This is a totally subjective list of what I think are the 12 greatest horror films:
12) Pumpkinhead -My favorite of the teen slasher genre. The real selling points here are Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley and Florence Schauffer as Haggis, the old witch. Haggis is quite simply the greatest and scariest “old hag” in any horror film. The Appalachian setting is great. And the dynamic between the hipster kids and the locals is well done. The film does a great job balancing our disdain at the teenager’s elitism with our growing sympathy for them as one by one they start to get knocked off. The monster is really cool, but Haggis is where the show is and the ultimate reason for watching. Once you’ve seen her you never forget her. Especially if, like me, you saw this on late night cable as a kid.
11) Exorcist II: The Heretic – “This movie sucks.” That’s the near universal opinion. But perhaps owing to my own eccentricities I see a beautiful, thought-provoking horror film where others see suck. And that Morricone score though! The director, John Boorman, was uncomfortable with the first Exorcist for the same reason I am: it’s too focused on the torture of a young girl. In this film he takes a different approach. The Catholic existential struggle with evil is still there. But this time it is less visceral, more philosophical. And this film portrays the attempt of goodness to wrestle with evil much more powerfully than the first film, which descended into simplistic fundamentalism and nihilism. That isn’t to say that Exorcist II isn’t eerie. The scenes in Ethiopia are especially evocative and well done. The film builds powerfully on the theology of Teilhard De Chardin. It dramatizes the collective nature of good and evil in human societies. And by bringing in Ethiopia it gives these themes a global perspective. Martin Scorsese, one of the only people besides me who likes the film, says, “The picture asks: Does great goodness bring upon itself great evil? This goes back to the Book of Job; it’s God testing the good…I like the first Exorcist, because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but The Heretic surpasses it.” The film’s complex appreciation of faith and doubt, good and evil, is most evident in the scene where James Earl Jones asks Father Lamont to prove his faith in Christ by stepping on a bed of nails. Lamont does so but falls, not into hell, but into the mysteries of nature and life, good and evil. I will grant that the ending of the film is a total mess, but the power of that scene alone warrants its inclusion in my list.
10) Batman Returns -This isn’t labeled a horror film, but it should be. The best description of it I ever read compared it to a child’s nightmare. Everything in it is cute, distorted, and a little disturbing in some fantastic way. Every scene has an atmosphere of wintry gloom and gothic nightmare. De Vito and Pfeiffer are fittingly tragic and grotesque in their roles. And that amazing scene where Catwoman keeps getting shot and getting back up – Needless to say this might not be a good children’s movie, but it’s a great horror movie.
9) Salem’s Lot -Originally a TV miniseries, but it works best when viewed as a 3 hour film. This is one of the best dramatic adaptations of a horror novel ever. It preserves most of the characterization and plot of the book while shifting a couple of things around to make it flow better. The strength of Stephen King is his ability to throw real characters into horrific situations. Salem’s Lot is the original attempt to portray a small American town grappling with vampirism, and it’s still the best. David Soul is great as novelist and protagonist Ben Mears. So is Bonnie Bedelia as Susan Norton, the art teacher he falls for. Their romance is touching and believable and provides the necessary backdrop for the arrival of the bloodsuckers. The supporting cast is great as well; especially Lew Ayres as aging English Teacher Jason Burke. Throughout the film we feel that these are real people reacting to these things as would the people down the street from us. A couple of scenes stand out for their raw power: The scene in which Ralphie Glick floats through the air and scratches on the window demanding to be let in(which inspired the film “Let The Right One In”). And the scene where Father Callahan barters with the vampire Barlow for the life of his young parishioner Mark Petrie. I doubt that was in the job description when the Father took Holy Orders.
8) The Pit And The Pendulum -This is my favorite of Roger Corman’s 1960’s Poe adaptations, all of which are quite good. A Poe story presents a particular challenge for a filmmaker. While they work brilliantly as stories, they often involve a single narrator and lack the kind of broad canvas of characters and events which a film requires. And the most important things in a Poe story are usually the horror set pieces. Screenwriter Richard Matheson did a really inventive job of imagining a broad character-driven story behind the Pendulum set piece. So our protagonist becomes an Englishman searching a castle in Spain for the truth about his sister’s mysterious death. The shadow of the Inquisition is everywhere. Some have complained about Poe’s use of the Pendulum by saying it didn’t portray the Inquisition realistically. In fact these gothic devices are a way of processing through fiction the very real horrors and legacy of the Inquisition, which still casts its shadow across Western culture. Vincent Price is the brother-in-law whom we can guess from the beginning is into some pretty twisted sh#t. Price’s voice is the key to his creepiness. He always sounds so refined, delicate, and genteel. When he inevitably turns into something perverse the effect is intensified because of the gentility. The Pit And The Pendulum is a textbook case of how to build a gothic castle story around the idea of shocking revelation. Stephen King cites seeing the film as a kid as a major reason he wanted to write horror. It’s hard to think of a greater testimonial to pay to it than that.
7) The Omen -Atticus Finch vs. The Antichrist was a pretty ambitious concept. Thankfully this had the literary script and high production values to deliver. The real power of this movie is it can frighten you even if you don’t believe in the apocalyptic theology. Of special note in the supporting cast are David Warner as the photographer who slowly uncovers the truth about Damien, Billie Whitelaw as Damien’s creepy nurse, and Leo McKern as Bugenhagen, the Israeli sage who prophesies against Damien’s evil. Some interpret this film as a story of a father going crazy from ridiculous suggestions about his son. But where’s the fun in that? Of special note, this film has the single greatest decapitation scene ever.
