What makes a frightening movie? Sometimes, it’s moments: A single image, like the blank eyes of the children in the original Village of the Damned or Kathy Bates maniacally smashing James Caan’s leg, or the terror of waiting for that doorknob to turn. Sometimes, it’s suspense: Who really lives in that house up the hill? And sometimes, it’s relentless gore or torture. But a truly great films combines elements and tells a story. A few years ago, Eli Roth’s Hostel was being touted as a great horror film (or criticized as little more than torture porn), but when I saw it I was disappointed. It was a scary idea: Crazies kidnap tourists and allow rich folks to torture them—kind of like The Most Dangerous Game meets Texas Chainsaw. But it didn’t get beyond the idea, and it ended up being a really gory action flick. It was certainly one of the better films of its kind, but it was hardly great. Great horror stays with you. A great horror film has an idea or a theme that inspires other films not just to copy it, but to improve upon it.
The 20 films listed below don’t include any of the 1930s classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Invisible Man. These are all excellent movies that I adore and have watched over and over, but by today’s standards, they just aren’t scary. My kids see them and are almost bored by them. The films on my list are frightening, creepy things that come home with you from the theater and sit under your bed, waiting for you to fall asleep.
So the citerion here is just this: Fear. There’s lots of great horror movies that didn’t make it because . . .
- Suspira and Nosferatu didn’t make it because it’s not American!
- An American Werewolf in London didn’t make it because it was just too damn funny.
- The Descent didn’t make it because, although it was scary to watch, it didn’t stay with me. It’s hard to be scared by spelunking because, frankly, I’ve never done it and don’t plan to. Kinda like trying to be scared by Jaws in the desert.
- Night of the Hunter didn’t make it because it was unsettling, but not scary.
- Brundlefly didn’t make it because it’s more of a love story than a horror movie.
Which brings us to what did make it. . .
20. Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1982). Evil Dead II is not just one of my favorite horror movies, it’s one of my favorite movies period. I admit, it’s more comedy than horror, but many of the images in it haunted me for weeks after I saw it. I wasn’t a big fan of the first one, although I recognize it as a valuable work, because in my view it didn’t have a center. Great horror should have a thesis, whether it be social commentary or a study of a particular aspect of human nature. Evil Dead II deals with the horror of being alone, and trapped within a body that hates you. As a person with a disability, I can relate. And Bruce Campbell proves himself to be as good a physical comic as John Cleese and an even better scenery chewer than Al Pacino. All around, this incredible movie cemented Sam Raimi as not just one of the best horror directors out there, but one of the best directors, period, going on to show his skills in films like Darkman, The Quick and the Dead (Sharon Stone’s best film), A Simple Plan, and, of course Spideys 1-3. And he often teams up with Bruce, one of my favorite actors–don’t miss Bruce in Bubba Ho-Tep, a vastly underrated classic.
19. The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006). This is a remake of Wes Craven’s groundbreaking 1977 film, reimagined by the men responsible for the French horror film Haute Tension (a truly great, but not American, horror movie). It’s mostly a bunch of scary mutants stalking a family, and in that way it is pretty similar to Texas Chainsaw. It’s also similar in its unflinching brutality. Of all the remakes that have come out in recent years (Prom Night, The Hitcher, House of Usher, The Fog, etc.), this is one of the few that improves on the original. It’s also an example of the rare film that was able to really freak me out, and I’m a jaded horror fan who has seen just about everything.
18. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). This may be the least “scary” movie on this list, and I’ve generally gone only with fright as the critierion here—there’s plenty of brilliant horror movies that don’t really scare me, but I love them—yet I had to put Invasion here because the concept of it is so unsettling, and so provocative. How many of you never had the paranoid thought that someone you knew just wasn’t themselves anymore? This is the realization of that fear. Director Don Siegel was later blacklisted as a communist by McCarthy’s House on Unamerican Activities, which is ironic because the film condemns the centralization of power in a majority and encourages individual differences.
