Someone asked me recently for my favorite horror films, which made me wonder why I never got around to blogging such a list. So here's my definitive answer. These rankings cover all the horror sub-genres -- demon possession (1), haunted building (2), psychological (3,5,7), alien/sci-fic (4), body (6), nature (8), vampire (9), and psychopathic (10).
1. The Exorcist
, William Friedkin. 1973. Critical approval: 87%
. It messed me up so badly when I was a kid and made me afraid to fall asleep, or for that matter to stay awake. It starts out documentary-style in Iraq, then moves to the suburbs of Washington D.C., the terror building slowly -- and with patient character development so typical of '70s scripts -- until it explodes into the mother of all horror films. Somehow Friedkin came up with exactly what you'd imagine a demon to look and sound and act like, and this one proceeds to beat the shit out of a 12-year old girl from the inside out. She speaks like the damned, pukes buckets of green, and reams herself bloody with crucifixes, until two priests finally intervene with a long ritual that kills them both. The girl is saved, but the power of good over evil is far from clear. Some continue to insist that The Exorcist
is an unspeakable obscenity, and in many ways it is. It couldn't have made in a decade other than the '70s, and I state for a fact there will never again be a movie so frightening and well done. The influence of Bergman's Cries and Whispers
, and if not for it, I believe Friedkin would have interpreted Blatty's book very differently.
2. The Shining
, Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Critical approval: 90%
. Stephen King hated it so much he made a "corrective" version for T.V., but not half as good or scary. Kubrick hit a home run because he took the skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique tone that doesn't let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it's sure as hell more effective, and that's what any true horror artist aims for. Scenes I took to bed too often: Danny's vision of the two hacked-up little girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy's face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, Jack's sinister face appearing in a hotel painting in the final shot after he dies. Every frame of this picture, every intonation of the score, is part of an overarching terror that only Kubrick could have realized on screen. Not to ride Bergman too heavily, but the influence of The Silence
can't go unmentioned -- the hotel in battle-torn country is just as creepy -- and Kubrick of course loved Bergman as much as Friedkin.
3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,
David Lynch. 1992. Critical approval: 59%
. Don't be fooled by this film's awful reputation. It's David Lynch's darkest and most emotionally hurting film (even more so than Blue Velvet
), containing scenes in Laura's bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining
look tame. It was terribly misjudged based on expectations from the TV series, and anyone who still doesn't like it should listen to Mark Kermode's review
, which rightly pronounces it a masterpiece. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester is never answered, and the ambiguity is powerful. And the ending pays off lovely, where after a repugnant life on earth and her thoroughly degrading final hours, Laura gets her angel in heaven. It actually brought tears to my eyes. Fire Walk With Me
is a brilliant psychological horror and focused character piece in contrast to the TV series' focus on town intrigue and multiple-character dynamics, and as such it's an intensely personal film, and a switch in tone that works wonders in the context of a two-hour prequel. The key is getting a distance from the TV series before watching it.
, Ridley Scott. 1979. Critical approval: 97%
. By far the most scary sci-fic film ever made. Ridley Scott knew what he was doing by keeping the alien mostly out of sight and making us project our imaginative fears. This is completely unlike James Cameron's sequel, which focused on graphic action and ass-kicking and made the fatal mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens
all eggs/facehuggers come from a queen alien, but Scott had envisioned a truly horrifying process by which any alien, regardless of gender, "laid eggs" by transforming captives. Cameron's blockbuster also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it's not pleasant that they all die, it's their job to die defending others. In Alien
we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one.
5. The Divide,
Xavier Gens. 2012. Critical approval: 26%
. Ignore the critics, they got it dead wrong; this film is fantastic if you have the right expectations. It's a hard-hitting horror show set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment, where nine strangers gather to survive a nuclear holocaust. Despite uneasiness and distrust, they try working together at first, and do pretty well until cabin fever, radiation sickness, and their own base humanity take over. There's torture, rape, sex slavery, and full-blown lunacy on display, and no light at the end of the tunnel -- which happens to be, literally, a tunnel of shit. The Divide
holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and is the best Lord of the Flies
-themed film I've ever seen. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.
