I believe it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously said “Only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” I take umbrage with that ridiculous notion. There’s plenty of things to fear. The world is goddamn cornucopia of terror. Take for example a random clown walking around a forest at night. What the fuck is he doing there? Evil. That’s what. Or what about an abandoned mannequin factory? I guarantee some of those mannequins are sentient. And some might’ve even voted for Trump.
The world is a scary place but thankfully Hollywood has been there to capitalize on our fears for over 100 years. Their greed has helped generations confront and overcome their fears with the magic of cinema. Yay movies! Yay Capitalism! Boo Roosevelt! He was a cripple and had no idea the terror of a forest clown. Worst president ever.
Let’s celebrate Hollywood’s obsession with horror with a list of The Greatest Horror Films Of All Time. The ranking and selection of the films is based on my weird algorithm of influence, impact and plain ol’ spookability.
Enough of the rabble, on with the list.
10. An American Werewolf In London
While working in Yugoslavia as a production assistant on the film Kelly’s Heroes, John Landis and a Yugoslav member of the crew were driving around on location when they came across a group of gypsies. The gypsies were performing their burial ritual of burying a man feet first and at a crossroads and at the sight of this bizarre ceremony Landis, as you could imagine, was rightfully perplexed. The production assistant had to explain to him that it was done to keep the body from quote “rising from the grave.”
Seeing this weird ass gypsy tradition kicked Landis’s imagination into overdrive and led to him eventually writing An American Werewolf in London.
After being rejected by Hollywood for over a decade because quote “the script was too scary to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror“, He would finally get the financing to make it. (It doesn’t hurt that he made Animal House and Blues Brothers during this time.)
With his cast in place and script already written, all that was left to do was to steal Rick Baker away from The Howling. Baker was attached to the project from the beginning but when it was looking like it was never going to happen, Baker decided, if he was ever going to fulfill his dream of designing a werewolf, he needed to jump ship to Joe Dante’s The Howling. Landis wasn’t having it and essentially stole him away from the movie. Even though that’s a colossal dick move, it was the best decision he ever made.
I can talk all day about the perfect script, which brilliantly combines horror with comedy to create horrors best Reese’s Peanut butter cup, or the amazing cast, (especially Griffin Dunne, who steals the goddamn movie like the words greatest thief) who fully embody their characters or the fact that, when I was a kid, I didn’t understand that the Nazi werewolf scene was a dream, so I kept expecting them to pop back up, which terrified me more than anything else in the film. All of those topics can and have been discussed ad nauseam but the unequivocal star of this film, is Rick Baker.
His make up effects in this film aren’t only amazing but ground breaking. Not just in terms of setting the bar for every werewolf film to follow (none have come close) but in being the first film to win the Academy Award for best make up effects. This films visual effects were so goddamn good, that the Academy had to make up an award to honor it.
That’s how good this film is. It not only changed horror but cinema itself. And also music videos because without this, there’s no Thriller.
All because of some crazy superstitious gypsies.
According to golf legend (if such a thing exists…), The term ‘Mulligan’ or ‘taking a Mulligan’ started sometime between the late 1920’s and late 1930’s. As the story goes, amateur golfer David Bernard Mulligan, along with his usual golf buddies, were ‘doing the golf’ as they say and Mulligan was fucking up so he was afforded a second ball after mishitting his drive. Mulligan complained that his hands were still numb after driving rough roads and a bumpy Queen Victoria Jubilee Bridge. Which they later renamed and I can’t fathom why. That’s a killer name for a bridge. But I digress.
Atleast a decade later, ol’ jittery hands Mulligan is back to his old strategy of fucking up and placing down a different ball for another shot. His newfound golfing buddies wondered what the hell he was doing and he said he was taking a correction shot. They said (imagine this in old timey English uppity accent for greater effect) “what do you call that move?” And Mulligan, being the clever lad he was, responded ‘taking a Mulligan.’
They all laughed it off but then Mulligan went on to win by one point and with that, the phrase was born. Because of ol’ shaky hands McFibber, we have a whole new word/phrase to describe getting a do over, which is cool and all but what we need is a new phase to describe someone doing something right, doing it over and then making it even better. Think the opposite of pulling ‘Lucas.’
And I nominate we refer to it as ‘pulling a Benchley.’
