was a small town model with big city dreams when she arrived in the Big Apple determined to launch her career. Spotting a flyer that tempts her with a free photo shoot, Katie takes the number and makes the call. But when the cameras stop flashing, the nightmare begins. Abducted, tortured, raped, and left for dead, Katie should never have survived the atrocities committed against her. Yet she did, and now as her attackers gasp for their last precious breaths while staring into her cold vengeful eyes, they will finally know the true meaning of fear.
59. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (2009)
The Human Centipede is a series of body horror films created by Dutch filmmaker Tom Six, focusing on human beings being physically connected to each other through various means, sharing a single digestive system. The movies have come under much controversy, especially the 2011 film The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence). 2015’s The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) was intended by Tom Six to serve as the final film in the Human Centipede trilogy.
58. SINISTER (2012)
Writer/director Scott Derrickson has a touch for using old horror movie tools to create new scares, and he also incorporates several interesting themes into SINISTER. Even if some of his attempts don’t quite work some of the time, he still gets credit for trying. To start, he’s created an interesting character in Ellison, who’s struggling between recapturing his former glory and keeping his family safe, pulled helplessly in two directions at once. And Hawke — wearing a funny, puffy “grandpa” sweater and shoes — emphasizes a fascinating clash between courage and weakness in his performance.
Derrickson does pack too many concepts into his story, mixing the supernatural with the mysterious, and it doesn’t quite come together; the themes become jumbled up by the final payoff. But the movie has some terrifying, startling moments, mainly thanks to a crafty, strangely prickly music score by Christopher Young. Sinister won’t hold up to scrutiny, but it’s worth a look for horror fans.
57. BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)
Like much of Coppola’s work, this blood-soaked, highly sexed film walks a fine line between the visually stunning and the bizarre or grotesque (The Godfather, One From the Heart, Apocalypse Now). Tom Waits gives a characteristically out-there performance as the insane bug-eater Renfield, and Keanu Reeves appears to have strayed little from his Bill and Ted days. Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman, and Winona Rider give good performances.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been said to have saved Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios, by recovering from the previous years’ underperformers (Wind, The Godfather: Part III). The movie found critical acclaim with Academy Awards for Costume Design, Sound Effects Editing, and Makeup.
56. AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
Adapted from a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, AMERICAN PSYCHO largely misses some of the book’s more pointed critical and satirical points, going more directly for dark comedy and shocking horror. It’s too bad that director Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter, actress Guinevere Turner (who plays one of Patrick’s victims), couldn’t have given it a fresher, more feminist spin. As it is, the movie’s depiction of a young, wealthy culture looks almost as appealing as it does repellent.
Fortunately, the way the movie mixes these ingredients makes it subversively fun to watch. Certain scenes — especially when Patrick listens to banal pop music (Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, etc.) while preparing for his murders — push the envelope so far that the only breaking point is laughter. And Christian Bale’s performance helps a great deal; he’s never been so fearless in a role, or so in touch with a character’s darkest fears and desires. However, many movie fans will not like the twist ending.
55. SEVEN (1995)
By now, we’ve seen some pretty fucked-up shit in serial killer movies. And while we can trace that back to Hannibal Lecter, no movie kicked procedural scares up a notch like Seven. Naturally, the most horrifying parts of David Fincher’s thriller stem from the imagination of the killer. Tasked with creating murders for each of the seven deadly sins, the actual way he carries them out are disgusting enough that the viewer starts to wonder how anyone could dream up this type of shit in the first place. Man, who is force-fed spaghetti and kicked to death? Gross! Or who fucks a prostitute to death with a bladed codpiece? Grosser! The deaths are inventive and warped, and yet, Seven is a harrowing reminder of the possibilities of evil in the world. Throw in a little Nine Inch Nails, and you have one of the scariest non-horror films ever made.
54. MISERY (1990)
Sometimes we forget that the word fan is short for fanatic. Best-selling author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) will never make that mistake again after a mountainside car crash commits him to the care of nurse and No. 1 fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Credit Bates’ incarnation of Wilkes for making director Rob Reiner’s film one of the scariest Stephen King creations to ever appear on screen. Wilkes’ violent mood swings – spooning Sheldon soup one scene and sprinkling him with lighter fluid the next – never lets Sheldon or the audience feel like they have a grip on the situation. In one telling scene, Wilkes, almost without a pulse, appears pitiable as she stares out at the rain and admits it gives her the blues, only to slowly reveal a revolver concealed in the pocket of her robe. Nobody will forget violence like the hobbling scene, but the most terrifying moments are ones like this in which Sheldon – desperately trying to decipher his captor and escape – realizes he’s dealing with someone even crazier than he thought and that the worst is surely yet to come.
53. NOSFERATU (1922)
Director F.W. Murnau’s unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains the most well-known German Expressionist horror film (no shade, Caligari!). This is in large part to Max Schreck’s terrifying performance as Nosferatu [coughs … Dracula!], which has lost none of its power in the century since the film’s release. Couple Murnau’s direction and Schreck’s performances, and you get an indisputable landmark in cinema history. Every shot of Schreck and those mesmerizing eyes (not to mention, claws, ears, and teeth) is eerie, even by today’s standards. The scene featuring the shadow of an unseen presence creeping up the stairs has been lampooned a thousand times, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the shot is a technical achievement to say the very least. Many Murnau films have been lost over the years, but this one will likely stand the test of time forever.
