I did a list a while back that I found to be a really rewarding exercise. This is finally a continuation of what could, and should, be a series of such lists. It was not an easy task to boil down the fantasy genre to 10 films, but I thought long and hard about it and came up with a list I felt comfortable defending. Today, I present an even harder task. I've seen hundreds upon hundreds of horror films in my life. I'd say it's pretty safe to say I've seen more horror in my life than most people see films, total, in their lives. It's a lifelong obsession. I used to go to the local Suncoast Video Store and pick up the totally age inappropriate 10/20/50 movies for 5/8/15 dollar collections and watch them like someone in 2014 will watch a TV series: marathoned back to back with questionable quality due to the limits of technology and care. I try not to pass up any free horror film screening I can get to (no matter how bad), even if I've already seen the film at home. Like I said, I'm obsessed.
Narrowing that many films down to 10 is not easy. My initial brainstorm had close to 100 films to choose from. But now, I'm left with a ranked list of 10 that make me happy. I feel these are the 10 best horror films ever made while writing this, but the list would change if you asked me to do a final pass in an hour, let alone a day, a week, a month, or a year.
10. Jacob's Ladder
There is a genre of horror where nothing makes sense until the final moment. It could be a dream, a nightmare, a hallucination, or people trapped in hell, a medical experiment, purgatory, or a writer's story. Scariest of all is when there's no twist, just an explanation for everything you've seen that opens up the whole text. Jacob's Ladder is the apex of this genre. The visuals alone are enough to scare an audience. Add on the story, the social commentary, the fantastic acting, and the perfect editing, and you have a horror film sure to satisfy anyone up for a little intellectual challenge.
9. Ginger Snaps
Subverting horror film tropes really became a thing in the 1990s. I blame Scream. And as great as the original film in the tetralogy was, I think Ginger Snaps did the same things, only better and with utter sincerity. Ginger Snaps is the werewolf film that undid the entire genre. Why leave the devastating effects of transformation to male characters when you can infect half of an overly connected pair of sisters and watch their relationship get torn apart? Karen Walton's screenplay alone makes this a must-see horror film. The brilliant technical execution from Paul Jones and his team of makeup/effects artists is stunning. As far as I'm concerned, Ginger Snaps is the best werewolf film of all time and one of the more socially conscious entries in the genre.
8. The Wicker Man
You had to know I'd make room for a horror musical on a list like this. Why not go with the granddaddy of them all, The Wicker Man? Not only is it a horror musical, it's a delightfully British religious horror musical featuring a fantastic turn from Christopher Lee. The film is best remembered for that final scene, sure, but it's not like the rest is a walk in the park. The film slowly casts its spell over the audience with subversive songs and just-off pastoral visuals the whole way through.
7. Deep Red
Deep Red, for me, is the best Dario Argento film. I prefer the subject matter and style of some of his other pictures, but Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, aka The Hatchet Murders, aka Deep Red: The Hatchet Murders) is the perfect distillation of the entire gialli genre. The story is pure slasher at its finest: a woman witnesses the murder of a famous psychic, leading to an investigation into a deep underworld the killer will stop at nothing to hide. With a disturbing electronic score by Goblin (Argento's long-time collaborators) and some of the most direct and brutal violence ever captured on film, Deep Red is the slasher by which all other slashers should be judged.
6. Bride of Frankenstein
I'm a newer convert to Bride of Frankenstein. Director James Whale is responsible for three of the most special effects-intensive horror films of the Universal era. Bride of Frankenstein is the third and the most accomplished in that matter. The tale of The Creature learning to communicate and survive in society after the brutal attempt at murdering him for his confusion flipped the script on acceptable horror film narratives. The monster is transformed into the tragic hero in a bizarrely meta fashion for the time period. After all, the film opens with Mary Shelley complaining to Lord Byron and Percy Shelley that no one will publish Frankenstein because it's too horrific. Instead, she knows that the second story, the monster finding love, will bring the publishers around to her side. By production and release year alone it's clearly commentary on The Hollywood Code and the new age of censorship in Hollywood. Whale confronts Hollywood head-on and then produces an even more disturbing tale than Frankenstein for daring to humanize the monster at all.
