Top 120 Horror Movies
Special Mention: Häxan
Häxan (a.k.a The Witches or Witchcraft Through The Ages) is a 1922 silent documentary about the history of witchcraft, told in a variety of styles, from illustrated slideshows to dramatized reenactments of alleged real-life events. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, and based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, Häxan is a fine examination of how superstition and the misunderstanding of mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. At the time, it was the most expensive Scandinavian film ever made, costing nearly 2 million Swedish krona. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what was considered, at that time, graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. Depending on which version you’re watching, the commentary is either in the form of inter-titles or narration recorded in the mid-1960s by William S. Burroughs. Haxan is a fascinating historical document and one of the earliest films that use misogyny and sexual repression as its main subject.
120. Twins of Evil
How does one begin to choose which of the many great Hammer films to include on this list? Twins of Evil, though a far cry from a Hammer masterpiece, manages to be one of the best from the 70’s — a decade when Hammer was quickly running out of ideas. This entry in the studio’s long-running vampire series is one of the most evocative and original of the bunch — starring voluptuous identical twins (and Playboy models) Mary and Madeline Collinson who, after their parent’s sudden and tragic death, are sent from the cultural capital of Venice to live with their oppressive uncle (Peter Cushing) in the repressive, superstitious, northern European town of Karnstein.
There’s plenty of reason why Twins of Evil makes the cut. For starters, Peter Cushing is as good as he’s ever been as the pitiless zealot, a true believer who has clear misconceived definitions of right and wrong and would not think twice about burning innocent women at the stake if he saw fit. The images of maidens burning at the stake are horrific and made all the more effective by the men who stand by and watch because they believe they are doing the work of God. Although Cushing is known for some of the greatest performances in the genre, Twins of Evil is a rare film that asks the great actor to play more than just a one-dimensional villain or a charming hero. The scene when he is forced to make a decision on the fate of his niece is heart-breaking, especially given the clever plot twist as the count switches the twins before one is about to be burned at the stake for her supposed crimes against religion.
Brit filmmaker John Hough (Escape from Witch Mountain, The Incubus, The Legend of Hell House) directs with style and passion and many would argue that this is the best looking film in the Karnstein trilogy. Hough presents a handsome picture with a moody atmosphere and dramatic images and caters to the Hammer Horror fan base by providing a spooky 17th-century mood, supernatural events, and some truly shocking scenes. If you’ve never seen it, I guarantee you’ll love the costumes, setting, set design and gorgeous cinematography. Twins of Evil isn’t a perfect film but holds up better than most vampire pics, even decades after its release.
Based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel Hell House, The Legend of Hell House, much like The Haunting, involves a group of skeptics, mediums, and researchers tasked with spending a few days in a mansion allegedly haunted. Unexplained occurrences follow as interpersonal conflicts arise among the group. Things go bump in the night, glasses spontaneously shatter, furniture moves, people levitate, bedsheets hover over the mattress and strange sounds are heard coming from around the house. John Hough’s direction relies upon suggestion and anxious anticipation, and The Legend of Hell House earns a fair share of chills. Drenched in atmosphere and fog, the film is adeptly made — the art direction of Robert Jones and the cinematography by Alan Hume is beautiful, and the music by Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire similarly work to enhance the film and keep viewers at the edge of their seat. With a single setting, slick visuals, a spooky score, minimal effects and an extremely talented cast of no more than half a dozen characters, The Legend of Hell House is one of the best ghost stories ever put to the big screen. This is one ghost story that will have you gripping your armrest.
118. The Long Weekend
The Long Weekend marked the beginning of a solid run of good Australian horror films penned by Everett De Roche, who also wrote Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981) and Razorback (1984). The Long Weekend is an extremely tense thriller that doesn’t rely on the usual standard shock strategy to deliver its scares. A well-executed and innovative film (for the time), The Long Weekendranks as one of the best “nature vs.man” films – steeped in the mid-70s statements of environmentalism, and hinting at a broader ecological agenda with mention of nuclear testing and oil exploration. The small cast all pull in great performances and the sound design is carefully layered gradually escalating to increase the tension. But the best thing about The Long Weekend is the camera work by cinematographer Vincent Monton which gives the pic a realistic feel with voyeuristic documentary-quality shots of the outback surroundings. Not a typical horror film in the standard sense but this small masterpiece is a must-see for its slow, eerie pacing and atmosphere.
