Making my lists a little more separate. Horror films have been around since almost the beginning of film itself. No matter how you celebrate Halloween, it usually makes us reflect on some of the best films the horror genre has to offer. That being said I found it best to divide my list into two separate eras as there are too many great horror films to count. Here is my personal picks in no particular order.
1. Nosferatu (1922) Still for my money the best version of “Dracula” this German expressionist masterpiece is still terrific and unsettling with Max Schreck as Count Olaf being the most gruesome vampire ever depicted.
2. The Boris Karloff Frankenstein Trilogy (1931-39) There were many Frankenstein monsters with the Christopher Lee version being a close favorite however no one can beat Boris Karloff’s incarnation of the character. The first film is a creaky early sound effort but Karloff’s performance is legendary. The second film “Bride of Frankenstein” is an instant classic which marries horror with comedy unlike anything that came before it with Karloff giving even more pathos as the monster who can now speak. The creation of the famous Bride is operatic and morbidly funny and sad. The final film “Son of Frankenstein” is the lesser of the two but is a highlight if only for the introduction of Bela Lugosi as Ygor which might be his greatest performance ever. Plus watching these three films will make you appreciate Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” even more as you will know where most of the jokes come from.
3. The Invisible Man (1933) Directed by James Whale who also directed the first two Frankenstein films and based on H.G. Welles’ novel of a man who becomes invisible, this has the same type of mixture of horror and comedy Whale was so good at, with Claude Rains hamming it up as the title character even though you never see his face. Pretty sophisticated special effects for the time, this is one of the most entertaining films of the early Universal horror films.
4. The Black Cat (1934) Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the horror icons of the 30s and 40s and universal teamed them up for a number of films. This was their first and best film together. Lugosi plays a man bent on revenge against Karloff who is the leader of a religious cult and kidnapped Lugosi’s wife. The torture scene at the end was quite graphic for the time, and this film doesn’t hold back on the truly dark nature of the story. Side note, the title was taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, but really has nothing to do with it.
5. Cat People (1942) Produced with zero budget and with a title more suited for a B-picture, this infamous film became a cult classic by using the power of suggestion. A Woman is convinced she comes from a race of people who turn into man eating cats, something she fears will destroy her and the man she loves. More psychologically complex than it sounds, it uses noirs shadows and light and sound to bring the scares.
6. The 7th Victim (1943) Produced by Val Lewton who also produced “Cat People”, this is one of the darkest films dealing with cults, and was a heavy influence on “Rosemary’s Baby”. This one has a young woman searching for her sister who she believes has gotten involved with a cult and want her dead. The film itself is rather obsessed with the idea of death which makes it more unsettling.
7, Psycho (1960) It’s hard to dismiss Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece no matter how many times you watch it, even if it doesn’t have the same impact, it’s still so compelling to watch. Hitchcock orchestrates the film so effortlessly, and this unique brand of storytelling has brought on many imitators, but I will never get tired of this film.
8. The Birds (1963) Probably for me more frightening than “Psycho”. Hitchcock plays with the idea that birds attacking is something that is unknown and also unstoppable. I think the idea of something horrifying that can’t be explained makes it all the more unsettling. The sound design in this film is exquisite as Hitchcock chose not to use a musical score and there is almost a good hour spent leading up the the birds actually attacking and Hitchcock keeps the sense of dread throughout.
9. Repulsion (1965) Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic horror film of a young woman who quietly goes insane inside her apartment. This is one of the great psychological horrors and one of Polanski’s best.
10. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Another Polanski film and another film about a cult (I think I’m afraid of cults). Mia Farrow has never been better as an expecting mother who feels she is behind a giant conspiracy where everyone seems to want to hurt her baby. The finale is what Polanski does best by giving us the absolute worst possible conclusion to all of our greatest fears. Yet there is some dark humour throughout the film which make it one of the most entertaining horror films ever.
(Honorable Mentions: Universal films had a treasure trove of classic monster movies which I cherish deeply including “Dracula”, “The Mummy”, “The Wolf Man” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” along with their cheesy, cheap sequels, and team ups. Val Lewton produced some more greats including “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Body Snatcher”. Bela Lugosi made what many people think was the first zombie film with “White Zombie”. “Island of Lost Souls” is the definitive version of H.G. Welles’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” . “Mad Love”, The original “The Haunting” was great. “Night of the Living Dead” continues to frighten and disturb. Hammer horror remade some of the old Universal monster with their own spin, my favorite being “The Horror of Dracula” and “The Curse of Frankenstein” both starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. “The Return of Dr. X” is a terrible film, but Humphrey Bogart plays a mad scientist zombie in it, so it will always have a special place in my heart.) I wasn’t sure to add “King Kong” as I’m not sure if it falls under horror, it is indeed a monster movie and one of the best.
