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.
First things first: Tobe Hooper directed this film. There was a time where Spielberg didn’t know how to produce without giving direction as well–there’s a story about the making of Used Cars where Kurt Russell once said “I can take direction from you or I can take direction from Bob [Robert Zemekis] but I can’t take direction from both of you.”–So I believe he probably helped direct the actors but Hooper directed this film.
Combining the best parts of Spielberg’s trademark Amblin style with Hooper’s shocking sensibilities (Spielberg would never have filmed a scene involving a guy ripping his face off), the end result is the film The Amityville Horror dreamed of being.
If the old adage “Three great scenes equal a great film” is true, than this film is a goddamn masterpiece. There’s the kitchen table scene, the clown scene, “They’re…here”, the aforementioned guy ripping his face off, the pool full of skeletons, the tree attacking Robbie and the infamous “Don’t go into the light Carol Anne!” Scene.
If the measurement of a films greatness is by its homages, this film is an undeniable legend. Almost every aspect of this film has been parodied or “homaged” (code for ripped off) by a million different things but none have done it better before or since.
19. Let The Right One In
About once or twice a decade, there comes a film that immediately after watching it, everyone unanimously agrees belongs in the pantheon of the all time greats.
Let the Right One In is that film. Based on the acclaimed Swedish novel of the same name, the film is a love story that’s equal parts darkly sinister as it is beautifully nuanced. There might not be a more fully realised or believable love story than the one depicted in this film. Which is astonishing considering on top of the leads being unknowns with no acting experience, they’re also children.
You immediately understand why Oskar is attracted to the mysterious Eli and because of the exceptionally well written script (adapted by the novelist himself), you never question why he would fall in love with her.
This is a fairy tale that, in addition to being one of the best modern films, horror or otherwise, stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the Brothers Grimm. It’s a story that will live on for all time.
18. Black Christmas
Bob Clark’s career fascinates me. I don’t think there’s a director with a more eclectic variety of films to their name than Clark. It you start at the top of his IMDB page and work down, you’ll begin to notice that his career works in phases.
There’s the end of his career–which consisted of terrible children’s films (He’s the guy responsible for the Baby Geniuses films), then the TV movie phase–that include a whole bunch of Haley Joel Osment films you’ve never heard of, then there’s the forgettable comedies–A sequel to A Christmas Story, Loose Cannons, and Turk 182 among others (oh and that film where Stallone sang. Who thought Rhinestone was a good idea!?)
And then we start hitting pay dirt. Like any great driller will tell you, “ya gotta tunnel through the shit to gets to the oil” and although Clark has more shit to tunnel through than most, the oil is definitely worth it. Starting with comedy classics like A Christmas Story and the two Porky’s films and then moving on to amazingly underrated dramas with Tribute, Murder by Decree and Breaking Point, we then finally get to the genre work, which I believe are his most interesting films.
He started his career with two of the most singularly unique zombie films with Children shouldn’t play with Dead Things and Deathdream and then created the film that was the inspiration for every slasher ever made: Black Christmas. An amalgamation of every single element that make up both the slasher and the giallo but pre-dating both, this film is ground zero for all horror.
Initially a bomb when it released in theatres, the film went through many title changes and actually branded itself a TV movie to try and recoup some of the money it lost but studios deemed it “too scary” for primetime. It has since become a cult classic that some would argue (me) is better than Halloween.
17. Hellraiser/Hellraiser 2: Hellbound
A double feature! What madness is this?? Crazy, I know but if there was ever a film that needed to be watched back to back with its sequel, it’s Hellraiser. The first film was Clive Barker’s directorial debut and even though it’s a remarkable achievement, the inexperience shows. For one, there really is no protagonist for the majority of the run time. Kirsty shows up from time to time but she has no real part in the narrative till far into the 2nd act. Another problem is the fact that Barker couldn’t give a fuck about the cenobites. He always intended for Pinhead (who’s only referred to as ‘lead cenobite’ in the credits for both films) and his crew to be the Devil at the end of his faustian story, never the main focus.