117. The Addiction
Produced by Russell Simmons, Abel Ferrara’s 1995 black and white experiment blends the urban vampire adventure with philosophical analysis. Scripted by Ferrara’s longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John, the film stars Lili Taylor as a philosophy student in New York who goes out walking one night and gets bitten by vampire Annabella Sciorra. Pretty soon she must prowl the gritty New York streets sticking homeless people with a syringe and shooting it into her veins. Later, she runs into another immortal vampire (Christopher Walken) who teaches her a painful lesson about her ever-growing addiction. The Addiction is only superficially about vampires as it is really a meditation on human nature and its fundamental predisposition toward evil. The Holocaust, the My Lai massacre, and the philosophy of Heidegger and Nietzsche are just some of the themes and ideas addressed in the film, and these topics really do help make The Addiction an original reworking of the classic vampire mythology. Although unintentionally funny at times, the film is always entertaining and beautiful to look at. Fans of Christopher Walken will especially enjoy this.
116. Dressed To Kill
Brian De Palma’s films, like Tarantino’s, are a cinematic mash-up of influences from the past, and in De Palma’s case, he borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock. Obsession is De Palma’s Vertigo, Blow Out his Rear Window, and with Dressed to Kill the director set his sights on Psycho. Dressed To Kill is more thriller than horror, but what a stylish and twisted thriller it is! The highlight here is an amazing ten-minute chase sequence set in an art gallery and conducted entirely without dialogue. There are a number of other well-sustained set pieces, including a race in the subway system and even, yes, a gratuitous shower murder sequence. Dressed To Kill features an excellent cast (Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson), a superb score (courtesy of Pino Donaggio) and a shocking finale — but the reason to see this film is for the fabulous camera work by Ralf Bode and De Palma’s direction.
Adapted by director Wolf Rilla from John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, Village of the Damned, certainly has dated, but regardless it is a seminal piece of work and a timeless classic. Like most effective horror movies, Village of the Damned actually preys on modern everyday fears and insecurities and is outright creepy thanks to some eerily effective opening scenes, its atmospheric Black & White cinematography and the chilling performances by the unknown cast of blank-eyed child actors. What I love most about the film is how at times it makes viewers sympathetic and at times unsympathetic to the children. “Those eyes, those screams.” Village of the Damned arrived in cinemas in 1960 at the same time as the equally memorable and ground-breaking Psycho. Both were landmark films that marked the beginning of new sub-genres, yet Village of the Damned has attracted fewer disciples and is rarely ever talked about. A shame, since this truly is a horror milestone, not just for its unique and well-executed concept, but also for the director’s willingness to push the standards of the day.
Following the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson returned to directing horror/comedy with Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox as Charlatan Frank Bannister, a supernatural private eye who investigates staged hauntings and poltergeists in and around his hometown. Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s version of Ghostbusters, only with far more violence and slightly better special effects thanks to Jackson’s New Zealand company Weta Digital, who, of course, went on to do the effects for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson directs at a breakneck pace and the cast all deliver fine performances – with Fox, doing a better than adequate job in the lead, and Jeffrey Combs as the over-the-top Special Agent Milton Dammers. Poltergeists, Ghostbusters, serial killers, gore, laughs and a murder mystery are just some of what you will find in The Frighteners, and every second of it is a joy to watch. The Frighteners is simply awesome, and a criminally underrated horror-comedy that deserves far more praise.
Part nunsploitation, part possession/Satanism movie, and part vampire flick, Alucarda (“a Dracula” spelled backward) finds Satanic going-ons in a convent after orphan Justine is seduced by another orphan named Alucarda. Director Juan López Moctezuma came along during the new wave of 70s Mexican genre pics that expressed radical and subversive views. Alucarda never received much attention from critics nor audiences, but over the years became something of an underground cult classic. Moctezuma (who also produced Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Fando Y Lis) was an important intellectual figure in Mexico in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and his three horror films (which also includes Mansion of Madness, and the American co-production Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary) were all distinctive works. The film was independently financed outside of the Mexican mainstream industry and was shot with an English-speaking cast. The set design and art direction are stunning as well as Xavier Cruz’s cinematography and the gruelling exorcism conclusion to Alucarda reminds one of the final scenes in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. While it is not widely known by many cinephiles, many fans who have seen it, consider it an unrecognized gem. Seriously, this movie is batshit crazy and a must see!
