Bring out the ghosts and the goblins because it’s that time of the year again! In honor of Halloween, myself and two other good friends/film writing colleagues Phillip Bryant and Levi Huffman decided to sit down and come up with our very own lists of our personal Top 10 Horror films. I really like how some films repeat themselves throughout while other choices seem like wild hairs that represent each of our own tastes. In addition, we also cast our choices for our Scariest Non-Horror Films, inspired by Indewire’s own survey. Reader beware!
The horror genre, much like the ghosts, slashers, and demons that haunt its stories, will live forever, for reasons good and bad. The genre is built on escapism and metaphor, and that’s what keeps it alive, it’s our most digestible combination of meaning and fun, but it’s not always consistent in its balance. In fact, there are only a couple handfuls of films that have achieved this balance. Stories that race your heart and engage your brain. In essence, horror is cinema at its most pure. More often than not, it’s filmmaking at its most toxic: cheap, lazy, predictable, and gross. But hey, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Unless you’re in a horror movie, then I guess you can.
Zombie movies are zombie movies, and their popularity is ever rising and leveling off, but we’re probably about to leave the sub-genre’s most popular era, and this 2002 Danny Boyle film is the best of it. Startling, survivalist, and philosophical, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland’s dark weave through apocalyptic London has all the genre’s trappings, none of its fluff. The cast is top notch, from Cillian Murphy to pre-Moneypenny Naomi Harris, to Brendan Gleeson, and it’s their restrained terror that really elevate what could be trite (see 28 Weeks Later). It’s most lasting effect though, and the true source of the terror is the same thing that made Romero’s Night of the Living Dead so great: the cinematography. Shot on Digital Video, 28 Days Later has a modernity and urgency that you can’t look away from, even when you’d prefer to.
9. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976)
Most horror films, I firmly believe, live and die (sometimes literally) based upon their casts. It’s hard to be funny, everyone knows this, but it’s also really hard to be terrified or terrifying, and to sell it well. With Gregory Peck in the lead role, The Omen presents stout competition. He grounds the film not in realms of realism but sophistication, which of course is how the Devil would come. Perfectly directed by Richard Donner, The Omen doesn’t rely on the inherent scariness of its premise, but surrounds itself with stunning simplicity.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
My favorite sub-horror genre is the people-are-not-what-they-seem one, where something or someone invades our small communities and ostracizes those who are left. This is the best example of the genre, and it has a rhythm that builds itself off of Donald Sutherland’s subdued performance as a Health Inspector, probably the least sexy job for a sci-fi hero, but that’s kind of the point. Probably the best final shot in horror history: cynical, hilarious, and unsettling, in that order.
7. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
M. Night Shyamalan is a great director, not always a great storyteller, but he always presents a powerful, moving image. With The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan finally hit in the center of the bat; he matched his visual prowess with a story worthy of it. It’s so much more than the final twist, without the sly ending it would still be a riveting ghost story about childhood, grief, and the lasting effect of death.
6. Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)
Defining a horror-comedy is always difficult, but Sam Raimi’s remaquel is easy to define as both because it so nicely walks the line. It’s scary funny and funny scary.
5. Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Frankenstein, the novel, is one of my favorites: an epic portrait of man’s spirit, light and dark. The movie doesn’t really have any of that, at least what isn’t cartoonish, but it honors the spirit of the novel, and is at its best when Boris Karloff fully embodies a man long since dead but just now born.
4. The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
It’s clear now what the recurring theme is throughout all of Guillermo Del Toro’s films. The humans in his stories are the true evil, not the ghosts. His early haunting tale combines his favorite components: children, history, abandoned family structures, and haunted houses on the respites of civilization. It’s a film of immense depth, but with simple theme.
3. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Rodney Ascher’s conspiracy-theory documentary doesn’t shed so much light on what The Shining means so much as how important it is. No other horror film is as epic, personal, and debilitating. Stark white snow, deep marron blood, and bright yellow walls. The Shining is also colorful, but not in a good way.
2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
A Hitchcock masterpiece. Maybe THE Hitchcock masterpiece.
- The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
What makes William Friedkin’s possession story the best horror film is also what makes it one of the best American films: unity. The film feels authentic in a way that its story doesn’t have to be. If there were no possession, and Reagan’s story was false, it would still be a great mystery about faith and healing. With the horror, primarily coming in the final act, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil, set in a bedroom in Georgetown.
Scariest Non-Horror Movie: David Fincher’s 2007 serial-killer epic Zodiac is terrifying, but it’s not a horror film; it’s too real to be one, too preposterously mysterious, too unforgettably unnerving.
