Every year, we here at Sound On Sight celebrate the month of October with 31 Days of Horror; and every year, I update the list of my favourite horror films ever made. Last year, I released a list that included 150 picks. This year, I’ll be upgrading the list, making minor alterations, changing the rankings, adding new entries, and possibly removing a few titles. I’ve also decided to publish each post backwards this time for one reason: the new additions appear lower on my list, whereas my top 50 haven’t changed much, except for maybe in ranking. I am including documentaries, short films and mini series, only as special mentions – along with a few features that can qualify as horror, but barely do.
Directed by Benjamin Christensen
Denmark / Sweden, 1922
Häxan (a.k.a The Witches or Witchcraft Through The Ages) is a 1922 silent documentary about the history of witchcraft, told in a variety of styles, from illustrated slideshows to dramatized reenactments of alleged real-life events. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, and based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, Häxan is a fine examination of how superstition and the misunderstanding of mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. At the time, it was the most expensive Scandinavian film ever made, costing nearly 2 million Swedish krona. Although it won acclaim in Denmark and Sweden, the film was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered, at that time, graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. Depending on which version you’re watching, the commentary is either in the form of inter-titles or narration recorded in the mid-1960s by William S. Burroughs. Haxan is a fascinating historical document and one of the earliest films that uses misogyny and sexual repression as its main subject.
Directed by György Pálfi
Written by Gyorgy Palfi and Zsófia R
2006, Hungary, Austria
Broken up into three segments spanning Hungarian history before, during and after communist rule, this cross-generational saga about an extremely bizarre family is undoubtedly a one of a kind. It’s the type of film you need to see to believe. Visually striking and provocative, Taxidermia is a tough watch, but director Palfi has assured its cult status thanks to its disturbing scenes of sex, violence and body horror. And, yes, a man lights his penis on fire, as seen in the photo above.
74. (TIE) Black Sunday
Directed by Mario Bava and Salvatore Billitteri
Written by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei
Black Sunday is a densely atmospheric black-and-white horror film that clearly took its inspiration from the classic Universal horror movies. Mario Bava’s directorial debut still stands as one of the most influential and important genre films ever made. Although taken from the 1835 classic Russian ghost story The Vij by Nikolai Gogol, Bava tweaked the narrative to deliver a fine mixture of folklore, traditional superstition, and genre convention. Technically speaking, the film is a work of art, with superb sound design and striking camerawork. Already an established cinematographer, Bava, along with co-cinematographer Ubaldo, shot the entire film with a dolly. The result achieves a dream-like quality and despite the budget limitations, Sunday is one of the best-looking Italian horror films of the 60s, with its Gothic landscapes, shadowy black-and-white imagery, castles, crypts and long passageways. The film also introduced the world to Barbara Steele, who has dual roles as the evil witch and princess. Her Gothic black hair and saucer-like dark eyes made her famous, but unfortunately, it was a role she would forever be typecast in. The film was ignored by the critics when released, but soon gained a cult following and opened the door for many Italian Gothic horror films to come. It was also a box office hit, and forecast Bava’s career-long central theme of uncertainty.
74: (TIE) Black Sabath
Mario Bava and Salvatore Billitteri
Written by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei
Italy 1960 / Italy 1963
Not to be confused with Black Sunday, Black Sabbath is a horror anthology composed of three atmospheric tales. “The Drop of Water” concerns a nurse who steals a ring off a corpse, only to have its spirit seek revenge. “The Telephone” features a prostitute who is terrorized by phone calls from a presumably dead client from the past. “The Wurdalak” stars Boris Karloff as a vampire who feeds on the blood of those closest to him. Horror anthologies are rarely this good – In Mario Bava’s film, evil is found living inside all of us.
73. (TIE) Invasion of the Body Snatchers / Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Directed by Don Siegel / Philllip Kaufman
Written by Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter
USA, 1956 / 1978
Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted to the big screen numerous times. In 1956, innovative director Don Siegel gave us the first adaptation. His tense, offbeat psychological sci-fi thriller is superbly crafted and remains potent to this day. It can be read as a political metaphor or enjoyed as an efficient, chilling blend of sci-fi and horror; either way, it works. This is a classic – a must-see and features one of the greatest endings to any horror film.
The 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman, and starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, and Leonard Nimoy, is just as good. It is one of those rare sequels that holds on to both the spirit and political allegory of the original. The film was also a box office success and is considered by many to be among the greatest film remakes.
72. Shaun Of The Dead
Directed by Edgar Wright
Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
Like all the great zombie flicks, Shaun of the Dead comes with an underlying layer of social commentary. Here, the walking dead are stand-ins for those of us who take things for granted (specifically those who are closest to us), and live our lives in a vacuum of routine. Director Edgar Wright manages to mix a bit of genuine romance, ridiculous gore, riotous comedy, and somber drama. Shaun of the Dead may not ever be scary but it is always funny and downright entertaining from the first frame to the last. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright script Shaun as a classic three-act structure, but cram enough twists, character development, and small setpieces to keep things fresh and interesting throughout. And as with every Wright feature, Shaun is blessed with slick editing, an eclectic soundtrack, and fine performances from the entire cast.
