I’m going to start off this Wednesday Listicle/Sacred Walloween with a little story. For years, one of my favorite things to study are the vast fields of Best-of lists that exists. Rankings of Best Movies, Best Performances, Best TV Shows, Best Comedies, Best Musicals, etc. have always fascinated me, filling me with joy and anger, often at the same time. About two years ago, after seeing a healthy number of films, while looking over the American Film Institute’s renowned list, I said “Psh, I could do that.” So I did-I ranked the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. And I saw that it was good. But I didn’t feel done. So I decided to do a Top Ten list for a couple different genres or topics. I thought I’d make five best-of lists and call it quits. As of this article’s posting, I have created 76 lists, ranking specific greatests in every possible field of pop culture. These go beyond the average “Wednesday Listicle” posting: these are a rare treat, comprised of skillful study and years of genre consuming. These lists will be making sporadic appearances on the site until I’ve posted all of them (look for the Greatest Films of All Time come March). However, I can’t think of a better way to kick off this list, as well as to close out Sacred Walloween, than with the Top Ten Greatest Horror Movies of All Time.
How did I come to this conclusion? Well, I looked at a lot of different factors to make this list. First, I looked for films that served the purpose of making the hairs on the back of our necks stand up. These could be films about killers or monsters, about the natural or the supernatural. The only requirement here is that its goal is to scare us. Next, the film had to actually break some ground: either its aesthetic, its story, or its filmmaking had to demonstrate an attempt to elevate the basic ideas of “scary.” And, based on personal feelings, I looked at films that actually tried to explore the things that scared us about our world-using recent examples, think about how It Follows explored our fear of sex as adolescents, or how The Babadook explored fears of depression and motherhood. Horror films can be great without going into a deeper world (I really love the first Friday the 13th, and that film has no purpose other than exploitation). However, in my experience, films using the abstract to try to explain our deepest unconscious fears makes for the better film, and that’s what I’m exploring here. My personal taste doesn’t matter-I’m exploring the greatest films, not my favorite films.
There were a lot of contenders for this list that just missed out. Recent classics Paranormal Activity, Saw, It Follows and Scream failed to make the cut, and the same can be said with traditional standards, like Night of the Living Dead and The Birds. My favorite film of all time, Zodiac, just missed out on the Top Ten, as did the excellent German film Funny Games. And to prove how tough this list is, I will tell you now that the usual suspects of Alien, Jaws, Don’t Look Now and The Sixth Sense came in 14th, 13th, 12th and 11th, respectively. Good films, just not good enough. That’s the way it goes. However, I’ll stop keeping you in suspense: let’s see the Top Ten Greatest Horror Films of All Time!
Oh, and some mild spoilers. I’m not going to give away any twist endings, but I expect you have some idea that these films exist. If not, skip my descriptions and just focus on the titles.
10. Rosemary’s Baby
Say what you will about Roman Polanski-the man clearly has a clear understanding about the darkness of humanity. While the film would be frightening enough if it was simply about a woman impregnated by the Devil, it’s what lies underneath the surface that really makes the film frightening. Polanski plays with a variety of different themes, including paranoia, sexism, Gaslighting, the dangers of a bourgeoisie lifestyle, and the corruption of innocence. The film fills you with fear from the very opening, as Mia Farrow performs a gentle, yet slightly off-putting lullaby. It tells you immediately that everything in this film will be slightly…off. Things get frightening again as we see Rosemary’s “nightmare,” which, make no mistake, is truly frightening. However, it is after this sequence-the worst thing a woman (or, indeed, anyone) can be subjected to, that we witness the true terror. Nothing jumps out, nothing really scary happens, but that’s just it. It’s sort of like The Blair Witch Project-it isn’t what you see that’s scary, it’s not knowing what’s happening, just that something is wrong, and you can’t do anything to fix that. However, unlike the more recent film, Polanski crafts a more frightening scenario-instead of being trapped in a world without help, it’s a world where help is seemingly available, and yet everyone may be-or actually is-out to get you. You can’t trust anyone. Everyone could secretly be a Satanist. And Farrow’s frightened face shows this in every single frame. By the time the film reaches its climax, it doesn’t matter if something horrifying happens (it does, if you’re wondering). What matters is you are helpless to save yourself. And that’s the most frightening thing of all.
