Let us continue then. Compiling this list hammered home for me the diverse nature of the beast at hand. Horror has so many subcategories. Vampire pictures. Zombie pictures. Portmanteau films. Found footage. And horror arrives at different tempos. There are the zany comedies. The restrained chillers. The gonzo gorefests. The brutally nihilistic. And, as in every sphere, there are the Goliath Hollywood horrors and their smaller, independent cousins to contend with.
Ordering the list was a mixture of weighing perceived importance, legacy, scariness and, well, my own personal preference (this is my site ‘n’ all that). I’m also aware there are many such lists out there. Does mine differ particularly from those that already exist? That’s debatable. Probably not. But it’s mine. So here it is.
25. The Fog (1980, John Carpenter)
If you’re in the mood for: Carpenter in atmospheric, Hitchcockian mode. A largely undersung entry in John Carpenter’s filmography, but a beloved one from my perspective. The Fog opens tellingly with a spooky campfire story, and the film continues in that spirit. Antonio Bay celebrates its centennial, a luminous fog rolls in, bringing with it the ghosts of wronged men with murderous intent. The film splits between a triptych of female leads – Adrianne Barbeau (Carpenter’s then-wife, pictured), Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh – but the real stars here are cinematographer Dean Cundey (whose name you’ll find on plenty of influential 80’s horror pictures and, eventually, the likes of Jurassic Park) and Carpenter himself, whose iconic score lingers long in the memory.
24. Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)
If you’re in the mood for: A technicoloured knife to the throat. It’s funny; a couple of months ago Suspiria would’ve placed much higher, as I’ve held it in high regard since I first saw it, but finally seeing it on the big screen thanks to a series of choices curated by Nicolas Winding Refn somehow tarnished the film for me, revealing a piece of work dated in its approach and content. Detractors might argue this is par for the course with Argento. Nevertheless, there is plenty to recommend here for horror fans, not least the incredible opening 10 minutes which, regardless of everything else, remain unmatched to this day. Suspiria is a garish carnival of horror. Just don’t watch it for nuanced acting or, y’know, subtlety of any kind.
23. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
If you’re in the mood for: A prescient nightmare of virtual reality and extreme voyeurism. Cronenberg’s intelligent surrealist horror film stars James Woods as an incorrigible and corruptible TV executive longing for something ‘tough’ to make his station stand out. He discovers a pirated torture-porn TV show named Videodrome and becomes obsessed with acquiring it, only to find the world warping violently around him. In the process Cronenberg prefigured our age of online personas via Dr. Brian O’Blivion and created a cult hit the has resonated for over thirty years. Debbie Harry takes a notable supporting role here, but credit goes to Cronenberg himself for that pervading atmosphere of dread and the dynamite physical effects team for their ingenuity, even if some cracks have inevitably started to show.
22. The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
If you’re in the mood for: An atmospheric alternative to modern mainstream horror. Eschewing jump scares and generic ghosties for escalating tension and uncertainties, Robert Eggers’ award winning debut is rigorous in its depiction of a past era, as a pious family of pilgrims are ostracised for their religious fervor and left to fend for themselves. Setting up a small farm in the woodland clearing they fall victim to their own in-feuding, pressured by a terrifying outside force. This is an incredible debut with a breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy (worth keeping an eye on). The commitment to period-accurate language gives the film a rigorous sense of plausibility and integrity. Astonishingly good.
21. Scream (1996, Wes Craven)
If you’re in the mood for: The ultimate horror party film. Hosting some festivities for Halloween and searching for a film to play while you sling popcorn at one another? Wes Craven’s post-modern masterpiece is your safest bet. Sure, it mixed things up, gave Craven a second wind and re-lit horror’s guttering candle – which was flickering out by this point in the 90’s – but it’s also, simply, damned good fun, with a killer cast. Trashy, quotable, but simply slick and enjoyable, it spurred a host of imitators and sequels of varying quality (and now even a wholly unrelated TV spin-off), but – as is often the case – the original remains the best.
