60 Greatest Horror Movies
Special Mention: Shock Corridor
Shock Corridor stars Peter Breck as Johnny Barrett, an ambitious reporter who wants to expose the killer at the local insane asylum. To solve the case, he must pretend to be insane so they have him committed. Once in the asylum, Barrett sets to work, interrogating the other patients and keeping a close eye on the staff. But it’s difficult to remain a sane man living in an insane place, and the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the closer he gets to insanity. Shock Corridor is best described as an anti-establishment drama that at times is quite funny. The film deals with some timely issues of the era it was made in, specifically the atom bomb, anti-communism, and racism, and it can be dissected and discussed at various levels: psychological, sociological, and symbolic. It features everything from a raving female love-crazed nympho ward, opera-singing psycho patients, fetishism of all sorts, electroshock therapy, racially-incited brawls, and classic prison-style riots. So why it include it as a special mention? The final scene, without giving anything away, could very well label Shock Corridor a psychological horror film. Either way, it is an amazing film that everyone should see and features some brilliant camera-work by Stanley Cortez, who also shot another film featured on this list, The Night of the Hunter.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema. Carl Mayer, an Austrian scenarist, and Hans Janowitz, a Czech poet, conceived the tale of a psychotic hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who takes control of another human being (Conrad Veidt) and drives him to murder. At 71 minutes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is pretty straightforward by today’s standards, but the script was inspired by various experiences from the lives of Janowitz and Mayer, both pacifists who were left distrustful of authority after their experiences with the military during World War I. The film’s design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one. The film’s dark and twisted visual style is stunning. Robert Wiene, along with a team of brilliant production designers, incorporated sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines and structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles. Roger Ebert described the sets as “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives”. It’s a seminal work and defined many of the tropes that went on to form the basis of modern horror films.
59. Near Dark
What Near Dark does better than so many other vampire movies is keeping viewers off-balance by never knowing what to expect next. It is an amalgam of tropes and motifs from familiar genres, mixing in the likes of vampire legends and westerns, but reconstructed in such a way that the end result is creepy, smart, and at times funny. The film also benefits from some wonderful performances, stunning visual textures, and music by Tangerine Dream. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark has been often described as “the best vampire movie you’ve never seen.” If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out soon!
This low-budget, independently made black-and-white film, produced and directed by Herk Harvey, for an estimated $33,000, did not gain any widespread attention when originally released, making it one of the greatest under-seen horror movies ever made. It has been cited as a major influence on the films of David Lynch and George A. Romero and without Carnival Of Souls, you would have no Sixth Sense. Set to the funereal organ score by Gene Moore, Carnival of Souls relies strictly on an atmosphere of melancholic, surreal dread to create a mood of unease and foreboding. The film’s subdued photography contributes considerably to its creeping mood of eerie otherworldliness and poetic nightmarish palate. This is a must-see for lovers of ghost movies.
57. The Haunting
One of the most highly regarded haunted house films ever produced is The Haunting, directed by Val Lewton disciple Robert Wise. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, the film weaves the dark tale of a questionably sane woman and a spooky old mansion that is rumored to hold terrifying dark secrets. The Haunting is an exercise in restraint and atmospherics and easily ranks among the finest supernatural suspense films ever made. Strip away all of its supernatural undertones, and the film remains a sophisticated and fascinating character study, and in addition to being a great ghost story, it’s also one of the greatest psychological thrillers. And apart from the generally neurotic group of characters, The Haunting further succeeds in that Wise makes the house itself, the central character of the story. Wise keeps this low-budget black-and-white film looking better than most modern films, and the cinematography and camera work by Davis Boulton recalls the best film noir, using shadows, clever lighting, Dutch angles, and widescreen compositions to make the viewers feel just as uncertain as to what is creeping around every corner and hiding behind every door. Along with the creepy, uncanny, disorienting visuals, comes one of the finest sound mixes in cinema, and many would argue the soundtrack is what actually makes the movie scary. The Haunting gets just about everything right –and manages to slither under your skin and make the hair on the back of your neck stand.
Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man is one of the three best Italian horror films ever made. Based on the wildly popular Italian comic book Dellamorte, Dellamore from Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog series, Cemetery Man is compelling, bizarre, and downright entertaining from start to finish. Technically a zombie film, but not really, Soavi’s avant-garde gothic flick weaves in so many unexpected directions, that it is quite unlike any horror film made before or after. This surreal fantasy from the director of Deliria (1987) unfolds like a very weird dream and never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to a beautifully rendered existential climax. You can take it as a horror picture or a black comedy or a story about friendship, identity, and love. Either way, it works. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli, concentrates on the human characters rather than the walking dead. In other words, Cemetery Man is a horror movie with character. There’s a quirky blend of romance, surrealism, black comedy, sex, violence, and haphazard plotting that only the Italians can get away with. Soavi is a well-known disciple of Italy’s master of horror Dario Argento, and it shows in every frame. The opening scene where Dellamorte disposes of the living dead as he casually chats on the phone is one of the best openings of any horror flick. From the color-drenched scenery and a kiss silhouetted by the full moon to a camera rotating around a table (ala Reservoir Dogs), or a steady tracking shot; almost every scene in Cemetery Man is a treat to watch. Even better is the score by Manuel de Sica, a prolific composer who has written over one hundred musical scores for television and film since 1969. His score is a curious blend of synthesizers and traditional instrumentation accompanied by a catchy theme song that’ll leave you humming long after the credits roll. Cemetery Man is the product of an expansive vision, a gorgeously rounded picture that passes through moments of genuine longing and existential crisis – right up to the film’s heart-wrenching mystic finale, in which Francesco will travel to the edge of the world to find some meaning in his cursed existence.
The black and white Curse of the Demon (originally called Night of the Demon) made its American debut in 1958 as the bottom half of a double bill with the Hammer sequel Revenge of Frankenstein. It’s too bad it wasn’t appreciated for all its greatness upon release, but thankfully it went on to earn a reputation as one of the finest horror films to come out of Great Britain. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this adaptation of the M. R. James story Casting the Runes revolves around an American psychologist investigating a satanic cult suspected of more than one murder. Night of the Demon is one of those movies that professors should show their film students, particularity those interested in screenwriting. The screenplay by Hal E. Chester and Charles Bennett is near flawless with not one wasted moment. Every conversation, every frame, every word advances the plot. There’s not a drop of blood to be seen and there are few jump scares, but the sense of unease that permeates through every frame is remarkable — all caused by superstitions and the insecurities it springs from those who believe in them. Brilliant!
This subtle horror film follows an isolated, sexually repressed, schizophrenic woman’s descent into madness, played by Catherine Deneuve, who gives her best performance at the age of 22. There are no explanations of Deneuve’s behavior and more importantly, one cannot make any clear distinction between reality and hallucination. Watching the film, we are entirely situated inside the mind of a madwoman. The sense of isolation we feel through Deneuve’s performance is only heightened by Roman Polanski’s astonishing control of the medium of film. This marks his first entry in his “apartment trilogy” (Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant being the other two), and for some, it is the best. The apartment itself becomes a deranged character of sorts, as the very dimensions of the surroundings continue to change. Hallways extend to infinity, rooms enlarge or shrink, and the floors slowly tilt. If you can’t trust the floorboards beneath your feet and the walls that surround you, you know you’ve got some serious issues.
Think of Possession as an intense drama of marital collapse amidst occult happenings, intricate political conspiracies, and using the Berlin Wall as a backdrop. Andrzej Zulawski has stated that he wrote the screenplay in the midst of a messy divorce, and it is quite apparent. At Cannes, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or (taken that year by another Polish film, Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron) and won a Best Actress award for Isabelle Adjani. The feature earned a place on the list of 39 ‘Video Nasties’ banned in the UK under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. The film draws similarities to David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and in a way is a precursor to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Possession also features special effects from Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Flesh for Frankenstein. Here, he designed an ominous, eroticised tentacular monster that looks like it was lifted from one of Cronenberg’s wet dreams. Most impressive of all is the cinematography by Bruno Nuytten, who uses ambitious hand-held takes, extensive dollies, and infinite tracking shots. The shape-shifting monsters reflect a film that is an amalgam of family tragedy, political thriller, and body horror.
Originally titled Communion, Alice Sweet Alice, despite its considerable cult following, has slipped into relative obscurity. Released in 1976, it was given glowing reviews by critics and won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film was made not long after The Exorcist and it capitalized on that film’s themes of Catholicism and evil children. Alice features some of the more disquieting set pieces in any movie appearing on this list and also features the big-screen debut of Brooke Shields at age 11. The most memorable aspect of Alice comes from the tour-de-force performance given by the killer, one of the absolute best in the pantheon of movie murderers.