David Cronenberg. 1983. Critical approval: 80%
. No horror film more earns the cliche "like nothing you've seen before" than Videodrome
. The idea that watching videos can somehow physically change and corrupt you is quintessential Cronenberg, and involves everything from torture porn to sadomasochism to mind control, all weaved through the body horrors of flesh guns, male "vagina" slots that play VHS tapes, and cruel metamorphosis. James Woods fits perfectly in this stew as the CEO of a cable station who gets involved with conspiracies behind a snuff-film franchise, and becomes a pawn in a plot to broadcast its signal to millions of viewers. The mission is to create a "new flesh" by merging human consciousness with a media stream of sexualized violence, and the hyper-commentary is obvious: we're becoming dangerously complacent the more we evolve into a mass-media culture. Considering this was made in the early '80s, it's frightening indeed how much of a prophet Cronenberg was.
7. Hour of the Wolf
, Ingmar Bergman. 1968. Critical approval: 88%
. This is known as Bergman's only horror film, though I think he has others that qualify (The Silence
, The Virgin Spring
). Like his war film Shame
(also released in '68), Hour of the Wolf
involves the actors Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple (Johan and Alma) on an island, with Johan's psyche crumbling under extreme pressure, only this time the pressure is interior rather than exterior. It's a film about inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We're never quite sure if we're seeing Johan's demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. The theme of contagious insanity is strangely compelling -- only William Friedkin's Bug
has come close to tapping this theme with results just as raw -- and Alma's "If I'd loved him less, would I have been able to protect him more?", shows the devastating liabilities of love in this context. I'm not surprised this was David Lynch's favorite Bergman film. It's the product of a very messed up mind.
8. The Birds,
Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. Critical approval: 96%
. This classic is nihilistic to the core and unapologetic about nature's savagery. And like the great horror films rarely seen anymore, it has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before unleashing the terror. The only other man-vs.-nature film that has shattered me so successfully is The Grey
. The wolves in that film are fantasy predators like the killer birds on display here, but it doesn't matter. Wolves, birds, whatever, serve as metaphors for unstoppable biological forces -- beasts who suddenly behave in ways we don't and can't grasp -- and for that reason alone convince. By '60s standards the bird attack sequences are bloody terrifying. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren't going to turn out okay. I think he's right, and The Birds
is my favorite apocalyptic film.
9. Near Dark,
Kathryn Bigelow. 1987. Critical approval: 90%
. It's a wonder that the vampire holds power anymore. The aristocratic version based on Dracula has been way overused, and the bubblegum pop-model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight
) is a joke. I prefer the barbarically savage breed that go for the jugular with little fanfare, as in From Dusk Till Dawn
, 30 Days of Night
... and Near Dark
. But Bigelow's film is also driven by a love story that puts it in the same stew with Let the Right One In
, and for my money, Caleb and Mae are an even better match than Oskar and Eli. The optimistic ending -- the only one on this list which can be called a happy one, and which shows the '80s trappings of the triumph of the nuclear family -- works surprisingly well for a horror film. Near Dark
may not hit the artistic highs of Let the Right One In
, but it's my vampire film of choice. I mean seriously, a clip like this
speaks for itself.
10. Eden Lake,
James Watkins. 2008. Critical approval: 83%
. Just when you'd given up on the horror genre in today's age, out comes this piece of terror harking back to the brutal '70s classics. A couple camping in the countryside get tortured and killed by a pack of 12-year olds. I was so unprepared to get slammed by something this authentic that I had trouble picking myself out of my chair when it was over. Nihilistic and thought-provoking, it has a miserably unhappy (but perfect) ending; no third acts of cheap righteous payback. Watkins said he made this film as a paranoid fantasy about psychopathic kids, not realizing he'd be a prophet about chav culture in the U.K. Forget psycho-horror classics like Halloween
and even Psycho
, this one buries them all.