52. THE WOLF MAN (1941)
Wolf Man Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), along with Frankenstein’s Monster, represents the more sympathetic side of the Universal Monster movie canon, although some viewers would doubtlessly use the word “whiny.” Regardless, poor Larry never asked to turn into a werewolf, and he spends most of the sequels trying to figure out a way not only to be cured, but to kill himself and end his long suffering in the process. The 1941 original remains the best and most earnest film in the series—a portrait of a man who has no power over the raging beast within. It’s the film that made Lon Chaney Jr. a household name, throwing him into the same career of filling genre films as his father during the silent film era. Famed for the groundbreaking FX of its iconic transformation scene, and aided by the same top-notch makeup that Jack Pierce employed in Frankenstein, it raised the bar for horror FX substantially. Like other Universal horror films from the classic era of monster horror, it’s heavy on the atmosphere and old-fashioned spooky settings—fog-wreathed graveyards, dark forests and gothic dwellings—while taking to heart some of the lessons learned by superior Frankenstein sequels such as Bride and Son of Frankenstein. Throw it on at your next Halloween party, and you’ll see that it holds up remarkably well.
51. THE BABADOOK (2014)
The Babadook’s Babadook is scary. It’s a charcoal demon with skeletal fingers and a Gorey-esque sense of the uncanny; that’s scary. But the monster is the least scary part of this powerful Australian spooker, a solid effort that’s slightly undercut from the overwhelming nature of its metaphor. What it really gets right, though, is a mother’s resentment, a topic that’s taboo by nearly any standard. Because, despite its gifts, parenting is a nightmare, and the most honest mothers will tell you about the nights they’ve become overwhelmed by anger and bitterness at the fruit of their loins. The Babadook not only confronts this taboo; it races toward it head on, sending its exhausted widow, Amelia, down a dark path that sets her loud, awkward son right in her crosshairs. Nobody would admit they relate to this movie, but they totally do.
50. PSYCHO (1960)
It’s the horror film by which all others are measured. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, Psycho, took scary movies out of Gothic castles and relocated them to familiar places like roadside motels. It showed that the real monsters could be seemingly normal people who walk among us but secretly lead dark, disturbed lives and commit horrific acts. And the root of its terror, of course, begins with the shower scene in which Janet Leigh’s runaway meets Norman Bates’ mother. Camera, performance, and Bernard Herrmann’s score come together in those 78 camera shots and 52 cuts in such a way that it introduced a new type of poetry to both filmmaking and terrifying an audience. While other scares may have been greater, none have been executed as beautifully onscreen.
49. WOLF CREEK (2005)
This terrifying slice of Aussie torture porn taps into fears of being stranded in the wilderness and then proves all those fears right in the most grim fashion imaginable. Taking his cue from ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, first-time filmmaker Greg Mclean gives us three tourists – one Aussie and two Brits – who set out to visit a remote meteor crater. Then – brace yourselves – their watches all stop and their car breaks down, leaving them to be rescued by a gruff local who tows them and their car to an abandoned old mine.
The film takes a sharp turn for the macabre in its later stages, pulling no punches and making especially creepy use of a digital video camera carried by one of the tourists. You’ll need a cold shower after this one.
48. FREAKS (1932)
In many ways, Tod Browning’s Freaks is the antithesis of the typical horror film, which isn’t to suggest that its rain-soaked climax is anything less than scary as hell. A clear-eyed portrait of a traveling circus’s community of disabled performers, the film is most famous for effectively ending director Tod Browning’s career, an outcome that ironically underscores his film’s unflinching humanitarianism. In defense of their own, the film’s disfigured characters are capable of great horrors, but it’s those who see them as less than human—audiences included—to whom the title of this masterpiece most scathingly refers.
47. ORPHAN (2009)
If Orphan were more exuberant — a bit more diabolically crazy, a bit more swiftly paced — it might be fun; as it is, the film bogs down over its two-plus hours. Farmiga and Sarsgaaard are both good — even if they’re forced, by circumstance, to play people far stupider than they are — but they can’t break out of the script’s narrow confines. Fuhrman lends a certain chill to Esther’s crazier moments, but, at the same time, she’s hampered by the story’s contortions and weaknesses. Watching Orphan, you can’t help but think that what was really needed wasn’t an artist’s hand on the camera but, rather, an editor’s hand applied to the screenplay.
46. CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1974)
With a chanting soundtrack and an effectively creepy sunlit vibe, this film does raise some shudders — then wrecks the momentum with cheap gore and a feeble finale. Depending on what the low-budget special effects allow, He Who Walks Behind the Rows sometimes looks like a burrowing underground shape, a weird cloud, or a glowing cartoon. Far scarier are the juvenile actors, who really do a good job making the “children of the corn” a threatening tribe of youthful fanatics with farm-implement weapons.
Besides killer kids, the film manipulates anxieties and stereotypes about the American heartland. Instead of Satanists, with their goat horns and red capes, this group is a caricature of ultra-conservative and Evangelical churches, resembling the Amish or Mennonites — that is, before they transform into a child cult that crucifies victims on corn stalks.
45. THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
This is a sometimes ghastly — and occasionally absurd — shocker that really gets under one’s skin. Though many critics initially despised THE HILLS HAVE EYES, it has since been called one of the best horror movies of the 1970s. Scary-movie specialist Wes made this viscerally-violent feature on a low budget, and some horror connoisseurs call it his best. Ultimately the “normal” people strike back with a ferocious bloodlust they didn’t know they had, and the question is how much a “civilized” person can be pushed before one becomes a savage. Are the Carters really all that much “better” than Jupiter and his spawn?
There are some borderline-silly moments involving the two Carter hero dogs, a pair of fearlessly loyal German shepherds named Beauty and Beast, who are the first to try to rescue their masters from the marauders, like the Rin-Tin-Tin adventure from hell. But even there the unintentional humor evaporates when one of the canines is killed.
44. SIGNS (2002)
Writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS is a story of a crisis of faith, a wise child, and something out there that is very, very disturbing but ultimately part of a pattern that supports and embraces all of us. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a recent widower who lives with his two children and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) on a farm in Pennsylvania. He was a minister but lost his faith when his wife was killed. He wakes up one night with a sense of dread. His children are not in bed. He runs out into the cornfield and his children show him that the stalks have been bent into a mysterious pattern. It can’t have been made by a machine, because the stalks are not broken. And it can’t have been done by hand, because the shapes are too perfectly even. It turns out that the strange signs have appeared all over the world. Graham wants to believe that the shapes are a prank or a hoax. He cannot bear the thought that his family could be vulnerable to more injury or loss.
