It’s always difficult to put together lists of the best horror films. Truth be told, there’s a finite amount of really excellent horror movies, and the same films tend to make everybody’s list–so much so that writers will intentionally omit obvious classics in favor of lesser, more obscure films.
Films from the 1920s and 30s are taken for granted, so Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and certain silent greats like Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are already assumed to have been seen, so historians might fill out a top ten exclusively with Val Lewton productions of the 1940s (particularly, but not limited to, those directed by Jacques Tourneur): I Walked With a Zombie, Cat People, The Body Snatcher, and Isle of the Dead.
It’s been said that modern music magazines almost never reference anybody before The Beatles except for maybe Elvis, and modern film clickbait would have you believe that horror films didn’t really get scary until the 1960s and hit their peak in the 80s. Which is why Peeping Tom (1959) is routinely left off these lists in favor of the film it inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make a year later. It all but goes without saying that no dirty dozen list of modern horror films is complete without the oft-cited Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, Suspiria, Halloween, Alien, The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Silence of the Lambs.
And so it is likely that anyone who would seek out a list like this has already seen these movies.
Then there was the boom of horror films in the 90s by filmmakers who grew up watching a new slasher film almost every week in the 80s. Some of their films followed the Friday the 13th formula as an ironic, post-modern cliché (as best utilized in Scream), and like their predecessors were built around gory prosthetics instead of actual scares. The obvious hilarity of witnessing multiple, creative, teen homicides at the hands (and hooks) of deformed maniacs in the 80s bred the comedy-horror hybrid, which yielded some real gems (like Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead 2, Re-animator, and Night of the Creeps). But the lack of genuine scares makes it hard for the purist in me to really consider them true horror movies.
While the genre had clearly been revitalized, the formula that gave us cerebral procedural thrillers like Se7en and Saw had turned to the “torture porn” extremism of Hostel and Martyrs by the mid-to-late-oughts. The success of The Blair Witch Project (which functioned so much better as a clandestine videotape traded by bootleggers prior to its theatrical release) would eventually launch the “found footage” horrors of Paranormal Activity, which became a veritable cottage industry. As a subgenre, the ghost hunting POV films have had a better track record than most in terms of delivering real scares, with the Spanish film [Rec] being a particular and spectacular highlight, but none would have the success of the PG-13 rated The Sixth Sense, which had become one of the top ten all-time box-office champs by the end of its release.
So in an effort to expose people who love movies as much as I do to some overlooked gems, I’ve put together this list of horror films that I think deserve to be held in as high esteem as any of the aforementioned classics. I like atmosphere, and all of these have that in spades. Most unjaded viewers will find something frightening about my selections because they tend to have a pervasive sense of dread. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that these all feature award-worthy performances. I’m not going to rank them because each is in many ways the best film of its particular sub-genre. If you are a die-hard horror fan, you likely already have seen most (if not all) of these. This is not a list of the most disturbing films, and I’ve not given any consideration to gore. If you’re looking for that, you can refer to a different list. This is a list of titles that I consider to be well-made horror films according to the following criteria: each is well shot, well written, well acted, and either delivers a good scare or completely creeps me out. Here’s a list of thirteen films in chronological order (and one bonus selection):
BLACK SABBATH (1963) – As much as I love the popcorn fangs of The Lost Boys and the southern-fried blood suckers of Near Dark, those movies just aren’t scary. But the Russian vampires of the Wurdalak episode in this Mario Bava anthology are fully, fucking frightening. How influential is this movie? Bava’s use of color reflection inspired Dario Argento’s Suspira and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu. Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant both borrow scenes from it. Babadook features a character actually watching it on television, and the three-story plot structure in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was a direct tribute to Black Sabbath. AIP made a lot of fun and campy, gothic horror movies, but Bava’s films are genuinely nightmarish. Many critics prefer the director’s previous film, Black Sunday, and that film is also stunning (due in large part to Barbara Steele), but this film is much more likely to scare the bejesus out of you.