71. It’s Alive
Written and directed by Larry Cohen
Although not his first feature, It’s Alive helped establish Larry Cohen’s reputation as a director of ingenious low-budget genre films, which come with unexpected twists, conflicted anti-heroes, dark humour, and sympathy for monsters, both human and non-human. Cohen, writer and director of such projects as God Told Me To and Q, made his first foray into the horror genre with this low-budget cult favourite about a murderous mutant baby on a killing rampage. Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) gives birth to the hideous clawed and fanged offspring, which immediately slaughters the delivery team and escapes the hospital to continue to conduct a flurry of killings in its search for food and shelter. When the story becomes front page news, father Frank (John Ryan) joins the police manhunt, determined to exterminate the baby himself.
It’s Alive still remains provocative to this day, and leaves one with much to think about regarding unconditional love, parental responsibility, abortion, guilt, intolerance and institutional care. The script also hints that the mutation was a result of either environmental pollution or inadequately tested fertility drugs, a concept later explored more fully in the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive – neither, however, was deeply terrifying as this. There are a number of standout scenes here, mostly crafted with superbly controlled widescreen compositions in Fenton Hamilton’s blurry, fish-eyed Baby-cam-cinematography. The initial delivery room scene is downright disturbing, beginning with a dolly down a long corridor showing a victim staggering out, to inside the bloodied operating room where the delivery team is dead and drenched in blood – and topped by the chilling line, “The umbilical cord’s been severed, but not surgically – it’s been chewed off”.
It’s Alive is all the more effective with Cohen’s perverse reversal of paternal/infant imagery. The baby, although murderous, is desperately trying to find either food or its family, and while its bloody rampage is mostly kept offscreen, the attack on the milkman remains the pic’s highlight, with the sight of glass shattering and the combination of blood and milk flowing out of the milk truck straight to the sewer. These scenes, juxtaposed against Ryan’s need to prove to himself that the baby by extension is not his, are utterly heartbreaking. Cohen tells us no matter how monstrous the newborn is, it is innocent in its search for maternal love. Most fascinating is the ending where Ryan follows the creature to the finale’s underground L.A. sewer system which, by design, is reminiscent of a womb. His fathering instinct takes over, suddenly turning him from the baby’s assassin to its saviour. What elevates It’s Alive above being a typical piece of B-grade schlock is Ryan’s superb performance as the angst-ridden father. His performance is very moving and revealing, and important to expressing the film’s central theme.
It’s Alive also emulates the 1931 classic Frankenstein by James Whale. The title of the film is taken from the famous line Colin Clive first says when he brings Boris Karloff’s monster to life. Larry Cohen livens up the proceedings with his characteristic wry wit –most notably during the scenes in the waiting room with some highly amusing conversations including a great speech about how Frankenstein is always confused as the monster and not the scientist. Cohen masterfully juggles terror, comedy and social commentary, leaving us with a more engrossing horror pic than the usual for this genre. Also worth noting is legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s fine soundtrack and Rick Baker’s creepy-looking baby model effects.
70. (TIE) The Girl Who Knew Too Much (The Evil Eye / La ragazza che sapeva troppo)
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Enzo Corbucci and Mario Bava
Mario Bava’s final black-and-white production is regarded as the seminal work in what would become known as the start of the Giallo genre. Much like Brian De Palma, Bava was influenced by and borrowed heavily from Alfred Hitchcock over the years. The title spoofs The Man Who Knew Too Much, a story Hitchcock adapted twice to the big screen. The Girl Who Knew Too Much helped kick-start a whole school of Italian thrillers, but only a few were able to surpass the genius of Bava. This is a beautifully shot film, composed of pristine blocking, framing, pans, dollys, and sharp edits, all creating suspense amidst the shadowy photography. Bava’s films might not always make a lick of sense, but as a former cinematographer working for directors such as Roberto Rossellini, his movies always look good. With a a solid performance from the always reliable John Saxon, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is incredibly entertaining; features a few twists and even a surprise ending.