1. The Exorcist (1973) Kinda picking up where “Rosemary’s Baby” left off, this classic film of a child possessed by a demon has become legendary and still has the ability to frighten and disturb.
2. Carrie (1976) Brian De Palma’s adolescent teen horror based on Stephen King’s book plays more like a darkly comic take on high school life as he cranks up the anxiety for poor Carrie to 11. The horror doesn’t really happen till the climax which is a terrific set piece of precision and operatic drama. But what holds this film together is the tender, frightened, and vengeful performance by Sissy Spacek with special props going to Piper Laurie as her bible spouting mother.
3. Halloween (1978) John Carpenter’s update of the slasher movie started by “Psycho” is one of the most purely sinister horror movies. Made on a shoestring budget and creating one of the greatest horror boogie men of all time, this might be the most frightening film for me personally.
4. Alien (1979) Or it might be this. The original creature feature which spawned into a franchise of lesser valued films (minus the immediate sequel maybe). Unlike the endless sequels, this keeps the premise pretty simple, a space crew pick up an unwanted passenger who then picks them off one by one. The effects are frightening and grotesque and the fact the alien is mostly seen in shadow just makes it all the more menacing.
5. The Shining (1980) Based on Stephen King’s novel which is great in its own right, Stanley Kubrick creates something of his own veering off of the novel to create a sinister look at a family on the cusp of destruction. The imagery and feelings that creep up in this film are what really capture us. It’s hard to believe this film was not appreciated in its time, you can’t really think of great horror films without mentioning it.
6. The Thing (1982) Kinda acting like a cousin to “Alien” this remake of “The Thing From Another World” from 1951 gives us less a science fiction story, and more a story of dread. An alien creature which can morph into anyone around it gives off a mood of uncertainty. This was John Carpenter’s second horror masterpiece.
7. Poltergeist (1982) The closest I think a horror film has ever gotten to being a roller coaster ride. Taken from a story by Steven Spielberg, this suburban haunted house story feels like a kid friendly version of “The Shining”. When a young girl is sucked through the family television by an unknown entity, the family do all they can to get her back. Although the film is chilling and scary, it’s also a fun ride that feels kinda comforting and safe at the same time. A horror movie the whole family can enjoy.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Wes Craven’s masterpiece of a boogeyman who can only kill you in your dreams is still effective, and earily surreal with a dark sense of humour. Freddy later became a bit of a jokey villain, but here he’s a force of pure sinister evil.
9. The Descent (2005) Ask me what was the most horrifying experience I ever had in a movie theatre, it was this film. More claustrophobic than any other film on this list, and using elements of limited light and shadow to bring a sense of pure terror, this is a film that gets under your skin unlike any film before it. It took me awhile to compose myself after seeing this film.
10. The Witch (2016) A fairly recent film but another one that really got under my skin. Take it for what you will, a lot of people found this to be slow on pacing, but it fills the screen with great foreboding, and doesn’t really give clear cut answers to what exactly is going on, however it’s another one of those films that fills me with uneasiness.
(Honorable mentions: “Jaws” is good although it can be thought of as equal parts adventure film. “Dawn of the Dead”, “The Evil Dead” trilogy almost made my list, along with Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me the Hell”. “The Invitation” is another current film I’d put as pretty great as well as “Get Out” which is hilariously subversive. “The Fog”, “The Tenant”, Werner Herzog’s remake of “Nosferatu”, “Silence of the Lambs”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) If “Eraserhead” or anything by David Lynch could be considered horror, I would put that up there.
I know I’m missing some pretty essential films, but it’s late and I’m going to bed.
However if you don’t like horror movies but still want to be entertained on Halloween I’ll suggest these three films
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) When the Universal Monsters were no longer seen as scary they became somewhat of an affectionate joke. Comedy duo Abbott and Costello made a series of comedies which teamed them with the legendary monsters. This was the first and most famous of the films which pit the duo with Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Dracula. A bit poignant to see Bela Lugosi return as Dracula which was the only time he did so since the original 1931 film. The film is silly, and funny especially if you’re a fan of Abbott and Costello or any of the Universal monsters.
Young Frankenstein (1974) Mel Brooks’ great comedy featuring maybe the greatest comedic cast of all time with Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman all bringing their A-game to this spot on parody of the early Frankenstein films. So many great moments, my favorite probably being the recreation of the blind man scene from “Bride of Frankenstein” featuring Gene Hackman in a hilarious cameo.
Ghostbusters (1984) Blockbuster comedy and probably even brings a few chills to the proceedings. However I can’t get too scared when Bill Murray is cracking wise through the whole film, and that’s a compliment to him, put Bill Murray in any horror movie and it will relieve your nightmares.