From genre director Pete Walker (The Flesh, Blood Show, House Of Whipcord, and The Confessional) comes Frightmare, one of my personal favorite British horror films ever made. Apart from border-lining the slasher genre, Frightmare displays an overwhelming distrust of psychiatry and related professions and examines the idea of nature vs. nurture. There’s an artistry to Peter Walker’s work — his fluid studied camera movements and intentionally abrupt edits, project the gore and provides a disarming atmosphere. The entire cast delivers superb performances, but this is Sheila Keith’s show. Her Dorothy is the epitome of the passive-aggressive mother, alternating between smart and feeble-minded, attentive and disoriented and so on. But don’t be easily fooled, as she eventually makes it very clear that she is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Frightmare is a marvel, a genuinely shocking film that features a fabulous ending.
Patrick was not only a pivotal film and a commercial success but it was nominated in three categories, including Best Film, at the 1978 AFI Awards and director Richard Franklin took home the Best Director prize at the prestigious Sitges Fantasy Film Festival in Spain. Patrick is a truly original film in that its villain remains in a comatose for the entire film. Everett De Roche’s script is surprisingly vivid and punchy; developing its characters well beyond your usual fright-flick archetypes and Richard Franklin’s direction is elegant and suspenseful, relying on mood and atmosphere rather than blood and gore. The strong cast includes some of Australia’s finest actors, from Julia Blake as the mastiff of a matron to Robert Helpmann as the dangerous doctor. As the titular character, Robert Thompson is utterly mesmerizing on screen despite the fact that he doesn’t utter a single word and Susan Penhaligon who plays the feisty nurse pulls off a rather difficult act of looking convincing while having a conversation with a man in a coma.
For the uninitiated, Zombi 2 is a 1979 horror film directed by Lucio Fulci. It is perhaps the best-known of Fulci’s films, banned in some countries, censored in others and is, in my opinion, one of the best zombie films ever made. Fulci’s direction is confident, the makeup and special effects were done by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani are fantastic (especially for the time) and the pulsating electronic score courtesy of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci is one of the best in horror history. The movie also features two very famous scenes: One features an eyeball-popping out of the socket and the other has an underwater sequence in which a shark battles a zombie.
137. Next of Kin
The slow, measured pacing may be too much for mainstream moviegoers but if you have the patience to sit it out, Next of Kin offers one of the best payoffs of any film mentioned on this list. Next of Kin starts as a gothic style mystery-thriller with a hint of the supernatural and then jumps to a full-on Giallo-style third act – culminating with an unforgettable final shot. While it may be influenced by Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Next of Kin is the closest I have seen to matching the atmosphere of The Shining. Along with an absolutely breathtaking distinctive musical score by Klaus Schulze (drummer of Tangerine Dream) and incredible, stylish visual imagery, Next of Kin is a must-see.
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s 1976 cult classic Who Can Kill a Child?, which was adapted from Juan Jose Plans’ novel, is arguably one of the best Spanish horror films ever made. Due to haphazard distribution and the studio constantly changing the title (including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play), Serrador’s film barely surfaced but despite the limited exposure, the film eventually found a devoted following. Horror aficionados passed around bootleg VHS copies and occasionally the film would appear on late night television until it would receive an uncut release on DVD in 2007. Working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Who Can Kill A Child takes place on a remote Spanish island where children who are afflicted by a kind of supernatural plague begin to kill the entire adult population. Replace the flesh-eating walking dead with killer kids, and the result is genuinely unsettling.
Special Mention: Threads
Is there anything more terrifying than the aftermath of a global thermonuclear war? The 80s brought with it several cautionary tales about the onset of World War III, and the horrors of nuclear warfare including The Day After, Testament, and Special Bulletin. But Threads is the most harrowing movie of the decade. The British television drama was produced by the BBC in 1984 and although it was never picked up by any of the major American networks, Threads was widely distributed in the US through the auspices of cable mogul Ted Turner. The film’s title refers to the tenuous connections that keep our modern society running, and how easily they can fall apart. This documentary-style account of its effects on the city of Sheffield in northern England makes it one of the most unsettling films you’ll ever see. Make no mistake about it, this film is relentlessly grim. Director Mick Jackson and writer Barry Hines pull no punches in showing you, in stupefyingly graphic reality, the end of days.
