Everyone likes something different in a movie genre. For horror, I tend to be more conservative. What I look for in a horror film.
- Give me a sense of tension. Make me feel uneasy while watching the film.
- Give me characters I can root for. People I would remember and stick out above other movies I’d watch.
- Have the monsters be unique. Maybe they have a reason for their treachery, maybe not. Whatever the case, make them memorable.
- I do not like shock value in my horror. As in lots of jump scares and violence so graphic it disgusts and shocks me. I am more about fear, rather than disgust.
- Finally, while not always needed. If you can apply some social commentary or moral philosophy. All the better for me.
- Doesn’t hurt if they inspired the genre, though sometimes that does more bad than good.
- While there are many variations of horror. I do consider movies which involve the supernatural to be more horror. So, movies like American Psycho or Don’t Breathe can be considered horror, I’m counting them as thrillers or crime based horror. Therefore my horror is based in dark fantasy/science fiction. Things that are far less likely to ever happy or exist. With a few exceptions. Please keep in mind that Horror/Fantasy/ and Science Fiction all overlap. So some of these films will have science fiction/ fantasy genres in them, but also horror. Labeling them exactly can be very difficult. Jaws, for example, can be considered horror, but I’m not including it because I am less certain.
10-Gojira aka Godzilla (1954) Again, you could call this science fiction more than horror. Though it is the king of all creature features. It is an unstoppable monster from the darkest depths of the ocean which comes and destroys large cities with no way to stop it. Humans fighting against something unstoppable is scary. Add in that Godzilla is more of a metaphor for the atomic age and nuclear weapons, that makes it even scarier. Some may scoff at the production values, but the ideas set forth in this film changed the genre and inspired not only a great franchise but much more to follow.
9-Poltergeist– (1982) Still my favorite ghost story. Don’t mess with Spoiler warning- (Native American burial grounds) because you may lose in a big way. This movie may not be very gory, but it certainly gets intense at times. The various ways that this film creeps you out is also amazing. Spielberg may not do much horror, but this one reminds one of the finest in existence. (Directed by Tobe Hopper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but written by Spielberg and others.)
8-The Thing (1982) I mentioned the original earlier in my countdown, Carpenter took a great movie and expanded upon it in horrifying ways. It still takes place in an arctic outpost and has that discussion of scientific discovery vs survival. However, this time the film’s creature can take the form of just about anything living that it touches. Which means it could look like a coworker without you knowing. This idea builds the suspense throughout the film. Also, Kurt Russell is amazing in this film. He adds such character depth that I really appreciate.
7-Zombieland (2009) To me it is the most fun zombie movie ever made (Yet it still has tragedy.) The thing this film does better than any other is create characters to root for. These characters are why you love the movie and it hasn’t fallen into just another standard zombie film. This film has humor and heart in abundance. When it goes down that horror route, however, it is exceptional and dark. This movie is among the finest horror comedies ever made. I love Shaun of the Dead because how it mocks old school zombie films, but Zombieland beats it in my book.
6-Night of the Living Dead (1968) I’m getting to that point where the best and my favorites are in conflict. I do consider this the finest zombie movie to date. That all other zombie movies have pretty much been inspired by this one with few exceptions. It is still creepy and cinematic brilliance. George A. Romero is still one of the masters of horror. I also applaud him for using a black protagonist in this film. He was among the first Americans to push for equality in film. In the end with this movie, it wasn’t about race, it was about trying to survive. That should be a goal for us all in general zombies or not.
5-The Exorcist (1973) This film makes me laugh and I know it shouldn’t because the concepts are terrifying. The intensity of the film and what it represents is groundbreaking for its time. The acting and production value exceeds most horror films as well. It also has aged considerably well. I give this credit because from a filmmaking perspective it is of such great quality. Add in the fact that it revolutionized the horror genre. Almost every possession film to date has a touch of The Exorcist in it.