When a Stranger Calls originally started out as The Sitter, a short film made by director Fred Walton, but because of the massive success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was expanded to form the basis of a feature. The slow-burn approach is book-ended by some truly excellent classic horror movie moments – the opening alone serves as the entire basis for Wes Craven’s Scream — andWalton does an incredible job of mounting the tension almost entirely using sound. Everything from the constant phone ringing to the killer’s creepy voice to the powerhouse score keeps viewers at the edge of their seats. Charles Durning gives a more than capable performance – virtually stealing the show when he breaks down, completely nude, in front of his reflection in the washroom mirror. Highly recommended!
In between George Romero’s original trilogy of zombie movies, he made his first and only vampire film. Martin is arguably the most compelling cinematic deconstruction of the vampire myth to date. The vampire in question is just your average teenager who’s been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) and cousin Christina (Christiana Forrest). He spends his days working in his Uncle’s store and delivering groceries to various customers. Martin has no supernatural powers and appears as a weak, slightly autistic 17-year-old. The problem is that Martin thinks he’s an 84-year-old vampire who must feed on the blood of the living to survive and to do so he stalks, sedates and rapes the women who are clients of his uncle’s business. In between, we also witness Martin’s fantasy/flashback scenes. These highly romanticized scenes, filmed in black and white, are visually and tonally different — and similar to what you’d come to expect in a Hammer Studios production, but it is unclear if they are memories of an 87-year old vampire or the twisted product of mental illness and family superstition. The question of whether Martin is actually a vampire or not is left ambiguous. Gruesome, gory and one of the best vampire movies ever made, even if it isn’t really a vampire movie. Martin is not for the weak at heart but if you think you can stomach its graphic violence, it is a must-see for Romero’s direction, writing and — his performance as the Catholic priest!
Special Mention: Clean, Shaven
Lodge H. Kerrigan, who wrote, produced and directed this unsettling psychological thriller, traps us inside the mind of a madman for the entire viewing experience. That madman is Peter Winter (Peter Greene) who appears to be a killer, and worse, a child killer. Not much about him is objectively clear, and we are never sure if what we are seeing is real or a product of his tormented imagination and the film heightens the tension by restricting its focus to Peter’s unsettling, confused, and angry view of the world. The most gruesome violence inflicted on Peter comes by his own hand and in the most unforgettable scene, Peter slowly mutilates his body in order to remove what he believes is a receiver implanted in his scalp and a transmitter under his fingernail that was implanted inside him while he was locked away in a mental hospital. It’s hard to forget the infamous fingernail scene; the gruesome moment made festival audiences scream, squirm, hide their eyes, and run for the exits. Legend has it that audience members at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival fainted, and as a result of this thirty-second sequence (which the filmmaker refused to edit out), it took nearly two years to acquire a distributor. Working on a minimal budget, Kerrigan brilliantly captures Peter’s paranoia through sporadic edits, eerie reflections, and a soundtrack that reverberates with static, hums, electrical noises, distant screams, and distorted voices. Kerrigan also makes great use of the technique of doubling to add to the confusion. In the beginning, we watch as Peter observes himself in his car’s rear-view and side-view mirrors. He does not like the sight of his own reflection and uses newspaper to tape up every reflective surface that surrounds him. But try as he might, Peter can’t escape the sights and sounds that bring back memories of his missing daughter. Clean, Shaven is a movie that powerfully conveys the disturbed mental state and will leave an indelible imprint long after the closing credits roll. It’s disgusting and unbearable at times, but nevertheless Clean, Shaven is a fundamentally humane movie.
110. Dead Of Night
The classic British chiller Dead of Night, featuring five stories of supernatural terror from four directors, is considered in many circles as the greatest horror anthology ever made. Alberto Cavalcanti’s story about a mad ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave is the best of the bunch, a brilliant precursor to Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring an early uncensored gay relationship. And unlike most (maybe all) horror anthologies, Dead of Night ends with a bravura final sequence which ties wonderfully into all five subsets, ultimately making them all feel like a unified whole.
109. Funny Games
Two psychotic young men terrorize a family of three (a mother, father, and son), hold them hostage and then force them to play sadistic games for their own amusement. There’s no more difficult filmmaker in the world than Michael Haneke today, and Funny Games (later remade in the US by the director himself) remains one of his most controversial and divisive films to date. We are not given any explanations for the killers’ behaviour and Haneke doesn’t care to — instead he explores both the emotional and physical effects of violence and questions our own motives in watching violent movies. Near the end of the film, when one of the victims gets the upper hand, the killer demands that the movie is rewound, and the scenario plays out again, only with a much darker and barbaric twist. Compelling, radical, provocative, frustrating, challenging, condescending, Funny Games is bound to elicit a strong reaction from an audience — but nevertheless, Funny Games is a fine piece of filmmaking – even if Haneke thinks you’re in the wrong to enjoy watching it.