Adapted from a play written by Maisie Mosco titled Happy Family, Girly is an offbeat, low-key horror melodrama about a family of psychos who lure strangers into their home and plays twisted mind games with their playmates before murdering them. One man who has been drawn in realizes his precarious situation and decides to beat them at their own game and turn the various members of the family against each other. Girly (also known as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) was directed by Freddie Francis, who first became famous for his work as the cinematographer on The Innocents, The Elephant Man, Dune and Cape Fear before directing such notable films as The Skull and Tales from the Crypt. Girly is one of the best and most bizarre films of the early ’70s Brit psycho-horror entries, stuffed with clever dialogue (that often rhymes), great performances, and confident direction. But Vanessa Howard steals the show as the titular character, alternating between childlike simplicity, teasing sexuality and downright crazy. Sadly she would retire from acting a few after starring in Girly. Watch for the “axe through the door scene” which predates The Shining.
Cronos introduced the dark genius of Guillermo del Toro to the world. This stylish and innovative take on the familiar vampire movie marked the directorial debut of the Mexican filmmaker, and what a great first impression it makes. The film garnered international acclaim and several awards, and many of the aesthetic qualities and thematic devices that del Toro became famous for are to be found here. Cronos is simply one of the most beautiful, compelling, hypnotic and creepy films listed here, and a must-see.
Inspired by an idea from his 7-year-old daughter, first-time director Nobuhiko Obayashi (who had a background in both art and advertising) concocted this fantasy about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home and comes face-to-face with evil spirits, a demonic house cat, a bloodthirsty piano, and other unimaginable horrors. House is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed — this 1977 Japanese haunted-house flick is delirious, bizarre, demonic, deranged, gonzo and downright brilliant. It took over three decades before House surfaced in North America in 2010 when it screened at various film festivals in advance of the Criterion DVD release. Why it took so long is beyond me. House is a spooky experimental fairy tale mixed with martial arts battles, colorful set pieces that call to mind Dario Argento’s Suspiria, black-and-white flashbacks, and a piano that literally devours one of the girls. House is the perfect midnight movie – it’s baffling, bloody, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Imagine a Sam Raimi horror film as filtered through the mind of Guy Maddin, and you have an idea of what to expect.
132. The Reflecting Skin
The Reflecting Skin is not your average vampire movie. This independent feature was the directorial debut of Philip Ridley, a British painter-illustrator-novelist who had supplied the script to Peter Medek’s mesmerizing 1990 gangster film The Krays. The Reflecting Skin was celebrated as one of the unique films of its year and received a good deal of favorable reviews. Part horror story and part coming of age tale, The Reflecting Skin is a true American Gothic, shot from the point of view of an impressionable young boy named Seth and crammed with twisted religious symbolism. Ridley is said to have conceived The Reflecting Skin at a time in his life when he was reading Alice in Wonderland and studying the paintings by Andrew Wyeth. The influence of Lewis Carroll is evident with its hyper-imaginative child roaming about what appears to be a dark fairy tale; meanwhile, Wyeth is even more apparent with the overall aesthetic. The Reflecting Skin is many things, and one of the most beautiful and most intriguing films of the 1990’s thanks to the stunning cinematography from the legendary Dick Pope. The breathtakingly blue skies, majestic shots of golden wheat fields and beautiful landscapes are a strong contrast to the universally bleak story. The film seems relentlessly pessimistic and offers absolutely no hope or any sort of happiness for Seth and his family. It appears to be a film about the trauma of growing up, and more importantly, growing up with a dysfunctional family that is haunted by their past, and Ridley fills each frame with metaphors that boil just below the surface. But what it all means is left for the viewer to decide. I believe The Reflecting Skin argues that we are all vampires, sucking the life out of one another, day to day. In the final reel, Seth is seen running as fast as he can through the golden fields. It soon becomes evident that no matter how fast he runs, Seth has nowhere to go. You can’t escape death, and in the end, we are all just rotting away.
131. Dust Devil
Dust Devil was the much-anticipated follow-up to director Richard Stanley’s sci-fi horror Hardware and wound up cursed with troubles from the minute the studio realized what he intended to do. Repeatedly dogged with production problems, rewrites, and a steadily declining budget, Dust Devil is a film that almost defies classification. While the film follows the formula of the serial killer subgenre, it juxtaposes murder, magic and South African politics in the form of a Spaghetti Western and features an incredible score (courtesy of Simon Boswell) and exquisite imagery — all of which is heavily influenced by the work of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leonne. Some have described Dust Devil as a post-apocalyptic interpretation of Eastwood’s The Man with No Name while others described it as “Tarkovsky on acid”. For Stanley, Dust Devil was a far more personal and ambitious project than the killer android debut Hardware, and what began as a student film developed into a twenty-year project. Dust Devil was released in a number of different forms, but the only version you should watch is the limited collector’s director cut prepared by Richard Stanley himself.