Filmed intermittently over the course of a 5-year period, David Lynch’s radical feature debut mixes Gothic horror, a pounding score, surrealism and darkly expressionist mise-en-scène to create a bizarre and disturbing look into a man’s fear of parenthood. Or maybe not. Lynch claims that not one critic has come close to his own interpretation of his film. Lynch has called it a “dream of dark and troubling things” and his “most spiritual movie.” First shown at Filmex 1977, the movie was not widely seen until 1978, when it ran for years as a midnight attraction at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theatre. It is known, alongside El Topo, Pink Flamingos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as one of the first true midnight movies and in 2004, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Special Mention: Wait Until Dark
Directed by Terence Young, this well-made thriller is based on the hit play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote Dial M for Murder). Wait Until Dark stars Audrey Hepburn as a young blind woman who is terrorized in her apartment by two men (Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna) searching for heroin that made its way into a doll given to her as a gift. Hepburn is mesmerizing in the lead and earned her fifth (and last) Best Actress nomination, losing to her mother, Katharine Hepburn. The film is filled with spell-binding tension, and its climax is ranked tenth on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Wait Until Dark is innovative, highly entertaining, and full of suspense. It may be best classified as a thriller but it receives a special mention on this list for literally giving birth to the term “jump scare.”
Stuart Gordon’s first feature film has since become a cult favorite, driven by fans of both Jeffrey Combs and H. P. Lovecraft. While Re-Animator fails as a faithful adaptation, the injection of grisly humor, disgusting visual gags, and extreme gore make this one incredibly demented take on body horror. Gordon gleefully plays laughter against fear, as Dr. Hebert West raises the dead back to life with a glowing green liquid injected directly into the brain of a recently deceased specimen. Combs delivers an iconic performance as the would-be Frankenstein, updating the mad scientist role for a whole new generation. His performance stands in the same league as Bruce Campbell’s Ash in the Evil Dead series. From the opening sequence of a head being sawed open and a brain removed, Re-Animator is littered with a barrage of special effects gore. In the most famous scene, heroine Barbara Crampton is tied naked to a morgue slab as a corpse slowly takes its decapitated head to perform cunnilingus on her. This scene was regarded as so outrageous it was originally censored when released.
Perhaps no film has used the found footage gimmick to create fresh scares better than The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 horror film presented the narrative as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage, filmed in real-time. The film relates the story of three young student filmmakers who hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch, and subsequently go missing. The viewer is told that the three were never found, although their video and sound equipment (along with most of the footage they shot) was discovered a year later. The film caused a major stir at Sundance for its offbeat, energetic, and eye-opening approach to filmmaking. Artisan quickly picked it up for distribution, and with the help of a ground-breaking campaign that took to the Internet to suggest the film was real, The Blair Witch Project grossed $248,639,099 worldwide. With a final production budget of only $25,000, Blair Witch became the third-highest-grossing independent film of all time. The Internet swarmed with Blair Witch fan sites, web boards, mailing lists, newsgroups, trailer sites, and general excitement about the movie months before its release. The torrent of online talk about the movie aroused the curiosity of the offline press, and the anticipation for the movie’s opening drove ticket sales through the roof. Nielson NetRatings had listed the official site as the 45th most visited location on the Web for the week ending August 1, with a reported 10.4 million page views and an astounding average visit of 16 minutes and 8 seconds. However, the primary reason for its success is that it keeps audiences in the dark about its titular villain. The Blair Witch Project remembers that nothing onscreen can be as scary as your own imagination. It understands how to build anticipation and deliver the scares at precisely the right moment. Unlike most horror films, The Blair Witch Project isn’t simply designed to make you jump, nor ever gross you out. Instead, the film focuses on having the viewer feel discomfort, nausea, and terror – and thus some people respond by saying it is the scariest film of all time simply because it feels so real. The Blair Witch Project is a clever, entertaining stunt, and a terrific calling card for its fledgling filmmakers that opened up the genre for many more future filmmakers to come.
New Zealand’s wunderkind and enfant terrible Peter Jackson made his big splash on the cult-movie scene with Dead Alive. Originally released as Braindead, Dead Alive is the godfather of Kiwi gore and the magnum opus of Jackson’s early career. Jackson’s second feature achieved truly remarkable heights: not only does it eclipse the gross-out quotient of his low-budget-shocker-debut Bad Taste, but of any movie ever made before or since. The finale is the greatest gore-fest ever put on celluloid, using 300 litres of fake blood pumped at five gallons per second. Tim Balme wades into battle with a bone-grinding lawnmower, taking out every zombie in sight and drenching an entire living room in showers of blood. The film is a work of both a perverse genius and a hopeless romantic. Yes, guts fly, heads rolls and blood spills, but amidst all the carnage, Braindead is really just a sweet story of innocent love set against a tale of suppression. After annihilating every other zombie at the party, Lionel watches his overbearing mother erupt into an enormous blob-of-a-beast who pulls her son back into her womb. Lionel must fight his way back out, this time separating the umbilical cord once and for all.
