Apart from musicals, no film genre is as simple to define. Are the films trying to scare us? Then it’s horror. With obvious exceptions many of the best horror films do not deal with the supernatural – it is our fellow human and their insanities that are the real terror. But then what is an organ-eating hurricane of smoke and fangs if it isn’t a personification of our fear of each other? Here’s my top 20…
20. The Babadook – Jennifer Kent – 2014
The most recent film on the list and it’s great to see horror is in safe murderous hands. There’s more to horror than the un-flipping-dead. A children’s book contains a monster that stalks you to death once you know it’s there. Grief and loneliness are the demons here. A Don’t Look Now for now.
19. Night Of The Living Dead – George A. Romero – 1968
I’ve had it up to my eaten nipples with zombies but they had to start somewhere. Like its children, Blair Witch and Cannibal Holocaust, it’s the cheapness of it that works. The dead don’t stop for anyone and work well in black and white. Easily the best zombie film by miles [of entrails].
18. The Birds – Alfred Hitchcock – 1963
The Birds is on here because of its mystery. Why are birds suddenly attacking the town of Bodega Bay? Everything is unexplained, even by the end. Goes without saying how well directed it is. Hitchcock was good at suspense, someone should have told him.
17. The Thing – John Carpenter – 1982
One of the best monsters in film history because it has no shape and it could be your mate or your dog – the one with the tentacles. Brilliantly gory and tense Antarctica set paranoid sci-fi horror with a creature that really couldn’t give a toss for your feelings. Proof that sometimes remakes are a good thing.
16. Berberian Sound Studio – Peter Strickland – 2012
Toby Jones is excellent as the very British sound engineer flown to Italy to work on a very Italian horror film. Slowly and in a somewhat Lynchian fashion, he turns into a monster of a human being. Horror can be too self-aware for its own good sometimes but here it’s perfect.
15. Let The Right One In – Tomas Alfredson – 2008
A vampire love story set in ’80s Sweden. Perhaps this film’s target audience were victims of bullying in the 1980s because it worked in this case. More touching than frightening, but never lets you forget vampires are bloody psychos. Hint: THE ENDING.
14. Kill List – Ben Wheatley – 2011
Ben Wheatley directed the excellent crime drama Down Terrace two years earlier so you could be forgiven for expecting more crime LOLs, especially as we are following two hit men, but slowly we get a modern Wicker Man. Colder than Lord Summerisle’s heart.
13. The Exorcist – William Friedkin – 1973
Like all the best horrors there’s much more to this than demons in a twelve-year-old. Is it about a fear of puberty? No. Linda Blair is incredible as the possessed girl and the film itself will haunt.
12. The Shining – Stanley Kubrick – 1980
Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, King was unhappy with Kubrick’s version, describing it as ‘cold’. But the cold madness is what makes it work. It’s a film about insanity disguised as a ghost story.
11. Halloween – John Carpenter – 1978
Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital to seek revenge on his hometown, his mask is of William Shatner, unpainted, blank. The effect is emotionless terror. Modern audiences may dismiss Halloween as cliché riddled mince, but the fact is, it’s from here that the clichés were stolen.
10. The Blair Witch Project – Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez – 1999
The queen of found-footage horror, Blair Witch brings back our childhood fear of witches. A witch is meant to terrify and horrify. Unfortunately she’s become your cousin’s children in pointy hats at a Halloween themed garden party and this is wrong.
9. Cannibal Holocaust – Ruggero Deodato – 1980
A forerunner to the found-footage subgenre, Cannibal Holocaust is set among man-eaters in the Amazon and appeals to our pet primitive. Its documentary-like reality is what grabs and what scares. An excellent film despite a clunky ‘Who are the real monsters, yeah?’ message.
8. Dracula – Terence Fisher – 1958
Much debate exists over who was the best Dracula but shut up it’s Christopher Lee. As brilliant as Bela Lugosi was he had something of the school minibus driver about him. Here, Lee’s extraordinary evil elegance glares out and is matched only by Peter Cushing’s everyone-must-copy performance of Van Helsing.
7. Nosferatu – F. W. Murnau – 1922
One of the most frightening vampire films on this list, it features a silent, pantomime-like phantom who looks like evil would look if it were trying – and failing – to blend in. Proven in court to be a rip-off of Stoker’s Dracula but really, it shows where Stoker went wrong.
6. Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock – 1960
One of the first, and least sympathetic or in any way realistic, portrayals of the horrors of mental illness and the highest quality drive-in movie yet made. Anthony Perkins is incredible as m…m…mother’s boy Norman Bates.
5. Jaws – Steven Spielberg – 1975
A Moby Dick for the modern age. But we like whales now so it’s a killer shark. Jaws is a simple but scary and effective film with perfect music and great character acting. The ripples from it still affect the shark’s image to this day. #NotAllSharks
4. Ring – Hideo Nakata – 1998
Japanese horror is highly effective at making your subconscious fall out with your conscious and Ring will cause them to argue for days. A tape that literally scares the viewer to death is doing the rounds. Never has a hand appearing on top of a well been so stroke-inducingly terrifying.
3. An American Werewolf In London – John Landis – 1981
Contrary to popular belief the most difficult thing in the world is not raising a child to be happy; it’s effectively combining humour and horror on film. But here Landis just about manages it. American backpackers encounter a werewolf with hilarious and horrifying consequences. Landis captures Britishness surprisingly well for an American. And of course there’s the transformation scene that still looks remarkable 33 years later.
2. Alien – Ridley Scott – 1979
The best monster in films and if you disagree you’re wrong. A beautifully designed beast from planet hell silently obliterates the crew of the doomed Nostromo. A baby alien bursting out of a man and a female hero adds weight to the theory that really it’s about the fear and power of women. Or teeth.
1. The Wicker Man – Robin Hardy – 1973
The horror is in the collective madness. Edward Woodward in his best role as the believable but unlikable Sargent Howie, a Highland policeman called to a Scottish island to investigate reports of a missing girl, but he slowly finds this to be a terrifying lie. It’s The League of Gentlemen without jokes. Arguably the scariest ending in film history.