The horror genre is one of the most popular and widely produced genres in film today. I have personally always been more interested in horror more than I like it, but I would say that I am a casual fan. Most of the horror films that I like are very famous and historically significant, mainly because I have not ventured into the genre as much as others. Since it is Halloween again, this is a top ten list of my favorite horror films.
10. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
Right out of the gate you are probably saying to yourself, “That stupid movie?” Well I saw this movie at a very young age and it made a massive impression on me from the get go. If you don’t know the story I will tell it very quickly. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play a married couple, the Maitlands, who die in a car crash near their Connecticut home, becoming ghosts that are trapped inside their home. The home is bought by a family of annoying New Yorkers, the Deetzs, who have traveled to the country for peace and quiet. The Maitlands make many attempts to scare the Deetzs to no avail because they aren’t able to be seen by anyone except for the teenage daughter named Lydia, played by Winona Ryder. The Maitlands soon discover a world for the dead that have trouble adjusting to the afterlife and a bio-exorcist named Beetlejuice, who claims to scare away the living. The Maitlands employ Beetlejuice and soon realize that he is much more than they bargained for. A deviant, disgusting comedian, Beetlejuice is expertly played by Michael Keaton, who does a phenomenal job for such an offbeat character. The rest of the film entails the Maitlands efforts to scare away the Deetzs themselves, while becoming fond of Lydia and trying to keep Beetlejuice at bay.
This is a very odd film that could only have been made by the gothic director Tim Burton, boasting great visuals and comedic characters. Every actor does a fantastic job and could each have their own feature film. Many people scoff at the film for being too weird, which it certainly is, but I feel that it doesn’t get the full respect it deserves. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a horror movie because to me it’s much more of a comedy. But this is also because it is one of my favorite movies and I have seen it probably over a hundred times and could quote the whole thing verbatim. A lot of people would consider it a horror movie though so I guess I have to mention it. Definitely my favorite movie on the list but it gets number ten because of its more comedic nature.
9. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
One of my favorite directors has always been Alfred Hitchcock (my favorite movie of all time is Vertigo), so I couldn’t ignore this film. It centers on Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, who goes on the lamb after embezzling $40,000 from the bank she works at. After traveling for some time, she stops at an old motel off the main road and decides to stay for the night. She meets the owner, Norman Bates, a shy young man who lives with his mother in the house behind the motel. They have some odd conversations before Marion goes to her room to take a shower, where she is stabbed and killed. After being missing for a few days, Marion’s sister and boyfriend hire a private investigator to find her. But when he also disappears, the two of them are forced to go to the motel themselves. If you don’t know the twist by now, I won’t spoil it for you, but it is one of the most famous in film history. Some would call this more of a thriller, but with such a famous villain and the shower scene alone, it is certainly a horror film.
8. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
Although I am most certainly not a fan of zombie films, the George A. Romero Dead trilogy is without a doubt a horror triumph. Night of the Living Dead is one of the most famous movies of all time, but I’m a much bigger fan of the sequel, Dawn of the Dead. While picking up where the previous film left off and adding totally new characters into the mix, the plot follow two cops and two news station workers as they look for a place to survive in the drastically heightened zombie pandemic. They find a shopping mall that is crawling with zombies and decide to rid it of them so that they can have a place to hide until the pandemic ends. They complete their goal, but does everything end happily? I’ll let you see it to find out. With a great premise, engaging characters, and famed makeup artist Tom Savini’s special effects, Dawn of the Dead is the best zombie movie ever made.
7. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Could there be any better film that captures the spirit of Halloween than a film literally titled Halloween? Usually deemed the first slasher flick, the film follows the escaped convict Michael Myers who killed his sister on Halloween night when he was a young boy. Lori Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is babysitting on Halloween night in the hometown of Myers, where he inevitably returns to go on a murderous rampage. Lori is the one to do battle with him in the end along with Loomis, played by Donald Pleasance. The film is memorable for its small town atmosphere and music, which give the film a chilling quality that is unprecedented. No film better captures the happy yet spooky feeling of Halloween.
6. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
Remakes are usually never as good as the original film, but just like the idea that books are always better than the movie, there are exceptions. The Thing, a remake of the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing From Another World, is about an American research team in the Antarctic that encounters a Norwegian research team that has seemed to have fallen ill to cabin fever, but has actually unearthed an alien organism that can take the likeness of any living thing and kill the living thing that it has assimilated. The American team takes in a dog that soon turns into the alien and starts to kill off the team one by one. With a great Kurt Russell performance and claustrophobic atmosphere, The Thing is one of the best remakes in film history.
5. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Speaking of claustrophobic, Ridley Scott’s Alien is certainly that. In the future, a corporation sends out a spaceship to bring mineral ore back to Earth. On the way back, the crew gets a signal from a nearby planet and lands to check it. They find an old, crashed spaceship that contains many odd organisms, specifically a group of eggs that is in the ship’s hull. One of the eggs opens and an organism comes out and attaches itself to one of the crew members, causing the others to bring him back to the ship. The thing detaches itself from his face and everything seems fine until a small alien bursts out through his chest and hides in the ship. The rest of the film is like a slasher movie as the alien grows to adult form and kills off the crew one by one. Sigourney Weaver plays the main character, birthing the strong women in horror movie cliché that we take for granted today. With a beautiful production design and the scariest alien ever put to film, Alien is one of the smallest yet most boundless films ever made.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
As you can probably already see, I’m a big fan of the 1970s in horror. And this is one of my all time favorites. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a pretty straightforward film about a group of youths that encounter a family of psychopaths while on a trip through a desolate area of Texas. The movie doesn’t have a lot of gore or chainsaw deaths, but this movie really rattled everyone’s cage back when it came out and still seems to today. Although it isn’t as violent as some horror films today, it was very bad for its time and makes up for it now with its edge of your seat climax. A very true to life horror film.
3. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
I saw this film for the first time earlier this year, which was long overdue. I will first saw that I wasn’t sacred by it in the least, and I promise you that I’m not lying. Part of this was because I had already seen a lot of the parts that people find so scary many times before. The film follows a little girl who becomes possessed by a demon and the priests that try to exorcise her. It’s one of the most famous films ever made and is still said to be the scariest movie ever made by some. It certainly must have been scary for its time, but today is nothing more than creepy or disturbing. After saying all that, I love this movie a lot! I think of it more as a drama than a horror film and that helps it tremendously. And being directed by William Friedken can’t hurt.
2. The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)
I’m a very big fan of the Classic Universal Monsters, so I could probably do a list of just those alone. But my all time favorite has to be The Mummy. It is a very generic story about an awakened Egyptian prince Imhotep who is looking to resurrect his long lost love Akhesenamon. The film has a lot of great visuals and a creepy Egyptian atmosphere that every mummy film should have. The 1999 action remake with Brendan Frazier is also surprisingly good, so I highly recommend both.
- The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Who else but Stanley Kubrick could make a movie like this? Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall, pre As Good As It Gets and Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, play a couple with a young son who travel to the Overlook Hotel to be its caretakers for the winter. Jack is a struggling alcoholic writer who just might be on the verge of a breakdown. I won’t say much more, but this film is so all over the place that everyone has their own ideas of what the film means. I have tried and tried and my only theory is that Kubrick was playing a big practical joke on everyone and that the film doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Stephen King my favorite writer might I add, wrote the book and has been an outspoken critic against the movie, understandably. I have not yet read the book, although I intend to soon, but I can’t imagine that even Stephen King could have written a better book than this film. Sorry Stephen, but I’m always more loyal to my other favorite SK.
Scariest Non-Horror Movie: Seconds
John Frankenheimer, director of The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman from Alcatraz, directed this 1966 science fiction drama about a man middle aged banker who grows tired of his life and decides to go through an experimental surgery that gives him a new body and a new life. The new body, portrayed by Rock Hudson, gives the man a lot of trouble adjusting, which the rest of the film is about. What makes this film so unsettling is the style with which it is presented. The opening credits alone are enough to make you want to curl up in a ball, but many scenes in the film such as the dream sequence near the beginning and when he becomes drunk in the middle of a party are frightening enough for you to want to watch them again and again. And the ending is one of the most violently non-violent scenes in any film ever. This film has a great premise, cast, and style, but what really brings it all together is the horror aspects of it. Highly recommended.
Any film fan will admit to you they have genres that appeal to them more than others. For me, horror has never been one I’ve gone out of my way to experience. It’s not that I’m a scaredy cat who shrieks at even the slightest suggestion of a jump scare. On the contrary, I all too often find myself bored by a line of aesthetics that typically appeal solely on a visceral level. Nearly all of my friends can attest to instances where I’ve smugly mocked a film for its inability to hook me into the horrific story at hand. However, in the last few years, I’ve found myself warming up to the medium in leaps and bounds, as I can look past cheap attempts to scare me and better admire the craft and consideration that goes into creating films that tightly enrapture audiences in the palm of their hands. Horror film culture is among the most durable and transformative in all of cinema, with people from all walks of life continuing to return to deep, dark recesses that they know can only cause them terror. This phenomenon fascinates me and proves just how important the genre is to viewers everywhere.
