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.
Wait until Dark
Directed by Terence Young
Written by Robert Carrington
Directed by Terence Young, this well-made thriller is based on the hit play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote Dial M for Murder). Wait Until Dark stars Audrey Hepburn as a young blind woman who is terrorized in her apartment by two men (Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna) searching for heroin that made its way into a doll given to her as a gift. Hepburn is mesmerizing in the lead and earned her fifth (and last) Best Actress nomination, losing to Katharine Hepburn. The film is filled with spell-binding tension and its climax is ranked tenth on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Wait Until Dark is innovative, highly entertaining, and full of suspense. It may be best classified as a thriller but it receives a special mention on this list for literally giving birth to the term “jump scare.”
100. (TIE) Otto; or Up with Dead People
Written and directed by Bruce La Bruce
A gay teenage zombie spends his days wandering the streets of Berlin and feasting on roadkill. He soon meets a pretentious experimental filmmaker named Medea, who casts the living-dead twink in a blackand-white political drama about a new strain of gay zombies titled Up With Dead People. But Medea’s interest in Otto grows, and she decides to make a film about him instead. While documenting his experiences as a walking corpse, the adorable twink tries his best to remember his previous life. “Was I a vegetarian?”, Otto asks himself at the start. During production, Otto remembers his former boyfriend is still alive, and suddenly Otto finds new meaning in his life – or death.
With each film, Canadian-born queer auteur, Bruce La Bruce (No Skin Off My Ass, Hustler White, The Raspberry Reich) improves his filmmaking excellence. The filmmaker has spent decades making fierce, hilarious, and generally haphazard indie films with a sharp political edge. Only this time, he’s made a genuinely touching pornographic horror film.
Once more straddling the line between art and smut, Otto; Or, Up With Dead People, carries the director’s trademark touch of dark humour and pointed politics. Otto revels in zombie genre clichés and uses them as a metaphor for AIDS, homophobia, and for the brutish compliance within the gay community. And as the story progresses, the film becomes a harsh examination of urban life, the film industry, and the gay sex scene. Otto slowly realizes the living have no respect for the dead much less the living, and LaBruce goes far beyond the limits of cinematic good taste to express this. His take-no-prisoners-approach offers plenty of opportunity to mix sex and violence, often cutting between images from horror films, war crimes and pornographic sex, including a zombie orgy. But despite all this, Otto’s story is surprisingly moving, and the film has a lot to say about how society will only accept someone, if they abide by their personal definition of normality.
In every way, LaBruce’s films are pure anti-Hollywood. His poetic visual sense is closer to Jean Cocteau than George A. Romero, but as a director, La Bruce remains an unapologetic disciple of filmmakers like Paul Morrissey, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. Otto just so happens to be one of the filmmaker’s best, featuring the spectacular cinematography of James Carman (which continuously cuts between colour and black-and-white), and a soundtrack provided by Anthony and the Johnsons. Straight or gay, this is essential viewing for any true cinephile. That is, if you can stomach the blood and sex.
100. (TIE) The Birthday
Directed by Eugenio Mira
Written by Eugenio Mira and Mikel Alvariño
A young man and his girlfriend attend her father’s birthday party, held at a luxury hotel. Just as they arrive, strange things start to happen and guests and hosts alike become exceptionally aggressive. This Spanish horror film, shot in English, stars an international cast, and at the center is none other than Corey Feldman doing an odd, feature-length Jerry Lewis impersonation (a la The Bellhop). Feldman’s performance, easily the strangest in his career, reaches surprising levels of intensity. Shot in real time (a la Hitchcock’s Rope), The Birthday begins as an extremely unusual black comedy only to slowly unravel into a horror film best described as the boy-version of Rosemary’s Baby. The picture looks great and is beautifully photographed in Cinemascope. It also features award-winning art direction and ingenious sound design geared for maximum discomfort. The Birthday is quirky, campy, and carries a hypnotic and seriously foreboding atmosphere from its opening titles to the abrupt ending. This refreshingly inventive genre film with its unforgettable climax of complete hysteria, is a gem waiting to be discovered. Director Eugenio Mira put it best at the 2004 screening at the Fantasia Film Festival when he quoted Back to the Future and said, “You may not like it, but your kids are going to love it.”
99. (TIE) Wild Zero
Directed by Tetsuro Takeuchi
Written by Satoshi Takagi and Tetsuro Takeuchi
Get ready for the craziest, punk-rock zombie flick you’ll ever see. Wild Zero makes no sense but somehow manages to get away through sheer force of will. It stars a cult Japanese rock band, decked out in black leather and dark shades, who play their punk music at a high speed, high-volume fever pitch. The band is Guitar Wolf, consisting of three members: Bass Wolf, Drum Wolf and our groovy hero, Guitar Wolf, who never takes off his shades, and whose instrument of choice doubles as a deadly energy sword used to fight off an alien mother ship. The band wanders around dishing out words of wisdom like “Love has no borders, nationalities or genders” before taking off on their next adventure aboard powered motorcycles. Their biggest fan is a rock star wannabe named Ace (Masashi Endô), who inadvertently saves them during a stand-off with the band’s shady business manager. Ace and Guitar Wolf become best of buddies, and Ace is given a magic whistle he can use to call for help whenever in need. Once aliens invade the earth and people start returning to life as flesh-eating zombies, Guitar Wolf, along with the power of rock’n’roll, come to save the day. Motorcycles roar, heads explode, and loud over-modulated punk rock tears through the film’s soundtrack. If The Ramones had decided to make a movie for Troma, the results might look similar to Wild Zero. (One of the first images in the film is in fact the Ramones album cover Subterranean Jungle). Think Rock And Roll High School crossed with Night of the Living Dead, crossed with The World’s End. Thrill, Speed, and Stupid Zombies” is the tagline, but Wild Zero offers so much more, including transgendered love, and fire-breathing motorbikes.