There’s a reason why Mario Bava has more of his films appearing on this list than any other filmmaker. Bava is without a doubt, the true master of horror and Kill, Baby… Kill! is all the evidence one needs to earn him that distinction. By 1970, Bava gave the world a different view of vampires and witchcraft and redefined space-opera. The Italian director planted the seeds for both the Giallo and the slasher genre, and in doing so, he also made one of the best anthology films I’ve ever seen. In Mario Bava’s masterpiece, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart stars as a doctor summoned to perform an autopsy in a remote European town, but he discovers that the superstitious villagers are frightened over the ghost of a little girl. The mystery at the center of Kill Baby … Kill! is what makes this movie so special, as all of the victims have actually been manipulated into killing themselves one by one. As with all his films, the plot takes a back seat to the mood and atmosphere, and Kill Baby … Kill! is also his most visually stunning work. The mansion itself is absolutely incredible; conceived 14 years before Kubrick would erect the Overlook and 50 years before Del Toro gave us the Allerdale Hall. The set is used masterfully during the frenzied, nightmarish climax with the characters running about in circles and getting lost in the vertigo-inducing staircases. Kill, Baby, Kill is a marvelous showcase of bizarre sights and sounds that inspire, surprise and thrill audiences with every frame. One of the great ghost stories in the history of cinema, the haunting power of Kill, Baby… Kill! resonates to this very day. Mario Bave is the master of Gothic horror and Kill, Baby, Kill! is his best film.
46. Dawn of the Dead
Released 10 years after Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead sets itself apart in several ways fromits predecessor. Not only is it tonally distinct but Romero abandons the eerie black-and-white photography of its forefather in favor of a brightly lit color canvas. Romero also moves away from the small country setting and into the city. In fact, most of the film takes place in a shopping mall. Working on a much bigger budget, Romero was able to cram in more horror, action, comedy, and social satire than Night. Romero also expands on how he uses his walking dead as metaphors. The film effectively evokes the tensions between pacifist movements and more aggressive social orders of the time while also working as a denouncement of consumer culture. Make-up artist Tom Savini, who also has a small role, created groundbreaking gore effects that set a standard for realism. This time out, the actors are uniformly strong, particularly Ken Foree, who turns in a great performance as Peter. Gaylen Ross shines as Francine, a strong female role, unlike the weak, helpless, and neurotic Barbara from the first film, and gives women someone they can look up to, as Francine becomes a key player in determining the group’s survival. From the spectacular opening newsroom sequence to the shocking National Guard shoot-out in the urban city apartment complex, Dawn sets a tone of impending, inevitable doom. And while some of its cast do make it out alive, the ending of Dawn feels far more depressing than Night, leaving the outlook for humanity as a whole unclear. Fun fact: The film was a collaboration of sorts between Romero and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who helped arrange to finance in exchange for foreign distribution rights. Argento also provided an original score performed and composed by Goblin, the Italian progressive rock group whose music was so effective in Suspiria and Deep Red. Stephen King placed Dawn at the top of his list of the ten best horror films of the year while Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing review, proclaiming it “one of the best horror films ever made.” While admitting Dawn of the Dead to be “gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling,” Roger Ebert pointed out that “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
45. The Sixth Sense
By now, most cinephiles know the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who is able to see and speak to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him. The film established M. Night Shyamalan as a writer and director and introduced the public to his traits, most notably his affinity for twist endings. The film was the second highest-grossing film of 1999 (behind Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), grossing about $293 million domestically and $672 million worldwide. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. There are some people out there who think once you’ve seen the movie and know the twist, The Sixth Sense is no longer a movie you could enjoy watching again, but I wholeheartedly disagree. One can find enjoyment on repeat viewings by carefully examining how well Shyamalan covers his tracks and blocks every shot to perfection. In fact, the look of the film is just as brilliant as the last minute revelation. Shyamalan and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs) focused on what is important for the viewer to see at that moment. In The Sixth Sense, the camera literally feels like our eye, and each frame is meticulously composed and artfully constructed, allowing audiences to take their time sorting things out. Cinema literates know when to expect the unexpected in a thriller, but very few people saw the twist coming thanks to Shyamalan’s careful direction. The Sixth Sense is not only a creepy horror film but a deeply moving drama, and the true reason for its success is that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan cares about his characters and more importantly, makes us care.