70. (TIE) Bay Of Blood / Twitch Of The Death Nerve / Reazione a catena
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Franco Barberi
In 1971, Mario Bava unleashed Bay Of Blood, a film that pushed beyond the levels of gore that had yet been seen in a murder mystery thriller. Blood has a body count of 13, spread across multiple killers – that is more dead bodies than the total of victims in the first Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th movies combined. In place of a single psycho, Bay Of Blood hosts a cast of characters, all related (and all insane), and all after the property of a deceased Countess and her lofty inheritance. It was by far Bava’s goriest film, soaked in top-of-the line practical effects, dripping in blood and featuring the most innovative kill sequences for its time. Bava was a cinematographer-turned-director, and Bay was the first film since 1962’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much for which he took credit in both capacities. Released as Twitch of the Death Nerve, the film would become a predecessor to the slasher sub-genre, and said to have heavily influenced Friday the 13th. Frederico Fellini once commented that he worked on writing a horror film for an acquaintance who gave him a script with numerous depictions of murders, but not one thread of story connecting them. Many believe it was Bava he was referring to, specifically this movie. Dario Argento loved the film so much, he had a friend (a projectionist) steal him a print of the film during its first run in Italy. One last piece of IMDb trivia: Roberto Rossellini (whom Bava had previously worked for) shot a day’s worth of second unit footage for Bava. While he was uncredited, most of the footage appeared in the final cut.
69. Terror at the Opera (Opera)
Written and directed by Dario Argento
Opera collides with horror in this gory Giallo from director Dario Argento, fitting neatly with Argento’s lavish stylistics and dark trademarks as a filmmaker. At the time, Opera was Argento’s most expensive production and it shows in his colour schemes, use of music, grand set design, and camerawork – all of which are wildly inventive and appropriate. The film’s chosen opera is an avant-garde rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth”, historically known for bringing bad omens to its cast and crew. Though Opera was never plagued by post-production problems, the director has been quoted as saying that “Opera‘s loveless tone was intended in part as a kind of AIDS metaphor,” since star Ian Charleson learned during the filming that he was HIV+. Much like most of Argento’s work, the dialogue is over-the-top, and the acting is at times hammy, but one can’t deny its style and spectacular mood. Opera also features many incredible highlights including some truly brilliant POV shots. At one point Betty is immobilized, as the killer ties her up and places a row of needles below her eyelids, forcing her to witness the excruciating deaths of her friends – while forcing us to see the torture through her obstructed, point of view. I dare you not to blink.
68. (TIE) The Fly
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
The Fly was released in what could arguably be called the most fertile period of David Cronenberg’s career. To date, it is still his most commercially successful motion picture, and even spawned a sequel a few years later. Cronenberg’s The Fly is more a re-imagining as opposed to a remake. The movie uses the premise found in the original short story and the original film, but changes everything else including names and basic plot points. Cronenberg has always been fascinated with the reshaping of the human body in various forms and the horror that comes with that change. With The Fly, Cronenberg focuses on the slow transformation and decomposition of a mad scientist, both mentally and physically.
Chris Walas’ groundbreaking makeup and creature effects won him an Oscar, but they would be nothing without Jeff Goldblum’s strong emotional performance. In the last act, The Fly veers into a more traditional horror setting, but the picture is less about the gory effects than it is about Cronenberg’s obsessions.
68. (TIE) The Brood
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by David Cronenberg
1979, Canada / 1986, Canada
David Cronenberg’s 1979 effort The Brood could provide the biggest genre-movie highlight reel of his entire body of work, with killings perpetrated by bizarre down-syndrome-mutant, pig-faced dwarves. The last scene in this movie, in which a mother bites through her psycho-plasmic placenta to lick the birth fluids from her angry spawn, is worth the price of admission alone. The Brood is visceral, highly disturbing, and downright disgusting. It was Cronenberg’s first major success and a highly personal one as well: It is also the director’s most bitter, uncompromising statement about gender politics, children, and sexuality. Often described as Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Brood is a definitive metaphor for the harsh realities of acrimonious divorce. The premise is simple – a crazy woman’s psychoses creates these evil murderous creatures. The husband if left to clean up the mess. Do yourself a favour and rent it if you haven’t yet seen it.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Daisuke Tengan
Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami, Audition quickly became an art-house cult hit due to its unflinching final act. What starts as a quietly mannered film about a lonely executive falling in love with a mystery girl half his age, quickly shifts gears in the final 30 minutes, which feature some of the most harrowing, graphic closeups of torture ever put on celluloid. However, Audition is quite restrained by Miike’s standards and his restraint in the first half pays dividends in the second. Audition is a monumental achievement by a director willing to challenge his audience – and although it isn’t nearly as gory as Ichi the Killer, it remains Miike’s most disturbing and most powerful film.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
David Fincher’s Se7en is a dark, stylish thriller that boasts enough genre trappings to justify its presence on this list. Se7en pales in comparison to Fincher’s best film Zodiac, but regardless, it is one of the 1990s’ most influential box-office successes. This creepy and relentlessly grim shocker features a taut performance by Morgan Freeman, polished gore effects, and an unforgettable ending that not even Brad Pitt’s terrible acting could ruin. Se7en has all the hallmarks of the giallo or serial killer genres – red herrings, a whodunit mystery, gruesome murders and a surprise twist ending – but thankfully, it also turns out to be less predictable. One of its strongest aspects is the visuals. There are many unusual and innovative cinematographic techniques, including the opening credit sequence (one of the best of all time) and outstanding production, art, and set design – all of which focuses on the seedy, depressing side of Se7en’s anonymous big-city setting. Even the closing credits, which run backwards, are noteworthy.
