Nailing down a Top Ten of anything can be a daunting task, but trying to select just ten films from the entire horror genre is nearly impossible. So what I’ve done here is to try just stick to films that really sum up the genre for me, and hopefully it’ll give you a little insight into the type of horror fan I am. Some you may not agree with, but hey, I might not agree with this list either in a few months or years! Besides, it’s not a list of what should be on a top ten, but a list of what really works for me. So, let’s get stuck in…
(10) Inside (2007)
France has always had a good reputation for horror and unsettling drama, but they really stepped into their own in the 2000’s with their new wave of brutality and bravado filmmaking that began with Switchblade Romance. For me, the pinnacle was the jaw-droppingly violent L’Interieur, aka, Inside.
Starring Beatrice Dalle as a mentally unstable woman attempting to remove a child from a pregnant woman; the film takes place in a single location on Christmas Eve, with the pregnant victim doing everything she can to stay alive. It’s a very straight forward premise with minimal dialogue, but what works so well is the sheer tension created by the excellent direction from Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. The film also features some extreme practical effects work that really drive home the especially brutal nature of the violence. Not a film to watch with expectant mothers.
(9) Night of the Demon (1957)
Based on the story, ‘The Casting of the Runes’ by M.R. James, Night of the Demon is a film that was unfairly messed with by the studios on release. Producers, fearing that the film wouldn’t sell well without the audience actually seeing the titular demon, insisted on last-minute effects work to be included in the picture, essentially adding in that big old dragon head so proudly displayed on the poster. It’s testament to how good the actual film is though that it could survive such interference and go on to be one of the most chilling films from the 50’s.
A paranormal skeptic, Dr John Holden is invited to visit with Satanic cult leader, Karswell. While at his estate, Karswell slips a cursed document into Holden’s pocket – a death curse that will see a demon come to claim his life within a matter of days. The race is on for Holden to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late. Featuring excellent lead performances and a true sense of claustrophobia and mounting tension, the film is the pinnacle of classic horror director Jacques Tourner‘s career. Influential in many ways (just think of the effect it had on modern ghost stories), the film still holds up well and is a firm October favorite for me.
(8) Hellraiser (1987)
With the near endless pile of (mostly) terrible sequels bearing the ‘Hellraiser’ title, it’s almost hard to see how fresh the original film once felt. Looking at it now, it’s a surprising film; drawing on everything from Lovecraft to Cronenberg to slasher films, it somehow combines these elements into something completely new with surefooted direction rarely seen in such a low budget independent film in the 80’s. Citing influences is fine, but the one person we have to thank is Clive Barker himself – a writer and artist not afraid to do his own thing, on his own terms.
Based on his own novella, The Hellbound Heart, the film focuses on the unfaithful Julia, and her attempts to (literally) raise the dead, in the guise of her husbands brother, Frank. Frank was taken from this world after he meddled with an ancient device that allows the user to summon these demons of pleasure and pain. Stripped of his flesh, Julia must kill to bring him back, piece by piece. These demons, led by the now-iconic Pinhead, have only one motivation, to show you the depths of suffering beyond human comprehension. Gory, sadistic and genuinely unsettling.
(7) Ring (1998)
By the time the late 90’s had rolled around, I’d become fairly jaded to the horror genre. Approaching my 20’s, I had spent a decade devouring as much horror as I could, and after several years of Scream clones and watered down straight-to-video releases, my interest in the genre was beginning to wane. Then in stepped Ringu, and my life was never the same again. It’s a premise we all know too well now; a tape is circulating among the teens of Japan – if you watch it, you get a phone call, and within 7 days you’ll be dead. Reporter Reiko decides to investigate the case, and after the discovery of the tape is launched into an increasingly desperate race against time to save not only her own life, but her sons, too.
The film felt like the first truly terrifying film I had seen in years, and it still holds up extremely well. It tied in perfectly with our increased reliance on modern technology, and not since Poltergeist had TV static been so unsettling. Watching it now, some audiences might find it a tad unsophisticated, and to be honest, it is; but that’s why the film works so effectively. It doesn’t rely on jump scares and OTT editing, instead it builds a rarely seen sense of dread as time ticks away for our heroes. The film has had such a huge influence on nearly everything horror that has been released since that it might seem rather tame to some, but for me, it still manages to terrify every time.
(6) Suspiria (1977)
Arriving late one night to a Dance Academy in Germany, young Suzy becomes embroiled in a series of shocking murders involving students from the school. There seems to be something supernatural about the killer, and it doesn’t take too long for the academy’s history of witchcraft to become apparent…
Suspiria is one of those rare films that, despite it’s legacy and influence, there really isn’t many out there like it. Directed by the legendary Dario Argento, the film runs on dream logic, with many plot points seeming bizarre or abstract. This sense of the otherworldly carries over into the visual style – pulsing prime colours and glorious technicolor processing – and in the excellent, hair-raising score by prog rockers, Goblin. The film was the first true horror for its director, but still managed to have nods to gialli in which he made his name. Many films by Argento would appear on my top 100, but Suspiria is by far his finest moment.