THE NORLISS TAPES (1973) – This made-for-TV movie from Dan Curtis, (the man behind Dark Shadows) is basically The X Files, but twenty years earlier. A skeptical occult investigator (Roy Thinnes, the titular David Norliss) embarks on a case for Angie Dickinson that reveals reanimated corpses, vampires, and demon worship. This pilot never went to series, but the set-up allowed for each episode to explore a new subject as one of the missing Norliss’ investigation tapes is played back, revealing clues to his ultimate whereabouts. It may have been deemed too similar to Curtis’ earlier The Night Stalker, but this lacked all of the goofy humor and schlocky acting of its predecessor–resulting in one of the scariest things ever broadcast on network television, which includes Bad Ronald, Trilogy of Terror, and Salem’s Lot. Like those other 70s programs, this is intense. The muted color palette predates (by 35 years) the gloomy look of the American Ring remake, and the whole production seems high-value for the time. I have an indelible memory of the vampire/animated corpse mixing blood into clay to sculpt a statue of the demon Sargoth, which comes to life. It froze me in fear as a child, and having seen it a few years ago, I was happy to see that this wasn’t a case of nostalgic recollection. Dickinson and Thinnes are excellent, the William F. Nolan script is damned good, and the film holds up 40 years later.
THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) – Richard Matheson’s take on the similarly titled Shirley Jackson novel must have laid a lot of the groundwork for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. The music isn’t quite Bartok or Penderecki, but there are shrill violins and short staccato riffs that perfectly complement the scariest mansion I’ve set eyes upon. Roddy McDowall plays the sole survivor of a previous expedition called back to assist Clive Revell, Gayle Hunnicutt and young psychic Pamela Franklin. The results are (of course) disastrous, and the same creeping sense of dread that infects Black Sabbath permeates every square inch of Hell House. This is the haunted house movie against which all others must be compared: the ghost gold standard, if you will. It’s the bridge between the gothic horror of Hammer and AIP and the modern scares of the Carpenter and Cronenberg films that were to come. It was completely overshadowed by the also excellent Don’t Look Now, released earlier that year, probably due to Nicholas Roeg’s virtuoso direction. Hell House director John Hough chose a more straightforward approach to better service the mood of his film, and while there’s no need to pick one over the other, I confess that I find The Legend of Hell House better suited to repeat viewings.
THE FUNHOUSE (1981) – Tobe Hooper is best known as the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and slightly lesser known for directing the Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist, which is a probably the best PG rated horror film of all time. In between the two, he directed The Funhouse. Hooper opens with a shot-for-shot tribute to his friend John Carpenter’s Halloween (complete with Carpenteresque theme music) which is quickly revealed as a bratty brother-on-sister prank. Though clearly presented as a high school student (and the singular character of virtue by slasher film standards), Tobe chooses to show her completely nude in the shower, setting the tone that nothing is likely to cater to expectation. At its core, Funhouse has a standard high-concept premise: teens hide inside the funhouse and inadvertently witness a murder then try to escape, but most don’t. Masterful performances by Kevin Conaway as (literally) all of the carnival barkers, and two-time Oscar nominee Sylvia Miles as Madame Zena, the fortune teller, elevate this from the usual murder mill, and there are enough red herrings for an Italian Gialli. It is the uneasy innocence that Elizabeth Berridge (from Amadeus) brings to the lead role of Amy that excels even that of Jaime Lee Curtis in the aforementioned Halloween. She is the only actual teen in the film, and while the other actors capture the essence of rebellious youth, she maintains an awkwardness that surely clicked with girls her age in the audience, who likely went to the movie with the same curious intent that drew Amy and her friends to the funhouse. And while some are less innocent then others, you don’t really want any of these kids to come to any harm. Even the movie’s central monster is deserving of our pity. We see the young man in the Frankenstein mask twice mistreated before he is revealed as severely deformed (via iconic Rick Baker creature fx). The parallels between he and the original movie monster whose face he wears are not accidental, and the carnival is itself a character in the film. John Beal’s score is on par with the best of Jerry Goldsmith and suits the travelling amusement show well. While it’s easy to recognize The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Tobe’s masterpiece, The Funhouse has long been my favorite of his films. It is a dichotomous success of slick and dirty that owes just a bit more to Edgar G. Ulmer than to Sean Cunningham. It was the last of the director’s films to retain the sleazy, impolite underbelly of his early independent films–albeit with a shiny, Hollywood polish. That he managed to walk that division without falling on either side is an achievement unto itself.
