Every year, starting on November 1st, I count down the days until October with the prospect of watching non-stop horror movies (inevitably alone, or with my dog). As I patiently await for the next October to arrive, I imagine the films dancing like poisonous sugar plums in the catacombs of my head. I love October, and Halloween, and, obviously, horror flicks. I think they deserve the same critical attention any “serious” film: In some cases for their impeccable craftsmanship–just how, exactly, does Hitchcock make the shower scene so effective? And why is John Carpenter’s original Halloween so terrifying while its myriad ersatz offshoots and sequels aren’t?–and sometimes because they have something more profound to say than just naked girls with big fake heaving boobs being chased around the woods by masked madmen with big knives (not that I don’t enjoy that stuff, too). Constructing a list of my top 40 favorite horror films-was daunting and a little upsetting. A lot of good stuff got left off, whether because I just don’t react to it with as much fervor anymore (say, Dawn of the Dead, which I adored in high school and showed to all my friends) or because I respect it more than I enjoy it (the works of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton). Some of the movies that landed just outside number 40 include a few Argentos, a Hammer or two, The Cabin in the Woods, Cronenberg’s The Fly, Philip Kauffman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Vampyr, [REC], Fright Night (the real one), and Phantasm.
The rankings aren’t definitive, of course, and maybe I’ll change my mind next Halloween. Or next month. We’re gonna post 10 entries a day for the first 3 days, and five for the last two days, with the top 10 getting more allotted words because, duh, top 10. I wasn’t surprised that the ’70s and ’80s were the decades responsible for more movies on this list than any other decades, but I was surprised at how many movies from the aughts I chose. I’m excited to share these horror flicks with you–it’s like we’re friends!–so please feel free to tell me how dumb my choices are. I would do the same for you.
Now, kiddies, movies 40-31, which are (for whatever reason) more recent than most of the other films on this list.
40. Candyman (1992) directed by Bernard Rose
Making the most of his brooding and sanguineous voice Tony Todd plays the title character, an urban legend that haunts the derelict Chicago ghetto Cabrini-Green. A PhD student (Virginia Madsen) seeks to disprove the existence of Candyman as part of her urban legend thesis, and of course things go horribly awry. Darkly poetic and teeming with political anger, Candyman resembles a slasher film only in passing. Yeah, it has its share of gross, gory moments–a child has his most cherished of parts cut off in a sordid bathroom; a dog is decapitated; many people are gutted–but the violence is an intrinsic part of the film’s operatic style. Anything less than the grotesque would be unbecoming. Rose’s direction is stylish and patient, and Philip Glass’ hypnotic score sustains an air of histrionic dread throughout. This is easily the finest Clive Barker adaptation (and don’t even give me that bullshit about Hellraiser or the insufferable Nightbreed).
39. Drag Me to Hell (2009) directed by Sam Raimi
Returning to his horror roots, Raimi serves up the true spiritual successor to his beloved Evil Dead trilogy (the Evil Dead remake is by no means bad, but it distances itself from Raimi’s classic by smothering any trace of humor with grisly violence). Drag Me To Hell, starring Alison Lohman and Justin Long (maybe the most innocent-looking couple in the history of horror), uses wonderfully horrid CGI for comical hijinks the same way The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness use horrid practical effects for kicks. Lohman plays a bank teller who turns down an old Gypsy woman for a loan; the Gypsy, in return, curses Lohman, unleashing a scary goat demon. In true Raimi fashion, the film works best when the director mingles the horrific and hilarious (the old woman attacking Lohman in her car). It’s pure Raimi, deranged and maniacally fun, from the opening scene to the closing shot. After the bizarre Spiderman 3 (which, to be fair, does have some brilliant surreal moments–the Emo Peter dance may not belong in a Spiderman flick, but its comedic audacity is some kind of wonderful), Raimi proved that his remains a unique vision. Maybe he’ll come back from the awful Oz with another return to horror?
38. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) directed by Werner Herzog
Murnau’s silent classic remains one of German cinema’s crowning achievements, with its grainy flickering images haunting the screen like nightmares filtered through a camera obscura. Herzog’s remake is even better: starring the inimitable (and fucking insane) Klaus Kinski, Nosferatu offers a pathological arthouse mood piece more concerned with the tragic loneliness of the vampire than simply depicting him as a verminous monster. Kinski is enthralling, and Herzog’s expressionistic imagery lingers like the smell of smoke. It’s slower than slow and very somber, so drink some caffeine and settle down for a gorgeous masterpiece courtesy of Herr Herzog.
37. The House of the Devil (2009) directed by Ti West
In his breakthrough film, West displays masterful control of visual and aural occurrences. He controls our emotional responses, like a cinematic sorcerer manipulating what we see, what we hear, and what we feel. He seems to have studied the work of one of cinema’s all-time great manipulators, William Friedkin, who always toyed with his audiences without remorse. To give away any of the plot would be sinful, so suffice it to say that Jocelin Donahue evokes a sense of earnest collegiate innocence, and her rapport with perpetual indie favorite Greta Gerwig is plenty convincing. Whereas West’s next two features, The Innkeepers and the horrible The Sacrifice, preyed on preconceived anticipations but completely skimped on characters, The House of the Devil seems to actually like its heroine. At his best, West utilizes an arsenal of old-school tricks–in-camera and practical effects, droning sounds, slow hypnotic zooms that render the quotidian (a pool table in a darkened room) sinister, and well-placed camera seizures–to synthesize a feeling of dread.
36. Let the Right One In (2008) directed by Tomas Alfredson
A young girl (Lina Leandersson, fantastic) with vaguely vampiric qualities moves into an apartment complex in the forlorn winter wonder land of the western Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, where she befriends a lonely young boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant). Soon bodies start to show up, strung up in trees, desiccated, as if processed for consumption. But Oskar’s strange new friend isn’t even the true villain here: the schoolyard bullies, some truly sadistic little bastards, prey on Oskar’s meekness and seem to get off to emotional abuse. Let the Right One In is a lyrical fairy tale in which the monsters don’t just prey on children, they are children. The word “unique” has, sadly, lost most of its poignancy, akin to “awesome,” “literally,” “epic,” etc. But Alfredson, one of our most interesting modern filmmakers–Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the finest films of the last decade, and deserves way more critical attention–truly has a unique vision, and that pool scene (you know the one) is an amazing accomplishment of visual dexterity, acting, sight and sound synchronization, and emotional climax. The remake isn’t bad, but it’s not capital-G Great. This one, the right one, is.
35. Carnival of Souls (1962) directed by Herk Harvey
Impeccably shot and scored, this low-budget indie is the essential shoe-string horror flick (sorry, Blair Witch, but you’re not very good). A young woman (Candance Hilligoss) drives her car off a bridge in the film’s opening moments. After crawling out of the turbid river, she begins to experiences weird visions of a ghastly pale man, and her world gradually begins to grow distant and alien. Filmed over several days, with the director playing the reoccurring nightmare man, Carnival of Souls is wonderfully creepy and admirably economic. The ineluctable organ score is one of my all-time favorites, and proves how essential good music is to sustaining a mood.
34. Re-Animator (1985) directed by Stuart Gordon
How deranged is Re-Animator? A severed head performs oral sex on an unconscious young girl (what I once referred to as “carcass cunnilingus,” to the dismay of my peevish editor). If that’s not your cup of tea, avoid this like Ebola. Jeffrey Combs plays the title character, Herbert West, a crazy science student who conjures a glowing green reagent that brings dead flesh back to life. Of course, the living dead never behave as one would expect, and soon people are dying in all sorts of creative ways (there’s undead penis, too, because Gordon and co. are equal opportunity lunatics). As repulsive as it is hilarious, and Combs is ace as the stoic West. The sequels are fun for fans, though they can’t help but feel redundant.
33. The Exorcist III (1990) directed by William Peter Blatty
From a piece I did on Nightbreed: The Cubal Cut, which is an awful director’s cut of an awful film: “Blatty’s film takes Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a minor character from the original Exorcist (then played by Lee J. Cobb, who died in 1976), and puts him front and center. Kinderman, like the film he’s inhabiting, is serene, smart, and soft-spoken, but prone to sudden outbursts that make the arteries in your neck swell. Kinderman is investigating a series of religious-themed murders that defy rational explanation, and slowly, through episodes of increasingly unnerving reveals, learns that the killings may be rooted in the supernatural. It’s a quiet and slow film, and Blatty strikes the right balance between showing us the horrors dwelling in the dark heart of man and allowing our imaginations to fill in the long pauses with terrors best left unseen. Every shot serves one of two purposes: build suspense, or deliver a gotcha moment, and Blatty handles both with deft confidence.” There’s a now-infamous scene set in a hospital that stands among the great moments of American horror. To say anything would spoil the fun, so I’ll leave you with this: though butchered by money-grubbing studio heads, The Exorcist III is well-crafted, scary, funny, and, until its tacked-on ending, a masterfully-told mystery flick that really truly gets under your skin. Plus it has Brad Dourif, the scariest man alive. The God-awful Exorcist II inevitably sapped the life out of the franchise, rendering this movie a still-birth. But it’s so much better than its non-reputation.