20. Rosemary’s Baby (1967, Roman Polanski)
If you’re in the mood for: Something quietly disturbing. Polanski’s cinema has always had something of a sour taste. Is this attributable to the man himself? The man behind the art? That’s tough to say. What is for certain is the durability of this unnerving film, in which Mia Farrow’s titular Rosemary comes to believe there is something demonic at hand in the apartment building she and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) have moved into. What’s more, her pregnancy may be at stake. The film’s rising paranoia is stifling and Farrow’s skeletal terror defines it.
19. Les Diaboliques (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
If you’re in the mood for: Good people doing bad things. This superb French chiller sees the two mistresses of a hateful head teacher conspiring to kill him off for good. Having gone through with their plan, however, tensions between them start to fray. Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot are pitch perfect in the lead roles as Nicole and Christina, playing off one another as the film contorts, increasing the viewer’s discomfort beautifully.
18. Cat People (1942, Jacques Tournier)
If you’re in the mood for: Looking over your shoulder. Tournier didn’t deal just in horror movies (a few years later he would direct one of the definitive film noir pictures; Out Of The Past), but with Cat People he helped to change how horror movies were made. Eschewing the movie monsters so popular over the preceding decade, he here works marvels with insinuation as Simone Simon fears she will turn into a dangerous feline if she is intimate with her new husband. The film is at its creepiest in two especially memorable sequences; one in a swimming pool (all lurking shadows), the other one of the most atmospheric extrapolations of the fear that someone or something is following you…
17. Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)
If you’re in the mood for: A silent masterpiece. Pretty soon, F.W. Marnau’s bastardisation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula will be a hundred years old. It is still a sight to behold, a none-more-gothic depiction of a sad, wretched and lonely creature that preys on innocence. Max Schrek is Count Orlock, and his immense physical performance is only matched by Murnau’s eye for an exquisite frame, many examples of which have become iconic images of horror on film. Worthy of your time and respect.
16. You’re Next (2011, Adam Wingard)
If you’re in the mood for: A thrilling example of modern horror. Writer/director team Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard announced themselves to the world with this inversion of home invasion horror expectations, and it’s a small crime that the world largely ignored it. The film has quickly grown a small but faithful following. The film’s genius? It takes the trope of the inevitable ‘final girl’ and gleefully up-ends it. Sharni Vinson’s Erin is a horror heroine to rival Ellen Ripley, dispensing would-be attackers with cunning and verve. The result is a film that becomes more entertaining the longer it plays for. A modern classic which I feel no shame in giving such a high placement.
15. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
If you’re in the mood for: Horror’s greatest bait-and-switch. Hitchcock’s slasher classic is now so well-known that it seems like there’s precious little that can be said that hasn’t been said before. One of the film’s most impressive feats is how it switches perspective by necessity, carrying the audience along with Janet Leigh’s out-of-her-depth Lila Crane, before upending things and asking us to sympathise with eerie psychopath Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Considered trash on release in some quarters, it has rightly gone on to be recognised universally as a classic.
14. The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)
If you’re in the mood for: Horror’s legacy picture. Perhaps the genre’s greatest prestige title; William Friedkin’s The Exorcist endures for horror just as The Searchers does for the Western and 2001: A Space Odyssey does for science fiction. The film is a little austere to be certain, but it still maintains the ability to unnerve and even shock. The physical effects are one thing, but it’s the performances that sell this one, and not just Linda Blair spitting curse words as possessed girl Regan. Key to making this endeavour work are beleaguered mother Ellen Burstyn and skeptical priest Jason Miller. Skip the cobbled-together sequel, but come back for the belated third movie which brings back Lee J Cobb’s detective Lt. Kinderman; it very nearly made this list also, just getting cut at no. 52.
13. The House Of The Devil (2009, Ti West)
If you’re in the mood for: Suspense. Placing this one above The Exorcist might seem controversial, but I genuinely believe The House Of The Devil is a modern masterpiece and one of the most engrossing – and beautifully shot – horror films ever made. Ti West’s self-aware film styles itself as though it were a product of the late 70’s/early 80’s, but this is no cheap cash-in on popular nostalgia to court audience favour. No, The House Of The Devil has the spirit of old horrors also. The build up is slow and deliberate, making the ratcheting suspense almost unbearable. Does the ending live up to this? That’s debatable. But being the babysitter has almost never been scarier. Almost…
12. Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
If you’re in the mood for: The obvious choice. Carpenter’s original, genre-defining slasher may look entirely of its time, but it is, in a real sense, timeless. It’s been aped so often now that those coming to it with fresh eyes may not understand how intense this was on first approach. Carpenter’s lean style, honed already on the likes of Assault On Precinct 13, transforms the safety of suburbia into a place brimming with the potential for horror. Of course, it made Jamie Lee Curtis a star and launched a franchise as unkillable as it’s signature villain.