108. They Live
Writing under the pseudonym Frank Armitage —a reference to a character from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror — John Carpenter based his script for They Live on a Ray Nelson short story called Eight O’Clock In the Morning. Although it’s really a Western in disguise, Carpenter’s action-sci-fi-horror becomes a biting satire on Reaganomics and the New Right politics of the 1980s. The aliens here stand for mindless greed and corruption, and they run the planet like it’s a giant corporation, harvesting our resources and reducing citizens to mindless, compliant consumers who unknowingly obey the rules and otherwise surrender their consciousness and will. The idea that the rich eat the poor is not exactly a new one, but Carpenter pulls it off with aplomb. Put aside the social and political commentary, They Live is one hell of a cool action movie with some arresting, chilling, visuals and a lot of dry humor running throughout. It also features two of the most famous scenes in genre cinema – the first being the prolonged alleyway fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David, and the second being the famous line reading: “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
107. The Hour of the Wolf
The title alludes to the hour when nightmares come. Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf is the filmmaker’s companion piece to Persona, about a brooding artist who is undergoing a crisis in his work which causes his marriage to fall apart. He and his wife move to a remote and exotic island in hopes that the time away will help them resolve their problems, only his demons follow him along. Unable to distinguish reality from fiction, the artist begins to lose his grip on reality. The Hour of the Wolf is both a bleak psychological drama and a brilliantly conceived Gothic horror tale and features some of the most striking and unusual scenes Bergman ever created.
Along with 1964’s Onibaba, Kuroneko (1968) is one of two horror films directed by Kaneto Shindo appearing on this list. Also translated as Black Cat, Kuroneko is a mixture of samurai adventures and supernatural ghost stories about two women living alone in a rural hut who are raped and murdered by a band of mercenaries. Years later, the women are reincarnated as feline vampires and are intent on seeking revenge on every samurai traveling their way. Director Kaneto Shindo’s 1968 folktale is in some ways a precursor to rape and revenge exploitation films such as I Spit on Your Grave, with the action perpetrated by a mother/daughter-in-law who leaves behind a pile of dead bodies in their wake. Beyond the political and social concerns, Kuroneko works exceptionally well as a ghost story. It’s also beautifully shot in stunning black-and-white 35-millimeter film and features a stunning climax. Not to be missed!
Werner Herzog, the celebrated German director of such films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, considered Murnau’s Nosferatu to be the greatest film ever to come out of Germany, and was eager to follow in the filmmaker’s footsteps with his own stylish adaptation. In 1979, by which time the copyright for Dracula had entered the public domain, Herzog proceeded with his updated version of the classic German film with frequent collaborator and close friend Klaus Kinski in the leading role. Nosferatu the Vampyre represented his first venture into the realm of genre filmmaking, and Herzog did a marvelous job in honoring the conventions of the vampire genre while crafting a feature of substance and meaning. While the film is set primarily in 19th-century Wismar, Germany, and Transylvania, Kinski’s Dracula is unlike any other interpretation of the character. Visually, he resembles Max Schreck, but that’s where the similarity ends. In the Herzog version, the crucial difference is that Nosferatu becomes more and more decayed and desiccated as the film progresses. Unlike most vampire films, Nosferatu the Vampyre favors a slow, methodical, deliberate, and relentless pace. Some find that the film moves too slowly, but Herzog’s unwillingness to rush things allows the striking visuals by cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein and the haunting film score (composed by the German group Popol Vuh) to work their magic. Taking his cue from the German expressionist directors of the ’20s, Herzog also limits dialogue and allows the images and soundtrack to advance the story while building a powerful and foreboding sense of atmosphere. Nosferatu the Vampyre isn’t as groundbreaking as the 1922 masterpiece, but it’s one of Herzog’s most bizarre, resonant and fascinating films. As a brief aside; There are two different versions of the film, one in which the actors speak English, and one in which they speak German.
