Horror movies are a fickle beast. Many acclaimed horror movies do little for me (to name a few famous horror films I’m not a huge fan of: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Suspiria, The Evil Dead, J-Horror like Ringu and The Grudge…) and many movies I would call great horror some probably wouldn’t categorize as horror (the works of David Lynch, for instance). Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about the definition of horror I decided to pick six (well, seven…) films for this list most would agree on being some sort of horror. I love all these films anyway, there just might be one or two I could replace with something more unusual for my ultimate favorite list. You’ll probably also notice the newest film here is from 1990. I really don’t think there have been very many truly great horror films made since then and most of the good ones really work better on other levels then being scary (Scream and Cabin in the Woods, for instance, are mostly just clever and funny though they still scare a little as well). Also all of these I saw for the first time as a kid or a young teen so they’ve stuck with me for a while, as an adult I get harder to impress and scare.
But ’tis a season to be scary and to celebrate Halloween here are my favorite horror flicks of all time (in no particular order):
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s finest and one of the creepiest movies ever made, as well as quite funny. One of those rare films that combines humor (albeit very dark and sly humor) and horror effectively and maintains a good balance between the two, as well as sometimes being both at once. The creepiness is mostly done by suggesting, rather than showing, and in fact not very much is shown here and that’s just fine. Polanski does a masterful job of evoking an uncanny atmosphere and keeps the viewer on edge the whole time, by not doing very much. And when he does show something, it’s pretty darn effective (like the “is-it-a-nightmare-or-isn’t-it” scene where she gets fucked by the devil). And of course, that eerie-as-fuck score… The standout here, though, is clearly a certain Ruth Gordon who’s just fabulous, as probably the creepiest little old lady in cinema history.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s horror classic has been deemed by many as going way too far in its gruesomeness but in fact it would be as effective otherwise. Even by showing a lot it still manages to keep things unclear as you’re absolutely never sure what is and isn’t what it’s supposed to be. It’s also superbly acted and contains what may the best horror movie score in film history (it’s as Carpenter-esque as they get, but actually by Ennio Morricone). It’s sets the tone immediately with its unsettling eerieness and never lets ups. The film takes a little time to build but manages to very economically make you get to know and like most of the characters in a relatively short time, but you also know just enough so that you’re never sure who’s an alien or not. Also, this film has (I think) 100% percent practical effects and they still look better than most CGI today. All hail Rob Bottin!
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
One of the most underrated horror films of all time (and probably the only *really* good movie the otherwise uneven Adrian Lyne made). It’s also just as much of a psychological thriller, or even just a mindfuck movie. But it’s very chilling and unsettling indeed, a movie that keeps you guessing throught and truly sticks with you. It’s also filled with unforgettable imagery such as the eyeless man with the syringe. Jacob’s Ladder manages to effectively get you into the mind of a man with a mental illness and the horror he has to endure, none of which may be real. The whole is thing is like a nightmare of sorts with one of most hair-raising soundtracks I’ve ever heard (both the music and sound effects, sometimes melding together into one nasty soundscape). It’s also worth noting that the late Elizabeth Peña is the female lead here and it may be her finest performance.
There’s so much going on in this horror masterpiece that one shirt list entry can hardly do it justice. On one level it works very well as just an effective scare-machine. It takes its time to get going and builds up nicely and slowly but once it gets going in the second half is doesn’t let up and keeps you on your toes. But it’s also got some seriously unsettling subtext, for instance some have said the whole movie is about rape and it’s certainly filled with (subtle and not-so-subtle) sexual metaphors…but I’m not really gonna go much further into that here. The most fascinating aspect of the movie in my opinion is the spaceship itself, the Nostromo, which can be seen as a character on its own. The first several minutes of this movie go into “introducing” the ship with all its mechanisms. It runs pretty much on its own and it’s HUGE and still contains only seven people. It’s like these seven people are practically superflous, and as it turns out (SPOILER, but we’ve all seen this…) they really are. By beginning the movie with showing us all the dark corridors of the spaceship (with Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score playing under) this movie does a very nice job of creating and aura of dread and unease from the get go. It’s the atmosphere that really makes Alien.
The Fly (1986)
Be afraid. Be very afraid. The Fly is at once a great, and tragic, love story and a truly scary horror movie. It’s also a no-bullshit kind of movie that skips any prologue and just gets straight into business and immediately sets up the premise while still building character. It works both as a disease metaphor as well as a mental illness metaphor. But most of all it’s a tragic tale of how man can be his own worst enemy. And it’s not just the usual “don’t mess with mother nature” stuff but just how greedy, selfish and out of control man can get. There’s a lot of unforgettably ugly stuff in this movie (like when The Fly vomits on Stathis Boran’s leg or the nightmare where Geena Davis gives birth to a fly) but for me the nastiest scene may be the one where Goldblum goes out to a bar one night and arm-wrestles a guy, and ends up almost ripping his arm clean off! That’s probably because that the others are so fantastical while this hits closer to reality.
As cheesy 50s sci-fi goes, this is pretty darn creepy and exciting. It’s also an allegory on communism, and the witch hunts. And a lot of other things. But mostly it’s just a thrilling monster movie that keeps you on edge throughout, and nicely modest and concise too, wasting no time on anything but its main goal. To me, most pre-1960 horror flicks are really too dated to truly scare (though there are still many of the good ones still that just work in many other ways) but there are exceptions and this may the best of them. It’s a great relic of a bygone era and you’ll never see anything like it again. It’s no wonder it’s been remade at least three times (and two of those remakes are actually quite good) as this is a story that will always be relevant. Maybe we’re all pod people already…
I had a hard time picking only six so I added one more, but what Vern had to say about it was pretty cool so I’ll just link to that (though of course I didn’t have nearly the same experience he had). And we all know that Jaws simply does a great job of building tension and not showing much of the shark until the end is a big reason for why it works so well (albeit, that was largely for budgetary reasons but also because editor Verna Fields insisted while apparently Spielberg wanted to show more of the shark. So thank you Verna Fields and may you rest in peace!). Also, there’s this shot.
The Shining (1980)
Cat People (1942)
Drag me to Hell (2009)
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Let the Right One In (2008)
The Babadook (2014)
The Host (2006)