43. THE CONJURING (2013)
Let it be known: James Wan is, in any fair estimation, an above average director of horror films at the very least. The progenitor of big money series such as Saw and Insidious has a knack for crafting populist horror that still carries a streak of his own artistic identity, a Spielbergian gift for what speaks to the multiplex audience without entirely sacrificing characterization. Several of his films sit just outside the top 100, if this list were ever to be expanded, but The Conjuring can’t be denied as the Wan representative because it is far and away the scariest of all his feature films. Reminding me of the experience of first seeing Paranormal Activity in a crowded multiplex, The Conjuring has a way of subverting when and where you expect the scares to arrive. Its haunted house/possession story is nothing you haven’t seen before, but few films in this oeuvre in recent years have had half the stylishness that Wan imparts on an old, creaking farmstead in Rhode Island. The film toys with audience’s expectations by throwing big scares at you without standard Hollywood Jump Scare build-ups, simultaneously evoking classic golden age ghost stories such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting. Its intensity, effects work and unrelenting nature set it several tiers above the PG-13 horror against which it was primarily competing. It’s interesting to note that The Conjuring actually did receive an “R” rating despite a lack of overt “violence,” gore or sexuality. It was simply too frightening to deny, and that is worthy of respect.
42. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
It’s not the first film M. Night Shyamalan directed, but The Sixth Sense created the Shyamalan that would haunt the movieplexes for the decades to come. And while everyone remembers the film for the twist ending (or, maybe, for the exceptional performances, six Academy Award nominations, and record-breaking run at the box office), what often is forgotten about The Sixth Sense is just how scary it actually is. A lot of the tension and frights come from Shyamalan, whose use of space and camera angles leave the audience vulnerable to sneaky jump scares. As a viewer, you’re both afraid for the fate of Haley Joel Osment’s Cole and for the ghosts that only he can see. The deft balance between the dramatic content and the horror is pretty rare to find in film, and it only speaks to how well Shyamalan does the former if the latter gets overshadowed. But scenes like “Stuttering Stanley” and the puking Mischa Barton in the tent are about as chilling as you’ll find in a Best Picture nominee.
41. DEAD RINGERS (1988)
Dead Ringers is an elaborate, complex piece of psychological and body horror, a visual and auditory achievement that’s thematically rich and existentially terrifying. That’s an accurate description of David Cronenberg’s monstrous creation, but it’s also unnecessary. All you have to do to get someone on board with this film is use the phrase “identical twin gynecologists” and you should get the requisite shudder. The twins in question, both played by Jeremy Irons in what may be his two best performances, are creeps, to be sure, but their vital, demented, passionate link is what truly drives the film. By the time they’ve busted out their creepy bone tools for their last terrifying procedure, it’s a sure bet that you’ll be well and truly freaked out.
40. CHRISTINE (1983)
Christine, she’s a beaut. And so is Christine, John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name (from a screenplay by Bill Phillips). It’s no surprise that Carpenter can take a premise that should by no means work — an evil car (with a female name, of course) starts to change the personality of the nebbish boy who owns her — and make it electric. And electric it is, even when it’s silly, even when the performances don’t quite work and the central battle feels deeply silly. But at the end of the day, this list is about good scares and good films, and this sucker is both. “Christine is, of course, utterly ridiculous,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. “But I enjoyed it anyway.” That pretty much says it all.
39. THE STRANGERS (2008)
The home invasion subgenre preys on a simple phobia: that even the one place in which you’re supposed to be the safest is only as “safe” as the will of the people around you. Yet, The Strangers ratchets up that fear by highlighting how fragile that social contract is and that if your home is suddenly violated by a roving band of thrill killers, there’s nothing to do but kill or be killed. And yet, against a trio of harlequin-masked murderers driven by no more valid a modus operandi than “because you were home,” what’s a nice young couple to do? Die, sooner or later.
38. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)
From its breathtaking opening shot from inside the bomb bay of a cruising warplane, you know you’re in the hands of a master with ‘The Devil’s Backbone’. Del Toro’s return to his native language following the disappointment of 1997’s heavily recut Hollywood horrorshow ‘Mimic’ proved conclusively that, working without interference, this Mexican up-and-comer was capable of remarkable cinema – a fact that has been reconfirmed time and again since. It’s odd but pleasing that ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ beat out its loose follow-up ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ on this list: it’s an odder, less showy but more complete work, depicting the trials endured by a group of boys living in a haunted orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. Cold, creepy and compelling, this is a small film from a massive talent.
37. [REC] (2007)
Sure, the aughts and whatever we’re calling this current decade managed to take the found-footage approach to horror and thoroughly run it into the ground. They’re some of the cheapest films you can make, and too often, that cheapness extended to the horror storytelling on hand. But that’s not even a bit true of [REC], the nightmarish Spanish thriller that begat the far less effective remake Quarantine and so many other imitators. Set in one building beset by a revolting virus, this is a film that leaves dread lurking in every margin and darkness flooding so many of its tight, excruciatingly tense shots. And unlike so many horror movies that chase a sense of hope with each growing revelation, [REC] makes no false promises. Every new discovery only makes it all that much worse.
36. TAKING LIVES (2004)
Jolie’s character is inconsistently conceived here, forcing her to take on almost as many personalities as the killer, cool professional, tomboy feminist, girlish romantic, and nesting loner. She has to be tough and vulnerable as the whims of the script demand, and that takes some of the steam out of the story.
But director D.J. Caruso and a strong cast make the best of the potboiler material, creating a nicely creepy atmosphere and knowing when to surprise the audience with a shock — or a laugh — to release the tension. So if you don’t try to make it all make sense, you might find it to be a thriller with a couple of genuine thrills.
