Every year, we here at Sound On Sight celebrate the month of October with 31 Days of Horror; and every year, I update the list of my favourite horror films ever made. Last year, I released a list that included 150 picks. This year, I’ll be upgrading the list, making minor alterations, changing the rankings, adding new entries, and possibly removing a few titles. I’ve also decided to publish each post backwards this time for one reason: the new additions appear lower on my list, whereas my top 50 haven’t changed much, except for maybe in ranking. I am including documentaries, short films and mini series, only as special mentions – along with a few features that can qualify as horror, but barely do.
Un chien andalou
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel
The dream – or nightmare – has been a staple of horror cinema for decades. In 1929, Luis Bunuel joined forces with Salvador Dali to create Un chien andalou, an experimental and unforgettable 17-minute surrealist masterpiece. Buñuel famously said that he and Dalí wrote the film by telling one another their dreams. The film went on to influence the horror genre immensely. After all, even as manipulative as the “dream” device is, it’s still a proven way to jolt an audience. Just ask Wes Craven, who understood this bit of cinematic psychology when he dreamt of the central force behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film intended to be an exploration of surreal horror. David Lynch is contemporary cinema’s most devoted student of Un chien andalou – the severed ear at the beginning of Blue Velvet is a direct allusion to Buñuel’s blood-curdling famous closeup on the slashing of an eyeball with a razor. Technically, that scene alone could classify Un chien andalou as the first splatter film. Though it is not a horror film per se, the film does contain a number of disturbing images: an army of ants crawling through a hole in a man’s hand, dead animals strung on top of a piano, and children playing with dismembered hands. Buñuel and Dalí compile images and scenes that will make you cringe and, in the case of the splitting eyeball, look away. Buñuel exploits the viewer through these horrific images, understanding that people enjoy seeing something macabre. The film has lived up to its aim to shock, even when viewed in modern times.
10. Mulholland Dr.
Written and directed by David Lynch
Much like Inland Empire, it is almost impossible to summarize Mulholland Dr. in a brief capsule review. Many will say Mulholland Dr. makes little, if no sense, but upon a second viewing, one will find interesting new ways to interpret Lynch’s mesmerizing dreamlike thriller. Mulholland Dr. is a thing of dark arcane beauty – a highly reflective piece of filmmaking that leaves many obsessed with attempting to decipher the mysteries lurking deep within. This is a horror picture that deconstructs Hollywood as the dream factory and continues to explore the director’s obsession of dreams, nightmares, and film, and the blurry line between each. Mulholland Dr. conveys the simple idea of multiplicities , or better yet the notion that the main characters have an impulse to mask themselves, often taking on multiple personalities – sometimes to their detriment. The director’s picture-perfect period re-creations, unique sound stages, experimentation of film noir tropes, and very unusual aesthetic (which puts a heavy emphasis on using colour to help tell his story) – all make Mulholland Dr. essential viewing for any true cinephile.
9. (TIE) The Evil Dead
Written and directed by Sam Raimi
This advantageous feature debut from out-of-school filmmaker Sam Raimi, remains a benchmark of modern horror. While many will ague the sequel is far more entertaining, The Evil Dead works far better as a straight-up horror film. It actually received a X rating (mostly due to the infamous tree-rape sequence), was banned in many countries, and was later cited as a video nasty. One of the most remarkable things about The Evil Dead is how much it was able to accomplish on such a small budget. The film was shot on 16mm in the woods of Tennessee for around $350,000, and yet the final product looks five times more expensive than the cost. Injecting considerable black humor, Raimi brings his pic to life by drenching the screen in copious amounts of fake blood. The woods come alive with the imaginative camerawork devised by Raimi and cinematographer Tim Philo, and Tom Sullivan’s amazing make-up effects climax remains a thing of beauty.
9. (TIE) Evil Dead 2
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel
This high-octane, ferocious gross-out semi-sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead nearly eclipsed its predecessor’s reputation thanks to an endless barrage of visual gags, hyperkinetic camera work, rapid-fire editing, kegs of jet-propelled blood, slapstick gore, and the demented comic genius of Bruce Campbell (aided by an impressive arsenal of weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw). Campbell’s performance shifts to match the needs of the script spitting out the greatest one-liners of any horror comedy. Evil Dead 2 is so outrageously over-the-top that it attains a level of dizzying surrealism. This is a must see for any self-respecting movie-goer.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw star in this terrifying thriller about an enormous man-eating Great White Shark that terrorizes the fictional coastal summer resort town of Amity, Long Island on the Fourth of July weekend. Based on the trashy best-selling novel by Peter Benchley (who wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), Jaws was a surprise cash cow thanks to a sophisticated, unrelenting publicity campaign, and was the first film to rake in over $100 million (it grossed more than $260 million at the domestic box office and nearly $475 million worldwide). It went onto spawn three sequels (all terrible), laid out a blueprint for summer blockbusters, and put Steven Spielberg onto the A-list of Hollywood directors.