David Fincher’s Se7en is a dark, stylish thriller that boasts enough genre trappings to justify its presence on this list. Se7en pales in comparison to Fincher’s best film Zodiac, but regardless, it is one of the 1990s’ most influential box-office successes. This creepy and relentlessly grim shocker features a taut performance by Morgan Freeman, polished gore effects, and an unforgettable ending that not even Brad Pitt’s terrible acting could ruin. Se7en has all the hallmarks of the Giallo or serial killer genres – red herrings, a whodunit mystery, gruesome murders, and a surprise twist ending – but thankfully, it also turns out to be less predictable. One of its strongest aspects is the visuals. There are many unusual and innovative cinematographic techniques, including the opening credit sequence (one of the best of all time) and outstanding production, art, and set design – all of which focus on the seedy, depressing side of Se7en’s anonymous big-city setting. Even the closing credits, which run backward, are noteworthy. Only Fincher’s second feature, after Alien 3, Se7en goes well beyond the usual police procedural or serial killer film thanks to its great script, by first-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. This claustrophobic, gut-wrenching thriller about two policemen’s desperate efforts to stop a serial killer whose work is inspired by gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and wrath, is one of a handful of films based on the seven deadly sins, but also the best.
Ishiro Honda’s grim, black-and-white post-Hiroshima nightmare stands the test of time. This allegory for the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bomb is quite simply a powerful statement about mankind’s insistence to continue to destroy everyone and everything the surrounds us. With just one shot (a single pan across the ruins of Tokyo), Honda manages to express the devastation that Godzilla represents. Since its debut, Godzilla has become a worldwide cultural icon, but very little is said about actor Takashi Shimura, who adds great depth as Dr. Yamane; his performance is stunning. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya originally wanted to use classic stop-motion animation to portray Godzilla, but time and budget limitations forced him to dress actors up in monster suits. Despite this minor setback, Tsuburaya’s scale sets of Tokyo are crafted with such great attention to detail, that in some scenes they don’t even appear to as effects. The film spawned 27 sequels (and counting), inspired countless ripoffs, imitations, parodies, homages, video games, comic books, cartoons, a series of novels for young adults, an American remake, and even an American reboot, soon to be released.
42. King Kong
The granddaddy of all monster movies is arguably King Kong. Decades after its release, no other monster movie approached the high standard of this one. King Kong remains not only a milestone of movie-making but a heartbreaking experience. The stop-motion photographic effects by Willis O’Brien were groundbreaking and the title character, along with Fay Wray, captivated audiences of all ages worldwide. Kong is structured around the classic and familiar theme of Beauty and the Beast, but it is also a movie about making movies. In fact, this movie works as a meta-commentary. Robert Armstrong’s character Carl Denham is modeled on co-director Merian C. Cooper and like him, he is seeking out Kong in hopes to star him in the world’s greatest motion picture. And that is exactly what King Kong became. Every time we watch Kong climb the Empire State Building with the damsel in distress wrapped gently in his giant palm, we hope that things will end well, even though deep down inside, we know it won’t.
41. The Devils
Ken Russell’s The Devils originally carried an X rating— even after several scenes were removed. An entire sequence referred to as “The Rape of Christ” was never shown until recently restored for a special screening at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2010. It remains one of the most powerful and most confrontational films ever to lay assault on the crimes and hypocrisies of the Church. Adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, the story revolves around a liberal-thinking priest in 17th-century France whose womanizing exploits make him unpopular with the Catholic clergy and whose political views make him a liability for Cardinal Richelieu. He is denounced and accused of consorting with the Devil and having sexual activities with the nuns in the town’s convent, most notably Sister Jeanne, an unsatisfied, humpbacked nun who’s fallen in love with him. The Devils, however, is not an attack on religious belief, but an attack on governmental misuse and perversion of religion for its own selfish goals. As Cardinal Richelieu says, “You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns. You have perverted the innocent.” Apart from Ken Russell’s genius direction, the entire village of Loudon is wholly created by legendary filmmaker Derek Jarman. The film always looks great thanks to his dazzling eye-catching sets, and if that wasn’t enough, Russell hired avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies to do the score. Along with Oliver Reed’s powerful, sexually driven performance, and Vanessa Redgrave’s daring portrayal of Sister Jeanne, The Devils is a hypnotizing film and one you’ll never forget.