32. Pulse, aka Kairo (2001) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Pulse may make millennials laugh, with its now-dated depiction of the internet, but for those with the ability to recall the dial-up days, this one is terrifying. The plot is simple but ripe: young Japanese students discover that ghosts may be invading the corporeal world via the internet. Kurosawa frames his shots impeccably, and keeps the pace deliberate, peppering odd, unnerving moments throughout to keep viewers on the proverbial edge of their seats. One early scene in particular is set with unwavering patience and camerawork, the whole expanse of the frame used with assuredness, eventually reaching a horrifying but completely unexpected conclusion. The whole movie is like pulling a Band-Aid off a hairy leg slowly. A long, lonely existential horror film with more to say than most “serious” films. Kurosawa’s disappointing Real(2013) revisits the sinister technology terrain with bland results, and the remake of Pulse sucks, though, as do the sequels.
31. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) directed by Kim Jee-woon
The acclaimed Korean filmmaker responsible for I Saw the Devil (unfortunately being remade for white America) has never topped his breakout film, one of the very few flicks to earn the overused “slow-burn” moniker. A typical ghost story that gradually unfurls into something altogether unknown, Jee-woon’s film crawls at an astonishingly slow pace, which is how it can get up right behind you and tap you on the shoulder without your noticing. The camera ever-so-slowly creeps along, making its way to what we know is something horrible waiting just outside of the frame. Those without patience need not apply; everyone else, bring a date with a strong forearm, cause you’ll be grabbing for it a lot. (I watched this alone on a dark and stormy night while a little tipsy, and at one point I got so freaked out I literally fell out of my chair. I had no forearm to grab, sadly.)
30. The Sixth Sense (1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Before he spiraled into a critical nose-dive from which he’s yet to recover, M. Night Shyamalan was heralded as the next great American filmmaker. (No, seriously.) Before his gimmickry become obvious–all the twist endings, the important details withheld, trickery in lieu of genuine cleverness–Shyamalan crafted a genuine masterpiece that remains as potent as ever, regardless of the spoiling of its sneaky surprises. Bruce Willis has never approached the grace and subtlety of his performance here; his empathetic, sorrowful turn as a child psychologist searching for redemption deserved an Oscar nod. Maybe he woulda gotten one had this movie not come out in the insanely good movie year of our lord 1999. Willis is matched every step of the way by Haley Joel Osment, giving one of the great childhood performances, and lending credence to lines that could have been pure ham in lesser hands. Does Shyamalan have to manipulate us in order to get the big surprise to pay off? Of course, but so did Hitchcock in Psycho. Compared to the colder, less humanistic The Usual Suspects, a ploy of a movie that exists solely to trick its viewers, The Sixth Sense is a genuinely warm film that cares about its characters. Shyamalan may be the Weezer of filmmakers, never able to make anything remotely good after creating a masterpiece (Pinkerton is Weezer’s, btw), but isn’t one masterpiece enough?
29. Freaks (1932) directed by Tod Browning
Even as American Horror Story: Freakshow accrues a bunch of viewers, Browning’s career-killing film is still the most upsetting, most earnest portrayal of carnie folk (well, Katherine Dunn’s brilliant Geek Love gives it a run for its money, but comparing books to movies is silly). Hewn and bastardized by producers, who responded poorly to the film’s highly distressing premiere, Freaks survives in an hour-long sliver of its original incarnation. David J. Skal’s The Monster Show, essential reading for anyone interested in the history of horror (I hope that’s you), debunks a lot of Browning myths and casts the film as the baseline for all modern horror (Browning’s Dracula, which most horror films will admit isn’t actually very good, gets a back-handed smack from Skal, who depicts Browning as a studio lackey dependent on others to help him clean-up his films). Freaks is now best-remembered for its “One of us, gooble gobble” scene and that nightmarish end, with the freaks chasing after the woman who betrayed them (the vermilion, limbless man slithering through the mud will stay with you until the moment you die), but there’s so much warmth and compassion here. And that’s what makes the tar-and-feather climax so upsetting: freaks are people, too, and they’re capable of beinfg hurt, and capable of hurting you.
28. Don’t Look Now (1973) directed by Nicolas Roeg
The most astonishing thing about Nicolas Roeg’s ethereal, psychological film is how nothing really happens in the synapse between the opening and the climax. It’s almost an entire film worth of fore play (and one hugely influential sex scene) for the now famous ending, that rare movie twist steeped in genuine irony; you know Roeg wore a wicked grin when he put this thing together. The film opens with a tragedy: we’re given little plot, little characterization, just glimpses of everyday life for Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s family. A pretty young girl in a red jacket runs along the gleaming bank of water like a fleeting memory; her brother rides his bike through autumn leaves. Sutherland peruses slides of a church he’s restoring, and he sees a character that resembles his little girl in the picture. But that can’t be… Roeg has a truly different kind of aesthetic, from the wavering camera and copious zooms, and his elliptical editing style is even more impressive when you think about how difficult it is to hew and splice celluloid (today a few clicks would achieve a similar but lesser effect). He turns Venice in a fairy tale nightmare realm full of temporal images: the dissolves of glazed eyes fading into sinuous bodies of water; the dilapidated churches; all those boats cruising the canals like the guides of so many lost souls; the young girl in the red jacket running through the labyrinthine city like the figment of a dream pulled into reality. If you get the chance to catch this in 35mm (the current print touring the US is beautifully faded and decrepit, and only adds to the film’s unique depiction of death and degradation), make it a priority to see it.
27. Berberian Sound Studio (2013) directed by Peter Strickland
A seriously weird psychological thriller in faux-technicolor, Strickland’s sophomore effort sears and seethes with passive-aggressive vibrancy. It takes its time going nowhere in style; as a professor once told me w/r/t a different film, it’s not what that matters here, but how. It’s best to go in completely unawares–not there’s any trace of plot to ruin. It’s like The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, but actually good; reds burn in the dark, electronic fuzz cackles in the distance, characters seem to exist solely on a dream-logic plane, and images are manipulated beyond celluloid capabilities (an advantage of digital). One of the most stirring moments shows a woman in a sound booth abruptly being pulled away from us, and she keeps receding further, and further, and further into the distance, impossibly far, like a telescopic lens from a different realm. Aesthetically stunning and cerebrally engaging, this criminally under-appreciated gem amalgamates Lynchian weirdness, giallo eccentricity, and arthouse ambition into some kind of monster. Watch this late at night, in the dark, with the sound turned up LOUD.
26. The Wicker Man (1973) directed by Robin Hardy
(From my Slant review of last year’s restoration, which I caught at the IFC Center after watching Q: The Winged Serpent at Videology–a Helluva night.)
The dichotomy of modernity and tradition transects the film; restored to the original look of glorious 35mm, it feels perversely modern and timeless. Like a passage from the Bible, or a 14th-century oil painting, The Wicker Man is at once epochal, rooted in a specific time (the wake of the summer of love) and place (a Scottish island village), and somehow transcendent of reality. You slowly sink into its bizarre charm, and by the time its sinister epiphanies begin to proliferate, you’re too deep to get out. Edward Woodward is Sergeant Neil Howie, an uptight Christian who’s intolerant and ignorant while preaching morals–“a privileged fool,” you could say. After receiving a letter that claims a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has disappeared on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle, he takes off in a sea plane, by himself, set on finding her. Every composition has the quirky precision of a postcard, the compositions are refined and deliberate, and Hardy layers his shots with Kubrikian dexterity; flamboyant characters are captured by fleeting, flamboyant camerawork. The contrast of Woodward’s veracious insults and the locals’ genial tolerance is roll-on-the-sticky-theater-floor funny the first time you see it, but once the denouement arrives, and the day’s dying breath gives way to a bleeding sky, and the camera is sucked up into the fervor of the setting sun, accompanied by howls and singing, all of the joy, the fun, the humor of the proceeding 80 minutes become retrospectively horrifying. Like the locals warning Howie that he doesn’t belong there, that he won’t enjoy participating in their rituals and that he should leave, Hardy plays fair. He doesn’t cheat us, doesn’t manipulate us or throw in improbably twists to guise lazy writing. The Wicker Man demands an assiduous eye, a sense of humor, and trust–and, of course, in the end you get burned, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.