6) Nosferatu -I love the 1920’s version too, but Herzog’s remake is just extraordinary. Has there ever been a more beautifully shot horror film? It’s also terrifying; I genuinely don’t suggest watching it alone. Herzog shot it in German and English. I prefer the German because it adds to the strangeness and authenticity. But both versions are interesting. I also can’t resist saying Isabelle Adjani is the most gorgeous actress ever to appear in a horror film.
5) Candyman -THE great film masterpiece of urban horror. Directed by Bernard Rose from a story by Clive Barker, it’s a slasher movie with a social depth and literary sensibility unusual to the genre. Set in Chicago during the time when a young Barack Obama would have been working as a community organizer, it shows the bleakness of poverty and urban decay. It uses a horrific story to subtly address many of the taboos in US history around white and black relations. The curiosity and impending doom of the protagonist strikes me as a metaphor for the inadequate white response to issues such as the poverty of urban Chicago. This also has a score by the avant-garde composer Philip Glass. I once won a bet against a friend who insisted that Philip Glass would never write music for a horror movie. In fact, Glass recognized the genius of this film, which still holds up as among the most powerful examples of the genre.
4) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – This 1931 version was one of the first movies with sound and hugely influential on subsequent film history, including and far beyond the horror genre. Fredric March actually won the Oscar for Best Actor, which I believe is the only case of a horror film receiving such an honor. This story is now so ingrained in our culture that we forget how original it was. We all recognize it because it tells a basic psychological truth about the human condition. We all have a Mr. Hyde to some degree, but thankfully most of us restrain it a little better than Jekyll. In Stevenson’s novel Hyde is clearly a murderer, but the sexual and misogynistic aspects of his predations are only hinted at, owing to the censorship laws of the time. The 1931 film was made right before Hollywood enacted its own strict censorship codes, thus allowing the filmmakers to address sexual themes more clearly than in Stevenson’s novel. It’s not just a great horror film, but one of the great film treatments of the human conscience at war with itself.
3) The Shining -I love this movie, but I distance myself from those who believe that Kubrick transformed King’s novel into a greater work of art. That simply isn’t true, and I credit my mom’s colleague Dr. Linda Holland Toll for helping me to see that. What happened is that Kubrick and King have fundamentally different worldviews. Kubrick took the raw materials of King’s novel and made a film that fit in with his bleaker worldview. King is a believer in God, moral responsibility, and free will. Kubrick sees human beings as subject to larger mechanistic and manipulative forces. Morally my sympathies are with King, but Kubrick made a magnificent film nonetheless. Every shot is haunted by potential menace and wrongness. The moment where Scatman Crothers begins talking to Danny telepathically is my favorite eerie scene in a movie ever. It comes out of nowhere and disturbs you in the best possible way. Crothers should have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. There’s a great moment later in the film where Crothers is in bed with a poster of a naked woman above him. That’s important because it helps show him as a sexually-alive, rounded human being whereas so often this type of African American male character was stripped of sexual vitality. This character is in the awkward role of being a father-figure for a white boy who is losing his. In fact this is where the the novel and film come together; both are about a father’s breakdown and inability to care for his family, though King and Kubrick have differing views of why those situations come about. Where the film works best is as a series of horrific images. The twin girls. The woman getting out of the bathtub. That weird thing with the people in animal costumes. Those images never leave you. I don’t buy many of the silly speculations about the layers of hidden meaning in the film. But the way it ends is certainly one of the great mysterious finishes in any movie and defies easy categorization or interpretation.
2) Psycho -What can be said about this film that hasn’t been said already? It’s pretty much perfect. I’ve often dreamed about having a room in my house with walls containing nothing but the individual shots of the film. Looking back, I think this was the film that paved the way for Hollywood to break loose of the censorship codes. It still feels like a movie made for adults. A couple is in bed at the beginning(scandalous!) A toilet gets flushed. And the shower scene, which remains the single most influential scene in Hollywood history. Ironically, this movie birthed the slasher genre, but there’s only one shockingly violent scene. The rest is all atmosphere and narrative structure. Directors who think that the best way to shock is to have death scene after death scene would be wise to go back and see how effective Psycho is with only one.
1) Bram Stoker’s Dracula -Why is it my favorite horror film? It’s always had a mixed critical reputation. It deviates significantly from the novel for a film that by its very title tried to insist it was most faithful. But it’s Gary Oldman’s performance that does it. There’s nothing else like it in any other movie. He’s repellent and fascinating. His voice sounds like the guttural notes of a Romanian organ left out in a storm. He’s unquestionably an inhuman monster. And yet the “beauty and the beast” subtext between Dracula and Mina has a certain power to it. Oldman makes you fear and hate the character at some points, and feel sorry for him at others. That’s no easy feat for an actor to pull off. Overall I think the supporting cast is quite good. Yes, Keanu’s accent is silly. But what depth is there really to the Harker character? He exists as straight man to Dracula. In this aspect Keanu is perfect. The same can be said for Ryder as Mina. Tom Waits plays Renfield as gloriously insane and tragically aware of what Dracula has taken from him. Hopkins infuses Van Helsing with a Shakespearean voice and an awareness that in fighting Dracula, “we’ve all become God’s madmen.” Dracula is Europe’s dark fairy tale. Coppola and Oldman brought it to life in spectacular fashion.