Yes, how trite. Another list of the “best” horror films of all time. But this really is the most subjective of genres, is it not? What is scary to us all has slipped out of the realm of the universal and become much more of a personal thing.
Certain films are inarguable, as our list certainly reflects here and there. But across the landscape of horror filmmaking, you find perhaps the broadest range of creativity in the medium. So it goes without saying that a list such as this ought to be varied.
Unlike the other lists we’ve featured here at In Contention, our rundown of the 20 best horror films of all time did not spring from the mind of this writer or that, but is instead representative of the collective. We’ve polled each of our six contributors to ascertain their high marks in the genre and, through a complicated process of tabulation that involved thorough computation, lots of late nights and perhaps an abacus as well, the list was whittled down to the 20 films you see here.
There are mainstays aplenty, but we think you’ll be surprised by a few of the entries. Each of us hold very different opinions, as should be expected when you get a southerner L.A. transplant, an Arkansas law professor, two Toronto natives 20 years apart in age, a north easterner who recently made the trek out west and a humble Brit.
We hope you enjoy the list.
20. “Nosferatu, the Vampyre” (Werner Herzog, 1979)
F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror” (also making our list) plays like a silent dream, moving slowly, with purpose. It is a film of images, its director firmly aware that film is a visual medium. Only Werner Herzog could have the courage to remake that classic, and in doing so, both pay homage to Murnau’s achievement and in many ways move past it. Whereas Max Schreck seemed a disease come to life, Klaus Kinski is a human turned plague, his voice adding another realm and a new weapon in his arsenal of evil. (J.F.)
19. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Don Siegel, 1956)
They mirror humans in every regard except that they are devoid of emotion…and they kill and dispose of their human counterparts. A simple enough concept, but when Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (adapted from the novel by Jack Finney) landed in 1956, some critics argued that the film was a reaction to the rise of McCarthyism in America. Haunting enough, the film’s climax is perhaps its most chilling: Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) runs crazily through oncoming traffic screaming of aliens and then turns to the camera and decries “They’re already here! You’re next.” (B.R.)
18. “The Fly” (David Cronenberg, 1986)
The themes in David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” are so universal: lost dreams, talent gone awry, doomed love, collegial rivalry and the inevitability of death (and coming to grips with that). And then there is that little aside about mutating into a six-foot insect. But that rather unique trait aside, what actually makes this film so terrifying, in my opinion, is watching Jeff Goldblum slowly descend into his horrific state — a descent so gradual, with each moment unfolding in a tragic, unparalleled fashion. It’s terrifying in a way that could only come from Cronenberg. (G.K.)
17. “28 Days Later” (Danny Boyle, 2003)
I made the mistake of waltzing into a theater alone in 2003 to see Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” It was broad daylight outside, a wonderful afternoon for a matinee. But my peripheral vision was haunted with the tricks of my subconscious as I strolled back to the car. If anyone was walking at a brisk pace, I thought for sure they were a rage-inflicted “zombie” from Boyle’s sublime film. Beyond simply adding the heightened terror of zombies-that-run, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland turned the genre on its ear by injecting a certain dose of realism and something approaching polemic. (K.T.)
16. “The Brood” (David Cronenberg, 1979)
“The Brood” is arguably body-horror master David Cronenberg’s most personal film, as he unleashes his anguish and anger over his divorce onto the screen in ways few films can capture. From the disturbing and deliciously absurd revelation at the film’s end, to the film’s biggest scare, which takes place in a brightly lit, perfectly still children’s classroom, the film uses the cliché of “creepy children” to startling effect. But make no mistake, this is Cronenberg’s show, and for my money, one of the very finest films the genre has to offer. (B.K.)
15. “Marathon Man” (John Schlesinger, 1976)
“Is it safe?” I never thought much of Laurence Olivier as an actor until I saw “Marathon Man,” and he has walked the landscape of my nightmares ever since. Is the film a horror movie? Horror movies are supposed to scare us right? “Marathon Man” terrified me in my youth, impacted the manner in which I think of dentists to this day. And Szell, a Nazi, surviving on the gold he extracted from the teeth of Jews and the diamonds he traded for life – it’s the worst of all monsters, no? Watch the scene where he walks through the diamond market and is recognized by a terror-struck Jewess…that is true horror. (J.F.)