11. Repulsion (1965, Roman Polanski)
If you’re in the mood for: Internalising everything. Roman Polanski’s monochrome chiller examines a mental collapse from the inside. Catherine Deneuve plays the icy Carol, a sexually repressed young woman whose anxieties are heightened to the point of mania when left to her own devices without her extroverted sister’s watchful eye. Paranoia and schizophrenia set in and Deneuve plays it all with unguessable canniness, keeping the audience pondering whether to root for her or condemn her. Polanski warps the film’s reality creating an intense claustrophobia. This is one that’s been imitated many times, but rarely matched.
10. The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
If you’re in the mood for: Something folksy. Ignore the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage and Hardy’s own failed spiritual sequel The Wicker Tree which limped from view earlier this decade, if you want a near perfect storm of British horror filmmaking, then it’s the 1973 film you want to see. While The Wicker Man lacks to visceral punch to scare viewers, it more than makes up for this through its intelligence and rather singular tone, which dares to mix police procedural with comedy with musical and, finally, with horror. Come for the pickled foreskins, stay for the shining performances from Edward Woodward and especially Christopher Lee in his favourite role.
9. Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979, Werner Herzog)
If you’re in the mood for: Atmosphere. In what is arguably the most successful remake ever made, Werner Herzog takes F. W. Murnau’s aforementioned classic and imbues it with his own inimitable style. And what style it is. The performances may seem a little stilted, but that only adds to the uneasiness. One of the most atmospheric movies ever made and certainly one of the most grimly gothic, Herzog’s film is like a fugue; lilting, drifting, drawing the audience through its inevitable turns. Herzog sticks faithfully to the story, yet the film never bores. And while those performances may indeed be odd, they are no less mesmerising. Klaus Kinski is unforgettable, but so too is the fragile, glacial Isabelle Adjani, and behind them all the haunting score from Popol Vuh. See it in English, see it in German (it was filmed in both), but see it.
8. Eyes Without A Face (1960, Georges Franju)
If you’re in the mood for: A beautiful dark twisted fairy tale. Franju evokes the tropes of classic horror; the mad scientist, the creepy mansion, the poor, lowly monster, and gives the knife a sharp, chilling twist. Christiane (Edith Scob) is the wide-eyed, faceless prisoner of Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) who, with the aid of his willing assistant Louise (Alida Valli), experiments on innocent victims, attempting to sculpt for his captive a brand new face. Hugely influential (it essentially invented surgical horror) but with a disarming beauty steeped into every shadow in every frame, Franju’s film is a respected and austere horror masterpiece. Make the time for it.
7. The Night Of The Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
If you’re in the mood for: Some real American gothic. The Night Of The Hunter was not well received on it’s released and as a result Charles Laughton never directed another film, depriving us of a body of work we can only dare to imagine. The film has been reevaluated since and is presently thought of generally as one of the greatest American films ever made. Robert Mitchum is iconic as the bastard priest Harry Powell with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles. He marries divorcee Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in order to root out hidden riches on the property, but doesn’t count on her cunning children. Their escape – and his pursuit – down river is one of the most beautiful things you’ll see in a film, essentially creating the aesthetic of Tim Burton. But there are haunting treasures everywhere. Witness the car underwater with Willa’s hair streaming like reeds. For fans of HBO’s cult supernatural drama Carnivale, this is especially worth a visit, as it provided conspicuous influence.
6. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
If you’re in the mood for: A blockbuster. The first. People always seem mildly surprised lately when a horror film does well at the box office in the crowded and often silly summer season, forgetting that Spielberg’s best film (there I said it) was the one that created the season we’ve come to recognise ever since. The shark looks a little dated, but at the time it was a landmark in practical effects work. And besides, there are plenty other reasons to tune in if you haven’t managed to previously, not least of which is the joyous male bonding exhibited between Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider which Spielberg doubles down on come the second half. Every great director has an early film in which their eminent skills coalesce into something special. This is Spielberg’s.