Only Fincher’s second feature, after Alien³, Se7en goes well beyond the usual police procedural or serial killer film thanks to its great script, by first-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker. This claustrophobic, gut-wrenching thriller about two policemen’s desperate efforts to stop a serial killer whose work is inspired by gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and wrath, is one of a handful of films based on the seven deadly sins, but also the best.
65. Alice Sweet Alice / Communion
Directed by Alfred Sole
Written by Rosemary Ritvo and Alfred Sole
Originally titled Communion, Alice Sweet Alice, despite its considerable cult following, has slipped into relative obscurity. Released in 1976, it was given glowing reviews by critics and won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film was made not long after The Exorcist and it capitalized on that film’s themes of Catholicism and evil children. Alice features some of the more disquieting set pieces in any movie appearing on this list, and also features the big-screen debut of Brooke Shields at age 11. The most memorable aspect of Alice comes from the tour-de-force performance given by the killer, one of the absolute best in the pantheon of movie murderers. Director Alfred Sole subsequently made two further genre films: Tanya’s Island (1980), and Pandemonium/Thursday the 12th (1982), a slasher film parody.
64. The Devil`s Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Antonio Trashorras and Guillermo del Toro
Spain / Mexico, 2001
As director Guillermo del Toro explains, “It’s a very moving and very dark fable about war. And within its walls is contained a ghost story.” The Devil’s Backbone is just that: a multi-layered supernatural allegory set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. In a nutshell, it’s a ghost story with soul.
It follows 10-year old Carlos living in a remote orphanage, who soon begins having visions of a mysterious apparition he can’t identify, and hears urban legends about a child named Santi who went missing. Del Toro, working with frequent cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, create a genuinely scary, exquisitely shot and eerie, unnerving mood that holds to the very end.
63. Pan’s Labyrinth
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
Spain / Mexico, 2006
Guillermo del Toro blends reality and fantasy in two horrifying stories told through the eyes of a little girl; one set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the other in a parallel realm of fairies and fauns. The way the horrors of both worlds intertwine with such artistic ambition, makes Pan’s Labyrinth the most technically accomplished film on this list. Set in Spain during the days immediately before and after D-Day, the movie provides a look into the mind of Ofelia, a young girl who seeks escape from the harsh realities of not only the war, but of her cruel stepfather as well. The film’s greatest asset is the way in which it interweaves Ofelia’s adventure with the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The end result is visually stunning and emotionally shattering. Pan’s Labyrinth is an extraordinary, fascinating fable, a cross between Alice in Wonderland and H.P. Lovecraft. The term adult fairy tale is best used when describing Pan’s Labyrinth since it is one full of not just beauty but horror as well.
62. The Loved Ones
Written and directed by Sean Byrne
The winner of the first Midnight Madness Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Loved Ones is one of the best horror films of the last decade. Sean Byrne’s debut feature is a unique mix of teen angst, torture porn, and melodrama mixed with a batch of conventional slasher tropes. It’s a gore-filled shocker that goes for laughs by paying homage to the outlandish low-budget video nasties of the ’70s and ’80s, blending together ideas inspired from such films as Misery, Saw, Prom Night, The Evil Dead and Carrie.
The premise might seem familiar, but The Loved Ones offers enough twists and turns at precisely the moments you least expect. The balance of humour and horror is scaled so perfectly that the scares sneak up at just the right time. Xavier Samuel (who went on to become a teen heartthrob in the third Twilight film) gives a convincing and charismatic performance. Making the most of his character, the actor does a perfect job in expressing his emotions with little or no dialogue. Robin McLeavy steals every scene as Lola, turning an unforgettable performance that cannot be overlooked. Lola, dressed in glitter and pink satin, along with her seriously deranged father (with whom she shares a disturbingly pseudo-sexual relationship) make for one of the most unforgettable serial killer duos in quite a long time.
Cinematographer Simon Chapman makes great use of long, steady takes, and shows great patience in holding the camera still for long periods of time, and the lighting and set design will make you think the picture had a much bigger budget. The filmmakers rely on good old make-up and practical effects over anything digital and editor Andy Canny cuts away at just the right frames, mounting the tension in key sequences to just the right level before each payoff is delivered. Along with a searing rock soundtrack, intertwining storylines, great dialogue, and fresh characters, The Loved Ones is vivid, sometimes scary, sometimes funny and always thrilling. Byrne who made several shorts prior, is another example of the talent emerging in the horror scene down under. This Australian feature is dark, intense, sharp, and extremely gruesome, and more importantly, downright entertaining.