Helmed by noted counter-culture-video-director Takeuchi Tetsuro (known as Mr. MTV in Japan), this low-budget horror production starring nonprofessional actors, was shot over a 3-week period with an estimated budget of $50,000, and a small team of dedicated and talented computer effects artists by their side. The zombie extras in the film are a treat to watch – with the Thai military and their families standing, and staggering, in for the walking dead. You haven’t seen strange until you’ve seen Wild Zero; this exuberantly silly Japanese punk trash flick, reportedly made with a cast and crew who drank themselves silly while on set, will leave you staring in amazement.
Guitar Wolf, returning to the big screen 2 years after their tenure in The Sore Losers, are a blast to watch. The action rarely stops, until all the characters meet in a shed and give a history lesson on George A. Romero’s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. Wild Zero is dumb fun, free-spirited, and belongs in a class of its own.
99. (TIE) Tetsuo: The Ironman
Written and directed by Shin’ya Tsukamoto
Tetsuo: The Ironman established Shin’ya Tsukamoto internationally and gave him a worldwide cult following. Shot on 16 mm and on a shoestring-budget, the underground-experimental pic is unquestionably a feat of imagination with its creative imagery, homoerotic and nutty visuals, frenetic stop-motion, sharp editing, and strong industrial musical score. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is completely surreal and off-kilter, evoking an industrial flux between mankind and modern technology. Tsukamoto combines monochrome industrial landscapes (much like Eraserhead), and an unhealthy obsession with body horror (much like David Cronenberg); and the end result is quite unlike any sci-fi/horror film you’ll ever see.
98. (TIE) Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino)
Written and directed by Lucio Fulci
This stylish, modern-day murder mystery follows a child killer on a rampage in a remote southern Italian village. Don’t Torture a Duckling is a clever and complex social commentary on the effects of mob mentality on vigilante justice, pedophilia, traditional values, and the ignorance of modern thinking. Fulci tosses around themes of Catholic guilt, sexual repression, psychological trauma, small town narrow-mindedness, and hypocrisy. Duckling also features some incredible sequences, some of the best in the director’s cannon (which is saying a lot). The most powerful scene follows the local townsmen who stalk Maciara, a local woman who is rumoured to be a witch, but just released from police custody, having been deemed innocent and harmless. When the men catch up to her, they each take turns beating her viciously with chains and whatever else is within their reach.
98. (TIE) A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una lucertola con la pelle di donna)
Written and directed by Lucio Fulci
After the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the Italian film industry set out to produce a slate of thrillers with animal-related titles. One of the first was Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Despite its Giallo status, Fulci’s film is a different beast from those made by his colleagues, and earned a reputation as one of Fulci’s finest works. As a convoluted thriller, Lizard works extremely well, though its climax falls somewhat short. The highlight of the film is an 11-minute chase sequence through the catacombs of a church, a nerve-wracking scene involving killer bats ending in a bloody rooftop encounter. The strength of the movie (as with most Giallos) lies in the visuals. Fulci’s innovative camera work helps reinforce the sense of illusion throughout, and Ennio Morricone’s score complements the picture’s strange mood perfectly. At times it’s a bit slow, but Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a unique and wild experience. Keep an eye out for the obvious ripoff/homage of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
97. Anguish (Angustia)
Directed by Bigas Luna
Written by Bigas Luna and Michael Berlin
An insane mother (Zelda Rubinstein) telepathically directs her middle-aged son (Michael Lerner) to seek out deadly revenge on those who have done her wrong. When he’s finished murdering his victims, he gouges their eyes out and adds them to the family collection. But that’s only a movie within a the movie: The real horror is in the theatre where the audience watching is being murdered one by one. Spanish director J.J. Bigas Lunas does a stellar job of pulling off the story’s unconventional narrative. Although other movie-within-a-movie tricks have been tried, this one stands out from the rest. The story flows for the most part and seamlessly switches from the reel to the real world. Anguish is certainly an unusual movie but an extremely well made film with first-rate performances, special effects, and wide-screen camera work that defies its small budget.
96. (TIE) The Last House on the Left
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I Spit On Your Grave, The Last House on the Left is a prime example of the discrepancy of censorship in independent horror films. The film developed such a bad reputation that it was banned in several countries due to scenes of sadism and violence, and in 1982 was put on the “video nasties” list by the Department of Public Prosecutions. But thanks to critics such as Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert, who praised the film as an important piece of work, it eventually picked up a rabid cult following, and is still ranked by many as one of Craven’s best films.
Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the exploitation flick follows two teenage girls (en route to score some weed before a rock concert), who cross paths with a makeshift family of rootless criminals. They abduct, torture, rape, and brutally murder the girls. The twist comes in the second half of the film, when the criminals try to find shelter, and wind up at the house of the family of one of two victims. In classic backwoods horror style, the parents quickly realize that they’re in the presence of the perpetrators, and take justice into their own hands, only their revenge is even more barbaric than the crimes committed against their daughter. The final half achieves its unshakable effect through a combination of things: oral sex, disembowelment, and death by chainsaw. Critics who protested about the level of violence were misunderstanding Craven’s intentions. Last House was extremely graphic, but the violence is never played for thrills. The violence, after all, is the central theme. The film emerged a few years after the Manson Family massacre and in the wake of the Vietnam War, and Craven intended it to be an evaluation of the decay of American culture, onscreen violence, class divides, and the naivete of the free-love-hippie era. Last House is a cutthroat, bleak cautionary tale, presented in an honest, albeit provocative, way. Unlike Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (made a year earlier), Craven never glorifies the violence. Not a single frame is set in slow motion or styled for the sake of making it look cool. Instead, the audience is forced to confront the atrocities directly, and the initial rape/murder sequence of the teenage girls ends with one of the most unforgettable and chilling moments in any genre film. Once the killers realize they’ve gone too far, the audience clearly sees the remorse on their faces. This is a ruthlessly violent film that still unnerves audiences today.
It’s understandable why some may dismiss Last House as typical brown-nose exploitation fare; the acting isn’t always great; several of the filmmakers and actresses worked in the porn industry at the time; the clumsy comedy feels out of place; the soundtrack, although notable for being heavily contrasted with the events on screen, is just plain awful; and the cops look like they walked off the set of The Dukes of Hazzard. Thus, the film suffers from some harsh tonal shifts throughout. Craven, who had experimented in making documentaries prior, opted to shoot in a very grainy, verité style, and filmed under conditions that produced genuinely traumatized performances, making it seem and feel even more realistic and powerful. Last House On The Left is an important snapshot in Craven’s career and a must see for horror fans – a genre landmark, offending nearly everyone who saw it, and more importantly inspiring a wave of “backwoods horror” films to come, including House By the Lake, Fight For Your Life, the aforementioned Spit and Chainsaw Massacre, and Craven’s follow up, The Hills Have Eyes.
One of the more memorable aspects of the film was the advertising campaign. In an attempt to make the fictional events seem real, the opening caption notes read “The events you are about to witness are true. Names and locations have been changed to protect those individuals still living.” It was so efficient that the same opening was later copied by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Last House also featured the tagline used in H.G. Lewis’s Color Me Blood Red, and in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…”.
96. (TIE) The Hills Have Eyes
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Horror auteur Wes Craven’s sophomore effort The Hills Have Eyes is a demented morality fable about a a family who, while on a road trip, get stranded in the Nevada desert and become hunted by a family of deformed cannibals in the surrounding hills. Craven has an unique skill for creating an all-encompassing atmosphere of dread long before he unleashes the true terror. A heady mix of ironic allegory and nail-biting tension make Hills a solid entry in the genre.
Written and directed by James Gunn
Gross-out horror comedy is a guilty pleasure. Among the best are Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, and James Gunn’s Slither. Essentially a pastiche of the zombie and alien-invasion genres, Slither features a 50′s sci-fi plot with gross-out gore making for an effective, even if familiar, horror film.
This tongue-in-cheek horror flick shows off Gunn’s skill for blending comedy and horror. Slither recalls Tremors, only with much more gore: it’s the best kind of B-movie, one whose laughs are just as effective and intentional as it imaginative gross-out-effects. More importantly, Gunn probes the genre’s cliches without ever mocking them. Slither is a labor of love made by a horror aficionado who knows his shit, and along the way, he subsumes an onslaught of cinematic references to genre conventions, from John Carpenter’s The Thing to Troma cult favourite The Toxic Avenger (spot Lloyd Kaufman’s cameo).
Slither doesn’t aspire to be anything complex or high-brow; instead, it is knowingly in touch with its audience. The special effects are a healthy blend of old-school prosthetics and CGI. The slug attacks might not be terrifying but are utterly gruesome, and the effects appear slick but not too polished, staying in spirit to its B-movie roots, and the bathtub scene lives up to its featured status in the film’s trailer and poster art.
Slither succeeds at gleefully grossing us out. The film’s aliens enter their victims through their orifices and turn them into flesh eaters who grow so morbidly obese that they literally explode. What is this movie about? In a nutshell, Slither is about clueless rednecks vs. flesh-eating zombies brainwashed by slimy acid spewing extraterrestrial multi-tentacle mutant slugs. And no other movie will ever as gleefully exploit Air Supply’s 1980 hit “Every Woman in the World” for darkly comic purposes.
