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.