25. Carrie (1976) directed by Brian De Palma
When Quentin Tarantino put Carrie on his Sight & Sound poll, they all laughed at him. They said, “Tarantino has such bad taste!” They said, “Creepy Quentin, creepy Quentin!” And then they started to think, and the inclusion of De Palma’s film, the first great fetid depiction of high school as Hell, seemed less conspicuous. While watching Carrie, a good friend of mine once told me that being a girl in high school is the scariest thing ever. I missed out on that life experience, but after seeing De Palma’s film many, many times, I believe her. De Palma knows how to craft great movie moments, even in his lesser efforts (Mission: Impossible, no one’s idea of a good movie, has the iconic Tom-Cruise-Hanging-From-The-Ceiling scene, and The Untouchables has that slow-mo staircase shootout, which makes Kevin Costner tolerable, amazingly); in Carrie, De Palma strings together a series of great moments, laced with caustic humor, captured in that gorgeous omnipotent floating style. Even if the narrative of a sheltered, tormented, telekinetic young girl (Sissy Spacek, as sympathetic and tragic a female character as American horror has ever given us) and her God-crazed would-be missionary mother (Piper Laurie, showing us how to do histrionic right) is shot-through with inconsistencies and the occasional plot hole, De Palma wrings so much fear, trepidation, and laughs from Stephen King’s trashy novel that it doesn’t matter. De Palma’s always been the funniest Hitchcock descendent, and his tar-black sense of humor is what makes his best films work so well; the remake is awful because it eschews humor in favor of heavy-handed horror hijinks. Plus, Julianne Moore is no Piper Laurie, and never will be. Laurie’s stygian characterization of a dogmatic religious fanatic scares the shit out of me, but also makes me smirk in perverse glee. That a white cisgender Baby Boomer man with a Hitchcock obsession made one of the great feminist films of the second half of the century is amusing and strange, though not nearly as amusing and strange as the film itself.
24. Dead Ringers (1988) directed by David Cronenberg
I occasionally meet people who are turned off by the grotesque and disgusting, which pretty severely limits which Cronenberg films I can show them. I won’t show them his post-Spider stuff because its not really the same Cronenberg, but I can’t imagine being friends with someone who can’t handle a true Cronenberg, let alone dating them. The Fly ends in an orgy of bodily fluids and secretions; The Brood features the violent bastard offspring of a demented woman beating an elementary school teacher to death in front of a classroom of children; Crash has car sex; Scanners has exploding heads full of Campbell’s soup. So it all falls squarely on the shoulders of Dead Ringers: it’s not overtly violent, at least not initially, but it’s deeply disturbed, immaculately composed and simultaneously astringent and tenderized, like a body prepped for surgery. One of the Canadian master’s tightest narratives, it cleverly features Jeremy Irons in the dual role of twin gynecologists, one of whom develops a bad drug habit, slowly loses his mind, and develops an obsession with mutant genitalia. Irons had the difficult task of playing two different characters who often share the screen years before CGI and computer-assisted cameras could facilitate such tricks, and it’s maybe his most astute performance(s). If the Academy made good decisions, they’d have given him two statues. Though devoid of the graphic body mutilation so prominent in Cronenberg’s earlier films, Dead Ringers is profoundly upsetting, strung-out and strung-through with haunting images that have since been incorporated into cult pop-culture (NBC’s Hannibal, the best drama currently on TV [yes it fucking is], channels the blood-red surgical scrubs of Dead Ringers in season 2). Slower and more subtle than Cronenberg’s body horror stuff, this marks a change in the director’s oeuvre, a bid for “legitimacy.” Gender has always been a fascination of his, and few penis-having directors have been so unflinching in their portrayals of masculine masochism, and Cronenberg never delved deeper, or with more incisiveness, than he did in Dead Ringers. Actually, I can kind of see why no one’s ever been able to finish the movie with me.
23. Les Diaboliques (1955) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Though Clouzot’s narrative and aesthetic are intimate, almost quaint, an air of dread hangs over virtually every scene of Les Diaboliques. A masterclass in sustaining atmosphere with minimal resources, the film depicts an emotionally abused school teacher (Vera Clouzot), her treacherous husband (Paul Meurisse) who gets what’s coming to him, and his mistress (Simone Signoret). The two women conspire to kill the horrible man, but things, of course, go awry. Clouzot (the director) creates a claustrophobic, ouroboros world of windows and long dark hallways, where everyone seems to vaguely know everyone and rumors make the rounds like a night patrolman checking on the sleeping children. The writer-director allegedly snatched the rights to the book right out of the encroaching hands of Hitchcock (there are doubts to the rumors authenticity, however). Though plot-heavy and reliant upon its heady twists to deliver the goods, Les Diaboliques isn’t just clever–it’s smart, and sharply-cognizant, and a whole lotta fun. Vera, Clouzot’s real-life wife, died shortly after the film’s release, as she suffered from the same heart condition as her character, which makes the film feel all the more tragic.
22. Shaun of the Dead (2004) directed by Edgar Wright
Is this even a horror movie? Absolutely–it just happens to favor side-splitting hysterics over brain-eating terror. (It certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore, though.) A paean to the zombie genre that doesn’t shy away from full effrontery in the face of genre norms, the first installment of Edgar Wright’s Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy is a modern classic. It arrived before the living dead over-saturation of the last decade, but displays none of the irksome tendencies of the too-many zombie flicks that have plagued theaters since 2004. It’s less progenitor than prescient. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have impeccable timing and inimitable chemistry, and though the ambition of Wright’s films have grown, their scope widened and their budgets inflated, Shaun of the Dead remains the trio’s most intimate affair. From the moment we see Shaun stagger out of bed, in that realm between sleep and wake, the film has an adroit rhythm attuned to the anxieties of the Tony Blair era, insinuating that the zombification of Brits occurred long before the literal dead walked among the living. The cast is all-around incredible–I’ve been a huge Bill Nighy fan for a long time, and I still think that he makes everything better; too bad he has poor taste in film roles. Revisiting the film in the wake of The World’s End, I was surprised at how sophisticated the humor is. The visual slapstick absurdity coexists with deft wordplay, sly allusions to the genre, and self-referential moments that openly welcome the viewer. The film has the warmth and inclusiveness of a family gathering. An undead family gathering.
21. High Tension (2003) directed by Alexandre Aja
Sexually malicious, vaguely homophobic, blatantly spiteful of all humanity and unrepentant in its depiction of female mutilation, Aja’s film has earned its share of detractors. If you loathe this movie, maybe the lowest-brow example of the French New Extremity, I won’t hold it against you. It also has a lot of very vocal fans, for whom Claire Denis’ work is probably too enigmatic. The ending is a cheat, and basically unravels everything we’ve been told; compared to, say, The Sixth Sense, or the more recent Inherent Vice, both of which divulge important information late in the game and consequently shed new light on what we’ve already seen, High Tension (whose better but lesser-known title is Switchblade Romance) just flat-out says “Fuck you” to its viewers, to whom it’s just subjected intense violence. So why is this disgusting, resentful, often illogical slasher flick so high up on my list? Because it’s fucking terrifying. Once you see this, you can’t un-see it. Ever. In his hugely underrated vivisection of modern horror Dans Macabre, Stephen King opines that there are three kinds of horror: the terrifying, which is that genuine, penetrative sensation, that chill down your spine and, in King’s eyes, the apex of the genre; the horrifying, that bedrock from which cats jump out of shadowy alcoves and Herrmann-esque strings cut through the silence, consorting sharp objects in much the same motion; and, finally, the gross-out, which is axiomatic. High Tension is an exquisite display of horrifying gross-out moments, with occasional shades of terror. The early scene of a bloated, dirty man sitting in a truck getting an unusual blow job is one of modern horror’s great disgusting shock moments. It exists solely to disturb, and it does that very well. And the home invasion scene is a formal display of virtuosity: the cinematography is far beyond what other slasher flicks were doing in 2003, and Cecile de France delivers a better, more upsetting performance than Aja had any right to ask of her. The violence channels Fulci but the tone is severe and serious. Every time I’ve shown this to someone on a date, they’ve resented me, but they also sleep very poorly that night. (There are no second dates.) High Tension is probably the worst movie on this list–the dubbing is awful, the twist absurd (not in the Camus sense, though maybe it is?), and the use of Muse in the soundtrack is a bit distracting, plus Muse kinda sucks–but it’s also an artful exercise in emotional manipulation, the slasher equivalent of, say, Terms of Endearment. It carves its way into your memory walls, a nasty, brutish bully vibrantly leaving his mark.
20. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) directed by Wes Craven
Before he was the one-line-loving, crassly, campy class clown known as Freddy, Fred Krueger was the stuff of genuine nightmares. Scarred and grinning in his striped wool sweater, Fred prowls the dreamscape realm of the local high schoolers, the children upon whom he once preyed before their parents got smart and burned him alive. Years ago, Fred was a janitor at the elementary school; he lured children into the boiler room, where, it’s insinuated, he molested and maimed the kids. Now, years later, he returns to haunt the dreams of the children of Suburbia, America. Craven conjures the most surreal imagery of his wildly uneven career here, and Robert Englund instills Craven’s iconic creation with sharp, wry kind of terror, his playful delivery still ironic before the sequels declawed him. He wears his ratty old fedora like a diadem of his pedophiliac conquests, and slowly drags his bladed fingers along rotting steam pipes. Heather Langenkamp plays Nancy, one of horror’s most endearing final girls, and a young Johnny Depp, not yet bestowed with acting prowess, is her boyfriend Glenn, who gets turned into a bed slushy (7-11 tried to market Bed Slushy for a while, but it never caught on). The film devolves into jarring stupidity near the end–Nancy’s Home Alone antics are more in tune with the impending sequels than anything else in the first film–and the revelation that not being afraid expunges Fred of his power is pretty lame. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is rich with images and sounds that rank with the best in modern horror. Nancy’s sotta voce cries falling upon deaf ears as Glenn slips into a fatal slumber are just as scary as the dead bodies being dragged through the school halls by invisible hands; the bars Nancy’s parents install on her windows provide just as much suspense as the encroaching Krueger stalking the children through the Hellish confines of his boiler room playground. Craven, considered an “academic” filmmaker (he was once a college literature professor), taps Poe and Shakespeare in his deconstruction of adolescent fears personified as an acne-scarred entity in Baby Boomer rags. He only approached such inimitable successful twice more, with his post-modern trips New Nightmare and Scream, both of which (lovingly) lampoon and analyze the horror tropes Craven was instrumental in creating.