35. EVIL DEAD II (1987)
In which Bruce Campbell reveals himself to be the Fangoria generation’s answer to Buster Keaton. ‘The Evil Dead’ had humour but it was still, at heart, a video nasty: that tree-rape scene tended to kill the chuckles. But in ‘Evil Dead 2’, the fact that Raimi and Campbell had begun their career alternating between horror shorts and Three Stooges knockoffs paid massive dividends: this is without doubt the most successful blend of horror and comedy, and a classic in either field. The breakthrough moment comes midway, as Campbell’s own hand is possessed by an evil spirit, leading to some of the most jawdropping slapstick imaginable (and a peerless Hemingway gag). But Raimi never forgets to keep the blood flowing: limbs fly, eyeballs explode, and you don’t even want to know what goes on in that woodshed.
34. THE CRAZIES (2010)
A remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 Vietnam-era movie, THE CRAZIES retains all the social commentary of the original, but streamlines it and smoothes it into a regular horror film. It cuts down on the many talking and bickering sequences in the original, and turns the military men into faceless, voiceless spooks who are more or less the equivalent of the “crazies.” In a way, the new film is perhaps even more direct in getting Romero’s anti-military message across.
Though the movie relies a bit too much on standard genre conventions like jump-scares, last-second rescues, and characters splitting up to search for things, it makes up for it with a high standard of acting, mainly by Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell as the married sheriff and doctor. Their realistic reactions to the horror around them are far more effective than any amount of shock imagery or bloody gore.
33. SAW (2004)
A thoroughly intriguing — if ghoulish — premise, some original nightmarish images, and a young director eager to show off his talents make this movie atmospheric and intense. But the whole thing gets caught in the razor wire of shoddy acting, a sociopath who makes you go “huh?”, a lack of engaging characters, and a morass of internally inconsistent details. The bitter taste in your mouth when Saw‘s over won’t be fear, but rather disappointment that what could have been a smart, original horror-fest turned into such an uneven wannabe.
Director James Wan and Whannell (who wrote the script with the director) clearly have been influenced by modern horror stalwarts like Seven, 28 Days Later, and The Ring, which results in a stilted form of brinksmanship where the end game is the most memorable gruesome image. Tying the scenes together, much less ending the movie with a tight little knot, is beyond their story-spinning ken this time. But they deserve recognition for aiming high and for providing an engaging if ultimately disappointing ride.
32. 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
The humans are warned of an impending vampire invasion by someone called The Stranger (Ben Foster), who arrives in town seeking a bowl of raw hamburger and then intones, “That cold ain’t the weather, that’s death approaching.” Part wanna-be and part fanboy (“The undead, man!”), The Stranger has led the vampires to Barrow because, in winter, the sun disappears for an entire month. (For some reason, this darkness also means that no planes fly in or out of Barrow — an illogical premise that leaves the citizens utterly alone and abandoned.) The movie’s action follows the basic rhythms of a slasher film, showing one terrible assault after another, with the ugly deaths of disposable extras leaving the small band of stars bickering and learning important lessons about how to look after one another. The humans alternately hide in attics, scavenge from the well-stocked market, and fight off the monsters with all manner of makeshift weapons, ranging from flares and axes to shotguns and sunlamps. As the days tick by (marked by captions so you can keep track), the vampires inexplicably leave the survivors alone for long stretches. The vampires, much like the humans, travel as a pack, led by Marlow and his apparent girlfriend Iris (Megan Franich). Except for Marlow, they all have digitally distorted faces — enlarged or misshapen noses, jutting jaws, huge scars, and increasingly bloody and gaping mouths — that mark their strangeness and capacity for brutality (they consume humans and dogs with equal abandon). As usual, human self-sacrifice appears to be the most effective weapon against the vampires, who are selfish by definition and endlessly \”thirsty.\”
31. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)
Aside from its sporadic bursts of nasty violence, Let the Right One In is a more cerebral kind of vampire movie. Set against the chilly background of 1980s Sweden, the tragic story of the neglected Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and the reclusive Eli (Lina Leandersson) reprises the agony of being a lonely, bullied child as flawlessly as it does the growing terrors of desire and, well, the discovery that your loyal, new friend is immortal and exploits an old man for his ability to go out and provide blood for her by any means necessary. Where the later American remake, Let Me In, makes the film’s subtext more explicit, Let the Right One In ends on a note of unyielding terror, as there’s only one fate in store for poor, lovelorn Oskar.
30. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
The most iconic image from Rosemary’s Baby is of the new mother (Mia Farrow) looking down at…something. One hand over her mouth in shock, the other holding a butcher knife. We never do see exactly what she’s looking at, but what we do end up seeing in Rosemary’s Baby are never the most effective parts of the film. It’s the strange goings on behind the scenes — the mystery and the paranoia that keeps building and building in Rosemary until the stunning climax. Subhuman/legendary director Roman Polanski is slavishly faithful to Ira Levin’s novel, and while this act usually backfires come adaptation time, it manages to work wonders here. The supporting cast led by Ruth Gordon as next-door-neighbor Minnie (who won an Academy Award for her deceptively ditzy effort) and filmmaking auteur John Cassavetes as Rosemary’s ambitious actor husband help shape this classic tale of marriage, motherhood, and witches. All of them witches…
29. JACOB’S LADDER (1990)
A surprise entry on this list, Lyne’s psychedelic post-’Nam comedown thriller seems to have fallen from favour in recent years, but has evidently managed to stick in the minds of horror experts. In a decisive and unexpected break from his then-popular goofy-dweeb persona, Robbins plays Jacob, a worn-out war veteran whose mind begins to fragment once the conflict is over. Is he going crazy, or are there darker forces at work? Beautifully designed by ‘Fatal Attraction’ helmer Lyne, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ feels like an offbeat slice of post-hippy experimentation retooled for the MTV generation: what it lacks in depth and subtlety, it more than makes up for in shock tactics and woozy unpredictability, all anchored in Robbins’s wide-eyed and pitiable central turn.