Special Mention: Thundercrack!
Thundercrack! is by far the most obscure film you will find on this list. It is without a doubt one of the true landmarks of underground cinema. With a screenplay by veteran underground filmmaker George Kuchar (story and characters by Mark Ellinger) and directed Curt McDowell (a student of Kuchar), Thundercrack! is a work of a mad genius. While it starts out as an atmospheric gothic horror tale, it quickly turns into an ultra-bizarre, ultra-low-budget pornographic black comedy. Thundercrack! is raunchy, graphic, and extremely warped. Because of its graphic content including masturbation, and sex between heterosexual and homosexual couplings, the film is unavailable in many areas of the world. The inclusion of full hardcore sex runs the gamut of crude, messy, and honest, but the sex is masterfully weaved into the film’s structure and becomes an essential element of the plot. You won’t soon forget Mrs. Hammond’s voyeuristic bedroom, which includes a vacuum-operated ‘blow job’ device, nor the collection of dildos and blow-up dolls. Crass, sick, and hilarious, this no-budget black and white feature revels in taboo-shattering shocks. Imagine if John Waters and Jack Smith had a child and their deranged offspring grew up to direct a film while smoking crack! It’s wonderful!
130. My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine was made at the height of the slasher/holiday trend and is noteworthy as one of the most distinctly Canadian horror films ever made. Produced by Happy Birthday To Me gurus John Dunning and André Link, and directed by George Mihalka, My Bloody Valentine is one of the best in the slasher genre for several reasons: Mihalka’s direction is first-rate; the score by Paul Zaza is effectively creepy; the small-town location and mining mill makes for a refreshingly unique setting; the film features a decent body count (though not much blood); and finally, the killer has bragging rights on wearing the best costume of all slasher villains (the unstoppable miner’s identity is hidden by a gas mask and he has a construction helmet complete with its own headlight). My Bloody Valentine is competently made, well shot, expertly paced and features a great cast along with some creative ways to kill them off one by one.
Lucio Fulci’s stylish, modern-day murder mystery about a child killer on a rampage in a remote southern Italian village is a clever and complex social commentary on the effects of mob mentality on vigilante justice, pedophilia, traditional values, and the ignorance of modern thinking. Not only does Fulci toss around themes of Catholic guilt, sexual repression, psychological trauma, small-town narrow-mindedness, and hypocrisy, but Don’t Torture a Duckling also features some of the best directed scenes in the filmmaker’s canon (which is saying a lot). The most powerful scene follows the local townsmen who stalk Maciara, a local woman who is rumored to be a witch and just released from police custody after having been deemed innocent and harmless. When the men catch up to her, they each take turns beating her viciously with chains and whatever else is within their reach. Don’t Torture A Duckling is unforgiving at times as a few scenes are crude, bloody and extremely unsettling. Nevertheless, it acts as a powerful social commentary and might just be Fulci’s best, and most underrated film.
128. Night Of The Creeps
The debut feature by writer/director Fred Dekker is notable as an earnest attempt at a B-movie and a throwback to the genre. Paying tribute to his favorite movies of the past and the filmmakers that created them, Fred Dekker throws in alien parasites, zombies, extra-terrestrials, a sorority house, Prom Night and a 50?s opening prologue involving an axe murder. Dekker goes so far as to pay tribute to his idols by naming every character after a famous filmmaker. There is the love interest, Cynthia Cronenberg, a police sergeant named Raimi, three other characters named Miller, Carpenter, Landis and of course, Detective Cameron, played by Tom Atkins. Atkins steals the show, delivering the film’s most memorable lines including the classic: ‘I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.’ He perfectly embodies the hardboiled detective – worn out, all attitude, sarcastic and tough as nails. Meanwhile, Jason Lively’s likable lead Chris Romero, and Steve Marshall as his sidekick J.C. (James Carpenter) share some sharp and witty dialogue and work well off each other, particularly in a couple of scenes that prove quite unexpected and touching (one involving a message on a tape recorder). Working on a shoestring budget, Dekker and award-winning make-up artist David Miller (Thriller music video) manage to deliver some quality effects and enough gore and blood to please horror aficionados. Visually, the film is a treat, from the opening grainy black and white photography to the vintage ’80s neon colors to the long tracking shots and the nostalgic period detail. Although never considered a genuinely scary horror film, Night of the Creeps was a film that caught attention for its original screenplay, special effects and it’s campiness. Dekker succeeded in making a horror movie that has it all: a dash of romance, scares, lighthearted comedy, nostalgia, camp, a touch of drama and a bit of gore.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is an overlooked, extremely eerie low-budget chiller, and one of the finest horror pictures of the 1970s. Director John D. Hancock is more content with examining the pure madness of the human psyche than he is with bloodshed or cheap shocks and thrills. The more somber, subdued approach may disappoint many, but patient moviegoers will find themselves rewarded with the smart direction and slow-burning tension. Like its central protagonist, it is a movie that remains extremely ambiguous. Is Jessica just outright insane or is there something more sinister at work in the small country town?