Spielberg doesn’t serve up mass quantities of blood and gore, but what makes Jaws work is his confident direction, which draws the audience into relaxing at precisely all the wrong moments. Spielberg’s meticulous attention to creating suspense recalls the best of Hitchcock. Jaws remains tense by not showing audiences the shark for the majority of the film. For the first hour, the only glimpses we catch of the beast are fleeting and indistinct. The camera doesn’t dwell upon it until the final act. We are only treated to a long hard look at the shark when it passes by the deck of the ship, setting up the film’s most memorable line, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” In the final scenes, it becomes apparent why the shark gets so little screen time – it looks fake. Spielberg openly admits that if the technology had been better, he would have shown the shark more often. Ironically, it is this handicap that resulted in the film’s greatest strength. By keeping it hidden from the audience, the movie effectively builds suspense and the end result is an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
7. (TIE) Bride Of Frankenstein
Directed by James Whale
Written by William Hurlbut
“She hate me,” he growls, “Just like others!”
The irony of James Whale’s masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein is that Frankenstein’s creation is called the Monster, yet he is the least menacing presence in the film. Boris Karloff dominates the screen with a powerhouse performance, managing to invest his character with emotional subtleties that are surprisingly nuanced. Bride of Frankenstein provides a searing citation of man’s inhumanity to man and still finds room for self-parody, social satire, and comedy. This is the greatest of all Frankenstein movies and quite possibly the best horror film of the 1930s. Bride Of Frankenstein has spectacular direction, a thoughtful script, wonderful performances, and is enhanced by the vivid Franz Waxman musical score. Whale’s genius holds it all together until the tragic, inevitable finale.
7. (TIE) Frankenstein
Directed by James Whale
Written by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
Frankenstein will forever be regarded as the definitive film version of Mary Shelley’s classic tale of obsession, madness, and perverted science. From the standpoint of the subtext, commentary, story, cast, direction, editing, score and photography, the picture is nearly perfect. Director James Whale keeps things moving fast and stylish. Frankenstein is certainly an atmospheric horror film, but it works best as a parable about an outcast, and anyone who ever felt like an outside will certainly relate. The God complex raises eyebrows as well, questioning how far a man will go in the name of science.
Far too many people to this day associate the title Frankenstein not to the scientist from whom the name is drawn, but instead to the monster he creates. Boris Karloff’s legendary, frightening performance as the childlike monster made him an overnight star and created a new icon of terror, but without Colin Clive as the monster’s creator, Frankenstein would be half as good. Clive’s over-the-top, theatrical style might seem excessive by today’s standards, but was typical for the time of its release. Despite his flamboyant tendencies, Clive creates a complex and sympathetic character and his performance may very well be the ultimate portrayal of a mad scientist. His crazed scream of “It’s alive!” is as famous as the creature he brings to life. In the end, The Monster is at once Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest achievement and greatest failure – and their inability to coexist is the ultimate tragedy.
6. The Shining
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
UK and USA, 1980
Jack Torrance only kills one person here, yet he is the monster of the film. No one ever questions Wendy, who not only repeatedly hits Jack over the head with a baseball bat, but also lashes after him with a knife, finally leaving him to die of hypothermia. The morality of The Shining is so fuzzy that the film never offers us any answers as to what is real and what could be fabrications of the family’s increasingly warped imaginations. Much of The Shining is presented from Jack’s point-of-view, and it becomes apparent that Kubrick wants us to become bogged down in his turmoil. Of course, a good chunk of the film is also seen from the point of view of Jack’s family; a necessary choice, if only to generate suspense. But it can be argued that the hotel itself has a rather disconcerting mind of its own. It’s equally uncertain whether the images seen by Danny are real. Stephen King’s book focuses heavily on the supernatural, whereas Kubrick is more ambiguous and less definitive in the interpretations the film offers. There has been many books devoted to Kubrick’s work, and even a recent documentary about several crackpot theories that attempt to decode the hidden symbols and messages buried in the late director’s film. The beauty of The Shining is the ambiguity, and how so many of us walk away with various interpretations. With that said, The Shining is best viewed as a character study of a man haunted by the demons of alcohol and authority issues. Notice there’s a mirror in every scene in which Jack sees a ghost. Does this mean that those spirits are reflections of his tortured psyche?