When it comes to my list, I want to stress that this is a favorites list, not a “best of all time” list. I count myself unqualified to declare definitive bookmarks for a line of filmmaking I am continuing to familiarize myself with. Also, you will find a lot of science fiction variations thrown in, as my preference for that genre makes the blood soaked pill go down all the smoother. I should warn that spoilers abound in my various summations of these films. Anyway, onto the list.
10. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
As always, the number ten spot was a hard one to fill, with various ghosts and goblins vying for their chance out of the dungeon. John Landis’s seminal werewolf movie clawed its way out, beating out Joe Dante’s The Howling, which happened to be released the very same year. Both score thanks to unexpected laughs that frequently leave both movies cited as horror comedies, particularly in the case of An American Werewolf in London. However, after two viewings, I’ve found that the comedy in the film only makes the horror all the more unnerving, uncomfortably skewing humor and gore in a way that few “horror comedies” fail to do. Furthermore, the lucidity of David’s dream sequences and the promise of a transformation that doesn’t culminate until later in the film builds the tension to a fever pitch that can only climax in widespread chaos.
9. The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958)
I won’t blame you for rolling your eyes at my number nine pick. But as someone deeply infatuated with fifties B movies and the decade’s culture in general, I simply couldn’t resist. Steve McQueen starred in The Blob as a teenager when in actuality the future star was in his late twenties, proving that even nearly sixty years ago Hollywood showed no shame in stretching the believability of its product, especially in regard to the age of its leads. If you can look beyond the cheesy premise of an all-consuming alien being threatening small town American life, you’ll see a potent symbol for an era filled with suppression. Does the Blob in question represent the godless Soviets looking to eradicate our way of life or the ethical dilemmas resulting from McCarthyism? You decide.
8. Creepshow (George Romero, 1982)
Anyone even remotely familiar with horror in the literary or cinematic realms will recognize the name of Stephen King as one of towering influence. His signature voice of suspense and interests in the macabre has spawned generations of eager fans. It seems natural that King would find a venue like Creepshow to team up with director George Romero, himself an icon of horror. The film’s uncanny adoption of EC comics as a visual and narrative reference point make their collaboration all the richer. Though I would never argue that Creepshow is either’s defining work, its blatant celebration of the variety of the genre (through the lens of the anthology format) seem like pure encapsulations of what both guys were all about.
7. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
Though John Carpenter will always be most quickly remembered for Halloween, it is The Thing that proved to me his talents could extend well beyond the familiar suburbs into the harsh arctic landscape. Instead of relying on the iconic silhouette and visage of Michael Myers, The Thing’s transformative abilities make paranoia the ultimate weapon of the extraterrestrial. Ennio Morricone’s minimalist score is reminiscent of many of Carpenter’ own low key soundtracks for his own films, priding itself on the slow build rather than the big continuous jumps. The make-up effects of The Thing continue to horrify me with every subsequent revisit, as the detailed models mesh human and unknown organs to terrifying heights. Finally, Kurt Russell’s lead performance is matched by a strong ensemble that uses the likes of Keith David and Wilford Brimley to peak effect.
6. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
It seemed only natural for Wes Craven, a director who reinvigorated horror with his eighties released A Nightmare on Elm Street, to give the slasher formula a much needed shot in the arm. Scream’s characters are acutely aware of the tropes of a genre they are unwillingly participating in, making the breaking of such guidelines all the more savory. This Generation X twist on the medium, penned by screenwriter Kevin Williamson, proved a shrewd creative move from a filmmaker who had already proved influential. I could see people in 2015 looking back at the meta-elements as elementary, especially when something like The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) takes the satire even further. Nonetheless, Scream remains an entertaining slasher movie with enough brain to not make it feel exploitative.
5. Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Frankenstein opens with Edward Van Sloan walking through a curtain to warn the audience of this film’s capacity to excite, shock, and horrify. Viewed today, this introduction may come off as a silly reminder to just how much our tastes, or lack thereof, have evolved. Though the film hardly has the gore or number of jump scares that will leave today’s audiences running for the exit, its importance to the horror genre cannot be overstated. As an adaptation to Mary Shelly’s brilliant novel, Frankenstein doesn’t quite live up. But this iconic entry into the iconic line of Universal Monster films engages in its own brand of mythmaking with unparalleled gusto. The acting in early sound pictures has always been fascinating for me to watch, leaving Colin Clive’s manic doctor and Boris Karloff’s lumbering monster plenty of reason to return regularly.
4. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
Romero has made a slew of zombie films over the course of his career, making him the definitive auteur of an unlikely sub-genre. Night of the Living Dead may be his most influential movie but Dawn of the Dead is his ultimate epic. Much has been written about the film’s mall setting, with the undead returning to one of the few places that ever left them fulfilled. This prescient choice will travel for decades to come. The thought rarely crosses my mind to Romero’s budgetary limitations, proving once again that horror thrives best when you make the most of what you got rather than maintaining the unnecessary. Plus, if you need something to fill in the third act, just throw a crazed biker gang proficient in zombie combat. It never goes wrong.
3. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Star Wars innovated within the science fiction genre by depicting a used future that felt genuinely tactile and familiar. Alien took this approach even further by filling its world with characters that looked, talked, and sounded like us, with even the corporations of tomorrow making their workers husks of themselves. Much of the mystery that Ridley Scott’s early masterpiece built has been defiled with continuous sequels and prequels. Still, the haunted-house-in-space vibe will remain engrossing with every subsequent viewing. It wouldn’t be until the sequels when Sigourney Weaver’s Ridley fully came into her own as a consummate action star. But I will always prefer her here as a scared Nostromo crew member desperately fighting for survival in a setting that does little to cater to her existence.
2. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
Tim Burton’s debut feature Pee Wee’s Big Adventure illustrated the director’s penchant for turning sidelined, kitschy material into consistently commercial entertainment. His follow up, Beetlejuice, added Burton’s love of horror and the macabre into his arsenal. Yeah yeah, the movie would be classified as a horror comedy at best but I remember finding it very scary as a child. Now, I just adore the colliding worlds of brightness and shadow, the funny and the horrifying. Michael Keaton’s wacky performance always leaves you wanting more but it’s the grounded couple of Alec Baldwin and Gena Davis (in tandem with the emo stylings of Winona Ryder) that roots the bizarre story into a relatable emotional context.
- The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
One my biggest gripes is when people describe a film’s setting as being a character in its own right, implying that a three dimensional space suddenly became anthropomorphic. Often times in works of art, settings are a fixed location and time that over the course of a work change its characters in ways they will never fully appreciate. The Shining is no different. The snowed-in, haunted Overlook Hotel gives way to an unchecked psychosis that threatens to tear the Torrance’s apart. Like he did with 2001: A Space Odyssey previously, Kubrick took a disreputable genre and made a work that no movie has yet to live up to. Few movies inspire such wild theories about “what does it all mean”. But then again, few films can live up to such intense scrutiny.
Scariest Non-Horror Film:
The Coen Brothers have a filmography lined with works that uniquely eschew simple classifications of comedy and drama. At times, they even allow horror to creep into their tableaus. A Serious Man, a 2009 film from them that follows a Jewish physics professor in the 1960s in the midst of the ultimate mid-life crisis, seems like an odd choice to place sporadic images and situations of terror. However, it turned out to be a genius decision. The dark turns in this “comedy” are wide-ranging, from a mysterious opening sequence, to intense stylistic transitions, and even the occasional dream sequence that turns nightmarish. A Serious Man concludes with its hopeless protagonist possibly getting cancer, his son on the verge of being swept away in a tornado, and the series of questions the film has raised intentionally unanswered. If that’s not horrific, then I don’t know what is.
Some Observations About the Lists:
- The Shining had the best showing among the three lists, finishing #1 in two and #3 in the other.
- All three lists featured films from the classic Universal Monster line-up, with Frankenstein showing up in 2 (mysteriously #5 in both) and The Mummy appearing in the other.
- The most popular decade turned out to be the 1970s, narrowly passing the 1980s by a score of 7 to 6. The 1930s (2), 1950s (1), 1960s (1), 1990s (2), and 2000s (2) also featured appearances.
- Films with multiple mentions: The Shining, Beetlejuice, Alien, The Thing, Frankenstein, Psycho, The Exorcist, and Dawn of the Dead.
That about wraps it up. Be sure to have a safe and happy Halloween!
 Landis and Dante would go onto co-direct Twilight Zone: The Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon together, along with various others.
 A movie that just barely got left off my list.
 It will always be hilarious to me that The Thing came out the same summer as E.T., from the same studio (Universal) no less! The diametrically opposed nature of these two classics brings to mind this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland, though only one of those will likely prove to be memorable (hint: Fury Road).
 Van Helsing himself!
 If made now, it would probably take place on the Internet, with zombies hopelessly hitting refresh on a person their stalking’s Instagram page. #ZombieProbz