104. Raw Meat (Death Line)
American-born, London-based filmmaker Gary Sherman (Dead & Buried) moved on from directing TV commercials to helm his first feature-length film, titled Death Line. Released in North America as Raw Meat, this seventies horror takes place in the London subway system where a cannibalistic sub-human survives on unsuspecting commuters and one high-profile death brings the police to investigate. Raw Meat is easily one of the best and most underrated horror films to emerge from Great Britain. Gary Sherman’s film is so ahead of its time it predates both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and like those films, Sherman has more on his mind than scaring viewers. Here he presents a 70s London populated by a ruling class greedily feeding off the poor. This is a city that not only suppresses its lower class but in doing so, creates in them monsters. The city above is a world of artifice and empty feeling, and no different than the dark matrix of tunnels located below, and Sherman wisely takes his time in making his cannibalistic killer sympathetic, and in many ways, more likeable than the other characters we follow along. Raw Meat‘ssuccess is due to a number of factors, not least of which is the cinematography. There’s some truly spectacular camerawork on display, including a remarkable single-take sequence through the tunnels below London. Raw Meat also boasts a great comic turn by Donald Pleasance, who plays the grumpy working-class Inspector Calhoun who is assigned to investigate the murders and disappearances of citizens commuting on the London Tube. Meanwhile, Christopher Lee plays upper-class MI5 agent Stratton-Villiers who wants to keep a lid on the crimes being reported. If you’re looking for a dark, well-acted and visually stunning shocker, you could do a lot worse than Sherman’s low-budget creeper.
The Masque of the Red Death is one of the seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by producer-director Roger Corman between 1960 and 1964, and it is Corman’s most extravagant and visually impressive picture. Take note of the superb cinematography by future film director Nicolas Roeg, and the diabolic performance from Vincent Price. Many will argue there are better films from the king of exploitation (Bucket of Blood for starters), but there is just something about Masque that marks it as a truly unique cult classic. It is a superb film, both visually and thematically, and for my money, this is the best of Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe movies.
Mario Bava’s final black-and-white production is regarded as the seminal work in what would become known as the start of the Giallo genre. Much like Brian De Palma, Bava was influenced by and borrowed heavily from Alfred Hitchcock over the years. The title spoofs The Man Who Knew Too Much, a story Hitchcock adapted twice to the big screen. The Girl Who Knew Too Much helped kick-start a whole school of Italian thrillers, but only a few were able to surpass the genius of Bava. This is a beautifully shot film, composed of pristine blocking, framing, pans, dollies, and sharp edits, all creating suspense amidst the shadowy photography. Bava’s films might not always make a lick of sense, but as a former cinematographer working for directors such as Roberto Rossellini, his movies always look good. With a solid performance from the always reliable John Saxon, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is incredibly entertaining; features a few twists and even a surprise ending.
101. The Devil Rides Out
Often cited as the best film that Terence Fisher and Hammer ever made together, The Devil Rides Out is my personal favorite from the legendary studio. Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out was one of a number of British films during the 60’s that touched upon occult matters and is crammed with a half dozen or so memorable set pieces, and a series of great scenes, including a car chase that is interrupted by the use of black magic – and the rescue of a young couple who become victims to an outdoor Satanic orgy. There is also a superb scene in where Charles Gray’s Mocata comes to visit the house and uses hypnosis on Sarah Lawson’s Marie Eaton. With the tranquility of his voice, he puts her in a trance; meanwhile, his influence is felt upstairs as he urges two sleeping victims to commit murder. This long sequence, wherein he gradually puts his victim under his spell, is superbly, acted and directed – culminating with the best line of the film: “I won’t be returning – but something else will.” Fisher gets the most mileage from his small budget, creating some wonderful scenes involving the powers of black magic and the occult. The finest sequence is the suspenseful extended climax, set around a protective pentacle drawn on the floor. In order to protect themselves, the group of friends must stay within the diagram throughout the entire night. Meanwhile, Mocata tries to break in by preying on them psychologically. The scene is pure cinematic gold as we watch Christopher Lee’s brave duke do battle with a coven of Satanists out to disrupt the balance between good and evil. Truthfully, the manifestations of evil are a bit dated, but the storytelling does a fine job of setting the stakes high, and Fisher has a lot of fun with this slice of black magic. With a screenplay adapted by the great Richard Matheson — and with Fisher (arguably the best auteur of Hammer Studios) behind the camera — along with Christopher Lee in front of it — the film is indeed essential viewing for fans of Horror. In his long career, Lee has appeared in over 300 films, but this is one of the few roles where he plays the good guy. It is a masterful performance and one of his best.