94. El día de la bestia (The Day of the Beast)
Directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría and Álex de la Iglesia
Considered one of Spain’s hottest directors in the late ’90s, Alex de la Iglesia hasn’t slowed down one bit over time. He’s continuously directed genre-bending, imaginative films, laced with black humour and often sharp satire for over two decades. His tongue-in-cheek 1995 sci-fi/thriller The Day of the Beast, won no fewer than six Goyas. Best described as a comic precursor to End of Days, The Day of the Beast follows a Catholic priest and professor of theology (Alex Angulo) who tries to thwart the coming of Satan on Christmas Eve. In a rather slapdash manner, he befriends a metalhead record store clerk (Santiago Segura) and the host of a paranormal-themed TV talk show (Armando DeRazza) to help him on his quest. Convinced that Satan’s spawn will be born somewhere in Madrid, Father Angel sets out into the streets, conducting acts of evil, to earn his way into the Devil’s inner circle, and to destroy Satan himself.
This ambitious horror film has garnered a sizeable cult following over the years, and with good reason. Comprised of equal parts high-concept horror and scathing social satire, The Day of the Beast remains the director’s finest work to date – and one of the best Holiday Horror films ever made. It was a box office smash in Spain and earned Álex de la Iglesia the gig to direct the sequel to Wild At Heart, titled Perdita Durango. Much like the director’s peer and former collaborator Pedro Almodovar, de la Iglesia throws in a title wave of black comedy. While the film is rife with violence and profanity, Day is fuelled by de la Iglesia’s fast-paced slapstick sensibilities – and brought to life by the incredible performances from his cast. De la Iglesia borrows from Russ Meyer, The Exorcist, Network, H.P. Lovecraft, Larry Cohen and Sam Raimi (to name a few), but his style isn’t all homage; the genre of Biblical prophecies concerning themselves with The Book of Revelations, the Anti-Christ, The Rapture and the Number of the Beast, has never looked so fresh. The Day of the Beast is one of the most original horror films made in the past 30 years and after 104 minutes of mayhem – you’ll be wishing for more. Day moves at a fast pace, and every frame is used to maximum effect – every character, gag, line of dialogue, prop and location serves to move the plot forward. And boy, does de la Iglesia push forward, despite the limited budget. Delirious, demented, and diabolically funny, The Day of the Beast is essential viewing.
93. The Blair Witch Project
Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Perhaps no film used the found footage gimmick to create fresh scares better than The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 horror film presented the narrative as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage, filmed in real time. The film relates the story of three young student filmmakers who hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch, and subsequently go missing. The viewer is told that the three were never found, although their video and sound equipment (along with most of the footage they shot) was discovered a year later.
The film caused a major stir at Sundance for its offbeat, energetic, and eye-opening approach to filmmaking. Artisan quickly picked it up for distribution, and with the help of a ground-breaking campaign that took to the Internet to suggest the film was real, The Blair Witch Project grossed $248,639,099 worldwide. With a final production budget of only $25,000, Blair Witch became the third-highest grossing independent film of all time. The Internet swarmed with Blair Witch fan sites, web boards, mailing lists, newsgroups, trailer sites, and general excitement about the movie months before its release. The torrent of online talk about the movie aroused the curiosity of the offline press and the anticipation for the movie’s opening drove ticket sales through the roof. Nielson NetRatings had listed the official site as the 45th most visited location on the Web for the week ending August 1, with a reported 10.4 million page views and an astounding average visit of 16 minutes and 8 seconds.
However, the primary reason for its success is that it keeps audiences in the dark about its titular villain. The Blair Witch Project remembers that nothing onscreen can be as scary as your own imagination. It understands how to build anticipation and deliver the scares at precisely the right moment. Unlike most horror films, The Blair Witch Project isn’t simply designed to make you jump nor ever gross you out. Instead the film focuses on having the viewer feel discomfort, nausea and terror – and thus some people respond by saying it is the scariest film of all time simply because it feels so real. The Blair Witch Project is a clever, entertaining stunt, and a terrific calling card for its fledgling filmmakers that opened up the genre for many more future filmmakers to come.
92. The Howling
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by John Sayles
Based on the best-selling novel by Gary Brandner, this horror film makes effective use of the classic werewolf tale but more importantly, The Howling deserves respect simply for being the first to actually show the lycanthrope transformation process in slow, painstaking detail through a combination of clever edits and animatronics. The Howling may not be as polished or effective as John Landis’ 1981 An American Werewolf in London, but the film delivers on action, gore and true scares.
91. Inside (À l’intérieur)
Written and directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury
Inside (À l’intérieur) takes the home invasion genre about as far as it can go with an exceedingly simple premise. Four months after the death of her husband, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), who is nine months pregnant, is tormented by a strange woman (Beatrice Dalle) lurking outside her house on Christmas Eve. After a few unsuccessful attempts at trying to talk her way in, the mysterious woman invades Sarah’s home with the intent on killing her. The twist here is the intruder plans to perform an botched C-section with a giant pair of scissors so she can take Sarah’s baby for herself.