Frank and Julia were always meant to be the main antagonists. It’s their perverse love of the limits of pleasure that’s the driving motivation behind the film. The film has many things going for it but it’s definitely uneven.
That’s where the sequel comes in. Filling in all of the cracks of the previous film while simultaneously expanding the mythology, this is the film I feel like Barker always wanted to make. It has a strong protagonist, it fully utilizes Frank and Julia, it greatly expands the lore of what the Lament Configuration is and why anyone would want to open it and it understands Pinhead what to do with him. Which unfortunately, will be the last time in the series that will ever happen again.
Both films are extremely solid pieces of horror cinema but just like the puzzle box at the center of the franchise, they work best when you put them together.
It is a fucking miracle this film still exists. In 1921, director F.W. Murnau set out to make a horror film based on Bram Stoker’s novel, ‘Dracula,’ but was denied the rights to the property by Stoker’s estate. For most, that would be the end of the story but Murnau isn’t most people. Realizing that he and Stoker’s widow lived on complete opposite ends of the world, he figured she would have no idea if he even made the film. And he was correct. He made the film and released it but then the producer? The press? Someone decided to declare it “scarier than the novel it’s based on!!!” News spread quickly and news being news, of course found its way across the pond and into the ear of the widow.
She was pissed and sued. And won. Pro tip: don’t piss off the widow of the guy who wrote Dracula. Just don’t do it. Every single copy of the film was ordered to be destroyed and they were. Save for one. Because of that one remaining print, we have the best adaptation of that novel. It’s not just a great adaptation, it’s actually better than the book. Oh, that’s right, I just fucking sassed your dead husbands book. Whatcha gonna do about it? Nothing. Because you’re also dead. Really, really dead. Long time dead.
Murnau was such a great atmospheric director, that the German magazine Filmkurier once said of the film “…the vampire appeared too corporeal and brightly lit to appear genuinely scary.” Imagine a critic today essentially saying “the films lit too goddamn good. I don’t wanna see shit properly. Shadows. I only wanna shadows. Or nothing. I don’t wanna see anything.” When the only criticism your film receives is the fact that the film is properly lit, you have a flawless film.
Fun Fact: there was a rumor that the lead actor was, in fact, a real vampire, that was so persistent, that a film was made in 2000 about it. It’s called Shadow of the Vampire and is also great. Check it out.
15. A Nightmare On Elm Street
It’s staggering how many great ideas are present in this film. You have the most iconic villain since Dracula, wielding the most original instrument of death in any horror movie, killing you when you sleep. It’s too much. It’s like a buffet made up of nothing but the finest versions of [Insert food you like here]
It’s like that.
Besides the Halloween costume makers wet dream that is Freddy, the reason this film has maintained its stranglehold on audiences for decades, is it’s brilliant use of dream logic. You never know when someone is asleep and the film gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of that conceit.
Honestly, the film has the greatest premise for a horror film ever made. You go to sleep, you die. It’s genius in its simplicity because everyone needs to sleep. That alone would make a suspenseful thriller but on top of that, the reason you die is because of a burned up child killer who can manipulate your dreams and can bend the dreams to his will. He can literally be anyone or take the shape of anything.
It’s fucking genius how clever it is. But it doesn’t matter how clever an idea is, if it’s poorly executed but this film, like your neighborhood drug dealer, has it all. Every death is unique and memorable, every scene with Freddy is unforgettable and every dream sequence fools the audience into thinking it’s reality. It’s the film I think of when I think of horror.
If A Nightmare on Elm Street is synonyms with horror in my eyes, Frankenstein is what I think of when I think of black and white cinema. In my mind, before 1950, there was this and Wizard of Oz. That’s it.