28. 28 DAYS LATER (2003)
By its very nature, 28 Days Later is designed to terrify. There’s the whole global pandemic angle, the crippling fear of isolation, and the spoils of humanity that splatter across every frame of Danny Boyle’s 2003 thriller. Coming off of 2000’s The Beach, the English visionary really honed in on his brand of adrenalized filmmaking here, even injecting his viral ghouls with lightning-fast speeds as they race across the London streets with those bloody eyes and razor teeth. Arriving less than two years after the events of 9/11, the film capitalizes on the scatterbrained paranoia of the era, and you can see that as each character wrestles with these confused emotions, all while trying to find some semblance of humanity in their new world. Most of the time, they’re simply running their heart out, trying to outpace death, whether it’s from the clutches of the Rage virus or the perils of human indecency, and that loss of safety will never not be haunting.
27. SALEM’S LOT (1979)
The successful writer Benjamin “Ben” Mears returns to his hometown Salem’s Lot, Maine, expecting to write a new novel about the Marsten House. Ben believes that the manor is an evil house that attracts evil men since the place has many tragic stories and Ben saw a ghostly creature inside the house when he was ten. Ben finds that the Marsten House has just been rented to the antique dealers Richard K. Straker and his partner Kurt Barlow that is permanently traveling. Ben meets the divorced teacher Susan Norton that is living with her parents and they have a love affair. Ben also gets close to her father Dr. Bill Norton and his former school teacher Jason Burke. When people start to die anemic, Ben believes that Straker’s partner is a vampire. But how to convince his friends that he is not crazy and that is the truth?
26. SESSION-9 (2001)
The human mind is a powerful thing, but it’s also terrifying. That’s more or less the conceit of Session-9, Brad Anderson’s spellbinding 2001 psychological thriller that rounds up a bunch of angry men who’ve been tasked to remove the deadly asbestos out of an abandoned insane asylum. Much like Alien or The Thing, this one’s an ensemble piece, and it’s through the respective obsessions of each character that we start to see why this is a horror film. There are no ghosts, to be sure, but there’s something about the place that pulls the thread in each unlucky son of a bitch here. At the core of it all is a deeper and more sinister mystery, one that eerily parallels the uncovered tapes of a former patient’s hypnotherapy sessions. What’s perhaps most intimidating about Session-9, though, is how all of this could actually happen, and that stark realism opens the door for a variety of fears to be had from this movie, above all being the nagging insinuation that it could be you who loses their marbles. After all, how would you know?
25. THE OMEN (1976)
Even if you’re a devout atheist or agnostic, anything dealing with the devil is pretty scary. Creepy, killer kids are scary. The Omen deftly combines both with a big Hollywood sheen. When it comes to the heavy-hitters of ‘70s “devilsploitation,” The Omen has a comparatively lighter touch, no doubt due to director Richard Donner, who would come to prominence with quippy, action cinema. A proto-slasher in the way each one of Damien’s victims are offed more spectacularly than the last, The Omen has a more fun tone than the documentary-like Exorcist. The film is beautifully shot by Star Wars cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and the use of Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score in the graveyard sequence is a devilish marriage of sight and sound that remains effective 40 years on.
24. CARRIE (1976)
While the real action of Carrie takes place in its climax, there’s no discounting the unnerving sense of dread that propels the film. While told from the point of a view of a teenage girl, anyone who ever attended high school can relate to Carrie’s insecurities from going through puberty to simply trying to fit in. Brian De Palma expertly plays the audience, using dread and suspense like an instrument, building up to the penultimate moment when the pig’s blood covers Sissy Spacek and incites her fiery revenge. Arguably more evil than P.J. Soles or John Travolta’s characters is Piper Laurie’s repressed, ultra-religious Mrs. White who relentlessly terrorizes Carrie throughout the film, eventually getting her comeuppance. If anything, Carrie features one of the most terrifying and oft-copied scares in the history of the modern horror film. De Palma practically invented the final scare that has been ripped off countless times since from low-rent slashers to Hollywood trash like Fatal Attraction. The unnerving final shot of Amy Irving (shot in reverse) being grabbed by the corpse of Carrie White, coupled with Pino Donaggio’s score, still has the power to jolt audiences out of their seats, even if they are expecting it after countless viewings.
23. MAMA (2013)
Black-haired, raccoon-eyed rock ‘n’ roller Annabel (Jessica Chastain) lets out a happy “whoop” when she discovers that she’s not pregnant. But her boyfriend, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), is an artist who’s spent five years searching for his missing brother and two nieces. And when the nieces — Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister, Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) — are suddenly discovered alive in a cabin in the woods, Annabel and Lucas find that, ready or not, they’re now parents. Unfortunately, a creepy ghost known only as “Mama” — complete with silvery hair, crooked features, and bent limbs — has been looking after the girls and has no intention of letting them go. Can Annabel discover the ghost’s secret before “Mama” gets really mad?
22. THE CHANGELING (1980)
Prestige horror can be so maudlin. How many times have we sat through a “horror film” that really boils down to a dark drama? Sometimes, though, it really works, and such is the case with Peter Medak’s The Changeling. The great and late George C. Scott stars as an acclaimed musician-turned-professor who moves into an historic home in the Pacific Northwest that, well, has a history. Yes, it all leads to a bunch of weepy family mumbo jumbo, but Medak never forgets it’s a horror movie, and the way he weaves in the revelations come off less as a tearjerker and more as a haunting coda. It’s essentially one long ghost story for the campfire, and all the spooky bells and whistles feel so natural. In other words, there are no big, black globs or rotten corpses jumping out like some fucking funhouse. No, there’s a finesse to the scares, and Medak’s use of silence, particularly large and empty spaces across the mansion, is an architectural nightmare for those with more mathematical minds.