(5) The Wicker Man (1973)
What makes The Wicker Man so effective for me is just how unlike a horror film it actually feels for most of its running time. It was a great trait of British horror from that era, with Don’t Look Now and Witchfinder General also dealing in horrific themes while not being filmed so obviously as a genre film. It’s an approach that lulls you into a false sense of security, only then with the horrors surrounding us being finally revealed. Devout Christian , Seargent Howie, is summoned to a Scottish Island in search of a young girl who has gone missing. What he finds is a community caught up in an old Pagan way of life, with seemingly little interest in the missing child. What initially seems like a culture clash becomes much more sinister, as Howie’s appointment with The Wicker Man draws near…
What made the film so chilling for me was just how right both sides of the religious debate feel they are, and during the infamous climax, nothing is carried out with malevolence or hatred, but with joy over the fact that a blood sacrifice is the answer to their problems, and Howie a martyr for their cause. It may not be the best technically in terms of production or visuals, but The Wicker Man is one of the most profoundly upsetting films I’ve ever seen.
(4) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
It’s strange to think that this was outlawed in the UK until the late 90’s, seeing how ingrained in horror culture it was even back then. I first saw it in our local art house cinema in the mid 90’s (they were allowed play whatever they wanted) and I remember feeling initially disappointed over how ‘tame’ the film felt. But for days afterwards, I still couldn’t shake it from my head. The oppressive tone, the constant sense of dread, the sheer ‘rotten’ sense to the whole film – I could almost ‘smell’ the decay in my nostrils, so strong was its imagery.
Plot isn’t the films strong point – essentially our victims fall one-by-one into the murderous hands of a family of seemingly inbred, cannibalistic killers – but it’s that combination of imagery, sound design and unrelenting terror that makes the film so damned effective, even if it’s isn’t as gory as its reputation would lead you to believe. the character of ‘Leatherface’ alone would usually be enough to terrify, but when you add in the rest of the family (including the corpse-like grandfather), you get a film that drags you kicking and screaming through its house of horrors, and once it starts, it just doesn’t relent.
(3) The Exorcist (1973)
Another film that didn’t get a general home release in the UK until the late 90’s/early 2000’s. As terrifying as the core concept to the film is, what really makes it work for me is just how well written and performed the characters are. I watch The Exorcist several times a year, and I still get drawn in by the emotional depth to Father Karras, Chris and Regan Mac Neil. This is complemented by the perfect direction of William Friedkin, bringing a rawness and no-nonsense approach to the material that could have easily ended up a hokey, lesser picture.
Following the possession of a young girl, the film deals with complex issues of faith and the nature of evil, while still delivering one of the most terrifying films ever made. Dick Smith created the incredible practical effects, and both the sound design and musical score (including the memorable use of ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield) lend it an aural experience that still makes the hairs on my neck stand on end. One of the best ‘October’ viewings out there, and book is just as good, too.
(2) The Thing (1982)
As much as I love slasher films, you really can’t beat a good monster movie. And with his re-imagining of John Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’ novel, Carpenter created one of the best. A group of scientists in the Antarctic unwittingly allow a shape shifting alien into their camp. Locked down by the snow and with no way to contact the outside world, it becomes not just a game of cat-and-mouse, but one of escalating paranoia and suspicion.
Like ‘Alien‘ that came a few years before it, ‘The Thing‘ convinces on its use of an ensemble group of character actors; actors who feel like they belong to the environment, who look like actual scientists, who weren’t cast just because they were young and good-looking. The script is great at keeping us on our toes, and even by the end, we feel as terrified and paranoid as MacReady and the other men. Carpenter assuredly handles the mix of edge-of-your-seat tension and mind-blowing special effects in a way that is rarely seen. The gloopy transformations and arm-ripping gore was created by the legendary Rob Bottin, and his work is so effective it still holds up under HD scrutiny.
(1) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
It’s hard to believe that a low-budget, independent film made in the late 60’s could have such a huge impact on the genre. It wastes no time in throwing the tropes of horror out the window and dragging us into its modern, pessimistic view of the world; within minutes our male ‘hero’ is killed, and our other supposed lead pretty much becomes catatonic as the last strands of humanity hold up in an isolated farm-house as hordes of the walking dead lay siege. As deadly and terrifying as the ghouls outside are, the real threat comes from ourselves – unable to work together or let differences fall to the wayside, things get ugliest when man is pitted against man.
Spawning several excellent sequels, the original still holds up well, despite its low-budget origins. Duane Jones makes an excellent lead, and Romero has rarely been as good at tightening the screws on the viewer as he was here. Claustrophobic, socially relevant and downright terrifying; it’s easy to see why this is still my favorite horror film of all time.