In honour of Halloween, but really inspired by a Facebook discussion earlier today, I figured I would write a brief little list of the greatest horror films ever made. (With the obvious qualifier that, while I have seen a lot of movies – 3,500 is probably a conservative estimate – I have by no means seen anywhere near every horror movie made in English or in any other language.)
But here’s my problem: I don’t really know how to list them. How do I pick the greatest horror movie of all-time when there are so many worthy contenders? So I’ve come up with the next best thing: more than one! Let’s look at the contenders:
What’s great about it: Though you can get into arguments about how this is really a science fiction movie, it may be the greatest science fiction horror film ever made. The more I watch this one, the more I like it.
What’s not great about it: Nothing comes to mind.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
What’s great about it: One of the few horror films not to bite on the “monster reveal” moment that usually ruins a horror movie. One of the scariest films I have ever seen.
What’s not great about it: Easy to parody. Nausea-inducing to some. Not scary if you have never been camping, so say some people.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
What’s great about it: Probably the first proper horror movie ever made. And also probably the birth of German Expressionism, one of my pet movements.
What’s not great about it: Not scary to modern audiences, obviously.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
What’s great about it: It’s the greatest horror comedy of all time, bar none.
What’s not great about it: It’s funny more than it is scary.
Dead Alive [aka Braindead] (1992)
What’s great about it: Until I saw Cabin in the Woods, I would have called this The Greatest Horror Comedy of All Time. Also, one of the goriest films made up until that point.
What’s not great about it: Not in the least bit scary. Just gross.
The Exorcist (1973)
What’s great about it: Still, after all the times I have seen it (7?), one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. I remember watching the re-release back in 2000 or 2001 and being scared again!
What’s not great about it: I haven’t watched it in over a decade and I don’t believe in any of that mumbo jumbo. I do sort of worry that my adult self might dislike the more over-the-top scenes.
Faust: a German Folk Legend (1926)
What’s great about: Everything that is great about German expressionist cinema: crazy shadows and lightning, inventive camera work, absolutely bizarre set design.
What’s not great about it: Well, it’s not scary any more.
What’s great about it: Can I say ‘everything’? (Must be enjoyed as one piece. Watching the two films separately, without the trailers, does not do this justice.)
What’s not great about it: Not scary. The second film is a thriller, not a horror film. More of a time-capsule than a horror movie.
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
What’s great about it: Fascinating and almost educational, and with a moral I can get behind.
What’s not great about it: Not really the first horror movie, since it’s sort of a documentary. Sort of.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
What’s great about it: For me, this is the film that finally answered all my disbelief about other serial killer movies – I only say finally because it took me nearly 20 years to watch it. Most serial killer movies bug me: here we have a supposedly super-smart serial killer who is inevitably brought to justice by the perhaps not as book-smart but cagey cop. This movie destroys that cliche.
What’s not great about it: Not really a conventional horror movie since it’s about the bad guy. It’s terrifying more on an intellectual level than a visceral level, for me anyway.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
What’s great about it: Probably my favourite science fiction movie pre-American Renaissance. The moral falls hard now, but at the time it was probably subtle. Short and sweet and nearly perfect.
What’s not great about it: The ending was greatly improved by the remake. Not a proper horror movie in my mind.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
What’s great about it: The first ever “zombie plague movie.” One of the all time great “message” endings.
What’s not great about it: Not scary. Dated a bit.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
What’s great about it: “This movie is flat out astounding. Yes, there may be the odd moment of implausibility in the staging, but that is totally forgivable given the extraordinary technical innovation. The biggest (and most obvious) of these is the colour: I have yet to see another silent film that was so bold about tinting, especially one that uses tinting as one of the primary effects of the movie. It’s amazing. From the first change in colour I was dazzled. Also, Chaney plays the second readily identifiable horror villain in film history, which is also pretty awesome. He may not look that creepy now, but I can imagine he looked pretty horrible then.”
What’s not great about it: It’s not scary.
What’s great about it: Certainly one of the most iconic films on this list. Many iconic moments and an iconic score. Introduced the “Kill the Star” gimmick, which is still underused in my mind.
What’s not great about it: For reasons I can’t properly articulate, it feels more to me like a thriller than a horror film. It’s dated rather badly. That denouement is brutal.
What’s great about it: I regret to say I haven’t seen this since 2004. At the time, it instantly became one of my favourite movies.
What’s not great about it: Not really a horror movie in my mind but a psychological horror movie. I don’t think it has enough of the traditional horror tropes to qualify in any way as a true horror film, IMDB classification be damned.
The Shining (1980)
What’s great about it: Contains some of the downright creepiest moments in a movie I have ever seen. Also some of the most iconic horror movie moments.
What’s not great about it: It’s pretty over-the-top.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
What’s great about it: One of the ballsiest horror films of its era, also one of the scariest.
What’s not great about it: More of a problem with the franchise than with the film: endless bad sequels and remakes have watered it down. I think it has dated somewhat even without those other terrible films.
What’s great about it: “This is one of the best shot movies of all time, bar none. It features more shadow tricks than any film noir, and all sorts of insane (for its time) camera trickery. It is a very early talkie, and there is very little in the way of sound, but only forces you to pay more attention to what is on screen. Yes, I admit, the plot sort of falls apart, no doubt because of the missing scenes. But if you are a fan of movie making, or are interested in movie making in anyway, this is an absolute must see. Though it is a little later than most of them, this belongs with all the German silent classics which created artistic filmmaking.”
What’s not great about it: It’s not scary.
That’s my list. Out of those I really don’t know which to pick. It depends what the criteria is. I’d say I’d make it a fight between Alien, The Exorcist and Blair Witch today. But I could change my mind tomorrow.