THE THING (1982) – John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawke’s The Thing From Another World is not only scarier than the original, it may be an even better allegory for the Cold War that was still in effect between the USA and USSR in the span of time between the two films. Rob Bottin’s FX work was groundbreaking for 1982, and it’s still terrifying. Carpenter’s minimalist, electronic score achieves a coldness that reflects both the mood and the Antarctic setting. Performances are strong and the premise believable–so much so that it’s been recycled about a dozen times since then. When spider legs sprout out of a severed head that then scuttles off screen, the characters in the foreground react exactly as you would: with stunned disbelief followed by frantic, defensive aggression. If you want to have a double feature of great fright flics that take place in the snow, you can follow The Thing with the somewhat cheerier 30 Days of Night.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) – Audiences now probably know Michael Rooker for his frequent collaborations with director James Gunn, but before Guardians of the Galaxy and Slither, and even before his scene-stealing performance in Mississippi Burning, Rooker was Henry Lee Lucas in the absolute best serial killer movie ever made. The opening montage features a succession of post-crime-scene visuals accompanied by the audio footage of those crimes being committed earlier. These are in turn intercut with mundane, almost innocuous scenes of the killer using his day job to gain access to his victims’ houses. The lingering and panning camera angles that show the results of his rampage are primal and chilling–as is the lead performance. Rooker should have been Oscar nominated.
ANGEL HEART (1987) – Mostly remembered as the film that got Lisa Bonet fired from The Cosby Show (for what was at the time considered a graphic sex scene), this noir-horror hybrid from Alan Parker based on a Stoker Award Winning novel is moody like Se7en but more abstractly scary with the ominous presence of Vodou. The cinematography by Michael Seresin and score by Trevor Jones and Courtney Pine (channeling Robert Johnson and Al Bowlly) combine with Brian Morris’ production design to make the darkest corners of 1950s New Orleans ring true. Mickey Rourke was at the top of his game, and the support cast all overshadow Robert Deniro–which was not easy to do back in 1987. Most importantly, the supernatural dressing in this movie feels real. Vodou was big in ‘87 & ’88: The Believers certainly had bigger box office, but never felt as intimate or genuine; The Serpent and the Rainbow had authenticity, but the visceral moments of all-out terror were cheapened by spotty performances and poor FX in the final reel. Initial criticism has (over time) yielded to latter day praise, and now Angel Heart is widely considered to be the best Vodou movie since I Walked With a Zombie.
WHITE OF THE EYE (1987) – Donald Cammell was an experimental, filmmaking mystic who only got to complete four movies in a career that spanned thirty years. His first film, Performance (shot in 1968, released in 1970), was made in collaboration with Nicholas Roeg, and it’s a masterpiece in its own right. The only other film on the director’s resume that replicates that standard is 1987’s White of the Eye. Cathy Moriarty gives an Oscar caliber performance as the wife of a carpenter (David Keith) suspected in a murder investigation amid accusations by her former lover–who might have an axe of his own to grind. Rare for a horror film, it’s shot almost entirely in daylight with a sumptuous Mario Testino meets David Lynch look. Rarer still, Native American animism is central to the plot. Marlon Brando, who dropped out of a Cammell project (causing it to languish for years unmade), took out a two-page apology ad in Variety, praising White of the Eye as an American classic.
EXORCIST III: LEGION (1990) – It is impossible to compare any film to the original Exorcist, including and maybe especially a sequel. But this film, both written and directed by the original film’s author, William Peter Blatty, was conceived independently from the previous films’ mythos. The reaction to the Legion script was so positive that Blatty was asked to add elements that would tie it to the franchise. Instead, he completely incorporated both Father Karras and Det. Kinderman and made one of the scariest films of the 90s. Legion was dropped from the title, and it was released as Exorcist III. With actor Lee J. Cobb dead, Oscar winner George C. Scott took on the role of Kinderman, and Emmy winner Ed Flanders assumed the priestly robes of Father Dyer. Jason Miller reprised the role he made famous. I had the pleasure of meeting Scott on the set of 12 Angry Men and I recited a pivotal speech from the coda of the film, which prompted him to shake my hand with a grip that could have crippled me (as he expressed surprise that I didn’t hit him with a line from Dr. Strangelove or Patton). Pause here and think about how powerful a speech would have to be to inspire you to memorize it. The imagery that accompanies it is hellacious on par with a Bruegel painting, and that’s not even the biggest scare! Melting ice in a glass tumbler is brought to uncharted zeniths of terror in the hands of the very capable Blatty, who populates this film with some of the most macabre imagery this side of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which in the context of religion is somehow more spiritually disheartening.