14. “Blue Velvet” (David Lynch, 1986)
Whether this is a bona fide entry in the horror genre or not is open to question, but there’s no denying David Lynch’s unhinged vision of suburbia through the looking glass is among the most frightening films ever made. Beginning as campy noir-toned mystery when a clean-cut teen discovers a severed ear in a field, “Blue Velvet” spirals into a full-blown study of human evil as the subsequent investigation leads to Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, a psychopathic sadist who tortures, rapes, kills, lobotomizes — and whatever else he needs to do to rank as the most perverted of great screen villains. (G.L.)
13. “The Omen” (Richard Donner, 1976)
“Damien, it’s all for you!” Who would have thought that one of the screenwriters of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” could deliver such a tight and terrifying tale of the birth and childhood of The Antichrist? I guess in a way, it does make perverse sense somehow. With a fantastic Gregory Peck in the lead, and possibly Richard Donner’s most sure-handed directing, “The Omen” is about as good as they come. The climactic scene in the church between father and Antichrist is near biblical in its execution. (Think Abraham and Isaac..in Hell.) The script, meanwhile, is chock-full of spine-tingling scares, all of which were neutered in 2006’s dreadful remake. (B.K.)
12. “The Last Wave” (Peter Weir, 1977)
Peter Weir’s most underrated film and, together with “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” his finest. A slow-burning mood piece steeped in Australian folklore, it follows Richard Chamberlain’s liberal lawyer as he takes on a pro bono case defending a group of Aborigine murder suspects, and promptly begins experiencing apocalyptic premonitions. On paper, there’s no reason why the film should amount to more than faintly patronizing mumbo-jumbo, but Weir expertly accumulates fear in layers rather than in jolts, aided by disturbing imagery of uncanny natural forces — as in the opening scene, where hail falls relentlessly from a cloudless sky. (G.L.)
11. “The Innocents” (John Clayton, 1961)
The most precisely and elegantly tuned of all ghost stories, Jack Clayton’s unshakeable adaptation of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” suffused the Victorian formality of the source with wildly Freudian sexual tension, courtesy of co-scripter Truman Capote. Following Deborah Kerr’s nervy governess as she is (or isn’t) haunted by apparitions in a vast countryside mansion, the film spawned innumerable imitators, most successfully “The Others” in 2001. But none could match the taut control Clayton exerts over the material, or the dreamy tonal depths of Freddie Francis’s lush black-and-white cinematography. (G.L.)
10. “Repulsion” (Roman Polanski, 1965)
I first saw Roman Polanski’s icy, unrivaled psychological thriller when I was 11. I suffered nightmares of rabbits, razor blades and hands protruding from walls for days afterward. Some would say I was too young, but I have exactly the same reaction to the film today. Creating claustrophobic terror from the most benign of premises — Catherine Deneuve’s lonely, sexually naïve young woman is left to her own devices for a weekend in her sister’s dreary London apartment — Polanski charts her mental breakdown through unnerving manipulation of space and some of the most ingenious sound design in all cinema. (G.L.)
9. “Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror” (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
It took me a while to warm up to silent movies. After the initial exposure of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, I started digging into more of the classics. “Nosferatu” was a natural place for me to start given my love of Bram Stoker’s creation. But it was F.W. Murnau who really made this film a masterpiece. From lighting to performances to suspense to mere camera placement, I was glued to the screen throughout and immediately watched it again after finishing! Max Schreck is so good, so terrifying, I often feel Willem Dafoe’s take on the actor in “Shadow of the Vampire” must have been accurate. (G.K.)
8. “Bride of Frankenstein” (James Whale, 1935)
One of the few sequels that enjoys the designation of creatively surpassing the original, James Whale’s “Bride of Frankenstein” is one of the most expertly crafted films of the genre. Expanding on ideas lifted from the work of Mary Shelley, Whale went back to work with Boris Karloff with an eye toward expanding our understanding of Frankenstein’s monster and his own tangible emotions and realities, however manifested. But it was Elsa Lanchester who gave the film’s startling central portrayal, matching Karloff grunt-for-grunt and carving her own place alongside the classic movie monster pantheon. (K.T.)
7. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has never received its proper due. Cult followings just don’t cut it. There is something to be said for the horror that this brand of blasé violence can. I find myself one of the few fans of the film’s glossy remake three decades later, but what the original had going for it was a near docudrama approach to visually conveying the narrative, the sense that we were there, paralyzed to assist. To this day, the moment Leatherface steps out and clunks one of our heroes across the skull with a mallet and retreats with body in tow leaves a cold feeling in my stomach. (K.T.)
6. “The Silence of the Lambs” (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
In 1991, Jonathan Demme re-introduced moviegoers to Hannibal Lecter, perhaps the most cunning and psychotic screen villain of all time. Anthony Hopkins, taking over a role played by Brian Cox in the first Lecter film “Manhunter,” exposed his most cerebral and frighteningly gifted talents in the lead role. His matching of wits with Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, remains one of the finest duets ever conveyed on screen by two leading actors. Although an early February release, the film captured five Academy Awards including wins in all five of the major categories – a feat matched only twice before and never since. (B.R.)
5. “Rosemary’s Baby” (Roman Polanski, 1968)
What makes “Rosemary’s Baby” work so well as a horror film is that it’s content to not be “scary” for long stretches of time. Sure, there are odd neighbors and a puzzling death, but director Roman Polanski is wise enough to take his time with the horror. When it finally comes, its pitch perfect. Mia Farrow gives one of her best performances here, especially in the final sequence. The amount of emotion she conveys in what could have been, if handled poorly, a campy and hysterical scene elevates “Rosemary’s Baby” to the classic status it so very much deserves. (B.K.)
4. “Psycho” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
I first saw “Psycho” when I was 13, just discovering a passion for film. My parents would barely let me see many of the films I wanted to, but as they were huge Hitchcock fans, “Psycho” was allowed. The good thing is that I was completely in the dark about the film’s twists and turns, not to mention the ending, and thus could fully appreciate Hitchcock’s steady building of tension and the plot, its cleverness and the utter horror and madness of the film’s descent. To this day, I maintain that Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is the greatest movie villain ever captured. (G.K.)
3. “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
It’s been 35 years since Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” changed the course of movie history. A masterpiece of directing, editing, scoring, and acting, lean writing, and superb sound, the film remains a knockout, at its core, the primal terror of what lurks beneath the ocean’s surface. From an eerie opening scene to a tragic fountain of blood, to poor Quint’s final moments, the film holds you in a tight grip throughout. With elements of Moby Dick merged with those great Universal monster movies, and three very different men on a quest, all for different reasons, “Jaws” is one of the most terrifying rides in movie history. (J.F.)
2. “The Shining” (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Made in 1980, “The Shining” is a classic of the horror genre. Directed by Stanley Kubrick from a novel by Stephen King, the film chronicles the arrival of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family to the Overlook Hotel where he has accepted a job as the winter caretaker. As expected, the family becomes isolated as a result of a winter storm. Failing to make progress on his novel, Torrence eventually goes mad with cabin fever (and perhaps something more). Nicholson is petrifying in the lead role, and that “Here’s Johnny!” sequence remains one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history. (B.R.)
1. “The Exorcist” (William Friedkin, 1973)
The moment is still pretty clear in my memory. A 30-minute climactic sequence, a little girl spewing pea soup and spouting expletives with an inhuman cadence, the stark lighting that seized the heart and arrested the attention of a young boy scared shitless. Even in the later, inevitable post-adolescent days of anti-spirituality, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” had my number. The film isn’t just the greatest horror film ever made, but one of the most successfully manipulative pieces of cinema ever designed. Linda Blair’s portrayal of a young girl taken by a demonic force received an invaluable assist from Mercedes McCambridge, but the real tension of the narrative can be felt in Ellen Burstyn’s horrified observation. In some cases, the cliché is simply the truth. (K.T.)
Just missed the list: “Alien,” “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), “Deliver Us from Evil,” “Frankenstein,” “Freaks,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “The Mummy” (1932), “Peeping Tom,” “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), “Signs,” “The Vanishing” (1988), “Wolf Creek”
Have your say. What is the greatest horror film of all time? Or give us your list!