In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve decided to list and explain my 10 favorite horror movies of all time. I claim no authority with this list; I’m not a film critic. These explanations are only rankings and scribblings by a sincere fan of the genre. Disagree? I’d love to hear about it.
10.) Halloween: This quintessential slasher film is also incredibly well-made. Thank you, John Carpenter, for making an intelligent slasher film with a plot so complex that it needs a sequel to unfold completely. Clearly, foresight went into planning this series of films. But I’m focusing on the first movie. Michael Meyers, the film’s famed murderer, is a fascinating character. Not only has he been inherently evil since inception (think, childhood killer), but the film’s detective implies his semi-supernatural status. The bastard just won’t die. He has a peculiar penchant for bouncing back from the most horrendously lethal circumstances to continue pursuing his villainous ends. What else is catchy about this movie? Well, perhaps “catchy” isn’t the word; Jamie Lee Curtis’s character, Lori Strode, is far from a horror movie teenage cliché. As an intelligent, independent, responsible female protagonist she’s charged with escaping Meyers’s wrath and saving the neighborhood kids. And the cozy suburban backdrop creates the unsettling feeling that we’re not safe anywhere.
9.) Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Maybe I’m not film-savvy enough, but I prefer this Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) immensely over its older counterpart – John Browning’s 1931 Dracula featuring Bella Lugosi. Both films share classic lines that are fun to quote, but the characters are far more developed in Coppola’s vision of Dracula. Winona Ryder is an excellent Mina, and Keanu Reeves is a fantastic John Harker. The film opens with a rich backstory and features grotesque spear warfare conveyed through depictions of mysterious silhouettes. Count Dracula exists on a whole new level in Coppola’s 1992 film. He appears in his castle to Harker as a decrepit old gray-skinned man with an unusual hairdo (think bouffant on top and braid in the back), and travels to London, where he appears to Mina as a handsome, young prince with flowing brown hair. Of course, there are also female vampires in Dracula’s castle, and we get to meet them, too. The movie is sexual, romantic – in more than one sense of the word – creepy and vaguely sinister.
8.) Sinister: Speaking of things that are vaguely sinister, Sinister is great scary movie #8. However, Sinister is not vaguely sinister, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula; this movie is freakish and ghoulish. What horror fan can argue with the disturbing opening scene? After we watch a family hanging from a tree with paper bags over their heads, we witness other gruesome deaths, portrayed over 8 millimeter film, and spot an insidious face with dark eyes in the background. Those are the eyes of Bughuull, a supernatural creature who forces children to kill their family and then takes the soul of the child murderer. While the murders in Sinister are scary, Bughuull’s surprise appearances are the most frightening element of this plot. He is a truly terrifying entity, a remarkable – and remarkably ugly – encapsulation of pure evil. The ghosts of dead children who appear intermittently are notably unsettling, too.
7.) The Haunting (1963): I had to list the date, to emphasize that I’m not listing the contemporary version of The Haunting in my top ten (though I admit, I’ve heard such awful things about it I haven’t bothered to see it). I used to watch the 1963 version of The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s story, The Haunting of Hill House, with my dad when I was younger. In fact, I watched a lot of horror movies with my dad when I was younger. The shy and meek Eleanor is brilliantly depicted by Julie Harris, and she becomes the perfect target on which the evil spirit of the house’s owner can prey. The film depicts her descent into alleged insanity – or possession – amidst various other disturbances in the house. Don’t expect ghosts and ghouls to jump out at you; this black and white film is subtly frightening.
6.) The Sixth Sense: By now, we all know the line, “I see dead people.” Haley Joel Osment does a fantastic job playing the introverted, estranged, misunderstood Cole who sees the spirits of the dead – often in all their hideousness – and is charged with the daunting task of helping them find peace (once he figures out why dead people are appearing to him). The film’s depiction of Cole as a bullied and harassed loner contributes to its gloomy ambience. Cole’s condition – his ability to see what nobody wants to see – is isolating, and this isolation is amplified by the fact that his father is gone, his mother works a lot, and his schoolmates treat him horribly. The way the ghosts appear in this movie is particularly intriguing; Shyamalan has impeccable horror timing. Sound effects and the camera’s visual movements build up to the moment of the haunting perfectly, often startling the hell out of the viewer. And, in traditional M. Knight Shyamalan fashion, there’s a delicious twist at the end of the movie.