17. The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963). One of the few black and white films that can still create tension and fear in viewers is this filming of Shirley Jackson’s novel, in which the best actor is . . . The house itself. All angles and shadows, hiding places and creaks, Wise created a living organism that stalked its residents. It didn’t hurt that Julie Harris was extraordinary as the survivor of childhood hauntings and Claire Bloom was wonderfully creepy as the ghostbuster who tries to save her.
16. Saw (James Wan, 2002). You can give me crap about going for the torture porn here, but Saw had a lot more to it than pure sadism. The intricate plot actually made sense, and the villain was a completely plausible (albeit insane) puzzle-making madman. One thing you may be surprised to learn: It was written by a woman. It also gets kudos for not torturing naked women, thus relying not so much on sexual titillation as the depiction of pure, animalistic rage and fear. And, of course, pain. All of the sequels suck, and, worse, they cheapen the power of the original by making it appear formulaic. For some reason, with me the Saw films are made worse by their successors in a way that isn’t the same with Freddy and Michael Meyers. Maybe it’s because there’s not that much to do with Jigsaw—he’s not that interesting. What made Saw so great was the drama between two men, stuck in a room, trying to figure out how far they were willing to go to survive. The other films, by focusing on the gore and the villain, lack that human element.
15. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982). Most haunted house movies leave me cold, with the exceptions of “House,” “The Uninvited,” and this classic. In addition to great acting and a well-done script, there are so many spooky scenes and images here: The clown doll’s face during the storm and little Carol Ann crying out through the house are two that stayed with me for weeks, in addition to the creepy “Come children, all welcome” lady and the gave-in-the-pool. Oh, and the shot of the guy tearing off his own face. I watched this recently with my 7-year-old, and it freaked him out so much . . . That he wants to see it again. Hooper is a horror genius, and the only dude with two films on this list. Other than Hitch.
14. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). It actually scared people into taking baths rather than showers. ‘Nuff said.
13. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004). Huh? Putting the remake on the list, but not the original? Sacrilege! The original George Romero Dawn of the Dead is, without a doubt, the most influential zombie film in cinematic history and is a truly great movie. But what it did was move zombies out of the realm of horror and into the realm of action. Romero’s Dawn is all guns and gore, and there’s little in it that I’ve ever found chilling or unsettling. In fact, much of it is pretty funny. The 2004 remake, however, is absolutely terrifying. First, unless you consider 28 Days to be a zombie movie (it isn’t one because, technically, the monsters are normal people infected with a virus, not dead people coming back to life), Snyder’s film is the first time we see zombies with the powers of real people. These guys don’t shamble or moan for brains, they run, claw, punch, and tear. There are so many scary scenes in this movie, but the real power here is in the opening credit montage of news stories about zombies. The film borrows heavily from the original, but has a very different thesis, and goes places that the original film did not dare to tread.
12. Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). What’s a cop movie doing here? Simple: If you saw this and said there wasn’t one thing about it that freaked you out, you’re a liar. It could have been just about anything: the flung semen, the fake vagina dance, the lotion, the knowing, measured tones of Hannibal Lecter . . . Something here had to get you where you live. A rare example of a film honored by Oscar and fans of horror alike, this may not be a traditional fright flick, but it was certainly frightening. And like so many other movies on this list, don’t bother with the cheap imitations of the sequels.
11. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002). Boyle may be the most versatile of all the directors on this list, capable of making audiences feel nauseous from violence (Shallow Grave (1994)), horrified by unflinching frankness (Trainspotting (1996)), elated and hopeful (Slumdog Millionaire (2008)), bored (The Beach (2000)) and, with 28 Days later, terrified. The only reason this film doesn’t rate higher on this list is because the films above it are just as powerful, but from its spacious, quiet shots of an abandoned London to its depiction of military occupation, Boyle makes us question whether it is better to control anarchy through guns and soldiers, or to accept that sometimes flesh should be consumed. A powerful examination of the proper role of government, coupled with a shattering study of what it means to be alive . . . And dead. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is just as good, but is more of a war film than a horror movie. (Although technicallly not an American film, it’s English speaking and fuck all I want it here.)
10. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963). How can I put this film above Psycho? Easy. The Birds made a greater impression on me than any other film on this list. Even in High School, I would rush through when I had to walk under an elevated train because I was nervous about the pigeons tucked into the recesses of the architecture, cooing ominously. Hitchcock’s use of sound in this film was particularly excellent, eschewing music in favor of silence interrupted by pecks and taps and then overcome by screaming.
9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). I have to admit, having read the book, the first time I saw this it didn’t really impress me. But as the weeks went on, and, much later, after I saw it again (and again), I cam to appreciate the Kubrick constantly shifts the focus from the evil of the house, to the insanity of being married to an alcoholic, to the frightening ability of a child to see through all the deception his parents use to keep him from the truth. There are layers to this film that I’m not even sure Stephen King himself intended.
8. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). The coolest looking movie monster ever, and the inspiration (in my book) for the X-Men’s “brood” aliens, the original Alien was one of the earliest sci fi noir films, along with Scott’s other classic, Blade Runner. This film pitted the ultimate human female against the ultimate alien mother. By putting the action in space, utilizing the claustrophobic dark and shadowy interior of a spaceship, it proved that action films could also be well written, suspenseful, and genuinely frightening.
7. The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986). Rutger Hauer’s most terrifying performance. Where everyone cites the dangers of hitchhiking, few imagine that the real danger is in picking one up. And having him turn out to be a stalker. Don’t bother with the remake, stick with this low-key horror flick starring C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Much of it is simply conversation: Tense, terrifying, homoerotic conversation, which builds to increasing mayhem. And besides, sawed off shotguns are always cool.
6. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). While I can’t imagine that there will be too much argument over the movies above this one, I can see some folks complaining that I ranked this film as scarier than The Shining, Psycho, The Birds, or even Silence of the Lambs. To them I say: This film still scares me. I, like thousands of Americans, am irrationally afraid of what’s swimming around me at the beach. There are a negligible number of shark attacks every year, and yet if you ask people what’s scary about the beach, few people will cite the possibility of being crippled by a crashing wave, skin cancer, stepping on a horseshoe crab, or floating medical waste, all far more common causes of death or serious injury. The genius of this film is that it is little more than a monster movie, only you barely even see the monster and, more importantly, it takes place almost entirely in daylight.
5. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Like several other movies on this list, The Exorcist benefitted greatly from its source material, William Peter Blatty’s terrifying novel. The gruesome effects are part of the reason this film continues to thrill (rotating heads and projectile vomit, to name a few), but the fearless and unflinching depiction of a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil is the reason the film continues to be notorious. A film that was so terrifying to make, the director actually held a real exorcism on the set. Another remarkable aspect of the film is that it takes place almost entirely in one room, yet feels like it is constantly in motion.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). As between Freddy and Reagan, the 4th and 5th slots are pretty much even. Nightmare edges Exorcist out not because it’s scarier, but because its director is also responsible for some of the scariest films in history—and he’s the first of my three favorite horror directors spotlighted in this list. What Nightmare did better than any other film before it (or since) was incorporate fantasy elements and special effects, such as the phone-with-the-tongue, the upside-down bedroom, the face of Freddie, without becoming campy or sci-fi. The only thing left to say about this movie is that even The New York Times appreciated it, which makes it kind of like the Deep Throat of monster movies. Johnny Depp’s presence is just sprinkles on top here, the true artist is Wes. Here’s my top 5 other Craven films, from best to less best: The Last House on the Left (1972); Scream (1996); The People Under the
Stairs (1991); Scream 2 (1997); The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
And for another sidebar, check out my post ranking all the Nightmare and Halloween sequels, here.
3. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). I first saw this movie on television, where it was censored and abridged, and it still scared the pants off me. In particular, the scene where Jamie Lee looks out the window and sees Michael carrying a body up the front steps of a typical suburban porch. This wasn’t gory or shocking, it was simple and straightforward: Here is a force for evil, and it’s walking into a house. It’s this matter-of-fact way of telling a horrifying tale that makes John Carpenter’s simple films so frightening. This was the first “stalker” film, and is often credited as being the father to the single-slasher-splatter genre. While I can’t agree (this view discounts Hitchcock’s Psycho), I do agree that Carpenter’s camerawork and script were nothing short of brilliant—the perfect balance of tension and motion. It’s no coincidence that Carpenter’s resume also includes a bunch of great noir-y/horror/action flicks,
like The Thing (1982), an incredible remake that almost made my top 20 list, as well as, in order of greatness, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), They Live (1988), Escape from New York (1981), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It’s also no coincidence that he’s capable of movies with real emotional depth, like Starman (1984), because in order to truly scare an audience, you have to be able to make them care about the people in the film. (This is why Hostel ultimately is a flat film. It’s also why Texas Chainsaw is even more brilliant—because the victims are, in many cases, jerks, yet we still feel for them.) There’s a reason there were so many sequels to this film. Along with two others on this list, Carpenter is one of my three favorite horror directors of all time. For other recommended horror viewing, check out, in this order, Christine (1983), Prince of Darkness (1987), and the somewhat uneven but conceptually chilling The Fog (1980). And lastly, I want to make sure to note that not every sequel to Halloween sucked wind. Some are pretty good. Here’s my list, from better to bad, of all the sequels.
2. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1969). I was eight years old when my dad took me to see this at a movie theater in Tenant’s Harbor, Maine. I don’t know what he was thinking. I made it to the part where the zombie is bashing Margaret’s car door with a brick when my mom took me out to the parking lot, where we sat in the car waiting for my dad to finish watching the movie so we could go home. Then, I slept on the floor of their bedroom for seven days. And I couldn’t wait to be scared again. By far the lowest budgeted movie on this list, Romero created a masterpiece by avoiding special effects or color, using overamplified crickets to hide the bumps and thumps of the boom mike, and not even bothering with a long, drawn out explanation of how the dead had come back. The horror starts in the first few minutes, when a tall but otherwise unremarkable man in a dark suit shambles towards the camera, and it never stops. I’d put
Romero as one of the top three splatter directors in history, based on the sequel to this film, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, and the two sequels after that, Land of the Dead (2005) and Day of the Dead (1985), as well as a slew of other damn good horror efforts from the well-known Creepshow (1982) to the lesser-known (The Dark Half (1993), Monkey Shines (1988), Martin (1977)). He’s certainly the best director of zombies . . . No one can get a performance out a flesheater like my man George. I didn’t care for last year’s Diary of the Dead—the jittery camerawork made me sick to watch—but I’ve heard there’s another “of the dead” film in the offing this year. Can’t wait.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). It was incredibly difficult to rank these films, and truly several of them could have switched places on the list depending on my mood when I was writing this. But when it came to number one, there was no doubt. Tobe Hooper’s splatter classic began the rise of popularity in truly terrifying films and foreshadowed the pseudo documentary style (i.e., Blair Witch) and torture porn. Easily as primal as Last House on the Left and as gory as either Dawn of the Dead, Hooper’s genius is evident on every level: The art of the house, with its hanging birdcages and filthy walls; the incredible casting of unknowns with unforgettable faces; the sound effects; the grainy, you-are-there quality of the film. On repeated viewings, I have found myself impressed that Hooper could create a role for a wheelchair-bound cripple that is so . . . mean! And then, just as we realize he’s a nasty s.o.b., Hooper suddenly kills the guy, taking the viewer on a rollercoaster not just of suspense but of sympathy as well. And Leatherface’s first appearance, literally exploding on to the scene, is one of the most terrifying images in movie history. Put that together with the more subtle horror of the dinner scene, in which the viewer feels like he is watching a rape that never actually happens, and the final chainsaw dance, reveling in the grotesque and leaving things unresolved, and you get the scariest movie ever made. Period. There cannot be debate on this point.
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