19. Suspiria (1978) directed by Dario Argento
Though he’s fallen on creative hard times in recent years (“recent years” meaning, like, two decades at this point), Dario Argento has a handful of certifiably great horror flicks to his credit: Bird With the Crystal Pummage,Tenebre, Opera, Cat ‘O’ Nine Tails, Profondo Rosso, Inferno (most of which are readily available in violated American cuts from which inane distributors hacked the violence and sex, aka the whole fucking appeal of giallo). But his most well-known film, and the one that’s easiest to find in an untainted version, remains his opus: Suspiria, a cultish cornucopia of blood and ballet, and one of the most colorful horror films you’ll ever see. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is the new girl at a prestigious German ballet academy. But the ballet academy sort of resembles a witches’ coven, and people have the strange tendency of dying in histrionic ways. Argento begins his film with a murder so gleefully over the top, so perversely operatic and elaborate in execution, the rest of the film is spent in a daze. Tapping Mario Bava, whose prolific output in the 1960s was vital to the advent of giallo, Argento is more interested in captivating and unnerving than outright scaring you. But his technical proficiency and ability as a griot far surpass those of his mentor (Bava helped Argento with some in-camera trick shots for Inferno in 1980). It’s a gorgeous flick–Argento’s use of color recalls Demy (those deep, luscious reds) and Powell and Pressburger–but make no mistake: the blood flows like wine at an Italian wedding. Prog-rock outfit Goblin provides the creepy-cool score, a jazzy entanglement of coos and cries and opaque vocals all threaded together with sinister synths and guitar arpeggios. Suspiria is Grand Guignol, but a distinct gloss coats the gore, rendering the carnage kind of…fun?
18. Inland Empire (2006) directed by David Lynch
The most What-The-Fucking-Fuck movie on this list, David Lynch’s three-hour SD digital flick, his last movie to date, was shot over a long period of time without a script or sense of direction. The surrealist master eschewed a narrative in favor of just shooting what he felt like shooting; consequently, Inland Empire feels more like a collection of dreamy vignettes that demand close inspection, and introspection, but refuse to be understood. The vague semblance of a plot ostensibly concerns Laura Dern and Justin Theroux doing something regarding acting, or something. There are some suburbanite bunnies (pulled from Lynch’s short-lived online series), and spectral doppelgängers. It doesn’t so much matter what’s going on, since the film–or rather the “movie,” as J. Hobberman says, since it’s a moving image but isn’t recorded on celluloid–is utterly terrifying. Like a nightmare from which you wake up only to find yourself trapped in another, entirely different nightmare, Inland Empire immerses you, seems to seep into you virally, contaminate you. It’s nebulous and distant and has really awful visual quality (with Blu-rays getting better every year, one forgets how bad standard definition is), but Lynch steeps the movie in his trademark surrealist style. All of Lynch’s previous films retain some grasp of verisimilitude, even as they delve deeper and deeper into utter batshit insanity. But Inland Empire seems to exist exclusively on a static-afflicted digital medium, pixelated and poorly-defined. If digital cameras have bad dreams, this is what they would look like.
17. The Changeling (1980) directed by Peter Medak
No, not the Angelina Jolie movie. In Dans Macabre, Stephen King predicted that this would be the sleeper hit of the year. Sadly, he was wrong, as Medak’s ghost story came out the same year as The Shining but was dismissed and forgotten, not unlike the ghost at the center of this story. George C. Scott is John Russell, a composer from Syracuse whose family is killed in a bizarre truck accident. John subsequently moves to Seattle, where he draws the attention of the unsettled spirit of a murdered little boy who also resides in John’s Victorian home. What separates Changeling from other haunted house films, like The Shining and The Haunting and The Innocents, is its warmth and compassion for the wrongfully killed ghost at its core. Like Guillermo del Toro did with The Devil’s Backbone two decades later, Medak gives us a ghost with a reason to be pissed; all of the strange, startling occurrences are fueled by ire, but we can commiserate. Plus, the movie is just really scary: the red-and-white ball bouncing down the stairs, the piano playing sans a player, the wheelchair racing through the long halls–the whole film is a series of well-placed scares fastened together by Medak’s slow, brooding scenes of John pondering and glaring in that way only George C. Scott can.
16. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) directed by David Lynch
Fire Walk With Me, the big-screen addendum to Twin Peaks, continues in the vein of the series’ final episode, purging traces of humor in favor of the brooding disquiet of Lynch’s films. Instead of Twin Peaks: The Movie Lynch gives us a dislocated masterpiece of mood that also happens to feature some characters from the show. It’s a flawed film, tonally insecure and more content with pain than plot, but as a work of pure emotional agitation it stands among Lynch’s finest achievements. It’s trippy and traumatic, delving into delirium without concern for coherence, with the sole goal of making you squirm. The biggest problem with the film, and the issue that keeps it from obtaining the kind of fervid following enjoyed by virtually all of Lynch’s other films (save for The Straight Story, which is treated by fans like the slightly slow cousin who’s too darn nice to make fun of), is its impossible audience. As a full-blooded Lynch film deceivingly veiled as a continuation of a beloved TV series, it opens itself up to no one, and rebuts attempts by viewers to understand it. Whereas Lynch’s best films (Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Inland Empire, Eraserhead) deepen with repeated viewings, even if they never quite make “sense,” Fire Walk With Me reveals itself to be a mess of horrors best served as an aesthetic instigator, not far removed from those scary pop-up prank websites. Escaping the boxy confines of network TV allowed Lynch to finally exhume all the terror, violence, sexual trauma and psychological turmoil that pervaded Laura Palmer’s final days. The graphic violence is shocking, and the acidulous stream of vulgarities that pour from Bobby’s mouth when he shoots a drug dealer feels at once natural and discomforting, almost as if this is the way Twin Peaks should have been. The Bobby we see in the show seems tame by comparison—a animal stripped of its barbarism. Where Twin Peaks is sometimes necessarily ascetic, Fire Walk With Me is acetic, and mean. The dark heart beating at the core of the film is the various abuses heaped upon Laura by her possessed father, Leland (Ray Wise, who, in shedding the tragic father-in-grieving persona of the show, is utterly terrifying). Leland isn’t really a person in Fire Walk With Me, more like the fleshy vessel of an ineffable evil. Where Lynch insinuated child abuse in the show, here he undauntedly shows us the extent of Leland’s cruelty in some of the most upsetting scenes Lynch has ever conjured. Lynch makes us watch the virulent BOB crawls, vermin-like, towards his powerless daughter, wearing a mop of gray hair like a diadem of his mortal conquest (which Leland similar dons in the show). Laura’s moment of realization that her husband is the one who’s been sneaking in her window and raping her since she was 12 is the kind of upsetting that words can’t explain. When Laura’s death finally comes, it’s as if a great weight has been lifted from her shoulders–and from ours.
15. Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton
Though acclaimed actor Charles Laughton only ever helmed one film (I’m obligated to remind you of that), that film has more poignancy and power than most filmmakers can muster in an entire career. It’s also one of the most cryptic films of the 1950s, or of any decade. The story of a misogynistic, woman-killing preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, in his finest, most insidious role) and the poor souls he destroys, Night of the Hunter is utterly terrifying and vividly expressionistic, an aesthetic wonder rendered in stark black-and-white, aptly reflecting the religious town folks’ stern, unbending good-and-evil beliefs. Powell, a nut job who “talks to God” (and his God is a mean sonofabitch), catches wind of a hefty sum of stolen money hidden somewhere in the home of a soon-to-be widow named Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), so Powell heads down the Ohio River and woos the towns people, who in turn coax the inured woman into marrying the persuasive preacher. A man of God, they say, can’t possibly be a bad man. The kicker here is that the person leading the charge is a garrulous old woman who actively who does everything in her power to put women in their place (which is in the kitchen, FYI). As much a nightmarish fairy tale as it is a depiction of religious piety as poison, Laughton’s lyrical film goes for the throat of small-town Americana and its dogmatic affliction of ignorance. The subversive gender politics are fascinating–it’s amazing that censors let this film get released at it. (It flopped, unsurprisingly.) In the iconic scene of Mitchum’s restless hands, labeled GOOD and EVIL, the vacuous locals are galvanized by Powell’s finger-wrestling, much in the same way indigenous people were agog at the rising sun around the Dawn of Man. Powell ingratiates the stupid by catering to their inane desire to have meaning, and consequently their desire to be tamed and corralled by a book of fables. The film is at once a daring, hidebound bit of sociometry as well as a stygian horror-fantasy. There are too many awesome (in the Kantian sense) moments to list here, but Laughton certifies his ambitions at the end with the towns peoples’ back-handed betrayal: as the local authorities drag Powell away, the very people he wooed–the ones who convinced Willa to marry him, the ones who heralded him as a perfect man of God–devolve into a riotous mob and demand his lynching. As per code regulations, Laughton had to have his villain punished for his deeds, but the director still finds a way to shroud “justice” in darkness. In the end, the bad hand is always the winner.
14. Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman
It may seem a little odd to deem Persona a horror film, since Bergman, one of the most stoic and severe of filmmakers, is usually hoisted above all genres and monikers. He’s an artiste, a serious filmmaker. But this deeply disturbing tale of feminine anxiety is undoubtedly horror–a ghost story by any other name, as in touch with Henry James as it is Val Lewton. The film opens with a shot of a projector being fed a reel of film, which it seems to devour like an incubus does a soul. We see the light burning brightly within the projector, and the screen onto which the moving images are throw. Various articulate close-ups of corpses greet us, and soon Bergman festoons his immaculate frame with erect penises and spiders and little boys being chased by demons. It’s a pugnacious meta-opening that establishes a tone, as well as the film’s penchant for tonal fluctuation. Bergman basically tells us he’s gonna fuck with our minds as well as our emotions. The melding of faces and the young boy reaching out, running his hand over the temporal conflation with sensuous detachment is an astonishing moment as stylish as it is efficient. The story is ostensibly simple (as is the case with most great ghost stories): a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to the care of a stage actress named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) who has, inexplicably and to the bewilderment of medical professionals, lost the ability to speak. The pair retreat to an isolated cottage near those beautiful rocky beaches of Sweden, where they develop an odd rapport. Using stark black and white photography and trenchant imagery, Bergman creates a binary world that exists in that sliver of space between the shore and the water, night and day. The film is a spiritual predecessor to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Altman’s 3 Women, as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in its upsetting use of duality as an incisor. At once arousing and revolting, it gets at the clash of emotions sexuality creates, that intrinsic moment when something gross becomes delectable: we hear Alma share a story about a particularly promiscuous incident in her young life, and how she abandoned her morals under the overwhelming influence of her labido; we, as viewers, as voyeurs and commiserators, are manipulated by Bergman into being simultaneously aroused and unnerved, as confused as Alma, and like Alma we give in to temptation. By this point Bergman has us in his grip, and he can do to us whatever he pleases. It’s the most tightly-wound, carefully-controlled of his films, but it leaves so much to our imagination. The deeper we delve into Bergman’s self-contained world, reality is slowly ripped away, and the celluloid realm takes over; by the time he has made the abscission, and all traces of logical existence are discarded, the women have become adjoined in ways that they, we, and he can’t explain. Full of contradictions, Persona is lucid and adumbrate, maybe the most erudite horror film ever made.
13. An American Werewolf in London (1981) directed by John Landis
A full-blooded horror movie with a sharp, biting a sense of humor, An American Werewolf in London does for lycanthropes what Wes Craven’s Scream did for slashers 15 years later. Released the same year as Joe Dante’s The Howling, a similarly self-aware but slightly less accomplished film, Landis’ fright flick concerns a pair of American backpackers named Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton) who encounter a furry fiend on the British moors. Jack is torn to shreds and David is maimed but survives; of course, as per werewolf rules, David soon becomes a werewolf himself. Naughton isn’t a very good actor, but he’s put to good use here as the awkward, displaced American and budding beast in denial. Jenny Agutter is aces as his love interest, Nurse Alex, and Griffin Dunne steals every scene he graces with his rotting meatloaf face. But the real star here is Rick Baker, whose special effects remain the standard by which all other werewolf films are judged. The iconic transformation scene is hilarious and hideous at once, as we hear David’s flesh tearing like loose leaf paper, his bones creaking and cracking, his extremities growing and misshaping and his spin spurting up through his skin, those sickly yellow eyes glowing in the dark, the nails rising from the tips of his fingers like box cutters, the hair writhing from his pores. The kicker of the whole scene is when David looks up at the camera and reaches towards us, begging us for help as we stare transfixed. It’s not so much breaking the fourth wall as it is scratching at the wall in desperation. Landis directs the whole film with economic precision and style, showing the title creature in quick glimpses and close-ups. The chaotic climax in Piccadilly Circus is one of cinema’s great car crash scenes, with bodies flying through windshields and getting pummeled by passing buses and people being crushed by various motor vehicles, and the chase in the tube ends with the crowning shot of Landis’ career (which was forever tainted by a long court case following the wrongful death of a minor while shooting The Twilight Zone movie): the soon-to-be victim, a business-looking chap, slowing ascends on an escalator towards the camera while we watch the vast negative space behind him. Just before the shot cuts to the wolf’s POV we see the beast just barely enter the frame, a far off shot that lasts a sliver of a second, but it’s just enough of a tease to terrify. Why has no one made a porn called “carnivorous lunar activities?”
12. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) directed by Tobe Hooper
The squalor and grime of Hooper’s film (the only good one of his directorial career–we all know Spielberg is responsible for Poltergeist) is unlike that of any contemporaneous horror flick: while others may be dark and dingy and dirty, they tend (for obvious reasons) to lurk in the darkness. Texas Chain Saw exists in the harsh light of day; the violent wash of sunshine seems to burn everything it touches, and the screen looks like it’s on the verge of blistering. You almost feel like you can reach up and scratch away some of the dirt and dried blood with your thumbnail. A story about a group of neo-hippie college kids who stumble upon a cannibalistic family in Bumblefuck, Texas is now legendary, but most people forget that the cannibalism part of the narrative isn’t revealed until the second half of the film. (It’s not really a spoiler at this point.) In fact, people seem to forget, or perhaps just take for granted how truly, wholly original Hooper’s film is: the “based on a true story” pump-fake that’s since been lifted by everyone from the Coens to Ryan Phillippe; the calculated use of sound effects in lieu of a score (especially near the end, with those extreme close-ups); the pacing that moves in fits and tantrums instead of the slow dread favored by most serious horror filmmakers–think of Leatherface’s first kill, which arrives in an open doorway with an abrupt zoom and one quick thwack of a hammer; the much-discussed lack of gore, despite the impalement of a young girl on a meat hook, the prolonged gutting of a paraplegic, the cannibalism (Hooper delusionally wanted a PG rating; the first final girl, Sally, who set the precedent that there are no clean getaways in horror; the sick grisly humor, best encapsulated in Leatherface’s tantric dance with his chainsaw at film’s end, the emotionally-stunted man in the people mask sort of resembling that friend who gets drunk at parties and spastically dances alone. The deep-fried Texas sun veils the world in a crispy sallow glow, like an infection; the great irony is, of course, that the horrors of this absurdly dark film (arguably an absurdist film) are captured mostly in the light of day. But the funniest aspect of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the wholesome family values at its heart: the family that slays together stays together.
11. Psycho (1960) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock is the great manipulator of popular cinema. He tells us exactly what he needs us to know in order to efficiently shove the knife in at the precise right moment. Hitch’s best films don’t care about their audiences as much as they care about alarming us, exciting us, upsetting us. He’s popularly (mis)quoted as saying that actors are cattle, but an astute scholar of cinema might argue that he more so treats his viewers like cattle. He prods and pokes and guides us, laying a Dolly Track for our voyeuristic inclinations. And none of his films is as successfully manipulative or emotionally truculent as Psycho. Along with the more “serious” Vertigo and Marnie (which has seen an inexplicable swelling of critical praise in recent years, most of it undeserved and far-fetched), Psycho, adapted from a schlocky Robert Bloch novel, taps into the deep, dark taboos of sexual psychology and societal gender norms. The story is by now familiar: a gorgeous young woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals as large sum of money from her banker employer and high-tails it out of town. During a tumultuous rain storm (accompanied by the aural stabs of Bernard Hermann’s strings), she pulls into the only motel on the desolate road, the Bates Motel, its VACANCY sign beaming in the night. There she meets the timid, amiable Norman (Anthony Perkins), with whom she discusses taxidermy over sandwiches and milk. Then she takes a shower. We get the feeling that Norman’s is a bored and lonely quotidian existence, comprised of cleaning the bed sheets and flipping the mattresses and staring longingly at the barren road that has been bypassed by a more convenient freeway; and his overbearing mother, whom he calls Mother, seems top have an unhealthy say in his endeavors. Hitch flensed the plethoric bits of Bloch’s novel, at once streamlining the narrative and eliminating the “cheat” bits (the third-person narrator telling us what Mother is up to at any given moment). Of course the film’s visuals are still rightfully acclaimed almost 60 years later–the editing is among the best in the history of American movies, the mise en scene and montage and all those fancy French terms as exact and exacting as a freshly-sharpened blade–as is the music (a sedulously unnerving consort to Hitch’s keen eye); but it’s Perkins who lends the film its wit and its soul. As formally accomplished Psycho is–it would be a gorgeous, technical marvel regardless of its lead actor–it might not have as profound an emotional impact had another actor been cast as Norman. Perkins isn’t as accomplished a thespian as, say, Gregory Peck, or as bonafide a marquee name as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. He’s an awkward, gangly guy (in the novel, Norman is overweight and a hard drinker), the kid who went to senior prom alone and clung to the walls instead of hounding the cheerleaders. Perkins extrapolates the darker undercurrents of the henpecked son’s febrile shyness. Mother is a specter, an eminence gris lurking upstairs; she seems to exist exclusively in angry abeyance, her cryptic silhouette cast against the window curtains on the second story of the looming house behind the motel. She despises Norman’s sexual venality, but, like so many angry, backwards men raised by angry backwards men who perpetuate that beast we call misogyny, Mother blames women for Norman’s promiscuous desires. Women tempt Norman, they inveigle him and pump the blood into his organs, and, inevitably, they end up meeting Mother. Psycho subverts slasher tropes a full decade before they even existed.