5.) Pet Sematary: I’ve already defended this film in a previous blog post. Now I will reiterate, in a shorter space, why it’s a fantastic movie. The movie has multiple plot lines, and they’re all terrifying. The dismembered ghost of Victor Pascow and his bloody, mutilated head, appear, to the viewer’s chagrin and terror, at the most unexpected times. And Zelda – a sister of Rachel, the protagonist, and a victim of spinal meningitis whose death Rachel frequently recalls in flashback scenes – squirms, screeches, and groans with a corpse-like visage as she reaches out to grab young Rachel and croons her name. There’s all that scary stuff, then there’s the not so ancillary fact that Louis Creed, the main character, keeps burying his loved ones in the passage beyond Pet Sematary, a Micmac Indian Burial Ground from which the dead rise and come back to prey on the living with vengeance. What this film lacks in acting, it more than makes up for in terror. This is horror at its most disturbing.
4.) It Follows: Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about this movie on my blog, too. This is Indie horror at its finest. This subtle, small-budget film achieves what a lot of more expensive horror films don’t; it constructs a world around the main characters that is genuinely terrifying, and pulls the viewer into that world. As the viewer watches Jay get chased by an unnamed, shapeshifting entity, she can’t help but imagine how horrific it would be to share Jay’s fate. Don’t let the endearing personalities of the characters fool you; It Follows is a dark depiction of reality. Ultimately, anyone touched by the curse in the movie is forced to live in abject terror until death. The characters touched by the curse are in an utterly hopeless situation, and this hopelessness – surprisingly absent in a lot of horror movies – is one component of this film that makes it both captivating and bleak.
3.) Scream: I guess I can’t contend that I don’t enjoy a good slasher movie, because Wes Craven’s Scream makes #3 on my list of best, all-time favorite horror movies. First of all, the opening to this movie is horror at its finest. Drew Barrymore plays a teenager stalked by a stranger who calls her and wants to know her favorite horror movie. Alarming occurrences ensue. Neve Campbell is excellent here, too, as Sidney, the daughter of a woman who was raped and murdered a year before this movie takes place. She becomes prime prey for the anonymous murderer who wears a black robe and a skeleton-like mask. On the one hand, the characters in this film fall under the banner of your typical, snarky teenagers, but they’re surprisingly likable, and they produce a lot of excellent one-liners. Plus, they all have their own, distinct personalities, and the actors’ chemistry in this film is strong. There are plenty of references to other horror movies and insights about horror movies, making the film almost self-reflexive in a very post-modern way. The film is definitely scary, but its quirky humor and hip vibe really add to the film’s mood. The film is consciously having fun with the horror movie genre, making it, yes, disturbing, but also a lot of fun to watch.
2.) The Babadook: This film has to be relatively low-budget, but it is brilliant and scary. When a mother has trouble with the misbehaviors of her younger son (her husband died seven years go) tension in the movie mounts. Alongside this tension, the young, mischievous son claims he saw a character they read about in a book – a book that just appeared on their shelf one night – called “The Babadook.” This is producing and directing at its best. Tension exists throughout the film; I found myself startled and anxiously awaiting terrible events the entire time I was watching the movie. What’s so fantastic about this film is that, similar to It Follows, special effects are virtually nil. In fact, one could argue that the depiction of “the Babdook” is campy. One could argue that…if….if that depiction wasn’t also so incredibly scary. I’ve never seen a film appear to try less hard with special effects while doing so much. The ending to the film is mildly disappointing, but overall, this is raw, suspenseful, dark horror that relies on little to nothing in the vein of flashy effects. “The Babadook” is just a damn good movie. And for days after you watch it, you’ll imagine you hear a scratchy voice on the other end of the phone eeking out the word “Baaaa…baaaa…doooook.”
1.) The Shining: This might be predictable, but my favorite horror movie of all time is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. On the one hand, the scenario seems cliché: an obscure hotel is built on an Indian Burial Ground, and all hell breaks loose in the hotel when people go home for the winter. But that’s what makes it perfect. The film and the book take a concept as cliché as an ancient Indian Burial ground and creates a grim story of isolation and possession. When the Torrance’s move to the Overlook Hotel so Jack can play the role of winter caretaker, Jack – who seems naturally a bit moody and recluse – becomes further isolated and slowly loses his mind. Meanwhile, the hotel comes alive with an array of ghosts speckled throughout the rooms and hallways. And some ghosts are your typical passive apparitions, but others are actively trying to produce a narrative of violence and bloodshed to contribute to the Overlook Hotel’s insidious history. The acting in this film is phenomenal, the setting is masterfully depicted, and the ghosts are scary. Sorry, Stephen King – I know you didn’t like this depiction of your book, but I do!
What makes a horror film a classic? What films would you put on your top ten list? Which of my entries do you disagree with? Enter your thoughts below.