Peter Benchley wrote the massively successful book Jaws, which was so popular, that Spielberg snatched up the rights immediately. Or was hired to adapt it. I’m too tired to Google the minutia. One of the stipulations of securing the rights, was letting Benchley write the screenplay himself and holy shit could that have proven disastrous. You would think a film about three guys hunting a shark would be pretty straightforward but there’s a ton of pointless sub plots. There’s the mayor canoodling with the mob, the affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife and other small differences that have nothing to do with shark hunting.
Benchley wisely decided to gut his book own book and broke it down to the most essential parts and along with sitcom writer Carl Gottlieb, turned in one of the finest adventure yarns ever to be yarned.
Everything about this film is a masterclass of filmmaking. You can watch this film and learn everything you need to about character and visual storytelling. It’s about as perfect a film as you’re likely to find.
Oh and I decided to Google the making of Jaws and the film had like 7 ghost writers and all those great ideas I attributed to Benchley were actually from Spielberg. So, everything I just wrote was a waste of time. Monsoon is calling a Mulligan.
Rising from the chest cavity like a KY jelly covered phoenix out of the beautiful disaster that is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, Dan O’Bannon, inspired by the insane talent assembled for that film, decided to finally finish his long digested alien script, which will eventually become the film we all know and love: Star Beast.
And then someone will suggest the much better title: Alien.
Now, just like Jaws, there’s a debate amongst fans on how much credit O’Bannon should get for writing the film. The guild awarded him a full writer credit but almost everyone unanimously agrees that the film would not exist in the state it’s in without the contributions of producers Walter Hill and David Giler. Are they the unsung heroes of Alien? Most say yes. Would the film exist without O’Bannon? The obvious answer is no. So, let’s just say it’s a 60/40 spilt.
Adding to the complex math of praise, is creature designer H.R Giger. After Ridley Scott (who will further fuck up the math) was brought on to direct, O’Bannon, remembering Giger’s designs for the aforementioned Dune project, showed Scott the painting Necronom IV and they both agreed that that should be the look of the alien.
We got the writer(s), the director, and now the alien designer. Who else can we add to this embarrassment of riches? How about one of the greatest casts ever assembled? Up until the moment Sigourney Weaver was cast, the role of Ripley was always meant to be a man. And what I’ve always respected is the fact that they only changed the sex, not the character traits. They didn’t add any bullshit “feminine qualities” to make her more distinctly female. She’s strong, she doesn’t take any shit and she’s a woman.
Besides Ripley fundamentally changing how females will be portrayed in film from here on out, the film also cast older actors. That doesn’t sound like a big deal but when you consider the fact that every horror film up till and even far beyond that fact cast only hot, twentysomethings, you realize how progressive this films casting decisions are. They’re not hot. They’re old and they’re believable and relatable.
How about that Jerry Goldsmith score? That’s the best segue I could come up with. Like the previous entry proves, 90% of the effectiveness of horror is sound design. It’s impossible to think of Alien without thinking of It’s incredible score. They’re almost indistinguishable at this point.
With all of these elements at the top of their game and many more I didn’t acknowledge, I don’t think there’s a film with a better set of parts. It’s like a beautiful corvette with the world’s greatest engine. Or something. I don’t know anything about cars. Mulligan.
7. Dawn Of The Dead
I wasn’t using any of that fancy hyperbole when I said Night of the Living Dead created zombies. It’s 100% responsible for creating the undead cannibals we all know and love but what I didn’t mention is, it’s not the film to popularize them. And that’s a huge difference. There is no zombie before a NOTLD zombie but there is no zombie movie without Dawn of the Dead. If you look at the horror films that preceded NOTLD, not a single one of them used zombies. It was a huge cultural phenomenon that studios didn’t copy nor audiences demand more of. Which is crazy considering the glut of undead films we have now but people just didn’t want zombies.
Cut to a decade later and Dawn is such a massive fucking success that everyone and their Italian mother is kicking out rip offs and pseudo sequels. It’s easy to see why. All the heavy lifting is already done. You don’t need to create a monster or a backstory. Just slap a little make up on some extras, make em walk around all slow like and bam. You got yourself a hit.
But even after all the homages and rip offs and everything it’s inspired, not a single film has come close to touching this films perfection. Because what everyone failed to copy, when ripping off Romero, was his brilliant social commentary. He wasn’t just adding zombies to a mall, he was satirizing American consumerism and it’s obsession with mall culture. He was using zombies as a metaphor for the American consumer, mindlessly shuffling from one mall to the next, with no real reason other than to spend money on nothing.
That’s why it’s never been topped by anyone including himself. It has the best metaphoric use for zombies that you can think of: Americans.