This movie is not recommended for women on the brink of motherhood.Inside is one of the most vicious and cringe-inducing horror thrillers ever made. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury stage with grisly proficiency, scenes lasting a beat longer than normal to maximize dread in every frame; every camera shot, edit, and musical cue has been meticulously mapped out to terrify audiences. From a visual standpoint, the film is a beauty to watch, with incredibly stylish visuals that bring to mind the best of Giallo – but the film’s biggest attribute is in its lengthy and nifty shots of the cat and mouse chase. The directors are patient filmmakers and know to get audiences gripping onto their seats. Meanwhile, the blood-soaked hand-to-combat scenes, in which each woman grabs whatever house tool within reach, will have audiences shielding their eyes. Paradis does a superb job of ensuring that Sarah never becomes a horror-movie stereotype and Dalle’s sinister performance will leave the hairs on the back of your neck standing. This nasty first feature, shot on a limited budget, and mostly in one location, is without a doubt, the best of the French new wave of horror: Bloody, gory, unsettling, and full of suspense – what more could a horror fan ask for?
90. White Zombie
Directed by Victor Halperin
Written by Garnett Weston
In this haunting, low-budget, lyrical melodrama, director Victor Halperin brings into play voodoo, possession and a virgin bride cursed to walk with the living dead. Bela Lugosi stars as voodoo master Murder Legendre, a devilish figure who exercises supernatural powers over the natives in his Haitian domain.
Made by a small indie company on a miniscule budget, White Zombie was a huge box office hit on its initial release, yet it proved to be less popular than other horror films of the time, opening to negative reception. Even worse, it remained out of circulation for quite a while due to various legal battles. Most independent productions of that era are downright awful, but White Zombie is a truly remarkable film.
The film was shot in only 11 days, borrowing many props and scenery from other horror films shot on the Universal lot. Halperin’s rough visuals fill the screen with surprisingly poetic images. The command of mood and emotion on display suggests a work from a master filmmaker, yet Halperin would never achieve anything greater. Halperin did an astonishing job pushing the technical limitations of its day, with extravagant sets, multi-layered compositions, and a killer split screen sequence; all elevating the film above simplicity, to near-operatic. The unique result lands somewhere in between classic Universal horror and Val Lewton productions.
The sugar mill sets are extraordinary. A repeated shot of Madeline walking down a grand staircase in Legendre’s castle is breathtaking, and the crossfade from Madeline and Neil into a shot of Lugosi’s deep penetrating stare is legendary. Many claim his performance here to be his best. Lugosi’s character here is one of his most fascinating creations. He never found a better role that could flaunt his range of expressions and his uncanny ability to deliver dialogue quite unlike anyone else.
White Zombie is considered the first zombie film, and is essential viewing for any true horror fan.
89. (TIE) The Beyond
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti
Sometimes labeled “Fulci’s masterpiece,” The Beyond is loaded with more than enough graphic gore to please the most jaded genre enthusiast: we’re talking acid face-lifts, killer tarantulas. There is even a scene reminiscent of Suspiria, in where a blind girl has her ear ripped off when attacked by her seeing-eye dog. But the gore here is splattered about in high style, the camera work is excellentGand Fulci amps up a distinct uneasy atmospheric tale of terror with the Gothic locales, foggy environments, dark shadows, terrific visuals, well-executed jump-shocks, and with the Italian prog-rock soundtrack (one of the best of all the Italian horror films). The Beyond is so littered with Fulci’s iconic imagery, alternating between genuine frightening moments of gore and shocks and unintentionally funny and awkward interactions between the cast of odd characters, that despite its discernible lines of logic, one can’t help but be entertained.
89. (TIE) Zombi 2 (also known as Zombie, Island of the Living Dead, Zombie Island, Zombie Flesh-Eaters and Woodoo)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Elisa Briganti
For the uninitiated, Zombi 2 is a 1979 horror film directed by Lucio Fulci. It is perhaps the best-known of Fulci’s films, banned in some countries, censored in others and is one of the best zombie films ever made. Fulci’s direction is confident, the makeup, and special effects done by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani are fantastic (especially for the time) and the pulsating electronic score courtesy of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci is one of the best in horror history. The movie also features two very famous scenes: One features an eyeball-popping out of the socket and the other has an underwater sequence in which a shark battles a zombie.
88. The Exorcist III
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty
William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, wrote and directed this creepy thriller, based on his novel Legion. Thankfully, he ignores the events of John Boorman’s disappointing Exorcist II: The Heretic, and abandons cheap scares altogether, instead allowing the events to unfold as a detective story about one man’s search for faith. The Exorcist III isn’t quite as good as the first film, but thanks to powerful performances by Brad Dourif and George C. Scott, Blatty directs a picture that is just as frightening.
There are several stand-out scenes: the dream sequence with Scott moving through Heaven delivers a strong punch, and the moment where he enters the ward and the camera pans upwards to reveal one of the patients crawling on the ceiling is spooky as hell. However, the most memorable scene comes when a nurse investigates strange noises during her graveyard shift. Blatty shows great patience in holding a long shot for an ample amount of time, while making good use of ominous sounds heard in the distance. The sequence culminates with not one, but two of the best jump scares you’ll ever see; both will have you jolt from your seat. In the climactic exorcism scene, Blatty fought with the producers, who demanded a frenzy of special effects. In retrospect, this might be one of the rare times in which the studio made the right choice, and not the director. After all, what is an Exorcist film without an exorcism?
