For Halloween this year, I decided to tackle a list of my favorite horror movies. These are the ones that had an impact on me the first time I saw them. Some of them fill me with nostalgia. Some are just damned great movies. They aren’t all necessarily the best, but they’re mine, and depending on my mood, I might change my mind about them tomorrow. The number of titles, 15, is completely random; if I’d kept going, this list would have run into the hundreds.
You’ll also notice more than half the titles on this list were released in the 1970s, a decade referred to as the last great era of filmmaking, when writers and directors, not studios and producers, had final say on what an audience would see on the screen. It’s sort of inexplicable to me, but I have a passion for 70s horror that runs deep. Real, real deep.
15. Friday the 13th (1980)
Produced and marketed for under a million dollars, Paramount Pictures released Friday the 13th on more than a thousand screens in May of 1980. People lined up around the block to watch the movie about a killer picking off counselors at a summer camp, and Paramount made millions. Thanks to cleverly-constructed practical make-up effects by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, The Burning, The Prowler), mass audiences were blindsided by graphic killings — a practice reserved for the sleaziest grindhouse movies at the time — and a new era of film violence emerged. Loaded with creepy atmosphere and a sense of isolation and doom, Friday the 13th is one of the best examples of the American slasher invasion of the late-20th century. Watch it with a fresh eye for its originality, and not the bad 80’s hair and clothes.
14. The Conjuring (2013)
One of the best horror movies in decades, a near-perfect mix of The Exorcist and Poltergeist that manages to be scary as hell. Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston) move their children into an old, dilapidated house that’s clearly inhabited by something not human. Enter husband and wife parapsychology team, Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), who try to help the Perron’s rid their house of the unclean spirit. During the screening I was at, I heard grown men literally gasp when Carolyn’s chair levitated off the basement floor. This is expert, intense horror that’s unsuitable for kids, despite the absence of blood, foul language, and sex.
13. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Set in Britain (but filmed largely in Italy), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a great zombie movie that’s leagues better than anything else in the genre. Scientists testing a bug-killing machine unwittingly bring the dead back to life, resulting in a killing spree along the English countryside. Unfortunately, an over-zealous cop suspects two hipsters of the crimes. A unique blend of lush, gorgeous cinematography and violent, realistic gore, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie starts off at a deliberate pace, but picks up speed as the carnage increases. George who?
12. The Other (1972)
As disturbing as it is gentle, The Other examines the lives of a young boy and his twin brother during one summer in1920s Connecticut. Problem is, one of them is mentally unbalanced. Lazy afternoons and meadow grass that sways in the breeze are juxtaposed against long silences and shadows and several vicious murders. The late great Uta Hagen plays the twins’ grandmother, Ada, who has imparted a special mental gift to one of the boys; she’s exceptional. But the real stars here are brothers Chris and Martin Udvarnoky, who shine in the only film they ever made. Beautiful, poetic, classic. One of the most underrated genre films ever made.
11. The Thing (1982)
Four words come to mind when I think of The Thing: violent, gory, disturbing and cold. John Carpenter took the basic premise of 1951’s The Thing from Another World and turned it on its ear by focusing more on horror and less on science fiction. A group of scientists at an arctic research outpost are terrorized by an alien that assumes the form of the host it invades. Carpenter went for broke with groundbreaking special effects: bodies are twisted and ripped, exploded, and otherwise torn asunder in countless ways as the lifeform makes its way through the station. The men band together to survive, until fear and paranoia begin to tear them apart. Holds up remarkably well today as a superb example of pure, unalloyed horror.
10. Black Christmas (1974)
Slasher movies can be incredibly effective when made well, and Black Christmas is one of the best examples. It’s also become the gold standard for holiday-related horror. A sorority house closing down for the holiday break is infiltrated by an unseen killer, who terrorizes the girls and their alcoholic housemother with obscene phone calls before turning to murder. Director Bob Clark, who would go on to make another legendary holiday movie, A Christmas Story, creates loads of creepy atmosphere and tension by making the house seem much more cavernous than it is, giving the killer untold places to hide. The cleverness of the murders (a unicorn paperweight is put to good use) would be copied for decades to come in everything from Halloween to Friday the 13th. A classic.
9. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The granddaddy of exploitation movies. A university professor wades deep into the Amazon to retrieve the last remaining trace of a documentary film crew that disappeared there: a reel of film. Back at the university, the professor and his colleagues watch the reel and discover exactly what happened to the crew. An exercise in depravity and violence that actually earns and deserves the title of The Most Controversial Movie Ever Made. Cannibal Holocaust was so successful in its effect upon first release, that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested for suspicion of making a snuff film. Notoriety aside, Cannibal Holocaust is actually pretty good filmmaking (excluding the real animals that are killed on-screen, ostensibly as food for the natives). The on-location jungle shoots, commitment of the cast, and horrifying make-up effects achieve a disturbing level of gritty realism, and there’s an interesting social subtext that questions the nature of true human savagery. Cannibal Holocaust also happens to be the first found-footage film, to which The Blair Witch Project and countless others owe a debt of gratitude. Should only be watched in the “animal cruelty-free” version on DVD or Blu-ray.
8. Halloween (1978)
The one and only. John Carpenter’s trend-setting slasher film that, while not the first, was certainly the most influential in modern horror. It’s a simple concept: a young boy murders his sister, is institutionalized, and then escapes years later to wreak havoc in his old stomping ground. Carpenter earned deserved comparisons to Hitchcock for his uncanny method of building suspense: his masked killer is always present in the frame, but hiding just in the periphery — or, perhaps somewhere in the background. Or maybe behind a tree. Or in the back of a car. Jamie Lee Curtis is effective as a normal teenage girl caught up in an abnormal situation, and her friends (and victims) would prove to be the genesis of every lazy horror movie archetype to come. Curtis’ final showdown with Michael Myers is among the greatest stretches of celluloid in film history; the sequence in the closet, alone, is a masterstroke of tension.
7. Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
The day Mario Bava eschewed gialli and supernatural horror for an out-and-out slasher flick. One of the earliest, if little seen, examples of the genre. After a man murders his wife at their lakefront home, all the relatives jump in for a piece of the inheritance. Murder and mayhem ensue, including the brutal slaying of a group of teens who happen upon the property. Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) would eventually be outright plagiarized in Friday the 13th Part 2, in 1981: a machete to the face, two naked bodies speared to a bed like a bug on a pin — plus throatcutting, a hanging, a beheading, and sundry other methods of execution. Bava, one of the great early Italian horror maestros, held nothing back here, in what turned out to be one of his best films. Deserves even broader support and acclaim as a classic than it already has.
6. Peeping Tom/Psycho (1960)
Paired together for their incalculable influence on modern horror, Peeping Tom and Psycho share many of the same qualities: Both are about damaged men with sketchy family histories. Both contain undercurrents of sexual repression. Both were directed by Brits, although Psycho was an American production. And both influenced the way mainstream audiences viewed cinematic sex and violence. Peeping Tom was the more controversial movie at the time because it was more explicit — and just a little sleazier — than Psycho in its portrayal of a psychotic loner. But Norman Bates stuffed his mother and dressed in her clothes, so I can’t see how that’s any less disturbing. Peeping Tom and Psycho stand heads and shoulders above all other psycho-slasher movies, not because they were the first, but because they’re the best.
5. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick may have driven his cast and crew nearly insane with his erratic and protracted filming of Stephen King’s acclaimed novel, but the result has entered into the horror lexicon, an operatic portrait of alcoholism and mental instability played out against the backdrop of a haunted hotel. Jack Nicholson took much heat for his performance as Jack Torrance — he was too crazy too soon — but few could imagine anyone else in the role now; his “here’s Johnny” moment after axing his way through a door has become the stuff of legend. It may detour sharply from King’s original text, but Kubrick’s vision is as haunting as anything ever caught on film: twin girl ghosts in the halls, the lady in the bathtub, a snow-swirled chase through a giant hedgemaze, Danny’s friend Tony, REDRUM, and that clanging, booming, deep-baroque score. It doesn’t get much better than this.
4. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Charles Laughton’s surrealist nightmare about a psychotic preacher who pursues a pair of children through the swamps is a masterful achievement, both as a genre film and as a cinematic landmark. Robert Mitchum, his knuckles tattooed with the struggle between love and hate, gives one of the eeriest performances in film history as Harry Powell, a charlatan who finds himself in a bind when the children of the woman he marries and then kills discover his crime. Powell’s extended pursuit of the children is exquisite in its beauty, as shadows extend along every surface, and trees twist and gnarl into grotesque shapes, seeming to reach for the fleeing quarry. The black-and-white photography is among the most extraordinary you’ll ever see. The narrative takes on a fairy-tale quality when the children seek refuge in the home of a kindly woman with a protective streak, who wields a shotgun like a trained assassin. One of the all-time great movie-going experiences.
3. Supiria (1977)
Something must’ve snapped in Dario Argento’s brain when he made what is surely the most purely cinematic horror film in history, a dreamy schizoid fantasy that relies almost solely on its remarkable visual cues for effect. Suzie Bannion attends a dance academy in Germany, only to discover that its professors are part of something wholly evil. As Suzie attempts to uncover the academy’s secrets, her fellow students meet grisly deaths. The story is slight, the dialogue stilted. But Argento fills each and every frame with wild geometric set designs, howling wind and rain, deep shadows, and rich reds and blues that look like the inside lining of a child’s nightmare. It’s a startling palette punctuated by several brutal murders, including what is widely considered the most violent and disturbing opening sequence ever put on film. Suspria came at a time when Argento was thought to be one of the best horror directors in the world after a series of successful giallo films, including the highly-respected Deep Red; but his career suffered tragically in the 1990s and he never recovered. Nevertheless, we can be grateful that we have his greatest films preserved for generations to come, and Suspiria stands triumphantly at the top of the heap.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist stands as one of the great movies, precisely because it chooses to present its controversial subject matter in a direct and unflinching way. It takes little time to set up the premise: a famous actress seeks help for her daughter, who seems to be possessed by an unclean spirit. She finds solace in two priests: one old and very familiar with this particular foe; one young and questioning his allegiance to God and the church. An exorcism brings them together, testing their faith in humanity and each other as they battle for the girl’s soul. The Exorcist is an exercise in unimaginable emotional pain and misery, but an even more frightening display of graphic violence: Linda Blair was put through hell as the possessed Regan, who vomits on a priest, has her head spin around 360 degrees, and, in one of the movie’s most sickening transgressions, masturbates with a crucifix. The movie carries a startling dramatic weight through the Oscar-nominated performances by Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s suffering mother and the late Jason Miller as the questioning Jesuit, Father Damian Karras, and Max Von Sydow is very good as the elder priest at the end of the line. Even forty years later, The Exorcist is still first-rate horror, and even better cinema.
1. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s 1979 shocker redefined the science-fiction/horror hybrid, and quickly established itself as a classic. The story is well-known by now: an interstellar mining ship hones in on a distress beacon on a derelict planet, and finds a crashed alien ship that was carrying a cargo of eggs. One of the eggs hatches a parasite that attaches itself to the face of one of the crew. The unlucky guy is brought back on board and…well, poor Kane, we hardly knew ye. Alien makes the top of my list because I consider it a perfect film that tells its compact story with minimal fuss while piling on the tension and shocks. Nothing extra, no false digressions. All horror, pure and simple, despite the setting of outer space. The alien could be anywhere on the ship, and because it continues to grow as it kills, no one knows what it might look like or how big it might get. When it strikes, it strikes with frightening speed and efficiency. The narrow corridors almost seem to close in on the crew with unbearable weight as they search the ship, thereby increasing the sense of claustrophobia. Most surprising is how insidiously the screenplay sets up the crew as your average working-class stiffs who just want to get paid a fair wage, and who never thought they’d end up battling for their lives against a formidable predator. They’re a sympathetic bunch that we grow to care about, making it that much more heartbreaking when they get picked off. Many horror movies grow stale after multiple viewings, but Alien remains one of the few that seems to get better and better with age. It’s a great film