5. The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
If you’re in the mood for: Second guessing everything. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing From Another World arrived in the summer of 1982 at the same time as the more cutesy and likely alien story E.T. Bad timing. Carpenter’s film tanked and the world speedily moved on… But not completely. The Thing quickly found itself reappraised as one of the greats of its era, and the passing of time has only been kinder to it. Kurt Russell sears the screen as survivor-at-all-cost MacReady in this sci-fi tale of a creature that can mimic human form in order to take people over. Readily echoing real world fears of the AIDS virus, the film quite appropriately gets under the skin, and the visual effects work still looks impressive to this day. Throw in a bleak, ambiguous ending and you’ve got yourself a stone cold classic.
4. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
If you’re in the mood for: A family feud. Kubrick’s gigantic, sterile, oppressive style collides with Stephen King’s spectacular source material for one of horror’s tent-pole titles. King hated this version and later would spearhead a calamitous TV movie which, while more faithful to the text, fails in virtually every other respect. It’s a shame that King rather missed the point. Yes, Kubrick changed the story, but he did so with good reason, sculpting a warped, pretentious but fascinating picture about disintegrating familial love. Jack Nicholson gives an iconic (if hardly subtle) performance as Jack Torrance, the caretaker going round the bend in the Colorado mountains. UK viewers can now also see the extended US cut thanks to a recent home release. It features 24 minutes of extra material which curiously tips the vantage point from Jack’s to Wendy’s (Shelley Duvall). Regardless of which version you watch, this is one of the biggies, and it’s really pretty essential.
3. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
If you’re in the mood for: A haunted house in space. The birth of something truly terrifying, Ridley Scott’s second feature as director announced him as modern cinema’s premiere aestheticist. Alien drips with cool style from beginning to end, and presents us a vision of space travel as grimy, workman-like, beautifully tough. Surrealist H. R. Giger famously came on board and gave Scott the iconic nasty which the crew of the Nostromo are terrorised by, in the process delivering one of horror’s most enduring monsters. And then there is Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, situated in the middle of everything, ready to revolutionise the genre and bring women kicking into the foreground. Alien manifests instinctual fears of violation and sexual assault and processes them into a perfectly paced thrill-ride. A masterpiece.
2. Audition (1999, Takashi Miike)
If you’re in the mood for: A trap. Miike’s film is a trap. Luring you in with the promise of horror, Miike confounds expectations and presents a rather tepid romantic drama as widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) courts wallflower ballet girl Asami (Eihi Shiina) under the pretext that she will play the lead role in a film he is producing. The more Aoyama learns about Asami, however, the most sinister her past becomes and, as this happens, Miike bends the reality of the film to a nerve-shredding degree, contorting the experience into an accelerating ride of uncertainty. The film’s final half hour sees everything snap and Audition reveals itself cruelly for what it is. The trick is that Miike had you all along – you knew what you’d turned up for – but the way he gets you there is, from a filmmaking standpoint, astonishingly impressive. Second place may seem unusual, but I firmly believe this to be one of the genre’s perfect films. It’ll make you cower, but the method is faultless.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)
If you’re in the mood for: Terror. Tobe Hooper’s film has singular intent. Lean as they come, focused as they come, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film about horror. From its opening titles it looks like something someone dug up out of the ground. Beautifully shot as it is, there’s a seething, burned out, forsaken quality to the movie, even before Sally (Marilyn Burns) and co. rock up at the worst house in the world. The routine has become cliché – a VW van full of teenagers making naive choices out in the sticks and are terrorised by a backward family of cannibals – but the execution here is astonishing. In Leatherface, horror was presented a carnival geek with a curious psychology (in spite of everything there’s almost something sympathetic about this terrifying manchild), but Hooper’s film is full force about putting the audience through their paces. The chase sequence in the middle of the picture is one of the most exhilarating in cinema history. The dinner scene one of the most uncomfortable. There’s no messing about at the end either. Once The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has done what it came here to do, it is gone. Leaving the viewer to live with it. The most enjoyable film on the list? No. The scariest? For me, absolutely definitely.
Enjoy your Halloween.