21. THE THING (1982)
It’s hard to make monster movies truly scary. Too often the threat comes off looking cartoonish, or the gore is over-the-top. That wasn’t and still isn’t the case for John Carpenter’s reimagining of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World. Featuring some of the most striking and unforgiving practical effects to ever hit the silver screen, thanks to Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, Carpenter’s vision takes the Cold War paranoia to gruesome extraterrestrial levels. Speaking of which, the film dropped around the same time Spielberg’s lil fella warmed the hearts of billions, which is why it was cruelly maligned upon arrival. Since then, critics and cinephiles have come around to embrace The Thing for what it is: a muscular slice of unshakeable sci-fi horror that thrives from a who’s who of veteran actors that all look as terrified as we do behind our bucket of popcorn. Remember, watch Clark, and watch him close, you hear me?
20. HOSTEL (2005)
Yeah, it’s a torture movie, and the idea of being tortured or watching people be tortured is pretty terrifying no matter the context. But in Eli Roth’s second film, following the severely underrated Cabin Fever, severed Achilles tendons and mutilated faces are only part of the horrific collage. At its heart, Hostel is mostly there to scare you about traveling, particularly in a foreign country. When the film’s characters find themselves in Bratislava, subject to the whim and mercy of the places they stay and people they encounter, the vulnerability of the foreigner is magnified to a degree that we rarely feel when traveling ourselves. Yes, there’s also lots of gore — it’s flat-out hard to watch — but the long-term effects of the film don’t come from failed surgeons looking to operate on live people. No, it just makes you think twice about ever traveling to Eastern Europe.
19. JAWS (1975)
You know why Jaws is scary and why it deserves a spot on this list: the music, the economic use of the shark, the power of what you don’t see. But we so rarely talk about how damn pleasant Amity Island looks, and how that’s scary. Outside of the opening death of Chrissie Watkins, every shark attack in the film takes place in broad daylight, among plenty of swimmers, sunshine, and Fourth of July festivities. It conjures what looks like the happiest place of the 1970s, until that dorsal fin cuts through the water, crystal clear, to remind you that, in any great horror movie, terror lurks right below anything that’s pretty. Not that I’d want to go in the water at night, either…
18. THE EVIL DEAD (1983)
Try to forget the one-liners. Or the chainsaw hand. Or Bruce Campbell, for that matter. Long before director Sam Raimi went all in on his own sick brand of slapstick humor, he was working with a style of horror that could crack some bones. His 1981 original, The Evil Dead, does exactly that, serving up the type of timeless fright fest that college students seek out on an annual basis. It’s scraggly, it’s imaginative, and, above all, it’s merciless. You never get the sense that anyone’s ever going to make it out alive, no matter how many times they bludgeon those deadites or burn that goddamn book. It’s a ramshackle coming-of-age story gone totally awry, and the DIY aesthetic only adds to that effect. Like the Necronomicon, it’s something you imagine uncovering in a forgotten root cellar of some distant, far away cabin.
17. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)
In 1974, a family of six were murdered in their beds for seemingly no reason in a large rural home. Some years later, George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) Lutz move into this home with three children from Kathy’s prior marriage. When Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) arrives to bless the house, he enters on his own volition while the Lutzes play in the backyard. As he explores the home, he’s driven away by demonic voices, doors shutting on their own, and a plague of flies. Upon returning to the rectory, he attempts to call the Lutzes, but the call cuts off into static and the phone is too painful to hold as he is overcome with blisters on his hands and violent pains in his stomach. Similar bad experiences and forebodings overcome Kathy’s aunt, a nun, and the wife of the co-owner of George’s business. Meanwhile, George grows increasingly sullen — feeling cold all the time, he takes to obsessively chopping wood and sharpening his axe. The youngest girl, Amy, begins to spend time with a sinister imaginary friend named Jody. Strange and unpleasant events continue to occur. As they begin to look into the house’s dark history, the family dog makes a discovery in the basement as he sniffs and tries to dig in a certain spot. Upon knocking the basement wall down with a sledgehammer, George and Kathy discover that their home contains a passage that is a gateway to hell. As the terror increases, the Lutzes must find a way to escape their home before becoming its latest in a long line of victims.
16. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
Before the slashing talons of A Nightmare on Elm Street and the spectral smirk of the Scream series, Wes Craven first brought dread to suburban America in his magnificently appalling directorial debut, The Last House on the Left. Kicking off the director’s troubling inquiries into broken-mirror family doppelgangers, the film mercilessly chronicles the fate of two young women captured by a gang of monstrous maniacs, a gory ordeal answered by equally bloody retribution once the criminals unknowingly seek refuge with the family of one of their victims. Based on The Virgin Spring, but exchanging Bergman’s classical compositions for purposefully debased, all-pervasive trauma, this remains a draining, lacerating experience.
15. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
There’s no more iconic image in all of horror than the hockey-masked visage of Jason Voorhees. And that particular Jason, believe it or not, doesn’t appear until the sequel. The Friday the 13th franchise’s initial installment does, as it turns out, keep the killing in the family, though. While many prominent critics have called out this low-budget film for being a brainless exhibition of merciless slayings and T&A, posterity has recognized an art to director Sean S. Cunningham’s creepy shots from the killer’s perspective and the movie’s torturously suspenseful buildups to each murder. And while some may struggle with the film’s slow pacing, the script heaps all the terror one can stand on final girl Alice going down the last stretch. Oh, and be sure to watch the entire film. Hint, hint.
14. POLTERGEIST (1982)
Poltergeist’s tagline alone is enough to send shivers down your spine: “It knows what scares you.” So much of Poltergeist is based on relatable, almost primal fears: the creepy doll in your bedroom, a tree branch scraping against your window, and, on a grander scale, the loss of a child (and on the flip side, being taken from your parents). Plenty of films have tackled those fears before and after, but it’s the realistic way in which the Freeling family interacts with one another that truly sells the film. Whether Steven Spielberg ended up taking the director’s reins from Tobe Hooper is still up for debate, but there’s no denying his distinct touch when it comes to the Freelings. It keeps the film grounded in reality so that even after the film is over, one might be concerned that a greedy realtor may have moved the headstones (but not the bodies) from their own home.
13. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
Rare is the remake that’s worth a damn, and this list is full of them. With Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both have actually held up quite well, though most are willing to contend that Philip Kaufman’s 1978 reimagining is the stronger of the two. What makes his face-lift so compelling is how natural the invasion occurs. Similar to Don Siegel’s 1956 original, it’s a slow burn, but there’s a subtle patience to the takeover that speaks more to ’70s style filmmaking. Take, for instance, the way Donald Sutherland casually falls asleep outside in his backyard as the world around him starts to fall apart. To him, he’s pleasantly comfortable, but to us, he’s anxiously vulnerable, and that vulnerability hits a lot harder now in our post-9/11 world than it did 30-plus years ago. It’s a feeling that directly feeds into Jack Finney’s source material, The Body Snatchers, a timeless meditation on xenophobia and self-preservation and one that has never been told better than this.
12. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Dawn of the Dead? More like Dawn of the Dread. George A. Romero’s 1978 epic sequel expands upon the world he created in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead — spoiler: also on this list — by indulging in larger set pieces, uglier gore, and, well, color. For over two hours, he sits with his apocalypse, chewing on weighty themes of consumerism and militarization while he slathers the proceedings with all kinds of existential dread. As we watch our fearsome foursome hold up in “one of those big indoor malls,” Romero relishes the opportunity to show what a life they can and cannot live with insurmountable excess. Sure, it’s a movie full of big and loud metaphors, but it works because you want them to keep surviving. It strikes something in you, that urge to persevere, that fight to live, that behind every ice skating rink and dinner set lies a possible future. Of course, it’s not long before those feelings of dread seep in again, leaving you to question why we fight for this bullshit in the first place.
11. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
Okay, An American Werewolf in London might scrimp on character development and lack any semblance of a satisfying ending, but John Landis’ 1981 cult favorite does deliver some legit scares along with its dark laughs. Much of the credit should be doled out to the makeup and effects crews. Before adequate technology existed, they dared to show 90% of a werewolf transformation onscreen. The mutilated bodies and living dead also still bring cringes decades later, as do David’s graphic dreams and the stalking camerawork used in the subway hunting. But not all the scares are visual. David’s dilemma on its own is outright grim. He can either kill himself to end a cursed bloodline or continue to risk the lives of others, which includes forever damning his best friend and any other victims to an eternity of roaming the world as corpses. Talk about being spoiled for choice.
10. HALLOWEEN (1978)
Shot for shot, John Carpenter’s Halloween may reign as the greatest horror movie of all time. The simplicity, the suspense, the score, and the style have been imitated but never duplicated. On a minuscule $300,000 budget, the young filmmaker terrified us by bringing an evil, ineradicable force to a place that could have been any small town in America. All of a sudden, audiences saw their own neighborhoods onscreen and young people, like themselves, as the helpless prey of a faceless killer. The suspense builds unbearably as Carpenter methodically makes the familiar feel unsafe, and he scares us all the more by what he doesn’t tell us (the root of Myers’ evil) or show us (much blood or the face of our stalker). He leaves so much to our imagination as we watch the heretofore unimaginable take place between the gaps in our fingers. About all we know for sure is when that signature score starts to pulse, we need to be ready to scream.
9. ALIEN (1979)
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That iconic tagline cuts to the heart of Alien, Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi haunted house movie, in which a motley crew of charismatic space truckers run afoul of an extraterrestrial killing machine. H.R. Giger’s Alien design is a techno-sexual nightmare that still stands as one of the most unique creature designs in cinema history, and the gritty, practical look of the Nostromo helped usher in a new age of lived-in science fiction. At the acid-rotted heart of the film, however, is its pitch-perfect ensemble cast, from Ian Holm’s calculating android Ash to Sigourney Weaver’s fierce, iconic breakout performance as Ripley. While there have been many imitators, none have come close to Alien’s nail-biting perfection.
8. THE EXORCIST (1973)
Normally, if a classic, beloved film is on TV, one stops to jump right into the proceedings. The Exorcist is kind of the opposite of that. It’s so damn nerve-racking, and immediately effective, you may just throw your Samsung out the window. Oh my god, The Exorcist. That shivering film of demonic possession that made ‘em weep and faint in the aisles. That Oscar-nominated shocker that had a helluva shot at Best Picture (but was never gonna win because come on, horror and The Academy). That movie with eternally disturbing images, goosebumps-inducing Mike Oldfield sound, and lasting fears of evil burrowed into the psyches of something like $900 million worth of ticket buyers. We’re still clutching our pearls and holding back tears at lines like “your mother sucks cock in hell.” We’re trying not to shake at the guttural screams of exorcism. And we’re not nervously going for the Scotchguard over the sudden piss on the carpet. How did William Peter Blatty come up with all this brilliantly deranged shit? It’s like this film was possessed itself, unable to do anything softly. The Exorcist manifested a vicious environment of dread and extreme cinema that still makes folks sweat today. It’s still a hell of a thing.
7. HELLRAISER (1987)
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is similar to Friday the 13th in that there’s very little screen time for its most iconic villains. Still, unlike the original summer camp slasher, Pinhead and the rest of the cenobites do eventually show up. They’re just used for minimal effect, which is why the first film will always be so stirring. Hell — or, Barker’s intricate rendition of Hell — is such a mysterious place at this point in the narrative. All we know is that it’s an ultra-violent world, where the human body is not welcome, only the soul. But, it’s more complicated than that, as we later discover that Pinhead and co. (ha, try imagining these folks opening up an antique shoppe in Upstate New York) are celestial beings of logic. The fact that Barker has them operating on such ironclad principles makes them even more enigmatic. Instead, it’s the humans who raise hell, and as we see through the bloody exploits of Skinemax lovers Frank and Julia, they’re about as evil as evil gets. Bottom line: Everyone fears that Hell might be a place waiting for us in the afterlife, and this film makes you truly hope it’s nothing more than a myth.
6. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Hannibal Lecter has become one of the most fascinating and terrifying characters in popular culture, originating in the novels of Thomas Harris and made flesh most famously by Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror-thriller masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs. So chilling is Hopkins’ portrayal of the cool, manipulative, cannibalistic serial killer that we might even forget that, technically, he’s with the good guys this time as FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) tries to gain insights into the killer who abducted a senator’s daughter. Lambs remains a first-rate thriller with an adrenaline-coursing twist ending that absolutely satisfies, but the bumps on our skin come not from the final showdown with Buffalo Bill, but from seeing what the diabolical Lecter can do once inside someone’s head and the terror he can reign down when finally loosed from his shackles, mask, and cell. Though none of us are necessarily on the menu, few endings could be more unnerving than watching Lecter calmly stalk his dinner through the streets of Bimini and disappear into a crowd.
5. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Freddy Krueger is not a funny character, or at least he wasn’t initially. For Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the charred pedophile serial killer, as portrayed by the insufferable Robert Englund, is a genuine menace. He’s not out hosting MTV’s Spring Break; he’s out killing a bunch of kids for revenge, and good god, what an imaginative premise: don’t fall asleep or the boogeyman will strike. Perhaps there’s no more threatening elevator pitch to kids than that one. Kids love sleep! It’s where they can be their own person, see dinosaurs, or swim in gold like Scrooge McDuck. Not on Elm Street, where they’ll be battered around and torn apart (the first and most frightening death of the franchise). Unlike every sequel that would follow, Craven’s 1984 original finds a brilliant marriage between effects and horror, dousing every spectacle with buckets of blood. It isn’t cheesy; it’s horrifying, and it feels like you’ll never wake up.
4. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
What’s left to say about Tobe Hooper’s iconic American horror masterpiece that hasn’t yet been said? Over 40 years after its release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still, for our money, the scariest damn film we’ve ever seen, and perhaps the best testament to its powers is that it’s also one of the best-made on this entire list. For all of the shared cultural memories of grisly dismemberments and saw blades tearing through sinew, Hooper’s craft was such that these are merely inaccurate recollections; there’s scarcely a bit of actual onscreen violence in the film. Yet, the mere suggestion of what was happening to poor Sally Hardesty and her doomed friends was so singularly revolting that, to this day, it remains one of the most feared horror movies of them all.
Not even a litany of poor-to-terrible reboots in the years since have been able to diminish the blunt-force impact of Hooper’s defining hour as a filmmaker, a feverish nightmare preying on the fears of a newly hyper-connected America driven to urban spaces out of its fear of the rural unknown. In a time when the serial killer had become one of society’s biggest fears, here was a movie that Hooper foolishly believed could be cut to a PG by leaving the nastiest gore to implication. This is the sort of horror movie that transcends the easy shocks for which audiences knowingly sign up in favor of something more lasting, a roiling tension that will creep back up on you when you get onto those strips of highway where the rest stops become fewer and farther between and the terror of a broken-down car begins to take over. This is the sort of horror movie where Leatherface was based on a real-life figure, and it leaves you wondering if another Leatherface is still out there, sickly aware that he probably is. This is the kind of horror movie that can ask “who will survive, and what will be left of them” without a trace of hyperbole.
3. THE SHINING (1980)
There’s something eternally frightening about The Shining. That “something” could be any number of things: Stephen King’s prose come to life, Jack Nicholson’s manic performance, those hypnotizing Grady twins, the nightmarish scrapbook of a score that ranges from Wendy Carlos to Krzysztof Penderecki to Bela Bartok, or the labyrinthine vision of Stanley Kubrick. But really, it’s a chaotic mixture of everything, namely because the film itself is a cataclysm of terror caught on celluloid. Kubrick was a demon behind the lens — pissing off Nicholson to no end, sending Shelly Duvall into a catatonic fit, waking up King late at night with existential nonsense, and turning Scatman Crothers into a blubbering mess — and that chaos lives onscreen today. It’s in the eyes of every character, and those eyes sell so much of the horror that we don’t see, whether it’s the doomed isolation or the nagging feeling that nothing is what it seems and everything is about to fall apart into little pieces. This is a cold, tantalizing piece of cinema, the likes of which have warranted plenty of theorizing, and not a single generation has been immune to its carnal gaze. It’s a film that stays with you forever, and ever, and ever. ::cymbal crash::
2. PET SEMATARY (1989)
Several films adapted from Stephen King stories appear on this list. With King on board as both screenwriter and a brief cameo as a priest, it’s not surprising that Pet Sematary turns out to be one of the most faithful films to his source material. Full of characters, dialogue, and creepy scenes that have made their way into our pop-culture lexicon, the real horror resides in the prospect of losing loved ones – in this case, a daughter’s cat, a toddler son, and finally a wife. As Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) sees loss tear his family apart, he becomes more and more desperate and incapable of acceptance. No father should have to suffer that type of loss, and, as we discover, no father or husband should be given false hope that there’s an easy fix to life’s most painful tragedies. You don’t want to go down that road. Damn skippy, Jud.
1. THE DESCENT (2005)
Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic cave slasher manages such an overwhelmingly stifling sense of location and proportion that it establishes itself as one of the scariest films of the aughts even before the cave monsters show up. As a sextet of estranged friends and cave divers end up trapped underground by a cave-in and then discover the much larger population of the uncharted cave, Marshall maintains a constant escalation of tension, ratcheting the increasing panic to near-unbearable levels. The Descent is a punishing experience and one without a trace of modern genre irony, and it’s far better off for it. If you’re afraid of being boxed in to any degree, it’ll probably be the scariest damn movie you’ve ever seen.