October, capped as it is by Halloween, is the month most routinely turned to for horror. Some of you out there may even be entertaining yourselves with the 31 days of horror challenge that rattles routinely around social media this month. I’ve been contemplating a best horror films list for quite a while now, always put off by the suspicion that there are great titles out there that I’ve simply still not seen.
That’ll always be the case, however. Here then, is the first part of a countdown of my 50 top horror recommendations.
A word on omissions. While some franchises have been immensely successful, they may not have produced a singular horror experience for me. As such neither A Nightmare On Elm Street, Hellraiser nor Friday the 13th have managed to secure placements. Entrants from each were shortlisted, but 50 quickly becomes a small number and this is, when all’s said and done, a personal list.
Then there are the films that only marginally match the category. Arguements can be made for films like Mulholland Drive and Under The Skin being acceptable as horror features, but they fit more broadly into other genres, and so are not included here. See also serial killer procedurals like The Silence Of The Lambs and Se7en which, while undeniably creepy, feel ill-at-ease with the selections made here. Several Giallo features were also shortlisted, but I’m afraid these too landed outside of the final 50.
And, of course, so many obscurities. Horror is a huge genre and there are a wealth of gems to be discovered that this list doesn’t even glance at. As long as there has been cinema there has been horror cinema. Maybe one day I’ll create a companion list of the less likelies. But, for now, these are the best (in my eyes).
So, without further ado, here’s the first half of the countdown. Better leave the light on…
50. Detention (2011, Joseph Kahn)
If you’re in the mood for: A crazed, sugar-rush-intensive Millennial take on post-modern horror. This high school movie folds a Scream-esque killer into a gonzo story that swirls time travel and 90’s nostalgia into its post-everything vortex along with knowing nods to the likes of The Breakfast Club. Brash to begin with, do persevere, as you’ll find something sharp-witted and brimming with vitality. Keep up with the opening credits if you can; they’re integrated into the relentless action pretty solidly.
49. Ringu (1998, Hideo Nakata)
If you’re in the mood for: Slow rising chills. Gore Verbinski’s remake of 2003 is more polished and possibly benefits from the Hollywood CGI sheen, but Nakata’s original story of a cursed videotape and the ghoul that haunts it is the eerier film. Ringu‘s trump card is the moment pictured above, when the audience’s sense of safety that it’s all ‘just a movie’ is cunningly shattered.
48. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene)
If you’re in the mood for: German expressionistic shadowplay. The oldest film to make the list is this curious tale of a hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit evil deeds. Running to less than 70 minutes, Caligari is a classic in the purest sense, endlessly influential and still capable of a chill or too.
47. Dawn Of The Dead (1978, George A. Romero)
If you’re in the mood for: Bleak social criticism. Romero’s classic follow-up to Night Of The Living Dead is a caustic satire on brainless consumerism, as a band of fleeing survivors hole up at a shopping mall filled with zombies. It’s a tough but worthy two hours, and it remains as on-point a critique of cultural vacuity now as it was nearly 40 years ago. Probably more-so.
46. American Mary (2012, Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska)
If you’re in the mood for: A cold feminist dissection of the American dream. Katherine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) plays the titular Mary Mason, a medical student who slips into the world of underground body modification surgery. Part revenge-thriller, part social commentary, this remains the Soska Sisters’ crowning glory following a slump into a mire of WWE pictures. Here’s hoping they return to passion projects like this one. Isabelle is a force to be reckoned with here, typifying the bravery of this undersung actor.
45. Ganja & Hess (1973, William Gunn)
If you’re in the mood for: Something singularly strange and hypnotic. A landmark in the history of black cinema, this vampire tale was produced by an all-African American cast and crew and mixes naturalistic moments with stretches of disquieting dreamlike melancholy. Almost totally unique. The film was ostensibly lost for many years and has recently been afforded a loving repackage from Eureka! The film stock itself has suffered over the years, but if anything this adds to the mystique of the movie; it looks like something discovered.
44. Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal)
If you’re in the mood for: An underrated sequel that delivers the goods. Following on directly from the events of John Carpenter’s 1978 breakthrough slasher Halloween, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) aren’t quite done with Michael Myers yet in this muscular second chapter that relocates the action to Haddonfield hospital. Carpenter and longtime collaborator Debra Hill took script duties to ensure the continuity held, but credit to Rosenthal for aping and competently matching Carpenter’s sense of bare atmosphere and suspense. Halloween II feels right, which is the best barometer of success for this sensory genre.
43. Under The Shadow (2016, Babak Anvari)
If you’re in the mood for: Something new. Under The Shadow has been out only a few short weeks, but it already feels like a stone cold classic of the genre. This Iranian film has echoes of both Deep Water and The Babadook, but thanks to director Babak Anvari’s determined vision and Narges Rashidi’s committed performance, it stands tall as a masterpiece in its own right. A new voice is here. It’s a slow burn, but it’ll get under your skin, and that final half hour is about as oppressive as modern cinema has any right to be.
42. The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez)
If you’re in the mood for: Found footage at it’s finest. Myrick and Sanchez’s film – the first viral sensation, and an event rarely if ever replicated fully in movie marketing since – kickstarted the still insatiable industry of low-budget shaky-cam psuedo-documentary scares. And it’s still the best of the bunch. Less is more when it comes to The Blair Witch Project which is as much a horror show of slipping sanity as it is a supernatural yarn about witches.
41. Kuroneko (1968, Kaneto Shindo)
If you’re in the mood for: Classic J-horror. Cards on the table; I’ve not seen Onibaba – supposedly the superior of Shindo’s horror films of the period – but nevertheless, Kuroneko is a singularly atmospheric experience telling the tale of a mother and daughter, raped and killed by samurai soldiers, who return as seductive ghosts to traumatise those who pass by their resting place. Eerie and beautiful in equal measure with some delicate and memorable chiaroscuro.
40. Evil Dead 2 (1987, Sam Raimi)
If you’re in the mood for: Bruce Campbell. Sam Raimi’s second Evil Dead film essentially remakes film one (at least, to begin with…) but, like Spinal Tap, turns everything up to eleven. Peter Deming’s breakthrough cinematography, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gonzo practical effects and the breathless spirit of Bruce Campbell combine and forge something magical.
39. The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)
If you’re in the mood for: Slagging off children. Jack Clayton’s awfully British ghost story sees Deborah Kerr losing her marbles in a big old house when she’s hired as maid to two young children. This one’s rife with eerie atmosphere, though has possibly become too notorious for first time viewers who may already know too much…
38. The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
If you’re in the mood for: The best of the classic Hollywood era. The cream of the crop when it comes to the early monster movies of the burgeoning ‘talkies’ period. Whale’s superior sequel is the stuff of dreams and nightmares combined; a supreme style piece that endures completely.
37. Kwaidan (1964, Masaki Kobayashi)
If you’re in the mood for: Elegance. Prestigious Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion) presents a triptych of stories all shot exquisitely on a stage. This stylistic choice reminds the viewer throughout that they’re watching a film – and as such one might expect to feel distanced from the material – but instead the effect is magisterial.
36. Excision (2012, Richard Bates, Jr.)
If you’re in the mood for: Something different. Richard Bates Jr.’s eye-catching debut hides surgical horror within the brightly coloured veneer of suburbia as we follow malcontent teenager Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) as she confronts the impending death of her younger sister and contends with her disapproving mother (Traci Lords). Watch out for the likes of Malcolm McDowell and John Waters in supporting roles. If anyone moans to you that modern horror is all the same, point them in the direction of this spirited and subversive piece of work.
35. Martyrs (2008, Pascal Laugier)
If you’re in the mood for: A truly punishing experience. Martyrs became a cult film from the get-go for its explicit and torturous content, but to watch the thing is something else. In our age of over-exposure it’s quite rare to encounter something not only shocking but devastating, but here it is. The film comes charging remorselessly at the audience from the very beginning. Where it leads… is something else entirely. Have I missed out what it’s about? That’s deliberate.