126. The Fury
In this action-suspense picture packed with paranormal activity, Kirk Douglas plays government agent Peter Sandza, whose telepathic son (Andrew Stevens) has been kidnapped by his colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), working for a CIA-like secret government agency that plans to exploit the boy’s psychic abilities for warfare. Sandza’s desperate search for his son brings him into contact with a teenage girl named Gillian (Amy Irving), who also has strong ESP powers. He gains her trust, and together, they join forces in the hope of saving his son Robin before it’s too late. Brian De Palma’s immediate successor to Carrie was The Fury, a supernatural horror/espionage/occult/mindfuck of a movie, which, like Carrie, manages a similar variation on the theme of teenagers using telekinetic powers to exercise repressed feelings. And The Fury, not unlike Carrie, is on some level about the need to symbolically kill your parents to set yourself free. The Fury is the movie Armond White said is impossible not to completely, wholly love if you have any shred of understanding of the medium of film and how it works. But when released in 1978, The Fury was viewed by most critics as being a definite disappointment. The Fury is a film of sprawling incoherence, with characters severely underwritten, and often doesn’t make much sense. De Palma based it on the 1976 novel by horror writer John Farris, who adapted his complex 350-page thriller into a 118-page screenplay. The results are messy, but The Fury is entirely satisfying and always entertaining. More than that, it shows De Palma working out personal themes that have consistently appeared throughout his entire career. With The Fury, De Palma allowed his imagination free rein. The Fury, at times, is as visually expressive as anything De Palma has ever directed, dominated by one incredible set-piece after another. It’s best, in fact, to ignore the inconsistencies of the plot and focus instead on the astounding visuals: De Palma experiments with techniques like split-screen, signature bird’s-eye views, 360 degree pans, and lots of great slow-motion – and as with Carrie, De Palma saves the real money shot for last – a denouement well worth the wait.
One of the most self-assured directorial debuts of the 70’s was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Not only was it a breakthrough film for the master of Giallo, but it was also a box office hit and had critics buzzing, regardless if they liked it or not. Although Argento would go on to perfect his craft in later films, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage went a long way in popularizing the Giallo genre and laid the groundwork for later classics like Deep Red. A difficult film to discuss without spoiling many of its most impressive and famous scenes, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, albeit with many twists, turns and one of the best surprise endings of all time. But Argento’s thriller is just that — a thriller and not really a horror film — and though it is miles ahead of many of its imitators, it never reaches the heights of Tenebrae, Opera or Deep Red. These films function on a higher level, whereas Bird With the Crystal Plumage never quite transcends its origins in pulp fiction.
Originally released as Dead of Night, Deathdream was Bob Clark’s second foray into horror cinema and in my opinion, his second-best film. The plot is fairly straightforward and follows a young man named Andy who was said to be killed in Vietnam but inexplicably returns home to his family’s surprise. Although effective as a flat-out horror film, Deathdream’s greatest strength is its commentary on the social implications of the Vietnam War. Andy’s struggles on the home front are a metaphor for the difficulties many veterans face when returning to civilian life, and a good portion of the film focuses on the lingering effects these soldiers have when returning to America. While the stress disorders and drug addiction that many veterans experienced are alluded to, the film, more importantly, points out that the war has affected not just the soldiers but the entire country. Not only does the war turn Andy into a literal monster but it also tears his entire family apart. Andy’s mother becomes more and more delusional as the horror unfolds and his father tries to forget his troubles by turning to the bottle. Mirroring the breakdown of his family is Andy’s body, which begins to decompose, forcing him to feed on the blood and flesh of others in order to rejuvenate his skin. Deathdream also served as a training ground for another horror veteran Tom Savini. Although the make-up and gore on this film are pretty restrained, Savini and Clark did a superb job in crafting a few hair-raising scenes despite the film’s meager budget. Shots from the killer’s point-of-view along with a jarring piano and string score go a long way in giving the film a sense of impending doom, and Richard Backus’s chilling performance is reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The rest of the cast is equally good, especially Lynn Carlin and John Marley as Andy’s troubled parents. Two years later Bob Clark would direct the much more subtle horror classic Black Christmas, and it’s clear that Deathdream served as the genesis of some of the atmospheric directorial flourishes that Clark would use in that film. As a Horror film, Deathdream isn’t as effective as Clark’s 1976 slasher, but for a film that runs a mere 88 minutes, Deathdream is crammed with technical artistry and provocative social commentary to place it high on this list.
