30 Oct Happy Halloween: Top Ten Horror Movies
Definitely a good time to bust out a Top Ten. Halloween is one of those times of year that most folk will throw themselves into with more than a little enthusiasm and what better way to gear yourself up for it than with a couple of fear-inducing, adrenalin-fuelling movies. There’s something quite primal and appealing about scaring the bejesus out of ourselves and movies are the perfect foil for it. Just look at the box offices around this time of year – tells you all you need to know really.
What is about to follow is my personal favourite ten horror films, based on a few general factors I look for in a good movie – cinematography, character, tone – but above all their ability to scare the living shit out of me.
The glaring omission here is An American Werewolf in London, easily the scariest film in the world to me even now, it terrified me from the age of six. Even today, when I take the bins out, I think of the creature crouched between the dumpsters in the alley at the end. Bbrrrrr! The following ten films I think are better as they excel more in the aforementioned areas, but I can’t write this post without giving John Landis’ classic some due credit.
Christ, those eyes!
Unfortunately you won’t find a few other classics below that you might think should be everpresent. You know the ones that top horror movie lists year after year, not to say they aren’t good, but they don’t resonate with me in certain ways. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is too noisy and chaotic, jarring in the same way Mother! might be, but jarring and scary are two different things; Psycho, like much of Hitchcock’s CV, for me, is perhaps a little too dated and as a result no longer packs the weight of true horror, never had me so much afraid as it did suspended (I often think his films are mis-categorised); and the Exorcist, while terrifying, is a bit slow and devoid of character to be classed as a good film in my eyes.
Japan’s wave of horror are very samey and lose traction as a result; Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and Pinhead have all become more caricature over time, thus losing their individual appeal; and Jaws, although good, I just don’t view as an out-and-out horror… I might also happen to think it’s just good, not great, but don’t hate me for it…
And so, with the rationale out the way, let’s commence Fantana’s Top Ten Horror:
10) 28 Days Later… (2002)
Danny Boyle; Alex Garland; Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson
Pioneers of the running zombie, Boyle and Garland took a popular horror trope and made it all the more horrifying by insisting that their ‘living dead’ infected not shamble in a Night of the Living Dead fashion, but charge their prey down in sprints of carnivorous fever. The results had the desired effect, making the post apocalypse seem far less easy to negotiate for the survivalists out there.
9) The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall; Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, MyAnna Buring, Alex Reid
Takes the isolated, survival theme and applies it to new surroundings, creating a very effective environment full of actual jump scares (take your loud noises and shove them up your pipe!) and visceral terror. Beyond the creature aspects of this horror, much of the real horror power wielded by the Descent comes from how claustrophobic Marshall makes the caves in which the characters are trapped feel. One of our most very true, very primal fears brought effectively to the screen.
8) The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick; Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
A lesson in turning the screw ever so slowly. The joy here is in watching the gradual unfurling of Jack Torrance’s (Nicholson) psyche, as he regresses to the most basic, primal, terrifying layer of cabin fever. Elsewhere Kubrick gives us other layers to fear, the hotel’s brutal history, Danny’s (Lloyd) latent psychic powers coming to the fore in the form of ghastly visions. But nothing beats that third act meltdown. One of the true classics of horror.
7) Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott; Dan O’Bannon; Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm
The funny thing about this original haunted-house-in-space thrill-ride is that the scenes that made me squirm as a youngster – Dallas in the crawlspaces, Ash’s meltdown – are the parts I overlook today, and the sequences I saw little in back then – the build up to Parker’s demise, the escape shuttle finale – are those that get me amped in more recent watches. Fantastically layered, fantastically cast, fantastically shot, fantastically paced. Fantastic.
6) Insidious (2010)
James Wan; Leigh Whannell; Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey
It had been quite a while since anyone had come along with a truly effective new horror franchise idea. Although James Wan’s sequels didn’t really deliver on heightening the experience or building on the frights and tones of the original, the first Insidious movie certainly did get it all right, drawing out fear from silences, lingering stillness and anticipation, something that hadn’t been done until that point, in years. He also created some of the freshest movie monsters in over a decade. Winner.
5) Event Horizon (1997)
Paul W.S. Anderson; Philip Eisner; Lawrence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Jason Isaacs
The only bright spot on Anderson’s CV perfectly blended sci-fi and horror. The effects might be a little dated now but the cast was diverse and their characters identifiable, juggling pessimists, zealots and realists for an intriguing dynamic. The horror was equal parts psychological and macabre. In short there was something here for everyone. Chaos has never been better depicted.
4) Saw (2004)
James Wan; Leigh Whannell; Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Dina Meyer, Ken Leung
Before a zillion sequels, prequels and spin-offs diluted its legacy, the original Saw was one of those thrillers destined for the classic pile, along with the likes of Sixth Sense. Before Wan dove into the supernatural and psychomancy, he tested our nerves with this shredding serial killer piece, demonstrating all the terror-inducing skills he has mastered in later films. A tremendous example of winding tension, palpable silences and effective twists.
3) Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Victor Salva; Justin Long, Gina Philips, Jonathan Breck
Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. It’s effective enough while the first half of Jeepers Creepers taps into the Duel-esque frights of a couple of youngsters being terrorised along some little-used highway, but when it switches up the terror to incorporate gothic and otherworldly, it amps the style and the stakes to eleven. Packed to the gills with terrifying imagery and turning the movie monster trope on its head by delivering a villain in plain sight, Salva freshened the genre up at a time when it badly needed it.
2) [Rec] (2007)
Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza; Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza
You can keep your Blair Witches and Paranormal Activities. Both are decent and certainly in the upper echelons of found footage horror quality, but neither come close to the frenetic, pulse-quickening ride that is [Rec]. Chock full of genuine scares, none of which are cheap, this Spanish monster combines building tension, fraying nerves, blind panic and quiet dread perfectly, delivering a gradual build that crescendos with a nightmarish race for survival. But nothing – nothing! – comes close to the final 20 minutes, where the survivors make it to the penthouse and the attic…
1) The Thing (1982)
Dir. John Carpenter; Bill Lancaster; Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat
[Rec] and An American Werewolf certainly take the awards for genuinely scariest movies I’ve come by, but Carpenter’s the Thing has more going for it in the way it combines a fantastic cast of individual characters, an isolated location that is quite terrifying in its own way, and slowly turns the screw, ramping the paranoia and the threat of a savagely gruesome demise to palpable levels. When the titular monster finally makes itself known, and Carpenter drags this out to full effect, the effects still hold up today as some of the scariest, most twisted creatures to grace our screens. Even after several decades and several dozen viewings the tension still manages to grip you from start to finish. Not just a great horror movie, but a great piece of cinema period. Just fantastic.
Bonus Feature – Dark Horses
Much of the above probably doesn’t come as a surprise. They are the best at what they do. So here’s a wee list of unsung horror treats to seek out and enjoy this Halloween…
- Vamp (1986)
- Before I Wake (2016)
- Session 9 (2001)
- The Void (2017)
- Stir of Echoes (1999)
- Kill List (2011)
- The Monster (2016)
- Society (1989)
- The Orphanage (2007)