The picture is extraordinarily well acted by the likes of Scott, who provides some of his best work, and Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), who is equally riveting as the Gemini Killer. Gerry Fisher’s widescreen lensing is put to excellent use within the narrow corridors and caged cells of the asylum, and Barry De Vorzon’s eerie score will make the hairs on your arms stand up. Those looking for a truly creepy picture, look no further. The Exorcist III will get under skin.
87. The Lords of Salem
Written and directed by Rob Zombie
Writer/director Rob Zombie’s newest vision of horror, The Lords Of Salem, represents a major step forward for the filmmaker. Salem is a gaudy dance between the macabre and the art-house, too violent for the mainstream moviegoer and too bizarre for the common gore-fiend. But Salem is also the director’s best film to date, showcasing his versatility as a filmmaker. Love him or hate him, Zombie’s contributions have and will always make a major impact on the world of horror, and Salem shares his most creative impulses.
Zombie has always been a controversial figure and perhaps the most polarizing director in modern horror. With The Lords of Salem, Zombie creates a suffocating sense of foreboding dread. Much like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, mood and atmosphere are his primary concern. As the film progresses, things grow increasingly strange by the minute. Heidi’s nightmares recall the best of Alejandro Jodorowsky and the surrealistic moments (specifically within the apartment) spring up comparisons to early Polanski. But there’s no confusing his aesthetic with anyone else. With his latest, Zombie was given complete creative control and the end result is a work of phantasmagorical cinema.
Usually when handed carte-blanche, directors find trouble eliminating superfluous elements, but here, Zombie shows that he can discipline himself. The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s most patient and mature film. Salem is a textbook study on how to do horror right, largely bypassing the gore galore until the climax and avoiding cheap scares that directors employ far too often. Salem is essentially a 70s-style European art-house horror flick culminating with an air of ambiguity, with a take-no-prisoners final act painted with moments of crazed inspirations. Salem is an old-school horror flick sporadically interested in experimental decor.
Salem’s chief virtue is, surprisingly, the cast. Zombie has ample affection for his outcasts, and Salem marks the first time the director displays genuine care for his protagonist. Zombie follows his lead from a close distance. We spend a lot of time getting to know and like the vulnerable Heidi, who struggles to cope with demons from her past. Music has always played an essential role in all of his films but never as crucial as here. The haunting soundtrack supplied by composer John 5 (Zombie’s guitarist) and music supervisor Tom Rowland is the driving force of the madness. Together, they have truly created one of the most effective and unique themes to any horror film. Along with the art direction, costume design, and Brandon Trost’s cinematography, The Lords of Salem is a fiercely imagined nightmare. While Zombie clearly wears his influences on his sleeve, there is no doubt his brand of terror will carry weight for generations to come.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny And Girly (aka Girly)
Directed by Freddie Francis
Written by Brian Comport
UK , 1970
Here is one of the best and most bizarre films of the early ’70s Brit psycho-horror entries. Girly isn’t exactly suspenseful, and it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense, but rather a sordid affair about perversions and power games. Based on the play Happy Family by Maisie Mosco, Girly is stuffed with clever dialogue (that often rhymes), great performances, and it also boasts confident direction from Freddie Francis, who served as the cinematographer for The Innocents. The film is imbued with disquiet and unease, but Francis plays up the absurdity of the story by keeping most of the violence and sex off-screen.
86. Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) (One Against All)
Written and directed by Gaspar Noé
I Stand Alone, a French nouveau Taxi Driver, is sure to arouse controversy with its scenes of explicit sex and bloody violence. The film opens with these words of narration: “Morality is made by and for the rich, power comes from the barrel of a gun,” and Noé proceeds to prove this point, while attacking what he sees as the social and cultural complacency of mainstream French cinema and television.
I Stand Alone is a violent and verbally vulgar assault on the senses, but the far more deeply disturbing element at play isn’t the onscreen violence, but how Noé takes us inside the mind of the protagonist. What elevates I Stand Alone from an average horror film is the way it refuses to cut away from the butcher’s head-space. We get his point of view from the first frame to the very last. The butcher never becomes a sympathetic character and Noé doesn’t try to justify or excuse his behaviour. Philippe Nahon’s performance is strong and fearless, and Nahon refuses to make the character a stereotype or cartoon.
Three quarters into the film, Noé takes a page from legendary schlockmeister William Castle’s 1961 Homicidal by giving the audience a 30-second warning to either leave the theatre or avert their eyes, before continuing to the film’s bloody climax. The flashy scope cinematography; the twisted, bitter, and cynical voiceover; the aggressive shooting style; the deliberate widescreen close-ups; the endless shots of empty corridors, vacant industrial streets; the repeated uses a swish pan or a skip frame; and the marvellous score accompanied by a sharp electronic sounds of gun shots all help make I Stand Alone one of the nastiest entries into the genre you will ever see.
85. (TIE) Cat People / Curse of the Cat People
Directed by Jacques Tourneur / Robert Wise
Written by DeWitt Bodeen
One of the first films to reference the work of Sigmund Freud was Cat People, a story about an American man who marries a Serbian immigrant who fears that she will turn into a cat-like-person if they are sexually intimate. Cat People plays out as a dark and fearless study of sexual repression and anxiety, and underlines what would later make psycho-sexual supernatural horror popular. It was ahead of its time in many ways, and it was also the first film in a series of nine brilliant literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the ’40s. Of the nine, it is arguably the best.