Putting aside speculation and theories, The Shining boasts a brilliant performance by Jack Nicholson, unimpeachable set design, a superb score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, and flawless cinematography by John Alcott. But the real star of The Shining is Kubrick’s direction. Kubrick creates an atmosphere in which suspense and dread infests every frame with a sense of the macabre. By the end of the film, every inch of the hotel hints at something sinister. The final chase through the snowy hedge labyrinth, Jack’s swinging of the axe, and the creepy teenage girls, are just a few reasons why The Shining remains one of most suspenseful and intense movies ever made.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Joseph Stefano
Psycho proved an unexpected sleeper hit, largely due to a clever promotional campaign where Hitchcock managed to get theatres to sign a contract that refused to let people in after the film had started. He took the idea from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who did the same back in France with Les Diaboliques. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards and, of course, left the ceremony empty-handed.
There are many reasons why Psycho is a masterpiece: One of the principal reasons is its structure. We follow one apparent protagonist only to have her killed off abruptly. Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under our feet, in one of the most shocking scenes in cinematic history. The shower scene in which Janet Leigh is murdered has gone on to become the single most famous scene in any horror film. And yes, Psycho is considered the first psycho-thriller / slasher film, by most – Psycho invoked Freudian psychology as motivation for the killer and gave its murderer Freudian childhood traumas, split personalities, and confused gender roles, everything that would inspire the slasher films of the 70s and 80s. Psycho is pure perfection: Bernard Herman’s score, the shower scene, the mother in the cellar, the knife-wielding maniac, the creepy old house, the twist ending, and even the credits font. Psycho stands the test of time!
4. The Exorcist
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by William Peter Blatty
The phenomenon that was The Exorcist was a studio’s dream come true. With rumours that it was supposedly based on a true story, mass audience walk-outs, protests, vomiting and fainting in theatres, and even the legendary claims that the production was cursed, all helped make The Exorcist the second highest-grossing film at the time ($441 million to be exact). The film earned 10Academy Award nominations, winning two (Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay), before losing Best Picture to The Sting. The film was released during a cycle of ‘demonic child’ movies produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and featured the incredibly talented cast of Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair, whose transformation from sweet innocent to demonic incarnate is one of the most terrifying performances of all time. The Exorcist has been influential in the genre, spawning several sequels, and similar films such as The Omen; none which have come close to matching its power.
This ever-haunting journey into demonic possession is likely as disturbing today as it was back than, and will always be an important film historically. A must-see for any true horror aficionado, The Exorcist is creepy, atmospheric, and contains some truly unforgettable and viscerally shocking scenes – not to mention spectacular special effects for its time.
3: The Vanishing (Spoorloos)
Directed by George Sluizer
Written by Tim Krabbé
Netherlands and France, 1988
Based on Tim Krabbe’s The Golden Egg, this clinical, maddening descent into the mind of a serial killer left audiences buzzing with excitement over its ending. The Vanishing could very well be the most intelligent but least influential serial killer film of all time. This is one of the most interesting character studies of obsession: both Gene Bervoets’ obsession with the missing Johanna Ter Steege and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s obsession with stalking young women. Written in a nonlinear fashion, the egg-shaped overlapping narrative tells the same story from two points of view: the perpetrator’s and the victim’s. If it seems complex, it is, but the facts are laid out in a straightforward manner since we know so much so early in the film. The Vanishing is a simple story, but manages to build one great idea over another throughout. The mystery isn’t who the kidnapper is, but why he took her, and more importantly, where she is now. Every key sequence, every beat, foreshadows the appalling dénouement. The Vanishing is a brilliantly crafted intellectual thriller that will leave you gasping for a breath of fresh air when over.
2. (Tie) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
When someone hears the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they might pass it off as just another inane slasher flick, but Texas is much more; it’s a relentlessly agonizing, bleak masterpiece of horror cinema. Texas isn’t merely interested in scaring its audience; it’s an intelligent and visceral experience that examines the darker impulses found in people, a movie where unspeakably horrific acts take place mostly outside of the frame.
Shot on a tiny budget of $83,000, director Tobe Hooper’s stylish debut achieves maximum effect through a combination of Daniel Pearl’s appropriately gritty cinematography, shrieking sound design, and an unnerving concrète score that will ring in your ears long after the end credits roll. The shaky, eerie documentary-style camerawork, practical effects, and the age-old trick of suggestion help lend the film an alarming and utterly believable quality. Hooper’s film is implicit, rather than graphic, but his directorial style will have you walking away thinking it was bloodier than it is.