34. Re-Animator (1986, Stuart Gordon)
If you’re in the mood for: A bloody good time. Gordon’s HP Lovecraft adaptation is beloved for good reason, mixing gruesome effects work and scary circumstances with a healthy sense of fun and mischief. Jeffrey Combs is unforgettable as ethics-deprived medical student Herbert West, intent on re-animating the dead regardless of the consequences. Barbara Crampton and David Gale provide memorable support.
33. Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)
If you’re in the mood for: The menstrual high-school horror high-water mark. Sissy Spacek plays the titular character in De Palma’s initially soft focused and sensitive adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel. Bullied for being different and shameful of her telekinetic abilities, wallflower Carrie turns vengeful tyrant when a prank goes too far, and De Palma accordingly shifts gears to flaunt his own skills as the pyrotechnics take hold.
32. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002, Takashi Shimizu)
If you’re in the mood for: A ghost story with bite. Shimizu’s Japanese original is a real killer, especially when compared with his own bafflingly inert US remake that followed inevitably a couple of years later. There are several in the Japanese series, but this is the pick of the bunch, cranking the tension up by repositioning scares we assume will take place in the shadows of night by having them pop out mercilessly in broad daylight. Scared the bejesus out of me on first approach.
31. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)
If you’re in the mood for: A surreal nightmare. By my count you could make a strong case for labelling at least four out of David Lynch’s ten films as horror movies, but Eraserhead conforms to the title most strongly, even as it blithely refused to conform to much of anything else. The sound design (co-created with Alan Splet) is the real terror hear, as ceaseless howling winds compound this industrial tale of a father’s fear of his own child. Extraordinary.
30. Let The Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
If you’re in the mood for: A vampire movie with a difference. Cult smash on release, Alfredson’s film has lost little of its sensitive bite over the intervening years. Maybe something was lost in translation, but this is one of the few times that the film has genuinely outstripped the source material. Child actor Lina Leandersson is unforgettable as the ages-old vampire trapped in the body of a 12-year-old girl, but it is the story itself, of outsider friendship, that lingers longest in the memory.
29. An American Werewolf In London (1981, John Landis)
If you’re in the mood for: The best mix of laughs and scares. Landis’ comedy horror is just about the best to blend the two sensibilities. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are American students holidaying in Europe who encounter a werewolf on the Yorkshire moors. Recovering in London, Naughton’s David falls for his nurse, Jenny Agutter, but soon some astonishing effects work are destined to place the movie squarely in the horror history books. It’s also dead funny.
28. It Follows (2014, David Robert Mitchell)
If you’re in the mood for: Teenage angst, lust and friendship given a supernatural twist. David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature The Myth Of The American Sleepover was preoccupied with those coming of age years, but this horrific follow-up put his name on the map. Maika Monroe (The Guest) plays Jay; a girl tricked into contracting a curse; a shape-shifting monster that will stalk her at walking pace forever unless she sleeps with someone to pass it on. The film is about accepting mortality; the finale is about accepting that you’re not alone.
27. Night Of The Living Dead (1968, George A Romero)
If you’re in the mood for: That movie that’s always on TV in horror films. You can look up the history of how Night Of The Living Dead arrived without copyright, making it most fledgling horror directors’ go-to choice for a scary flick for characters to be watching on TV; it doesn’t cost them anything. The film itself is worthy of remembrance for many more reasons of course, not least Romero’s progressive and admirable decision to cast a black actor (Duane Jones) as his lead. A significant step forward in horror.
26. Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
If you’re in the mood for: A poem of grief. Boy, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? But in all seriousness, Roeg’s sensitive film is a must for anyone looking to round out their experience of the genre. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play grieving couple John and Laurie Baxter who move to Venice following the death of their daughter so that John came oversee reconstruction work at a church. Laurie, meanwhile, falls under the spell of two spinsters who claim to have supernatural contact with her departed daughter. What transpires is a psychological coiled rope, which tightens to a stunning climax, all with that elliptical editing style; one of the defining characteristics of Roeg’s extraordinary cinema.
More to come…