Lewton, a Jack-of-all-Trades is a producer any director would dream to work with as he was always more concerned with a film’s artistic integrity than its commercial success. Despite working with a number of already established directors, each of his nine RKO horror films is recognizably a Lewton production, marking him a true auteur. Cat People is an evocative reminder of how powerful ‘less is more’ can be. Lewton, along with director Jacques Tourneur, create a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. The film is also blessed with the beautiful expressionistic cinematography courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, and Roy Webb’s melancholy score, which accents the romantic and tragic love story at the centre.
Lewton brought in editor-turned director, Robert Wise, to helm the dream-like sequel, The Curse Of The Cat People, an engrossing and charming fantasy about childhood alienation told from a child’s point of view. Curse of the Cat People, much like Bride of Frankenstein, is in many ways superior to it’s predecessor. However, choosing which I like best is impossible, so I’ve opted for a tie.
84. Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen)
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
Barely released in 1971 thanks to great controversy from just about every corner of the globe, Dwarfs went on to heavily influence many filmmakers, most notably Harmony Korine, who borrowed heavily from it for his feature Gummo. There are few films in Werner Herzog’s extensive portfolio that are as beautifully shot, impressively scored, and strangely composed as this one. Much like Todd Browning’s Freaks, Dwarfs is unapologetic and affirming. Whether you see it as a powerful sociopolitical allegory or as exploitation is up to you; regardless, Dwarfs will linger in your thoughts for a very long time.
83. Spider Baby (The Maddest Story Ever Told / Attack of the Liver Eaters)
Written and directed by Jack Hill
Exploitation maverick Jack Hill, who went on to make some classic cult films like Switchblade Sisters, The Mack and Foxy Brown, made his solo directorial debut with Spider Baby. Spider Baby is somewhat unclassifiable as it is quite unique. It features one of Lon Chaney Jr.’s last performances, and although he was battling with alcoholism at the time, his screen presence is still quite charming. The premise concerns a strange family cursed with a regressive gene that causes them to become more and more like monsters as they age. As with Freaks, the viewer ends up siding with characters who would normally be the villains in most horror films.
Shot in 1964, Spider Baby collected webs on the shelf until 1968, when it was briefly released as the second half of a horror double-bill. But it wasn’t until the early 80s when it was finally released on home video that it began to develop a following. The eerie black-and-white cinematography, freaky performances. and Chaney’s bizarre song about cannibal orgies helped amplify its cult appeal. Now it is regarded as one of the best films of swinging Sixties horror.
82. The Mask of Red Death
Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell
USA / UK, 1964
The Masque of the Red Death is one of the seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by producer-director Roger Corman, between 1960 and 1964. It is Corman’s most extravagant and visually impressive picture. Take note of the superb cinematography by future film director Nicolas Roeg, and the diabolic performance from Vincent Price. Many will argue there are better films from the king of exploitation on this list (Bucket of Blood for starters), but there is just something about Masque that marks it as a classic.
81. Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (Demons ’95) (Of Death, of Love)
Directed by Michele Soavi
Written by Gianni Romoli
Italy / France / Germany, 1996
Based on the wildly popular Italian comic book Dellamorte, Dellamore from Tiziano Sclavi’s Dylan Dog series, Cemetery Man is compelling, bizarre, and downright entertaining from start to finish. Technically a zombie film, but not really, Soavi’s avant-garde gothic flick weaves in so many unexpected directions, that it is quite unlike any horror film made before or after. This surreal fantasy from the director of Deliria (1987) unfolds like a weird dream and never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to a beautifully rendered existential climax. You can take it as a horror picture or a black/comedy or a story about friendship, identity and love. Either way, it works.
The scenario, written by Gianni Romoli, concentrates on the human characters rather than the walking dead. In other words, Cemetery Man is a horror movie with character. There’s a quirky blend of romance, surrealism, black comedy, sex, violence and haphazard plotting that only the Italians can get away with. Soavi is a well-known disciple of Dario Argento, and it shows in every frame. The opening scene where Dellamorte disposes off the living dead as he casually chats on the phone is one of the best openings of any horror flick. From the color-drenched scenery and a kiss silhouetted by the full moon, to a camera rotating around a table (Ala Reservoir Dogs), or a steady tracking shot; almost every scene in Cemetery Man is a treat to watch. Even better is the score by Manuel de Sica, a prolific composer who has written over 100 musical scores for television and film since 1969. His score is a curious blend of synthesizers, and traditional instrumentation accompanied by a catchy theme song that’ll leave you humming long after the credits role. Cemetery Man is the product of an expansive vision, a gorgeously rounded picture that passes through moments of genuine longing and existential crisis – right up to the film’s heart-wrenching mystic finale, in which Francesco will travel to the edge of the world to find some meaning in his cursed existence. Originally titled Dellamorte Dellamore (Of Death and Love), Cemetery Man is one of the most striking Italian genre efforts, an overlooked and under-appreciated gem.