JACOB’S LADDER (1990) – Adrian Lynne’s psychedelic mind-fuck of an anti-war movie utilized some of the most ground-breaking, nightmarish imagery in the modern, collective consciousness while establishing Tim Robbins as a serious leading man. A soldier returns home after the Vietnam War with more than the usual readjustment problems: he sees demons everywhere, giving him the impression that he is either losing his mind or fighting for his soul. The key to unraveling this mystery lies in his connections with the people around him: his fellow vets, his girlfriend, his ex-wife and son, and his chiropractor. Sounds fairly innocuous, right? It’s anything but. Like Angel Heart, this is a modern, period film from an award-winning director, featuring Oscar caliber performances from the entire cast and shot as perfectly as a coffee table book. Jacob’s Ladder is the more metaphysical of the two, and is in many ways the polar opposite. This is yang to Angel Heart’s yin. It is a terrifying journey that also manages to be uplifting, which is incredibly rare in a horror film. This film made the year’s best lists of almost every critic, but earned not a single nomination among the major competitive awards. That just goes to show what an amazing year 1990 was for horror films. This is everything that Tarsem Singh wished The Cell was: a masterpiece of substance, style and technique that remained coherent, consistent and gripping. In the case of Jacob’s Ladder, casting (and Bruce Joel Rubin’s incredible script) made the difference.
MISERY (1990) – I didn’t know when I started compiling this list that Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel would be on it. And then I realized that not only is Misery the ultimate writer/stalker movie, it is exponentially more frightening in the age of anonymous, internet fandom. It easily excels on the criteria that I’ve laid out. It’s a classic high-concept pitch: writer who gets in accident is saved by his biggest fan, but nobody knows he’s alive and she imprisons and tries to kill him. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of deranged fan, Annie Wilkes, and James Caan staged a late-career comeback on the back of his performance as author Paul Sheldon. The script adapted by screenwriting legend William Goldman boils the novel down to its essence, and nobody who’s seen this film can hear the word “hobbling” without wincing. Most of this film takes place in a single bedroom, but Reiner keeps the tension as high as if it were shot in a car teetering off the side of a mountain. It’s not often that one can describe a viewing experience as both stressful and rewarding. And in the cannon of Stephen King adaptations, this is right up there with Shawshank Redemption, and miles above almost everything else (though I have a soft spot for Cujo, which really does take place almost entirely in a car). I love The Shining, but it is among the least faithful King adaptations.
THE DESCENT (2005) – A spelunking adventure goes horribly awry in one of the very few post-feminist horror films. In the most basic sense, director Neil Marshall has laid out the Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey and steered them through elements of Jeepers Creepers, The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Picnic At Hanging Rock without resorting to clichés. The essentially all-female-cast is not a sample set of stereotypes nor are they mere stand-ins for male scripted characters. The story is informed and enriched by multi-faceted performances that never ring false. The scope shifts from epic to claustrophobic but leaves room for interpretation. This film died at the box office but gained such a following on home media that a (lackluster) sequel was produced. Stick with the original. It’s fresh and it’s hardcore.
KILL LIST (2011) – This gem of an independent UK thriller completely changes genre half-way through the film. It starts out like a British Goodfellas, and then becomes Race With the Devil with a little bit of The Krays, Hostel and Wicker Man thrown in. The working class setting is immediately reminiscent of Alan Clarke or Ken Loach, and the actors seem like gifted unprofessionals to the point that you forget you’re watching a movie. Ben Wheatley directed the excellent and allegorical A Field In England, and Kill List is somehow less tethered to the norm. While a mash-up of gangster vérité and horror, it suffers no dilution on either side and delivers quite a wallop when motives are finally revealed.
*PVC-1 (2007) – Speaking of Cinema Vérité, PVC-1 is not a horror film, per sé (the same way that Jaws is not a horror film). It’s a thriller, but probably more easily classified as an 85-minute act of terrorism. Here’s the premise: During a home invasion, instead of killing the residents, the invaders strap a plastic pipe bomb to a woman’s head as a form of ransom. Did I mention that the entire film was shot in real time in a single take? When I screened this film as part of my Disturbing Movie Night series, this more than any other film caused panic. That series included Cannibal Holocaust, In My Skin, Irreversible, Martyrs, Men Behind the Sun, Mermaid in a Manhole, A Serbian Film, Singapore Sling, and many other very unpleasant films. The level of tension is high as you watch this poor woman seeking help, wondering if the bomb is going to go off or not. Not recommended for anyone suffering from any form of PTSD. Every louder-than-normal noise will cause you to flinch–and there are lots of them. I’ve heard films described as emotional rollercoasters, but this is like an emotional DMT trip.