The horror genre has produced some of the most classic and indelible visuals on film. Many great directors have gotten their starts, and made their mark in pop culture through their visions of the macabre, the disturbing, the profane, and the thrilling. The following is my take on the greatest through film history. Please note that I stuck with films that sit firmly on the horror side of things as opposed to sci-fi, adventure, etc., so classics like ‘Alien’ and ‘Jaws’ are not included here on this list.
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Wes Craven’s original masterpiece of visceral terror went outside the boundaries of reality (Freddy Kruger can get you in your dreams!) to terrorize its’ teens (including a young Johnny Depp). The dream sequences will still haunt your nightmares too . . .
9. Carrie (1976) – Brian De Palma, working in his prime, adeptly adapted Stephen King’s first major novel, surpassing the book in many ways (particularly the incendiary final act, framed with incredible split-screen shots). This film features some of the best acting in the horror genre with Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in the leads as the abused titular teen and her supremely disturbed mother (and don’t forget a young John Travolta) . . .
8. Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter’s master class in minimalist creep-out is the first true ‘slasher’ film – it created the ‘rules’ of the slasher subgenre – the silent stalker targeting misbehaving teens and the virginal final girl (a young Jaime Lee Curtis, original Scream Queen). Note Carpenter’s technique of foreboding – all wide shots and tinkling piano, punishing the viewer into tight spaces and close-ups as the tension mounts towards the end of the film creating a sense of claustrophobia . . .
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968) – Widely regarded as an allegory for a changing society with its’ threat of the unexplainable terror of the outsider unknown, George Romero’s classic black-and-white film is surprisingly gory and freakishly tense. From the opening chase scene the film never lets up and invents the modern zombie film. Without this granddad, there is no Walking Dead; respect is demanded . . .
6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Hands down, the scariest, most terrifying, relentless film ever made, it borders on torture getting through it. From its’ opening morbid scroll and intoning narration, Tobe Hooper’s film is so realistic in its’ presentation, it comes across as a snuff film. Watch it alone, after midnight and just try to sleep . . .
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – The only Best Picture winner on the list, Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece of an FBI-procedural challenges the limits of audience tolerance for violence. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of bourgeois cannibal, Hannibal Lector, is a singular performance, a driving presence that pervades the entirety of the film even though he is not the primary antagonist. Jodie Foster is riveting as a realistically vulnerable but steely young agent operating within a patriarchal hierarchy, who is still determined to get the bad guy . . .
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Roman Polanski crafts an unusual horror film, one that relies on creeping suspicion and avant-garde dream sequences of terror. It is a perfect nightmare of the subversion of the American dream, following newlyweds as they move into an historic apartment building and attempt to start a family. The unthinkable happens to the protagonist Mia Farrow, as her idyllic world falls apart and even those she trusts and believes in fail her at every turn . . .
3. The Exorcist (1973) – William Freidkin, the quintessential ’70s filmmaker, defined the new standard all horror would be measured against with this perfectly crafted psycho-terror film. This film taps into the mystical threat of possession, the ultimate horror for those of the Catholic faith, to which he treats with utmost respect and in turn pulls the audience all in to witness the power of authentic lead acting, most memorably by the young Linda Blair, for which one’s heart aches by the end of this powerful document of ultimate fear. Note the director’s incredible use of sound in this film to keep the audience on edge . . .
2. The Shining (1980) – Author Stephen King has publicly denounced Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his snowed-in-a-hotel portrait of cabin fever madness, but it is hard to understand why. Kubrick’s penchant for slow-tracking long-to-medium shots completely unnerve in this tale of a deeply haunted historical landmark and its’ undeniable murderous effect on those trapped within its’ cavernous structure. Jack Nicholson, in all his raised-eyebrow glory, is a perfect fit for this material, portraying the slow, but somehow welcomed decent into madness . . .
1. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock’s meticulously crafted plunge into the depths of the human mind is the father of all modern horror. Every movie on this list owes to what the master of the macabre was able to pull off with this classic film, from the mounting tension he builds from the languid shots and quick cuts of the first half of the movie, to the dogged detective work of the protagonists, to the uncertainty of the guilt of Norman Bates (twitchily played by Anthony Perkins), to the iconic setting itself, forever ingrained in the public psyche. ‘Psycho’ took the biggest risk of any film at the time by pulling the rug right out from the audience half-way through, yet still sustaining an ability to engross by switching perspectives, a tricky turn of events only rendered successful by a director of unique ability, a true master of manipulation . . .