4-Psycho (1960) Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho may not always be considered horror, but rather a thriller. However, I believe there is a hint of the supernatural within it. Making it more fitting than others similar to it. Norman Bates is this iconic figure in cinematic history. The first true slasher film with a touch of the strange to it. This movie pissed a lot of people off from its use of toilets, from its violence, and the few twists throughout the movie. (The twists are still used today and always seem to enrage a large group of people.) Psycho isn’t just one of my favorite horror flicks, it also is one of the best ever made.
3-The Shining (1980) Another masterpiece by the great late Stanley Kubrick. Stephen King may not love this version, but this is one of the few cases where the movie is actually better than the novel. The precision and darkness to the film are outstanding. It remains one of the finest horror films of all time. Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall are both exceptional leads in this film. You see a growing tension, the growing anger, and madness. From a filmmaking standard, there is almost no horror film that can even compare to the quality of this film. This isn’t just horror, it is a masterpiece.
2-Alien (1979) Ridley Scott makes artwork out of horror in this dirty space epic.There is so much of this film to appreciate. The whole sexual horror concept. About giant penis shaped creatures bursting through the chest. Then you have the various forms of the Xenomorph, coming together in the big reveal after a considerable wait. This movie stunningly beautiful and compelling. Yet another masterpiece and one of the better movies in the modern era of film. (Early modern era mind you.) Alien is incredible and perhaps you don’t love it, but if you think it is a garbage film, I’m not sure the term cinephile will ever fit you.
1-Halloween (1978) If you’ve been reading all of this, you have noticed I’ve had quite a few John Carpenter horror films on this list. He is my favorite horror director and this is really where it all began. I’ve heard people say that this film is cliche and boring. I can accept people calling it boring, they didn’t have a large budget, and it is meant to be more artistic than gruesome. The pacing is a bit slow for some. However, calling cliche suggests to me that you may not know the history of the film very well. Because with the exception of Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, most other slasher horror films follow the way of Halloween. It is iconic and a triumph of independent, low-budget filming. Making Southern California look like a small Midwestern town in Illinois during the autumn season on a limited budget is very difficult. I’m not here to claim the film is perfect, if you look closely, there are mistakes. However, I certainly couldn’t do better and I don’t know of anyone outside of Kubrick or Coppola who could. (Nowadays you can green screen a beautiful jungle, simply not so in the mid-1970’s.)
Halloween is my favorite horror movie ever and it has been on top for me nearly two decades. I love Jamie Lee Curtis in large part to her role in this movie. Yes, she is a bit green in this film, but it was her first. She has this wonderfully awful scream which is partly why she got the job. Then there is the star, Donald Pleasance, who plays the dedicated beyond belief doctor and psychologist of Michael Myers. Likely the only one in the world who knows the true evil lurking behind Myers. I love Pleasance passion in this role, you can tell he is frustrated, but also incredibly nervous. All he wants to do save people from death and few seem to take him very seriously.
John Carpenter use of sound and simple soundtracks to stir up the tension. This movie isn’t meant to disgust you or use jump scares (Those are cheap tricks, cheap, but effective). This is a movie which builds tension, a slow burn to an exciting climatic act. You can look in the background and see things coming before the characters do. You can feel your heart racing as they try to escape and elude this unstoppable killing machine. For some horror fans today, they need the blood and gore to scare them today, they’ve become desensitized. So a simple death which occurs in this doesn’t wow them, but for me, even though I’ve seen it a hundred times, it gets my pulse racing. I get nervous for the characters even though I know who is going to live or die. Is this the best horror film of all time? Maybe not, but it is certainly among the most iconic and inspirational. I love the story of making this film, the soundtrack, almost every scene. The various character dynamics, and the little unnerving details about society threw in there. This is one of those films that I truly love with all my being. I could break it down, scene by scene and tell you all the things I like. I’m not going to do that, but I am going to watch it Monday night for Halloween. This I promise.
I hope you enjoyed this list, I loved making it and I learned something new about my personal taste in horror. If you have a top list of your own, I’d love to see it. Keep in mind, this is my list. The best horror films I think are somewhere on my list here (including honorable mentions), but these are the films that inspired me to watch movies avidly. They are the films that make me want to create my own movies. That is something special and I will always appreciate them for enhancing the quality of my life