10. Videodrome (1983) directed by David Cronenberg
In David Cronenberg’s world, sex hurts so good; it’s innately disgusting and primeval but at the same time beautiful and becoming. (Kind of like sex in the real world, when you think about it.) Bodies degenerate and mental states corrode under the influence of lust, and yet something new is engendered by the collision of bodies, bodily fluids, the ripping of flesh and the mangling of organs. Through the carrion of ugly comes the attractive flesh, the new flesh. Videodrome, as Jonathan Lethem once quipped, remains Cronenberg’s most penetrative film; he creates a world at once rooted in modernity circa 1983–a world afraid of the advent of television usurping our humanity, over-stimulated times ushering in the end times–and existing in a timeless, placeless vacuum. It’s vast and claustrophobic, prescient and paranoid, of the same lineage as early James Cameron and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. James Woods is Max Renn, the head of a sleazy Canadian station that specializes in smut and schlock. But Renn is tired of the same old boring stuff–it’s too tame, too soft. Then he stumbles upon something new, Videodrome, and he gets ensnarled in an ineffably strange scheme that could go by the codename Death By Television. The film’s distinct visceral feeling, achieved through stunning practical effects and Rick Baker’s make-up, lends a visual tangibility to the proceedings, like you can reach out and grab the tracking lines scrolling down the screen-within-a-screen. Though he claims he’s always made comedies (um, what?), Cronenberg treats his lurid material with earnestness. Like the late H.R. Giger, Cronenberg views the human body as a canvas. The filmmaker is vivisecting himself: when James Woods sticks that gun into his throbbing stomach slit, it’s like Cronenberg is reaching into himself, feeling around. Videodrome has been called his most personal film; the distant, dreamy state in which Woods’ Max Wren gradually slips is extrapolated by the lethargic pacing and skeevy black market look of the film. Though all of his films display a distinct algological fetish, Videodrome remains Cronenberg’s most upsetting film because it seems to grow more modern with age. Television is reality, and reality is less than television. Long live the new flesh.
9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme
In recent years it’s become chic to throw shade at Anthony Hopkins’ scene chewing. Maybe we’ve become so far removed from the initial impact of seeing Hopkins standing still and stoic, his posture immaculate, staring inquisitively at Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) from behind inch-thick glass. Maybe it’s because Sir Hopkins has spent the better part of the last two decades dipping deeper and deeper into the bottomless chasm of crap films, like The Wolfman and Thor, RED 2, The Rite, Alexander, etcetera, etcetera. But Jonathan Demme’s film, one of the few to successfully bridge horror and “serious” drama in a mainstream-accessible way, is still calmly creepy, as composed and articulate an American horror film as anything since Psycho. Jodie Foster plays Clarice as a vulnerable but persistent, highly intelligent woman trying to surmount the ubiquitous sexism of modern day America. (Julianne Moore’s ersatz turn in Hannibal feels more like an SNL rehearsal than a continuation of Foster’s performance.) Foster subtlety mines the depths of Clarice’s mind, holding up a façade while trying to stay cool in the face of the piggish Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald). That she finds a sort of mentor in Hannibal the Cannibal, and that Hannibal is purportedly the first man since Clarice’s father to really respect her (how fucked up is that?), lends the film its lasting dramatic edge. Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine, forever underrated) is all kinds of appalling, but the horror is really second fiddle to the characters here. Is Hopkins going for melodrama? Of course; isn’t that what every Hitchcock character does? Isn’t that what Brando does in The Godfather? NBC’s Hannibal may usurp Demme’s film as the best incarnation of the Hannibal Lecter mythos, but the film still stands on its own as a masterpiece. Thanks to that cell—more like a cellar in a dungeon erected to house the meanest, nastiest, most monstrous brutes imaginable—and Hopkins’ eloquent voice, The Silence of the Lambs is ingrained in the pop-culture consciousness like few other films.
8. The Exorcist (1973) directed by Williams Friedkin
“God isn’t real, so The Exorcist isn’t scary.” I’ve heard that so many times, and it’s the lamest, laziest bit of movie criticism possible. I hear it perennially, whenever Halloween rolls ‘round and everyone is trying to decide what scary movie to watch. If that’s your reason for disliking William Friedkin’s film, don’t watch scary movies. Don’t watch movies. Go crotchet, or whatever. Millennials and Gen-Xers who first saw the hewn and censored version on network TV got the castrated version of one of American cinema’s ballsiest films, and should track down the Blu-ray (theatrical cut!) ASAP. Adapting his own novel with deft self-control, William Peter Blatty took what was considered an unfilmable work of trashy fiction and gave hot-shot young director Friedkin some of the most upsetting, lurid material any major studio has yet funded. The director took extreme measures, what some would consider cruel or unusual, to get his desired effect: slapping a priest right before a take, firing a gun on set, building the bedroom in a literal freezer. (Both Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair were injured during filming, and the agony on their faces during two crucial scenes is completely genuine.) Of course everyone knows the head-spinning scene, the pea-soup scene, the falling down the stairs, the masturbating with the crucifix, that silly spider-walk thing that Friedkin wisely cut (it looks fine on Youtube in a 90-second clip, but within context of the film it makes little sense and ruins what’s otherwise exquisitely slow-mounting tension). Friedkin’s mise-en-scene and cinematographer Owen Roizman’s lighting are sublime, and all of these scenes are nefarious for a reason. But few non-academics talk about the pervasive sound effects in The Exorcist: when Reagan’s head rotates, you can hear the bones creaking (a jarringly similar sound as when the demon causes cracks to run down the bedroom walls) and the skin contorting. When she jabs that crucifix into herself, you hear the squish of blood and flesh being mangled by a Holy object. (The film won the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing.) It’s repulsive, of course; if it were anything less than repulsive, what would be the point? The lasting effects of The Exorcist are rooted in Friedkin’s preternatural gift for verisimilitude. As with his The French Connection and the recently-revitalized Sorcerer, the director taps the New Hollywood grime and grit, but pairs it disquietingly with the supernatural.
7. The Evil Dead (1981) directed by Sam Raimi
“We’re gonna get you. We’re gonna get you. Not another peep, time to go to sleep.” Shot on a dime in the backwoods of Tennessee (already one of the scariest states in the US), Sam Raimi’s debut feature has been an inspiration to wanna-be filmmakers for three decades. Bruce Campbell, sporting the world’s most amiable unibrow, stars as Ash, a dorky moke with a loving girlfriend and that typical dickish best friend who likes to fuck with you when you’re high. Said friend also happens to be dating Ash’s sister, which has to make for an awkward double date. (Do kids still double date?) Ash and his cohorts spend a weekend in a dilapidated cabin in the woods, where wooden swings move as if pushed by unseen hands and trapdoors are lazily concealed by throw rugs. Of course someone finds the Book of the Dead, bound in human flesh and scrawled in blood, and of course that dickish friend accidentally conjures ancient demons, and eventually Ash is hacking apart his friend, his girlfriend, his sister, and himself. While incredibly cheap and hokey, The Evil Dead is admirably earnest yet always self-aware; Raimi and co. set up the scares with dexterous understanding of placement and empty space, and the camera moves as if hopped-up on Ritalin and booze. The actors went through Hell making the movie, and it shows—they look perpetually uncomfortable and upset. But the real star of the film is the unparalleled practical effects: no one has ever used gum-string effects with such startling efficiency, not before, not since. Mixing stop-motion, in-camera hijincks, and really grotesque make-up that oozes and squishes and spews and secretes stuff of every conceivable color, Raimi, Joel Coen (yes, that Joel Coen), and Raimi’s brother Ted crank the gore to a very blithesome 11. Limbs are lopped off, bodies crawl out of the dirt, faces disintegrate, and trees…well, you know what the trees do. Histrionic and horrific but never losing sight of the inherent humor in a film of such low monetary beginnings, The Evil Dead is the rare film that’s true to its advertising: the ultimate experience in grueling terror.