Is there anything scarier than high school? Yes, this is a trope that’s been played with time and time again. However, while many films use it as a backdrop, or as a gimmick, Brian De Palma actually uses it as a character study. An indepth look at the effects of bullying and authoritarianism on the mind of a child, the slow build to Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek, properly awkward, and perfectly combining a childlike sympathy and an otherworldly terror) eventual release is a trip worth taking. In many ways an experimental film, De Palma uses slow motion, montage, quick edits, and numerous other film school techniques to elevate the story to create a fractured, sometimes confusing, mostly frightening experience. For most of the film, the terror is seemingly childish-puberty, bullying, an unloving home, and the threat of fundamentalism all plague poor Carrie. However, as soon as her powers begin to manifest, the terror begins to grow. You know things are going to reach their peak, you just don’t know when or how. This all culminates in one of the most classic scenes in horror history. You cheer as Carrie has her moment in the sun, and when it’s ruined (by John Travolta, no less), you want her to get revenge. However, what starts as a cathartic release soon gives way to terror-while you hope and pray that the evil teens (and they are evil, make no mistake) receive their comeuppance, the true depravity that Carrie releases leaves no room for applause. It’s frightening, it’s awful, and it’s sickening. And when Margaret (Piper Laurie) finally fights her daughter to the death, it seems like a metaphor for every ultra-conservative mother who has fought with her overly-rebellious daughter-in the end, there are no winners, only a wake of destruction, leaving pain and suffering for generations. Oh, and it’s worth noting that while this film ends with a jump scare (which I abhor), this one feels earned, and fits into the narrative. There may never be a greater horror marriage between literature and film than what Brian De Palma and Stephen King accomplished on this film.
Horror movies aren’t solely for the adults. Kids want a solid scare, too. And when it comes to horror, Tobe Hooper is one of the All-Time Greats. His Texas Chainsaw Massacre almost earned a spot on this list, but I went with the film that may have single handedly created the fear of clowns. There’s lots of little metaphors and symbols that can be read in this film-the effects of television on the family, the sin of greed devouring neighborhoods, the importance of families sticking together, etc.-however, what it does above all else is tell a simple story well. A little girl hears ghosts through the TV, some of whom are good, some of whom are evil, and they end up kidnapping her while her brother is tormented by a tree and a clown doll. Add in frightening sequences such as rearranged dinner chairs, a face that falls apart in the sink, and skeletons rising from the pool, and you have a film that will frighten families for years to come. The cast is all top notch, from mother JoBeth Williams to daughter Heather O’Rourke (“They’re heeeeeerrrrreeeee…”) to psychic Zelda Rubinstein (“Don’t go into the laaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhttttttt, Carol Anne!”). There are few films as truly frightening as this one, making it the perfect example of taking a basic idea and actually trying, and proving that there’s no excuses for the modern day hellscape of the horror genre.
7. The Night of the Hunter
Not every film on this list will be pure horror films. Some will be psychological thrillers and dark, dark film noirs. Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter is all of the above. It takes the idea of a childhood nightmare and plays it out in reality. Robert Mitchum plays former preacher Reverend Harry Powell, a greedy, psychopathic woman-hater with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his knuckles, who is out to find the loot stolen by his late cellmate. To find it, he must woo the crook’s widow. However, it’s her untrusting kids that know the truth about the money, and once he discovers this, he shows no end to his depravity as he tries to take what he wants. While decidedly an adult film, what’s interesting is that Laughton shoots it like a child’s dream. Shadows loom and leer throughout, the Southern Gothic mystique has never been more expertly crafted, and it has an often lyrical pace that feels uncanny at best. However, don’t be fooled by its charm and craft-this is an ugly, fearsome film. There are at least three edge-of-your-seat moments before the finale, which pits the Old and New Testaments against each other in a battle to the death. An underwater sequence is among the most beautiful ever shot. And I dare you not to let out a shriek every time Mitchum’s Powell whistles or sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” God, I’m getting uncomfortable just thinking about it. While Laughton only ever directed one film, he proved himself the Master of Shadows for all eternity. And that’s quite the accomplishment.
6. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror
I’m not completely sold on the theory that just because something came first, it has to be on a list of the greatest anything. However, I do believe that anyone in the present day can watch Nosferatu and still feel a chill go down their spine. That’s because F.W. Murnau knows how to direct a great film, and also because of Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlock. Essentially stealing the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula without having to pay any royalties, the film follows the book with a moderate amount of respect, with a few major changes. The biggest change is, while the themes of the molestation of women is still prevalent, the film now makes the only sane character a woman: Ellen (Greta Schröder). I live under no delusions that a film from 1922 was in any way a feminist treatise. However, I do think it’s a dramatic departure from the fawning, weak characters of Stoker’s original. But no one watches Nosferatu for the themes. They watch it for Schreck’s performance. And he is truly frightening. While his status as a horror classic has been damaged by SpongeBob SquarePants (in a very clever joke, I might add), anytime Schreck looms in the frame, slowly approaching Thomas, or his shadow is cast across the castle walls, or his casket releases massive amounts of rats, he proves why he is one of cinema’s creepiest and greatest villains. It’s one of the greatest horror experiments of all time, and it still stands up almost 100 years later.
5. The Shining
Uh oh, this is when the claws come out. “The Shining is only #5? What the f*ck is wrong with you?” Yes, yes, I know the argument, and I ding this one for being too confusing and too muddled to be 100% scary. Also, Shelly Duvall. I’m sorry. These complaints do not take away from how absolutely masterful the film is. Stanley Kubrick knows how to direct the hell out of any script he gets. His surreal take is brilliant because, no matter how you read the film, you still come up with a plausible explanation for what you just watched. Is it a metaphor for hallucinations? For alcoholism? For family abuse? Is it just a ghost story? Any of these are plausible. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s a cacophony of images, sounds and ideas designed to chill you to the bone. The blood elevator, the twins, the “All work and no play…” scene, the bathroom scene, the maze, Redrum, Room 237, whatever the hell this is…
There’s thousands of images and sequences designed so that Kubrick can figure out what make us tick, what makes us afraid, and what makes our psyches what they are. No matter if you love the film or hate it, think it’s great or think it’s garbage, understand it or can’t make heads or tails of it, what you can’t deny is that it fills you with emotions-specifically dread-when you see it. And that was what Kubrick wanted all along: to make us fear what we can’t or don’t want to understand.
If I have to pick a favorite film on this list, it would be this one. John Carpenter’s Halloween is a master class in how to make a scary movie. Why is it so excellent? Is it the performance of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, an actually intelligent Final Girl, instead of a lucky Final girl? Is it the fact we know nothing about The Shape (now known as Michael Myers) or his motivations, making him that much more frightening? Is it the metaphors for the underlying terror of suburbia, and the fear that false security will lead to our eventual doom? All excellent and logical reasons, but if you ask me, it’s the fact that Carpenter relies on tension instead of scares. Let me explain: look at the modern slasher film. Guy and girl are in an unknown scenario, rustling in bush, we jump as a cat leaps out, characters laugh, villain jumps out, we all jump. This setup is used without fail in every modern slasher film. What Halloween did different (i.e. better) was rely on the actual tension to scare his audience-this is what is referred to as “dramatic irony.” The characters aren’t aware that, say, their car has become unlocked, or their boyfriend is dead downstairs, or that the “dead” killer in the background has suddenly sat back up. However, the audience is. Meaning that while they are acting like nothing is wrong and everything is normal, we are freaking out, hoping something tips them off to their impending doom. It’s not a difficult concept to understand, or even execute. And yet, it is such a rare treat, that when someone uses it, and uses it as well as Carpenter did here, it’s worth noting. It says a lot that I showed this film to modern-day twenty-somethings and they still shrieked in terror on cue, like some sort of demented symphony. It is, and always will be, my favorite horror movie.