The plot is fairly barebones, following five young co-eds on a road trip who cross paths with a murderous redneck cannibal family. If the southern discomfort sounds all too familiar, that is only because countless horror films have followed the same formula: a car breaks down, a group of teens seek help, only they find death in the hands of one or more psychopaths. But Massacre grabs you from the opening frame, with sporadic flashes from a picture camera, images of dead bodies, and the sounds of a news radio broadcast reporting on mysterious grave robberies plaguing the Southern State. There’s also an introductory voice-over (by John Larroquette) claiming authenticity for the events you are about to see:
“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin… For them, an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history”.
The film’s 16mm low-budget look and Bob Burns’ surreal sets and props just add to the realism, creating the illusion of a documentary gone wrong. Of course, the story is not true, but was inspired by real-life Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein, a grave robber who garnered widespread notoriety after authorities discovered he had exhumed corpses from local graveyards and fashioned trophies and keepsakes from their bones and skin. His real-life case influenced the creation of several fictional serial killers, including Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, and a punishing assault on the senses via the most vivid extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Marilyn Burns’s doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory as will the horror icon it produced, the raging chainsaw wielding lunatic Leatherface. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as one of the best horror films of all time, and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever.
2. (Tie) The Birds
Directed by Alfred Hitchock
Written by Evan Hunter
Although not as shocking as Psycho, The Birds is a far more complex, ambitious, and sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark in the prolific career of the master of suspense. Hitchcock’s inspiration for the film was a news report about a bird attack that occurred for unknown reasons, more specifically, a bird that was known to be prey and not a predator. The Birds is a precursor to nature vs. man horror films as Psycho was to slashers. It is also the second masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town thrillers – the first being Shadow of a Doubt. Perhaps the aspect that stands out the most is the long pauses between dialogue. When one thinks of a Hitchcock film, one remembers the long conversations between the characters. In The Birds, there are countless scenes in which the actors express more through physicality than words. Hitch apparently wanted The Birds to be a silent film or was flirting with the idea, but decided it wouldn’t be marketable or profitable. Hitchcock was also experimenting with the idea to not include a score in his film and instead opted for sounds created on the mixtrautonium, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Oskar Sala. Along with Remi Gassmann, they composed a piece that consists primarily of screeching bird sounds, which provides a nerve-wrecking, surrealistic backdrop to the sordid proceedings. Although the special effects are dated, they were still impressive for the time. Ray Berwick was responsible for training hundreds of birds, gulls, crows, and more to act like they were attacking without hurting anyone (although apparently they did). By employing thousands of real birds intermixed with fakes, Hitchcock was able to create the illusion of a mass attack on the quiet community – the result is remarkable, featuring 370 effects shots, with the final shot composed of 32 separately filmed elements. Two images featured prominently in the film are cages and glass: the cage representing Melanie’s closed-minded way of thinking, and the broken glass that suggests the vulnerability of human life. Finally, what makes The Birds a true masterpiece is the final shot. The film does not finish with the usual “THE END” title because Alfred Hitchcock wanted to give the impression of unending terror, and boy, does he succeed.
1. Werckmeister Harmonies
Directed by Bela Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky
Written by László Krasznahorkai and Bela Tarr
2000, Hungary / Italy / Germany
Bela Tarr is a filmmaker who’s work is a highly acquired taste, but as a metaphysical horror story, Werckmeister Harmonies is an utter masterpiece that should appeal to most cinephiles. The film title refers to the 17th-century German organist-composer Andreas Werckmeister, esteemed for his influential structure and harmony of music. Harmonies is strung together like a magnificent symphony working on the viewer’s emotions over long stretches of time even when the viewer is unaware of what’s going on. Attempting to make sense of Tarr’s movies in strict narrative terms is not the best way to go about watching his films; but regardless if you come away understanding Harmonies or not, you won’t forget the film based on its production values alone. Harmonies is a technical triumph, shot by a team of seven cinematographers who compose some of the greatest long takes in the history of cinema. At times a scene will run for ten minutes without an edit. Dialogue is very sparse, and there are often long stretches when nobody says a word. Werckmeister Harmonies is a work of bravura filmmaking that invokes a feeling of nostalgia and sadness unlike any other film, and the mournful beauty of Mihaly Vig’s score will stick with you for hours to come.
- Ricky D