80. Pulse (Kairo)
Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
One of the most cutting-edge and exciting Japanese filmmakers to come along in recent memory is director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. His spine-tingling thriller Kairo is the creepiest and most frightening sample of J-horror ever. Kurosawa prefers the power of suggestion rather than relying on a barrage of blood, gore and special effects to terrify his audience. Kario works equally well as social commentary and as a horror film, and is guaranteed to make the tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Michael Grais and Steven Spielberg
Poltergeist has become legendary for two major reasons other than being a great film: First, there were rumours that co-producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg took over as director midway through production. Secondly, its young co-star Dominique Dunne was murdered just before the film hit theatres. I will always remember Poltergeist, however, as the film that left me sleepless for a week as a child. Someone once famously said that Poltergeist does for TV sets what Psycho did for showers. I never had a problem taking a shower but I don’t like leaving the TV set left open over night. Hooper’s directing skill combined with Spielberg’s ability to make anything family-friendly makes this one of the few entries on the this list that the entire family might theoretically enjoy.
78. We Are What We Are
Written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau
Unlike most cannibal films, We Are What We Are eschews the easy options of excessive gore, graphic violence, sex and and cheap laughs, instead creating a deeply moving drama with a spoonful of black comedy and a healthy serving of horror. It’s a slow-burning film with an engulfing atmosphere that occasionally leaves you feeling uneasy and other times laughing along. For every moment of bloodshed, there are nuances and surprises that transcend this exhausted subgenre. Though the violence is nowhere near as brutal as the cannibal movies of the late ’70s or early ’80s, We Are What We Are hasn’t forgotten its roots, administering just enough bloodshed to upset mainstream movie-goers. It also provides us with nice, small moments of color for the characters, short but clever lines of dialogue and plenty of room for development. First-time director Jorge Michel Grau (who also wrote the script) conjures up one of the best, most imaginative, and resonant family-themed horror stories to date. The picture’s leading attribute is Santiago Sanchez’s dazzling photography, a dark and dirty pallette which beautifully highlights the sleazier neighborhoods of Mexico City. Grau balances beautiful, long, static shots while at times having the camera move kinetically, juxtaposed with a remarkably eerie and complex score composed by Enrico Chapel. It is one of the most layered, atmospheric, and textured movies in recent memory. Beautifully crafted and expertly acted, We Are What We Are is a haunting, emotionally involving journey into the macabre.
77. Dead Of Night
Written and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (segments Christmas Party and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy), Charles Crichton (segment Golfing Story), Basil Dearden (segments Hearse Driver and Linking Narrative), Robert Hamer (segment The Haunted Mirror)
The classic British chiller Dead of Night is considered in many circles as the greatest horror anthology ever made. Dead of Night features five stories of supernatural terror from four directors. Alberto Cavalcanti’s story about a mad ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave is the best of the bunch, a brilliant precursor to Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring an early uncensored gay relationship. Unlike most (maybe all) horror anthologies, Dead of Night ends with a bravura final sequence recapitulating all five sub-sets and ultimately making them all feel like a unified whole.
76. Death Proof
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s homage to the road-fury genre is really two movies in one, offering two manifestations of the same story: Two separate groups of beautiful women are stalked by a homicidal maniac who uses his “death proof” car (his weapon of choice) to terrorize and eventually kill his victims. Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, with the second half acting as a sequel, offering new, beautiful victims for the murderous Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) to menace.
As Tarantino clearly identifies in the film, the obvious reference points of Death Proof are such movies as Vanishing Point, Roadgames, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and even Spielberg’s Duel – but Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror. It’s a grim stalk-and-slash picture with a blaring commentary of female empowerment. Replace the typical sharp edged blade with a car, and Death Proof is every bit a slasher film as Halloween, Black Christmas and A Nightmare On Elm Street. It’s also a small masterpiece, dredged up from a cinematic human encyclopedia, and one of the director’s best films.
Spirits Of The Dead (Histoires extraordinaires)
Written and directed by Federico Fellini (segment Toby Dammit), Louis Malle (segment William Wilson), Roger Vadim (segment Metzengerstein)
First thing to notice is the three directors: Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim. Secondly, take notice of the cast, which includes Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Terence Stamp, Salvo Randone, James Robertson Justice, Françoise Prévost and Marlène Alexandre. Spirits Of The Dead is an adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe stories, one of which demands to be seen.
The first segment of the film, Vadim’s Metzgengerstein, is unfortunately the least impressive, but is still great in its own right, and features a marvelous performance by Fonda. Malle’s segment is the second of the three. Malle turns Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story into an engrossing study in cruelty and sadism. This episode is an engaging enough entry, but pales in comparison to what follows. They really do save the best for last. Episode three is the reason to see this anthology. Even if it hardly qualifies as horror, it still deserves to make my list. Fellini’s Toby Dammit, which stars Stamp, is a visual wonder. Fellini and his cinematographer shoot with an intensifying palette – the most brilliant mix of blues and reds, bittersweet shades and extraordinary camera movement you will ever see in any horror anthology. Stamp is truly terrifying as the dysfunctional Toby, and the world that Fellini creates perfectly mirrors the inner turmoil and self-destructive nature of his character. Toby Dammit feels like a stylish nightmare – a truly unsettling and intriguing film that makes the perfect gateway into the director’s oeuvre.