61. Santa Sangre
Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Written by Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento and Alejandro Jodorowsky
Santa Sangre somehow manages to make Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult hit El Topo look mainstream. Sangre is a bitter allegory of self-discovery, and a satire on church hypocrisy and colonial predation. It is also a twisted thriller about the unhealthy bond of mother and son. The film follows Fenix, a young man raised in the circus. His dad Orgo is the owner of the carnival and his mother is a semi-famous trapeze artist. After Concha discovers Orgo is having an affair, she takes revenge by throwing acid on his crotch. He immediately responds by cutting off her arms. Years later, Fenix is sent to a mental hospital in hopes that the doctors can rehabilitate him from his childhood trauma, only he quickly escapes and rejoins his handicapped mother. Against his will, he “becomes her arms” and the two undertake a terrifying campaign of murder and revenge. The plot then becomes even weirder.
As it turns out, Santa Sangre features a far more coherent narrative than any of Jodorowsky’s previous films, but it’s no less a total mindfuck. And even the brief plot synopsis doesn’t do it justice. Supposedly, it is inspired by a Mexican serial killer who wanted Jodorowsky to make a movie about his life, but Jodorowsky also brings his personal background into the film, since one of his first jobs was working as a clown for a circus in Chile, where he learned the arts of trapeze and miming.
Unlike Jodorowsky’s previous efforts El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre can easily be placed in the category of horror. There’s obvious influences such as Robert Weine’s The Hands of Orloc, James Whale’s The Invisible Man, and Todd Browning’s Freaks, but thematically and stylistically the film is best described as a cross between Federico Fellini’s carnival style and Luis Bunuel’s knack for surrealism. This isn’t an easy film to stomach, however; there is a fair amount of graphic horror, tormented sexuality, and bodily mutilation. Jodorowsky has never been known for his subtlety and there are times here when he pushes boundaries like never before. But there are also several moments of genuine tenderness found throughout in the film. One of the film’s most riveting sequences features a funeral for a dying elephant where it is then torn apart by starving villagers. There s also a sequence involving children with Downs syndrome snorting cocaine and then taken to see an overweight prostitute. And there’s also a scene where a man tears off his own ear and tries to force feed it to a deaf-mute. Finally, in another memorable setpiece, one character wraps himself in bandages in hopes of becoming invisible.
Daniele Nanuzzi’s colour cinematography is as astonishing and as beautiful as anything Jodorowsky has ever done. Simon Boswell also deserves praise for his atmospheric score and Tolita Figueroa’s lavish costumes and Alejandro Luna’s sets only enhance the surrealism of it all. Bold, audacious, and pushing past the boundaries of good taste, Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre is an Oedipal nightmare, filtered through an hallucinatory lens.
60. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu)
Written and directed by Jaromil Jires
Set in a vaguely defined Transylvanian town sometime in the last century, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a bizarre Gothic fable of a young woman’s descent into womanhood. There is no clearly defined story, but essentially the film works as a parable of menstruation. Directed and written by Jaromil Jires, a key member of the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one long, erotically charged nightmare of sexuality and death. And yes, there are vampires. An easy way to describe the film is to think Alice in Wonderland meets Nosferatu with a screenplay that bears similarities to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Valerie features stunning visuals, a remarkable score, and a tour-de-force performance by Jaroslava Schallerová, who was only 13 at the time.
Written and directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Kwaidan (Kaidan) is a 1964 Japanese portmanteau film directed by Masaki Kobayashi; the title means ‘ghost story.’ Based on stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales, this impressively mounted anthology horror film consists of four separate and unrelated stories. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Kwaidan’s haunting poetry is conveyed with gorgeous images, making it one of the most beautiful horror films you will ever see. Avoiding outright scares and gore, Kobayashi favours slow buildups of tension and quiet suspense. Kobayashi’s use of artificial sets and colourful backdrops which stand in for many of the outdoor scenes, give the film an almost fairy tale-like quality. The soundtrack is equally impressive, and although it might not outright scare, you can’t help but admire the craft and artistry.
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô
This landmark in fantasy cinema is bleak, sexually charged, and dripping with depravity. Symbolism runs rampant and the dialogue is minimal in this harrowing study about the rotten nature of humanity and the useless wars they wage. Kiyomi Kuroda’s startling black-and-white cinematography, the excellent, percussive jazz soundtrack, and the final twist (one which might seem obvious today but not back then), is reason enough to watch this gem.
57. Black Christmas
Directed by Bob Clark
Written by Ray Moore
We never did find out who Billy was. Maybe it’s for the best, since they never made any sequels to Bob Clark’s seminal slasher film, which predates Carpenter’s Halloween by 4 years. Whereas Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released the same year, blends backwoods horror with the slasher formula, Black Christmas is widely considered the first proper slasher and is noted as one of the earliest films to present some of the sub-genre’s defining characteristics: a mysterious stalker, a set of adolescent or young-adult victims, a secluded location with little or no adult supervision, point-of-view camera shots representing the “killer’s perspective,” and graphic depictions of violence and murder. Like Carpenter, Clark avoids graphic bloodshed, focusing instead on suggestion and careful mise-en-scene and editing. Clark leads us through a labyrinth of red herrings and his skillful handling of such plot devices such as obscene phone calls from within the house leave much to our imagination. More importantly, unlike many of the slashers that followed, Black Christmas cannot easily be accused of misogyny; the violence against the female protagonists isn’t the picture’s raison d’etre. If there was ever a character from a slasher film to be chosen for a thesis on feminist work, it would have to be the film’s “final girl,” Jessica.