I think the best example of Carpenter’s genius is not that this film works, it’s that he makes it look easy. All the producers wanted was “a film about a psychotic killer that stalked babysitters.” That was it. That was the bar. I don’t know how many low budget horror films you’ve seen but based on the knowledge I’ve acquired over my many years watching garbage, any other director would’ve taken the 300,000 dollars they got for the budget, spent 100,000 of that on blow and then hastily released the babysitter murders.
But Carpenter isn’t any director. He’s a goddamn legend. Firstly, he only spent 25,000 on coke and secondly, he wisely decided to rename the film Halloween.
All joking aside, this film has an astronomically low budget. When you think of the film Halloween, You think of one of the greatest films ever made. Its reputation has put it on a pedestal among the great achievements committed to celluloid. You don’t however, think of this film as being an “indie” or a low budget film. Most horror films look cheap. Especially slashers. Fans accept the fact that most horror films spend all of their budget on the make up effects and as so long as their good, they won’t complain.
Nobody has ever complained about Halloween looking cheap. Nobody has had to excuse the fact that the costumes were bought at a local J.C Penny’s and that the killers mask was made for 2 dollars. You don’t defend this films budget because the budget isn’t a limitation. Carpenter took less than a million dollars in today’s money and made a film that was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Not bad for a film that was almost called the babysitter murders.
5. The Thing
Based on the novel Who Goes There? Which was later adapted into The Thing from another World, John Carpenter’s take on the story is a horse of a different color. Gone are the communist undertones of the original and are now replaced with a smartly written allegory for AIDS, The Thing is the greatest film about paranoia ever devised.
Since the alien entity can be anyone or anything, no one is to be trusted. It’s a premise Tom Clancy or John Le Carré get erect just thinking about.
When John Carpenter makes a film, all the credit goes to him. He’s an auteur and that’s just how that works according to the theory. But The Thing is the only film in his oeuvre that he can only claim half the credit. As amazing as the camerawork is in this film, the second star of the film is undoubtedly Rob Bottin.
His FX work in this film is literally second to none and this is a list that includes both Cronenberg’s The Fly and An American Werewolf in London. Two films that are nothing if not visually amazing. That’s how good Bottin is.
And speaking of Bottin, let’s all jump on the segue train to my past with a little story I’d like to call: The night The Thing killed Sailor Monsoon.
When I was younger, my uncles would tell me stories about this movie where a guys chest would burst open, eat another guys arms, his head would rip off, and then grow legs and run away. These stories lasted so long, that I stopped believing it was a movie and just went along with the gag. Because how could such a film exist? There was no way the things they were telling me could ever happen, so I just laughed it off.
Years. Literal years this went on. Until one night, when I was staying over at one of their houses, they rented me three movies. The first was The Monster Squad, which I immediately loved. Second was Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, which blew my mind and the third was The Thing. Now, before I started watching it, they didn’t tell me what it was beforehand and at this point, they had already left to go play poker at a neighbor’s or some shit.
It got to the part with the blood test and the couch I was sitting in was situated right next to a window. Apparently, my uncle had timed it that when he came back to check on me, it would be at that exact moment. I kept feeling this breeze on my neck and I turn to look at what’s causing it and my uncle has his faced pressed against the window. He said that when I saw him, I didn’t jump or scream. What he said I did was “turn instantly pale as if I saw a ghost.” I don’t know what I did but I remember my heart stopping. My heart felt as though it couldn’t handle what the fuck it had just seen. I’m pretty sure I was technically dead for 2 seconds.
And my uncle laughed and laughed.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
There’s not many films that feel ‘wrong.’ That have a danger about them. The kind of film you feel as though you shouldn’t be watching. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has that power.
Loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein, TCM might arguably be the first slasher film. There were already films that dealt with homicidal maniacs like Psycho and Peeping Tom and films that were little more than an excuse to show gore effects *cough* Herschell Gordon Lewis *cough* but if you were to trace all the hallmarks of the genre to one film, that film is TCM.
But the thing about TCM is, it’s the perfect example of the Mandela Effect. The Mandela Effect (for those of you that don’t have an aunt flooding your Facebook with memes because she has nothing to do since the divorce), is the collective misremembering of facts or events. The most popular example is the Berenstain/Berenstein Bears book phenomena, where everyone misspelled these poor Jewish bears names wrong for decades.