Did you know that Michael Sembello’s 1983 hit song “Maniac” from Flashdance was originally written as the title track to William Lustig’s low-budget New York grunge slasher flick, Maniac? A precursor to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Lustig’s grimy snapshot of early ‘80s Manhattan is an unapologetically twisted study of a pathological murdering maniac. This harrowing, stomach-churning journey into a mad man’s psyche pissed off many critics upon release, and it is easy to see why, but one cannot deny the emotional impact the film has regardless if you like it or not. Yes, it was made on the cheap, but this isn’t just a pure exploitation film – it’s intelligent and appropriately unsettling given the subject matter. Maniac comes across as a slasher version of Taxi Driver (a film that star Joe Spinell also appeared in), and just like Deniro, Spinell is fully committed to his role, carrying the weight of the movie from beginning to end. Frank’s our main character, and the focus of this entire movie, so chances are you won’t always like what you’re seeing. Despite a low-budget, Maniac is extremely well-made. The atmosphere that Lustig creates is extremely effective in telling this story, and the 16 mm print gives it that dirty, rough, grimy look. It’s also incredibly violent and able to quench the thirsts of gore hounds while sending sensitive viewers running to the exits thanks to the effects by leading horror make-up expert Tom Savini (who actually has a fun little cameo in the film).
An insane mother (Zelda Rubinstein) telepathically controls her middle-aged son (Michael Lerner) to seek out deadly revenge on those who have done her wrong. When he’s finished murdering his victims, he gouges their eyes out and adds them to the family collection. But that’s only a movie within the movie: The real horror is in the theater, where the audience who is watching this story become victims of a mass-murdering spree. Spanish director J.J. Bigas Lunas does a stellar job of pulling off the story’s unconventional narrative. Although other movie-within-a-movie tricks have been tried, this one stands out from the rest thanks to the way it seamlessly switches from the reel to the “real world”. Anguish is certainly an unusual movie, but an extremely well-made film with first-rate performances, special effects, and wide-screen camera work that defies its small budget.
121. White Zombie
In this haunting, low-budget, lyrical melodrama, director Victor Halperin brings into play voodoo, possession, and a virgin bride cursed to walk with the living dead. Bela Lugosi stars as voodoo master Murder Legendre, a devilish figure who exercises supernatural powers over the natives in his Haitian domain. Made by a small indie company on a minuscule budget, White Zombie was a huge box office hit on its initial release, yet it proved to be less popular than other horror films of the time, opening to negative reception. Even worse, it remained out of circulation for quite a while due to various legal battles. The film was shot in only 11 days, borrowing many props and scenery from other horror films shot on the Universal lot. Halperin did an astonishing job pushing the technical limitations of its day, with extravagant sets, multi-layered compositions, and a killer split-screen sequence, all elevating the film above simplicity, to near-operatic. The sugar mill sets are extraordinary. A repeated shot of Madeline walking down a grand staircase in Legendre’s castle is breathtaking, and the crossfade from Madeline and Neil into a shot of Lugosi’s deep penetrating stare is legendary. Halperin’s rough visuals fill the screen with surprisingly poetic images. The command of mood and emotion on display suggests a work from a master filmmaker, and Lugosi’s character here is one of his most fascinating creations. Many claim his performance here to be his best, and in my opinion, he never found a better role that could flaunt his range as an actor. Most independent productions of that era are downright awful, but White Zombie is a truly remarkable film that lands somewhere in between classic Universal horror and Val Lewton productions. Considered the first zombie film, White Zombie is essential viewing for any true horror fan.