When I think of “classic” cinema, this is the first film that springs to mind. I talk a lot about perfect horror films and what I mean when I say that is, perfectly structured scares. A film that understands the language of horror and knows all the buttons to push to elicit terror in the audience. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film is perfect on a technical level. There’s many a horror film that’s made on the cheap and are made by first time directors who don’t exactly know how to tell the best story but they hired the right special effects guy or at least pointed the camera in the right spot for the scares, so the flaws are overlooked.
There’s a huge difference between a great horror movie and a great film. Sometimes all you need to do is check the right boxes and fans will forgive the technical limitations. A “great” film doesn’t get the same leeway. Other films don’t get a pass just became there’s some good gore or some A+ titties. A “great” film needs every component to work. From the directing, to the acting, to the sound.
Frankenstein is a perfect film which also happens to be a great horror film.
There’s not a single flaw to this film. Every aspect of this movie is iconic. Everyone knows the creature. Even if you mistakenly refer to the creature as Frankenstein, you at least know what it’s from, whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know who it is.
He’s unquestionably the most instantly recognizable Universal Monster, which automatically means he’s the most popular horror creation of all time.
13. It Follows
There’s been many imitators of the Spielberg style of horror and there’s a million Hitchcock devotees but David Robert Mitchell is the first director to nail the style and aesthetic of a John Carpenter horror film. There are many that focus on the more action-y aspects of his work like Robert Rodriguez and everyone ripped off Halloween but none have invoked the same feel of his films.
Perhaps it’s it’s the score, which is unforgettably haunting. It sticks with you long after the film has ended.
Maybe it’s the unrelenting tension. Every scene seems to be created to cultivate as much dread as humanly possible.
Perhaps it’s the cinematography. Everything shot is designed to put the viewer on edge.
Or it could be it’s unique, bone chilling premise that weaponizes sex and will make you afraid of anyone slowly walking towards you in the same direction.
Whatever the reason, it bottles the magic of Carpenter while also surpassing him in many ways. The gauntlet has been passed.
12. Evil Dead 2
When you’re a fan of horror, you’re never at a loss for recommendations. If you dug this slasher, there’s 100 others just like it. Dug that haunted house film? Step right up and take a gander at the copious amounts of evil houses we have. It’s like a used car salesman. Always a pitch, always a full lot of cars. Every horror film comes with a whole slew of similar films for you to check out.
Except Evil Dead 2.
If you’re a diehard fan of Evil Dead 2, there’s no other film that will scratch that itch. Early Peter Jackson comes close with his films Meet the Feebles, Bad Taste and Dead Alive respectively. Hell, not even the other films in the series can duplicate the madcap lunacy.
That’s because the film is a crazy hodgepodge of influences, that no one in their right mind would even attempt to try and combine. It’s Grand Guignol by way of the Looney Tunes mixed with The Three Stooges with a little bit of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s House thrown in for good measure.
It’s a blood soaked, slapstick, insane comedic horror masterpiece that is simultaneously the greatest sequel and remake in horror history. Evil Dead 2 is a genre unto itself.
Hail to the king baby.
11. Night Of The Living Dead
When it comes to music, critics and fans say there’s only two eras of music: before Bob Dylan and after Bob Dylan. One man had such an impact on the industry, that more than all of recorded history is technically irrelevant because he wasn’t involved. Now, obviously they’re half serious but I think the same logic can be applied to movies. Cinema is such a new art form, that you can honestly find a middle point in which it changes.
And there’s a strong case to be made for Night of the Living Dead being that point. Coming at the tale end of Hammer (which began after the Universal Monster films ended) but arriving before Halloween, It’s literally at the apex of two major cinematic movements.
Not only dead it help usher in the new Hollywood independent system but it singlehandedly created zombies. We take it for granted but try and wrap your head around that. Every other monster in history, existed hundreds of years before the invention of celluloid. Vampires, ghosts, witches, wolf men, all were recorded years before someone decided to add them to a story.
Zombies on the other hand, were always tied directly to voodoo or other Haitian black magic practices. They were always depicted as reanimated slaves but then Romero made them flesh eating ghouls and the rest is history.