It’s a weird occurrence but it definitely applies to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In your mind, it’s one of the most violent films ever made. It was a ‘video nasty’ for cryin’ out loud but you’d be shocked to discover there’s almost no blood in this film at all. Even when a woman is impaled on a meat hook, there’s no blood.
Hooper created the allusion of blood by showing little details and letting our imaginations fill in the rest. You show a meat hook and a bucket underneath and your mind already puts 2 and 2 together. Or shows you a chainsaw and knows you already know the destructive force of that tool and what that would do to a human body.
It was banned across the world and theater chains refused to show it and it has less blood and violence than a typical episode of American Horror Story. Hitchcock would be proud.
There is a documentary that just came out called 78/52, which covers in detail, the infamous shower scene from this film. When your film inspires an entire feature length documentary based around one scene, you know you’ve created a masterpiece. A masterpiece, I’m truly shocked exists. I mentioned earlier that after the intense backlash The Night of the Hunter received, Charles Laughton’s directorial debut was over. Just like Michael Powell after Peeping Tom. And neither one of those films have this films shower scene. A scene that’s admittedly tame by today’s standards but in 1960? That must have been heartache inducing.
And that’s not even the most controversial scene in the film. You’d be shocked and I mean positively shocked to find out that there’s a scene involving a flushing toilet. Toilet is used to flush some torn up papers but still. How ghastly. (I’m not just making the funnies, this was a legitimate controversy. Man, how times have changed)
In addition to being one of the best edited scenes in motion picture history, the shower scene is essential because it’s the scene that turns this film from a Hitchcock thriller into a full fledged Hitchcock horror film. He may be the king of suspense but he technically only made made two horror films: The Birds and Psycho.
Psycho transitioning from a thriller to a horror is the turning point in cinema. This is when horror becomes a legitimate mainstay in theatres and will continue to be so forever.
2. The Shining
Stephen King is wrong.
I seriously contemplated just leaving this entry with that statement like a proverbial mic drop but this film was directed by Kubrick and Kubrick deserves at least a couple hundred words.
I understand why King doesn’t like this film. This film isn’t his book and his book is deeply personal. I would feel a little ‘salty’ too if someone adapted a story I wrote that came from a very personal place that everyone loved more. I’m not saying King is bitter that everyone loves the movie more but I’m also not not saying that.
But I wish he could judge the film objectively because it’s an undeniable masterpiece. I’ve thrown that word around a lot and I guarantee I’ll use it to describe the last film on this list but what other word or phrase best describes this film? There is no superlative you can use that is incorrect. It doesn’t hurt that it’s directed by the greatest director of all time and stars the best actor of the 70’s. It also doesn’t hurt that every facet of this film is intended to put the audience at unease. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his fantastic review, There is no reliable character in this film. Every character either lies or is presented with misinformation and every event may or may not even be real.
The film works on nightmare logic that’s typically reserved for films of David Lynch or Dario Argento, but unlike those crazy fucks, the film is never pretentious nor is it hard to understand. It’s a straightforward narrative that is honest in its deceptiveness. It wants you to question everything and refuses to answer anything.
Stephen King is wrong.
1. The Exorcist
Could there be any other choice? When world famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham believes your film has “…a demon living in the celluloid reels”, you’ve made it to the top, baby.
This film caused walk outs, riots, mass hysteria and an actual miscarriage. This goddamn movie was driving people insane because they had never seen anything like it. Horror movies before this were either the black and white monster flicks from Universal or the Vincent Price Poe adaptations from Roger Corman. That was it.
People weren’t ready to see a possessed girl diddle her lady parts with a crucifix while calling her mother a cunt. It made people confront their religious beliefs and some to even question them. This was an earth shattering film for some people.
There’s a term I use from time to time to describe certain movies or scenes and that’s ‘pure cinema.’ It’s anything you see in a film that can’t be recreated in any other medium. No novel can adequately describe a Jackie Chan fight scene or a Gene Kelly dance number. That’s why fans love horror. It’s because horror is a visual medium. You can describe a werewolf in a million different books but not a single one of them will have the same impact of watching 20 seconds of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London.
The Exorcist is the same way. A million great authors can describe a million different horrors that happen to Regan behind those closed doors but I don’t give a fuck if it’s the bard himself, they’re not going to write something scarier than the scene where she spiderwalks down the stairs.
Words have power. They have immense power but the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” exists for a reason. It’s because pictures are more powerful and there’s not many pictures more powerful than The Exorcist.
This is, without a doubt, the single greatest horror film of all time.