3. The Exorcist
Fun fact: only three horror films have ever been nominated for Best Picture. One was Jaws. The second was The Exorcist. William Friedkin basically did what De Palma did with Carrie when he made his follow-up to Academy Award-winner The French Connection: he took a renowned horror film, used some experimental techniques, and crafted an excellent story. However, Friedkin did the one thing that Carrie never came close to successfully doing: he crafted an intelligent character study. You see, The Exorcist is not just a story about the Devil possessing a young girl. It’s a study about faith, what makes us be faithful, and what happens when we start to lose everything we believe in. For the film, this is seen in both Ellen Burstyn, an atheist actress (a stretch, I’m sure), who’s non-belief is shaken when her daughter starts levitating and, erm, defiling holy things after her friend possesses her through a Ouiji Board. Even more shaken is Jason Miller’s Father Karras, a priest losing his faith in God after the death of his mother, only to have it reignited in the worst way possible. Friedkin plays with his audience’s minds through mist, shadows, stunning effects and subliminal imaging, all set to the creepy sounds of “Tubular Bells.” Every aspect of Friedkin’s film is frightening, and it stands as a monumental achievement in the genre, only toppable by the next two films on the list. And speaking of the horror films nominated for Best Picture…
2. The Silence of the Lambs
God, The Silence of the Lambs is such a great film. It’s got everything: insane suspense, psychological mind games, intelligent decision-making, and incredible themes. The amount of effort that Jonathan Demme put into each frame of the film is so intricate and detailed that it’s almost as interesting as the film itself: from his decision to film it as a love story, to his interpretation of Lector as a character, to his choice in cinematography and staging. It’s all ingeniously done, helping to make this film stand out as an overall film, and not just as a genre flick. He helps stage what should just be a cannibal/serial killer detective-thriller flick as a feminist treatise: the film isn’t about Starling managing to catch Buffalo Bill, it’s about Starling proving to a world decidedly full of men that she’s every bit as good as them at what she does. Jodie Foster plays this role to perfection, making Starling fully three-dimensional. She runs the full gamut of emotions, but never loses her edge as a tough-as-nails fighter who is determined to see justice done. She is matched by an absolutely terrifying Anthony Hopkins, who takes a sixteen minute cameo and runs with it, turning in one of the most famous and beloved performances in all of film. And again: he’s only in thirteen percent of the movie. That’s how good he is. Hopkins plays Lector as a man who knows what is good and what is evil, but cannot control his own emotions and desires. He sees the chauvinism surrounding Clarice as wrong, and sees Buffalo Bill as a monster who must be stopped, yet can’t stop himself from biting off his guard’s nose or stalking his former prison warden. Oh, and I haven’t even talked about Ted Levine yet, or the basket scene, or the raid scene, or the Night Vision scene, or the escape scene…look, long story short, this is a near-perfect film, and it is the absolute best at making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on edge. It’s the only horror film to win Best Picture, and honestly, that’s a deserved award, through and through.
Come on. You knew this was going to be number one, right? I mean, what else could it be? Alfred Hitchcock’s film is the ultimate classic, a tale of greed, murder, insanity and lust. It’s the American classic. What’s great about this film is how Hitchcock took the horror rulebook, took the two points he liked, ripped out the rest of the pages, and rewrote them by hand. It’s ingenious. Let’s start by studying the fact that out of the film’s two hour runtime, he spends an hour making a film that’s decidedly not a horror. Indeed, it’s at worst a film noir crime thriller. There’s nothing scary about it at all. Just the tension of “Will she escape with the money?” And then…things take a hard left turn into the Assh*le Village. The entire plot is thrown out the window with an act of violence so shocking that you still scream, even knowing it’s coming. Actually, that’s exactly what makes this film so great: I had literally had the entire plot explained to me by the time I got around to watching it, and it still shook me to the core. The final ten minutes are some of the most insane ever filmed, and even knowing exactly what is going to happen won’t prepare you for it. Every moment of this film is groundbreaking; every frame is a vision and a love letter to that which terrifies us, and which furthers the world of art. What Hitchcock did with Psycho changed the game: for the 60s filmmaking, for the horror genre, and for cinema itself.
So those are the Top Ten Greatest Horror Movies of All Time. As time goes on, you can follow the running list of Sacred Wall Top Tens here. This is normally where I ask you if I agree or disagree, but this is science, so there’s no room for dissent here. Sorry: what’s written above is inarguable fact. The end. At any rate, I wish you all a Happy Halloween, and while A Nightmare on Elm Street didn’t make the cut, I hope you enjoy this homage by Will Smith, when he was still the Fresh Prince.