56. (TIE) Day of the Dead
Written and directed by George A. Romeo
Having to follow in the footsteps of two of the two most highly regarded zombie movies in history, George A. Romero delivers what is unquestionably the most controversial and divisive entry in his original trilogy. During production, Romero openly admitted that the script he ended up with was far different from his original vision. The comic relief of Dawn is nowhere to be found, and the director’s obsession with social decline in Day is the most opinionated of his canon. In Day, Romero comments on racism, tribalism, and social and governmental concerns. Unlike most of the films within the subgenre, the movie is concerned more with existentialism and gender/political divides than scares. Romero chose to directly address the nature of human emotions and prejudices, resulting in bitter and cynical characters barricading themselves in concrete bunkers, and forced to hide like an oppressed minority.
Day is bitter and its characters are cynical, unpleasant, violent, and unpredictable, reminding us of mankind’s instinctual tendency to destroy itself. Romero’s government agents and military behave worse than the walking dead; in fact, the most likable character in Day, is the childlike zombie Bub, a pet/lab-rat to Dr. Logan who sets out to find a cure. The Bub and Logan characters become a fascinating take on Dr. Frankenstein and his monster; and thanks to the fine performances given by Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman, viewers not only sympathize in their relationship, but believe their can be hope for a better future. Another great performance comes courtesy Joe Pilato as Captain Rhodes, the military head of an underground scientific complex who loses his mind while trying to save mankind.
But although Pilato, Liberty, and Sherman are uniformly great, they are not the stars. That honour belongs to Lori Cardille, as the tough researcher who, after being isolated, must struggle to stay sane and alive.
Gore wizard Tom Savini has identified this film as his magnum opus, and it helped Savini to become an idol in modern horror filmmaking. The climax features some of the most spectacular and disgusting onscreen effects ever filmed. This is not recommended for those with weak stomachs.
56. (TIE) Dawn of the Dead
Written and directed by George A. Romeo
Much has been written about George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, perhaps more than any other horror film aside from Psycho. Released 10 years after Romero’sNight Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead sets itself apart in several ways from its predecessor. Not only is it tonally distinct but Romero abandons the eerie black-and-white photography of its forefather in favour of a brightly lit colour canvas.
Romero also moves away from the small country setting and into the city. In fact, most of the film takes place in a shopping mall. Working on a much bigger budget, Romero was able to cram in more horror, action, comedy, and social satire than Night. Romero also expands on how he uses his walking dead as metaphors. The film effectively evokes the tensions between pacifist movements and more aggressive social orders of the time while also working as a denouncement of consumer culture.
Make-up artist Tom Savini, who also has a small role, created groundbreaking gore effects that set a standard for realism. “I hated that when I watched a war movie and someone dies,” Savini explained in an Empire article. “Some people die with one eye open and one eye half-closed, sometimes people die with smiles on their faces because the jaw is always slack. I incorporated the feeling of the stuff I saw in Vietnam into my work.” Heads explode, machetes go through skulls, a screwdriver is plunged into a zombie brain – there’s even a pie fight and a final credit sequence rolling to the sounds of “The Gonk.”
This time out, the actors are uniformly strong, particularly Ken Foree, who turns in a great performance as Peter. Gaylen Ross shines as Francine, a strong female role, unlike the weak, helpless, and neurotic Barbara from the first film, and gives women someone they can look up to, as Francine becomes a key player in determining the group’s survival. From the spectacular opening newsroom sequence to the shocking National Guard shoot-out in the urban city apartment complex, Dawn sets a tone of impending, inevitable doom. And while some of its cast do make it out alive, the ending of Dawn feels far more depressing than Night, leaving the outlook for humanity as a whole unclear.
Fun fact: The film was a collaboration of sorts between Romero and Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who helped arrange financing in exchange for foreign distribution rights. Argento also provided an original score performed and composed by Goblin, the Italian progressive rock group whose music was so effective inSuspiria and Deep Red. Stephen King placed Dawn at the top of his list of the ten best horror films of the year while Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing review, proclaiming it “one of the best horror films ever made.” While admitting Dawn of the Dead to be “gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling,” Roger Ebert pointed out that “nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
55. Carnival Of Souls
Directed by Herk Harvey
Written by John Clifford
This low-budget, independently made black-and-white film, produced and directed by Herk Harvey, for an estimated $33,000, did not gain widespread attention when originally released, and was billed as a B-movie. But it’s one of the greatest under-seen horror movies ever made. Without Carnival Of Souls, you would have no Sixth Sense. Set to the funereal organ score by Gene Moore, Carnival of Souls relies strictly on atmosphere of melancholic, surreal dread to create a mood of unease and foreboding. It has been cited as a major influence on the films of David Lynch and George A. Romero. The film’s subdued photography contributes considerably to its creeping mood of eerie otherworldliness and poetic nightmarish palate. This is a must-see for lovers of ghost movies.