5. Noriko's Dinner Table
Though South Korea has overtaken the title in recent years, Japan was responsible for some of the best horror cinema being produced around the world for many years in the 90's and early 2000s. Noriko's Dinner Table is, in many ways, the perfect distillation of that approach to horror. There are no literal ghosts, hair hanging limp and haunting everyday people. Instead, Noriko's Dinner Table is focused on the ghosts of regret and dissatisfaction in everyday life. A family is torn apart by the events of the rampant Suicide Club (yes, this is a sequel to Suicide Club, albeit one that does not require you to see the original at all) without any of them committing suicide. First one daughter, then the second become obsessed with the online community that ran the website counting the number of suicides committed as part of the club. They travel off, one after the other, to the big city to meet a mysterious young woman who can show them what life is really like. Everyone becomes obsessed with decoding the secret of this online community that is so welcoming, everyone who joins becomes family. Or, you know, commits suicide in a very bloody and public fashion to show the world how ugly life really is. It's a coin toss moment.
4. Night of the Living Dead
Any artist will tell you the role luck plays in the creation of art. George A. Romero and John A. Russo have made it no secret that the casting of Duane Jones as the male lead in their zombie film was a chance occurrence. They immediately realized the grand social implications of a black leading man in their story and went with it. Night of the Living Dead preys on a lot of fears at the time. It digs into Cold War paranoia, social unrest, and fear of recent history. If the dead can't even stay dead, what hope do the living have of moving on with their lives? Night of the Living Dead forever cemented the zombie genre as the most political and socially aware of all the horror genres.
3. Santa Sangre
Good weird fiction is much harder to make than it looks. The genre is synonymous with its master, H.P. Lovecraft, and everything else is judged to those standards. Santa Sangre is one of the few examples I can think of that goes beyond the boundaries of what Lovecraft or any other weird fiction author thought possible. It is Absurdism and Modernism and fantasy and horror all wrapped up in the splendor and wonder of the traveling side show. I'd love to describe the plot for you beyond "extreme religious cult crosses paths with a circus and nightmares ensue," but it would be a grave injustice to both the actual story (whatever that might be) and the joy of experiencing this journey without foreknowledge of what's to come.
2. Cat People
Val Lewton might be the true master of cinematic horror. Sure, he never directed a film himself. That didn't stop him from insisting on his productions running a certain way and contributing (without credit) to the creative development and execution of the films with his company's name on them. From 1942 to 1946, Val Lewton produced nine sensational horror films covering all-known genres of horror at that point (basically meaning no slasher films, no found footage, and no ironic horror). Cat People is his first and arguably his greatest. The is she or isn't she monster transformation story of Irena (played to perfection by Simone Simon) is a brilliant examination of the inherent fear of any monster: literally losing touch with humanity.
1. Rosemary's Baby
Put aside the criminal history for one moment. Roman Polanski knew how to direct a horror film. Horror requires control and discipline and serial writer/director Roman Polanski ran a tight ship. Rosemary's Baby is his opus, a tale of horror carried on the shoulders of Mia Farrow and presented in brightly lit rooms and avenues in NYC. The whole cast is perfection (there's a reason that Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for the comedic relief in a horror film, good people) and the adaptation of Ira Levin's masterful horror novel (one of the best ever written) is barely an adaptation at all. Polanksi basically shot an excellent horror novel page for page with very few cuts. The result is the greatest slow burn horror ever made. It is a masterwork of suspense and cinematic splendor that only grows better with repeated viewings.
Let me have it. What did I miss? What's wrong with my list? What are your own picks? Sound off below. I can take it. I love horror enough that I'm always open to more suggestions in the genre.