6. Jaws (1975) directed by Steven Spielberg
Jaws is one of the great American films not because the aspects everyone knows—the music, the mechanical beast rising out of the murky waters, that horrifying opening scene, the three men on a boat—are as good as they’re reported to be (they totally are), but because the parts people don’t talk about are just as good. The film is a master class in formal filmmaking, from its sound to its visual editing, the camera movement to the deeply-layered compositions. Few blockbusters since Jaws have had such intricate and nuanced sound design (the way you can hear all the various townspeople talking Altman-like in the town meeting scene), and few have dialog at once so economical yet revealing. We really know these characters and care about them, even if we don’t *like* some of them: Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody; Richard Dreyfuss’ nerdy Matt Hooper; Robert Shaw’s salt-of-the-earth seaman Quint; perpetually under-loved Murray Hamilton as the knavish Mayor Larry Vaughn; Lorraine Gray, matching Scheider note-for-note as Ellen Brody (a character who was dragged through the muck in subsequent sequels). The characters are the soul of Jaws, and every actor gives a career-best turn here. Roy Scheider has been underrated for pretty much ever, mostly because he only ever had three really good roles worthy of his singular style (the other two being Joe Gideon in All That Jazz and Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer, which has only recently become revered by cinephiles). Here, Scheider perfectly off-sets he inherent largeness of the movie and Spielberg’s penchant for melodrama with a grounded, unshowy performance. The way his eyes dart, the way his face sinks in desperation without his reverting to histrionics. If he had been as strident as the great Robert Shaw, Shaw’s performance wouldn’t work. (Both deserved Oscar nods.) Everyone knows the “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” line, which Scheider allegedly improvised, but notice how he continues to sustain that jarred look after the camera cuts and Quint walks to the back of the boat. (Also notice Quint’s taken-aback look, since Shaw could play off improvisation as well as anyone.) On land Brody seems hurried and busy, a man who knows what to do but also knows that everyone around him doesn’t care, doesn’t want him to do what’s right. On sea Brody is a neophyte, and Scheider doesn’t even feign manliness here. Spielberg’s known for allowing carcinogenic sentimentality to seep into his films, but Jaws has no such mush. The emotional scenes are truly emotionally-resounding: when Chief Brody plays steeple-fingers with his son (which Nick Hornby aptly observed is what makes a movie likes Jaws great—that mix of genre legerdemain and genuine emotional payoff), or when Quint, that grizzled proletariat of the sea, one of a handful who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, gets chomped in half (uh, spoiler?). But, of course, the film’s lasting legacy is how thrilling it is. Spielberg wastes no shots here, which is pretty astonishing given that Jaws pioneered the garish blockbuster phase we’ve yet to outgrow. The second half is great, but the first half, on the island, is some of the finest direction of any American film, more rooted in New Hollywood (which Jaws helped kill, but not really) than the Star Wars-style of kitsch that followed. Spielberg uses the dolly-zoom better than Hitchcock, the man who made it iconic, because he sets it up with those subtle cuts: every time someone walks passed the camera we jump a bit closer to Brody’s face. It’s touches like this that make the thrills work, and editor Verna Fields has rightfully been praised for her work. Jaws is the first blockbuster, and remains the only blockbuster to have a genuine human story for a heart. Seriously, just watch this scene and name any other blockbuster or horror movie that has the emotional tenacity of a Bernard Shaw play:
5. The Shining (1980) directed by Stanley Kubrick
For his only true horror film, that renowned maker of intensely well-crafted films of singular vision we call Stanley Kubrick decided to jettison the source material (one imagines him looking at the paperback novel with a disgusted look and tossing it over his shoulder, preferably while wearing a monocle) and make an unrepentant Kubrick flick: single-point perspective, immaculate compositions, knowing lapses of logic, long reconciliatory pauses, weathered faces casting vacuous stares into the vast nothingness. Kubrick trades in the alcoholism and child-abuse subtexts of Stephen King’s novel for a labyrinthine jaunt into the corridors of the mind. Making use of the vast soundstages allotted to him, and engendering the only major alteration to the Steadicam since its inception (he demanded that it be able to track from ground-level instead of waist-level, and cinema has never gone back), the notorious perfectionist produced a film that has been debated heatedly since it premiered almost 35 years ago. Jack Nicholson basically typecast himself for the rest of his career; as the clearly unhinged Jack Torrance, a purported writer with a perpetually baleful look adorning his face, Nicholson uses those arching eyebrows and that broad forehead to instill unease from the opening scene. Just driving a car seems like a potentially murderous endeavor for him. (This is a big reason why King hates the film, but in Kubrick’s hands Nicholson’s innately discomforting manners are fitting, not distracting.) Shelley Duvall has been unfairly derided for her arm-flailing, whimpering performance (seriously though, how would you fucking react if your husband tried to brain you with a baseball bat and you saw a man in a bear costume giving head to a tuxedo-wearing ghost?), but she’s really a great foil to Nicholson’s curated intensity. Kubrick so exquisitely sets up every shot, every reaction, that you can’t help but assuming everything is here for a reason, even if it’s not. (Not that authorial intent trumps what’s actually on screen.) What makes the film capital-G Great is how much you can read into everything, and how much you can take away. Yeah, it’s scary as a missed period, but it also demands deconstruction. The Overlook is rife with residual guilt and spectral corruption, as if all the forces in the world are set on ruining Danny’s childhood innocence. Kubrick is the master of using articulate visuals to conjure feelings of equivocation, of existential dread and loneliness. He is the master. He’s always been the master.
4. Halloween (1978) directed by John Carpenter
Though inadvertently responsible for the depraved deluge of gratuitous slasher flicks that flooded theaters in the ’80s (apposite for the Reagan Era and all its superfluity), John Carpenter’s Halloween bears but the slightest semblance to the many ersatz masked psycho movies that followed in its wake. It channels the voyeuristic gaze of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, particularly in that captivating opening POV shot (the modern Steadicam was still in its embryonic stages in 1978), and, to a lesser extent, the contamination of small town Americana exhibited in Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown. But Halloween it far surpasses both films thanks to Carpenter’s keen sense of sight and sound—his use of foreground/background is a technique every young filmmaker should study. Darkness spills onto the screen, inky black night leaking in from the frames, suggesting the enveloping evil of The Shape. The film explores the repressed sexuality of a lonely, frustrated young girl (Jamie Lee Curtis, the only actual teenager in the movie) whose friends are screwing while she’s studying; that caprice and youthful carnality manifest in those knives and stabbing weapons. The Shape isn’t the slow, lumbering brute of the sequels who seems to materialize in the most convenient places; he’s a spook crashing your slumber party, a nameless, faceless, emotionless apparition that haunts the backyards of sleepy suburbia, USA. He can be a cipher for pretty much anything. What makes Carpenter’s film different from everything that followed in its footsteps is the lack of a discernible nexus connecting The Shape to the ill-fated babysitters; there’s no reason or logic, no warning—the dumbass kids in the Friday the 13th movies and the Halloween sequels know what’s coming for them. They bring it upon themselves, really, by visiting Camp Crystal Lake, or staying in Hadenfield. Here, the adventitious slaughter of skinny young things is truly scary. They drink and smoke and have premarital sex and don’t do their homework, as kids are wont to do (or so I’m told), and they die not for their sins but for their obliviousness. Why should they expect The Bogeyman to be hiding in their bedroom? Few filmmakers probe the unknown with the resounding clarity of John Carpenter. As with the next film on this list, Halloween ends on an ellipsis, and, had Carpenter kept the rights to Michael Meyers, we would still be afraid that The Shape is out there, waiting for us.
3. The Thing (1982) directed by John Carpenter
(Personal note: I remember repeatedly taking out the same book on horror films from my library as a kid—I’m talking 8 or 9—and seeing the same picture from The Thing, the head stretching up to the ceiling, and wanting to see the movie from whence this disgusting monster came; when I finally saw Howard Hawks’ version, whose VHS box simply said The Thing, I wondered why that part never happened in the movie. I felt cheated. I was a stupid child.)
Coming off the disappointment of The Fog (which did well at the box office but quickly faded, and has since gone on to achieve minor cult status), Carpenter was finally persuaded to abandon his indie roots and took a gig shooting a script for a major studio, taking up the reins after Tobe Hooper dropped out. (Can you imagine a Tobe Hooper-helmed The Thing? Ew.) Set in the forlorn icy tundra of Antarctica (sadly devoid of penguins, though who knows how Carpenter of special-effects guru Rob Bottin would have employed them), The Thing uses a clashing coterie of self-aggrandizing manly-men to tease out deep-seeded selfish survivalist instincts. A parasitic entity of alien origin, whose true appearance is never revealed, is rapidly infecting the crew of an American outpost. It seems like nothing can stop this Thing from spreading—not guns, or brawn, or big bushy beards (none of which is in short supply here). They can kill It, but they never really know which man has become It until he’s sprouting slimy tendrils and consuming his friends piecemeal. Distrust and malice settle upon everything like a thin veil of frost. Carpenter envelopes his cast in a complex web of paranoia and delusion; they have no real leader, so each man wants to appoint himself leader. (Well, almost each man. But the weak and meager bite it just as hard as the cock-sure.) It’s one of the keenest, most incisive looks at masculinity in a horror flick—this is a group of men who turn a fight for survival against a monstrous being into a pissing contest. Whereas most horror films, Carpenter’s included, cast a pretty but fiercely independent young girl as the hero—the Final Girl—The Thing shows that there is no Final Guy. The last man standing is still fucked, left in Antarctica with no chance for survival. The classic theme of an inability to distinguish man from monster has been around since the days of Robert Louis Stevenson, but rarely has it been taken to such extremes. Kurt Russell is aces as the hard-drinking helicopter pilot MacReady, but virtually everyone is on their A-game here—you’ll never be able to look at Wilford Brimley (the guy from those diabetes commercials) the same after seeing him shove his fist in someone’s mouth. The Thing is one of horror’s most startling accomplishments, a film that disturbs and entertains in equal measure. It’s also an oddity in Carpenter’s oeuvre, with its relatively larger budget, intricate special effects, and huge cast of character actors, plus the inclusion of Ennio Morricone’s score (Carpenter contributed some electronic filler to act as glue between Morricone’s pieces, which were composed without his having seen any footage of the film). Carpenter has made some great films in his long, strange career, but this is still his best. Watch it on a first date and you’ll wake up alone. (Trust me.)
2. Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott
Another personal anecdote: When I was a kid, probably only just on the verge of stepping into the double-digits, I got Alien on VHS as a birthday present. It was the first legitimate, not-illegally-copied, non-Disney VHS I can remember owning. At that point I had the Terminators and Predators and Jaws and Cronenberg’s The Fly (which I referred to as Jeff Goldblum’s The Fly) and Aliens (which I saw before Alien, oddly) and all sorts of inappropriate films on tape, all of which was adorned with those white labels bearing black Sharpie scribbles indicating the contents of the tape. But Alien, in that shiny black packing with the green font and that bulbous egg, that engendered something in me. I blame that movie for my many social inadequacies.
Alien immediately announces its intentions to usurp any and all light-hearted notions of sci-fi spurred by Star Wars from its opening shot proper: after the one-word title slowly appears on screen, we see a large industrial spaceship called the Nostromo slowly creeping across the screen, foreground to background, a squalid, blue-collar version of George Lucas’ opening. The crew is comprised of a pretty staggering set of ’70s marquee names: John Hurt (who dies the best death in horror history, bar none), Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwrght, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and newcomer Sigourney Weaver, playing the first real badass heroine in American cinema. Most people forget that Weaver wasn’t billed as the star, and she doesn’t even become the main character until half of the crew has already been slaughtered. This is to her favor, as well as ours: whereas James Cameron would depict Ellen Ripley as a woman warrior with a crew cut and inexplicable killing prowess (I love Aliens, but it’s definitely of a far lower-brow than Alien), Scott and co. treat Ripley as an actual person. Revelatory, I know, a woman being a person, and mainstream American blockbusters are still struggling with this concept 40 fucking years later.
The crew of the Nostromo discovers a beacon calling out for help (or perhaps a warning? No, of course not) on a planet at the outskirts of the universe. They go to investigate, and they find a derelict spaceship on the planet’s surface; inside this ship is a multitude of eggs, kissed by a thin layer of mist, which have been sitting in desuetude for who knows how long. Very quickly one of the eggs hatches, and people start to die.
Scott, still a patient and articulate filmmaker back then, lets the camera linger in the stygian confines of the industrial spaceship, its walls ribbed with pipes and wires and tendrils that act as a foil to the interior of the derelict alien spaceship. The alien ship on LV-46 is a monolithic mass of indecipherable secretes, replete with apparatuses that seem to blur the line between organic and artificial. The long halls, as caliginous and unwelcoming as the River Styx, are comprised of 90 degree angles and straight lines, its emotionless, efficient, slick and sleek design not unlike that of the killing machine that will soon be stalking the vents and pipes. At once vast and claustrophobic, the world of Alien looks like nothing else that came before it and, save for James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel, nothing else that came after it. Scott would only displays a sense of formal bravura not afflicted with ostentatious flourishes once more, in Blade Runner, before he set down an undulating path of flops and hits and white-washed big-budget epics devoid of spectacle.
The film unfurls at a deliberate pace, that proverbial slow-burn: after almost 45 minutes of small-talk and bullshitting about unions and equal pay, a monster invades the ship, and the intensity is cranked way up. They collectively try to enucleate the creature, first with a net and an electronic poker thing (which Spielberg would use to similarly abortive affect in The Lost World), then with flame throwers. Nothing works, and the flagitious fucker, with its serrated icicle teeth and accurate, phallic head, tears them apart.
H.R. Giger’s creature, adapted from his own lithograph called Necronom IV, is bipedal but slow, a creeping menace that lurks in the shadows and whose movement we never really see. When one unfortunate character encounters the creature in the tight corridors of the ship’s air ducts, the creature thrusts out its arms, fingers splayed, like a spider waiting for its prey and then snatching it. Cameron’s creatures in Aliens are more insectoid, with hard ridges adorning their long head, a bigger blade replacing the tiny barb on the tip of their tail, and a queen with long, spindly legs who runs after her prey.
1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski
When he made Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski wasn’t yet so deeply burdened by the crushing weight of misanthropy that (understandably) arose after the brutal murder of his 26-year-old pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His subsequent films, especially MacBeth and Chinatown, are steeped in inexorable mourning; they’re almost funereal in their relentless ontological dread. One ends with a beheading, the other with a single shot through the back of the head. In the case of the latter, it’s a mother and rape victim who’s killed, and her blood and viscera that’s splattered all over her daughter.
Rosemary’s Baby ends with a mother cradling her new-born child, surrounded by a room of her friends.
Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes, cast against Polanski’s wishes) move into a beautiful building on the Upper West Side of New York. Guy is an aspiring thespian, though so far he’s only done commercials, and Rosemary is a happy homemaker-to-be. (It’s unclear as to how they acquire so much money, but whatever.) Soon after moving in, a young woman throws herself out of the Woodhouse’s neighbors’ window. These neighbors, who used to own the Woodhouse’s apartment, are the elderly and eccentric Castevets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer, fantastic) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon, who deservedly snagged the Oscar), who, in their grieving, cling to Rosemary and Guy. The young couple becomes simulacrum children for the senescent couple.
Rosemary becomes pregnant (by Guy, ostensibly), and things immediately begin to go awry in their relationship. (It doesn’t help that he claims to have impregnated her while she was unconscious.) She sees a doctor who has strange, “natural” remedies for every ailment, and soon Rosemary has become gaunt almost to the point of emaciation.
Polanski refuses the temptation to use gaudy style and instead grounds his film in staunch realism. His camerawork is brilliantly economical—he avoids cuts as often as possible, favoring long takes that capture as much as the 1.85 framing allows, and moving the camera when necessary (as when the Woodhouses first check out the apartment). Nothing is nugatory here, and only upon repeated viewings does it become clear that, as with Chinatown, every shot and line progresses the story in some way. (Ira Levin’s novel is also flensed of the plethoric bits, though Polanski extrapolates the tragedy lurking within Levin’s schlocky horror, further proving that trashy novels make for great cinema.) But the real beauty of Polanski’s classical compositions is the way he hides things from viewers so subtly: people are frequently clipped by doorways and walls, partially obscured at the ends of hallways. The most notable example is when Guy sits down with Roman, and Polanski has them just out of view, just on the far side of a doorway, and we can see whorls of smoke writhing towards the lights but we can’t hear their whispers. Neither can Rosemary, and that’s essential: we never know more than she does.
Mia Farrow is in every single scene of the film. Polanski submerges Rosemary in the claustrophobia of the big city, and he taps into that lonely, forlorn feeling shared by most housewives at the advent of counter culture enlightenment. Rosemary is modest, you could say domesticated; even getting a haircut pisses off her husband. She leads a bromide life, and the deeper into the story we get, the clearer it becomes that the myriad men in her life are all manipulating her in some way. She loses most of their couple’s quibbles, and though she seems complacent—jovial, even—to submit to Guy, there’s always that lingering sense of something spoiled, or ruined, like it’s too late (something a lot of emotionally abused women say when asked why they don’t leave), and Rosemary is caught in the unseen slipstream of marriage. Her individuality, her own well-being, is already corroding. Most contemporaneous reviews of the film, while widely ecstatic, fail to point out the disconcerting depiction of a modern marriage, probably because they didn’t have the benefit of a half-century’s worth of progress. She lives in her husband’s umbrage. For all the Satanic stuff and the creepy paranoia that suffuses the film, Rosemary’s Baby is truly frightening because it so earnestly captures the banality and ruination of being a house wife in 1966. It resonates with anyone who’s witnessed a shitty marriage, and in 2014 that’s almost all of us.
Of the various occultists and backstabbing friends, only two people come away from the movie still tainted by the stigma of villainy: that annoying, bespectacled lady who yells at Rosemary to get away from the baby, and Guy. The Castevets are never unctuous or snide, never malicious. Even after Rosemary meets the Satanic Spawn she birthed, Minnie and Roman are warm and loving towards Rosemary. This warmth, while ironic and unsettling, is oddly the most optimistic ending to any Polanski film. The anti-Christ may be here, but Rosemary has finally found a purpose in life, after what we assume is years of saying, “Yes, dear,” to Guy. No one is asked to atone for his or her sins (though you do get the sense that Guy is, probably for the first time, in that doghouse). Rosemary is going to be a mother to her child. Hail Satan.