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by David Ely and Lewis John Carlino
John Frankenheimer’s ultimately terrifying Twilight Zone-like, futuristic thriller Seconds, received mixed reviews, and was critically panned at the Cannes Film Festival. But what do they know? This provocative film underscores the Faustian theme – the yearning for youth and desire to live life over again – and the price to pay for everything gained. Seconds is a chilling character study and a distressing examination of happiness, loneliness, consumerism, and the American dream. Thankfully, repeated showings on late night television helped the film find a much deserved cult following.
Seconds features dazzling, disorienting, rich, black-and-white cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe, whose use of long takes, wide-angle lenses, and skewed framing gives Seconds the feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Saul Bass contributes a spectacularly haunting title sequence that immediately sets the mood along with the edgy jangle of Jerry Goldsmith’s excoriating score. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) directs Seconds as a nightmare, heightening every shot to maximum discomfort. The unbroken hand-held camerawork on many angst-ridden sequences, including an outdoor orgy, gives Seconds a unique, rough feel of the ‘60s and ‘70s underground. And the echoing sound effect of a drill near the end will make you scream.
Frankenheimer’s claustrophobic hellish vision of an unhappy man examining his life to see what went wrong is essential viewing. Rock Hudson’s portrayal of a tortured soul (now abstract painter) struggling to fill in the blank canvas of what he calls life, is a tour de force performance. Seconds is a masterpiece and one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Written by Dennis Paoli
Stuart Gordon’s first feature film has since become a cult favourite, driven by fans of both Jeffrey Combs and H. P. Lovecraft. While Re-Animator fails as a faithful adaptation, the injection of grisly humour, disgusting visual gags, and extreme gore make this one incredibly demented take on body horror. Gordon gleefully plays laughter against fear, as Dr. Hebert West raises the dead back to life with a glowing green liquid injected directly into the brain of a recently deceased specimen. Combs delivers an iconic performance as the would-be Frankenstein, updating the mad scientist role for a whole new generation. His performance stands in the same league as Bruce Campbell’s Ash in the Evil Dead series. From the opening sequence of a head being sawed open and a brain removed, Re-Animator is littered with a barrage of special effects gore. In the most famous scene, heroine Barbara Crampton is tied naked to a morgue slab as a corpse slowly takes its decapitated head to perform cunnilingus on her. This scene was regarded as so outrageous it was originally censored when released.
52. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Wes Craven intended Nightmare On Elm Street to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only does Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it is a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark), and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.” Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series.
One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. Englund based the physicality of Freddy on Klaus Kinski’s performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. Freddy quickly became one of the most recognizable modern horror villains with his horribly barbequed visage, his ragged slouch hat, his dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and his sense of humour as sharp as his metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger. The idea behind the glove was a practical one on Craven’s part, as he wanted to give the character a unique weapon, but also something that could be made cheaply and wouldn’t be difficult to transport. The end result brings a macabre ghostly figure throughout – indeed, precisely what nightmares are made of. The inspiration for Freddy came from several sources in Wes Craven’s childhood. The name, Fred Krueger, came from a schoolmate of Craven who had bullied him for several years and Freddy’s appearance was inspired by a hobo lurking around Craven’s house, who Craven spotted from his bedroom window one night at the age of ten. But the basis of the film was inspired by several newspaper articles printed in the LA Times on a group of Khmer refugees, who were suffering disturbing nightmares, and refused to sleep – with the most extreme cases leading to actual death while suffering horrific nightmares. Medical authorities called the phenomenon Asian Death Syndrome.
In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary in a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here, the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside, helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia.
The ultimate revelation is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake figuratively and literally, and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions.
They instead bury their memories of the crime they once committed so deep down inside, it allows Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever-present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims, and a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). The original script called for Krueger to be a child molester, rather than a child killer, but the idea was lost in the process of shooting.
Craven claimed he wanted someone very “non-Hollywood” for the role of Nancy, and he believed Heather Langenkamp met this quality. Depp was another unknown when he was cast; and initially never intending on auditioning. Instead, he was only tagging along with friend Jackie Earle Haley (who went on to play Freddy in the 2010 remake), yet it was Depp who got the part of Glen instead. Nightmare was both the feature debut and breakthrough for Depp, and a stepping stone to bigger things to come.
Nightmare is the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langekamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. She is quick-witted, adventurous and courageous, and willing to enter into Freddy’s realm even when she knows he has the upper glove. Nancy and Freddy are incredibly well-matched: during the climax, she even uses a few survivalist techniques to turn the tables on Freddy. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films, and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).
Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat, hovering somewhere between Gothic, supernatural imagery and the typical 80s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody setpieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror.
Craven’s probing of the waking/dreaming barrier results in some memorable kill sequences. Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death scene, which featured her trashing across the ceiling, was partly inspired by the movie Royal Wedding (1951), which was the first movie to use a rotating set. The set here slowly spun to allow her to roll into position, with a camera bolted to the wall and a cameraman strapped into a chair beside it, which turned in tandem with the room. It’s important to remember that this was a low-budget film shot in 30 days. For the two shots where Rod (Jsu Garcia) and Tina reach out for one another, Tina is actually lying on the floor and Garcia is hanging upside down with his hair pasted to stay flat.
FX man Jim Doyle was responsible for designing and constructing the ingenious full-scale gyro rotating room, which was again used for Johnny Depp’s kill. For the famous blood geyser sequence, the furniture, cameraman, director, and actor were fixed in place, and the room would spin upside down, thus allowing the rigged room to appear right side up while thousands of gallons of fake blood would seem to gush, erupt and ejaculate from the bed. On the DVD commentary, Craven remarks that the room spinning the wrong way was like a “Ferris Wheel from hell.” This scene was partly inspired by the elevator scene in The Shining. Particularly effective is the scene where Nancy is attacked by Krueger in her bathtub and pulled under the water into a pitch-black pool leading to a back alley chase where Freddy stalks her. To achieve this effect, the tub was put in a bathroom set that was built over a swimming pool. During this underwater sequence, Heather Langenkamp was replaced with a stuntwoman. Also worth noting is the “melting staircase” as seen in Nancy’s dream, which was created using pancake mix and directed by Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham (who is uncredited). Finally, the sequence in which Freddy is set on fire, shot in one long take (with several cameramen), featured one hell of an elaborate and dangerous stunt by stuntman Anthony Cecere (who won best stunt of the year).
Finally, there’s Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.
51. Clean Shaven
Written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan
Clean Shaven puts viewers in a situation where they completely enter into the schizophrenic mind of a young man who makes a trip to visit his daughter who he hasn’t seen since his condition developed. We follow every step of his excruciating journey, driven by a powerful performance by Peter Greene. What suffuses every moment of the movie is the constant suffering he experiences. There’s no denying that the film is disturbing, and enough to justify its presence on the list. During a screening at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, an audience member supposedly fainted during a gruesome scene in which he cuts a fingernail loose from his finger. Because of his condition, typical actions become a punishing challenge for him. In one scene, he tries to cut his hair and shave, and both produce a nasty trail of blood, to which he seems oblivious to the pain. Clean Shaven is an exhausting, painful film, but more than anything else, an uncompromising experiment in creating what it might feel like to be a schizophrenic.
C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog)
Written by André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and Vincent Tavier
Directed by André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde
Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde set out to make their first feature film with little resources and little money. In the tradition of filmmakers who can’t afford much film stock, the trio settled for a faux-documentary-style approach – the result is a high-concept satire of media violence that would spoof documentaries by following around a fictitious sociopath named Ben as he exercises his lethal craft. While the cinematic tradition of presenting villains as suave, charming, attractive, and intelligent individuals is nothing new, Man Bites Dog was still ahead of its time. Much like the great Hitchcockian villains such as Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Ben is a man of action and ideas. He expounds on art, philosophy, poetry, music, nature, society, and life as he slaughters housewives, children, mailmen, pensioners, and other random bystanders he meets along the way. Every frame of this film is shot documentary-style in grainy black-and-white, and the pseudo-realism, complete with rough uneven editing and shaky hand-held camera work, gives a frightening air of legitimacy to the events that unfold. As a critique of our crime-saturated media and violence-dominated lifestyle, Man Bites Dog is a truly compelling indictment.
Over the years Man Bites Dog surely has lost its bite, but for the time it was revolutionary, pre-dating such films as John Waters’ Serial Mom, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. Like it or not, this Belgian award-winning film has gone on to influence everything from The Blair Witch Project to Borat.
Man Bites Dog boasts graphic displays of violence. Yet what’s most disturbing about the mayhem is not so much its explicit presentation, but the actual attitude and tone surrounding the events. In fact, much of the violence takes place off camera or out of frame; but the way the movie presents these events with its own nonjudgmental point of view is what makes it disturbing. As the killing spree intensifies, it becomes clear that the camera crew following Ben at all times is equally responsible for the heinous acts documented. When the fictional crew (led by Belvaux and Bonzel) runs out of money, they rely on Ben to finance the rest of the picture. Eventually they become active collaborators, and their mere presence alone incites Ben to continue his brutal savagery. At one point they even participate in the film’s most disturbing scene, which depicts the gang-rape and disembowelment of a young woman.
Smart, deviant, scary, provocative, Man Bites Dog is a satirical stab at serial killers, and our continued unhealthy obsession with them. In short, Man Bites Dog is profoundly disturbing – as it should be.