Well folks, we’ve come to the end of the road. What started as a simple idea in my mind has turned into 31 days of posts, videos and lists and now we have reached the pinnacle: the top 10 horror films of all time. It’s been a tough thing, creating this list and I can’t wait to hear you guys sound off on what should have been included and what your 10s are. For the final time, I used a three prong ranking system (historical significance, scare factor and enjoyability) to try to corral the films into some semblance of a list.
Here are the top 10 Horror films of all time.
10. Halloween (1978)
Why not include the film that is titled Halloween on the day its named after? Other than that ironic coincidence, John Carpenter’s film followed the Psycho formula and all but launched the modern slasher genre into national prominence. From it’s unique shifting viewpoints (daring to give us the killer’s POV), famous screen queen (Jaime Lee Curtis) and it’s seemingly unstoppable killer, Halloween is a great exercise in horror and a perfect way to kick off the top 10.
9. Psycho (1960)
I mean do you see the picture above? That’s one of an endless array of classic shots from Hitchcock’s scariest film. Psycho is really an embarrassment of riches in terms of classic sequences (that shower scene, Mother’s reveal, Perkins’ smile). Psycho is far and away Hitchcock’s scariest film, as well as one of his best, a really thorough examination of the inner workings of a psychotic mind. The nerve of him to film this story, killing off his leading lady so early and giving us the first queer villain, while also finding innovative ways to shoot a murder.
8. The Blair Witch Project
As much a product of it’s marketing as it’s scares, The Blair Witch Project came roaring out of nowhere, storming the box office and culture. I’m shocked even I put it so high, but to me it is THE landmark horror film of the post-post modern era, introducing us to the now maligned found footage genre. Blair Witch is so effective because there’s no ironic tint, no “your watching a horror movie” feeling, it’s purely there to terrify you. It’s innovative marketing campaign was the blueprint for how many of the blockbuster market now and the film was so unlike anything that had been seen to that time, it feels right to include it in the top 10.
8. Carrie (1976)
High School can be a bitch. And for a telekenetic girl with a religious fundamental nut of a mother it can lead to pure Hell on earth. Brian de Palma brings his camp sensibilities and restrains them just enough to give us this portrait of a girl with problems. I love how there’s this slight haze on the movie, giving the appearance of this being a fairy tale that somehow found dark magic and became a twisted look at teens. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are fantastic in this movie, each fully deserving of their Oscar nominations. This movie could have simply ended with the revenge scenes and Carrie’s death, but thank goodness for us it didn’t, giving us one of the best horror film endings ever.
6. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Part of the problem with modern horror movies is they feel they have to try 20x harder to unsettle you, slapping you with CGI and killing people off two seconds into the movie. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hews from a different cloth, first deciding to unsettle you before leading you on a trail of terror. What’s perhaps so surprising to me is that for a film this debased, this twisted, it’s not as gory as you would think. This film is sooo low budget but the non-professional nature of the project really aids in making the film all the more terrifying, even before Leatherface enters the picture. Speaking of, I can almost hear Leatherface’s chainsaw as I type this, as the sound design of this film is excellent.
5. The Thing (1982)
A product of the 80s populist horror films and and the remake culture that incredibly pervasive in horror, The Thing is one of the few instances where the remake is vastly superior to the original. John Carpenter trades in the knife and a madman, for a monster that shape shifts and wrecks havoc on an isolated Antarctic base. What I love about this film is how Carpenter ramps up the dread and paranoia of the group, while giving us the briefest of hopes they might make it out. Of course, he crushes our dreams at the end, but it’s no less a great ride. This film also contacts some of the best practical effects ever made for the screen, from the alien/dog mid shift to the monster you see above, and its detachable head.
4. The Silence of the Lambs
The only film on this list to win a Best Picture Oscar, Silence would automatically be in top 10 consideration even if it were half as good as it is. But this film is bristling with energy thanks to Jonathan Demme’s direction, fantastic art direction and some iconic performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. You would think that anytime that Foster and Hopkins are on screen that the film would stop in its tracks to appreciate the acting virtuosity of the two leads, but the flick stops just enough to let you catch your breath before racing to a full throttle finish. Speaking of finishes, that night vision scene with Clarice and Buffalo Bill is one of the most terrifying things ever filmed.
Alien is a master class of a horror film, and also a product of its time. Consider the amount of world building Ridley Scott had to, the fact that the first kill doesn’t come until an hour into the picture, the option not to show the full monster till near the end, and you have the perfect storm for a film that couldn’t be made today. Alien was bouyed by one of the best trailers and taglines ever created, but the film really stands on its own as a space drama and a horror film. Ridley Scott’s direction and decision making are excellent, especially how he shoots the murdering of the crew and Ridley’s escape from the ship. Joey has already tackled that infamous chestburster scene, but I think the murders you don’t see in full are so much scarier because of how they cut away to the drooling mouth of the xenomorph or to a cat hissing in a corner. But of course, the film would be nothing without the towering work of one H.R. Geiger, crafting some of the most recognizable images, and I’d argue most recognizable alien, in a horror film.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Unrepentant and bleak, George A. Romero shot the film over several weekends with nothing but $100,000 and some make up and delivered the gold standard of zombie movies. This film shows up at #2 surprisingly for me considering how much I love some of the titles below it. But when you consider the impact it had on zombie films and launching us into horror movies as societal critiques, it more than earns its place here. Romero and the actors do a fantastic job of really making you feel as if you are in the midst of a zombie outbreak. They’re all nothing but confused choices, moral quandaries and ultimately zombie chow with the exception of one person. Plus how strange/awesome was it that the main character and guy who makes it the furthest was African American? Usually the first one to go, Romero made Duane Jones the star of the show, even if he did make that shocking decision at the end of the film.
1. The Exorcist
If you’ve been reading the site for a while, you probably would have expected this, considering I rank it the #4 film of all time. But The Exorcist stands on it’s own merit. There is no horror film, from any time period, that has had the cultural impact of The Exorcist when it debuted, and has only grown in estimation since. To quote from the review I gave it in the article mentioned above:
While, IMHO, this isn’t the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen, The Exorcist wins the award for “Most Well Made” horror film ever and certainly deserves it’s top rankings on horror lists. This movie is way more than just a scary movie, it’s an immersive experience. It’s interesting that unlike scary movies now, The Exorcist takes it’s time preying upon its audience’s fears and misgivings. The filmmakers take every opportunity to present things to the audience as though this was real life and that it’s impossible to believe that something like this could happen to anyone, much less a little girl. We as an audience don’t even get to see the possession start till halfway through the film and after the film has built up that cache, it keeps topping it with iconic scene after iconic scene. The Williams (Peter Blatty and Friedkin respectively) create such a claustrophobic story that even with the shocking imagery, like the crucifix masturbation scene or the head spinning, you can’t turn your eyes away.
The acting in this film is superb, especially considering how difficult this must have been to make. Ellen Burstyn is so good at histrionics (see Requiem for a Dream) but she’s really contained here. Sure she gets a yell in and cries a lot, but you really see the character’s mental unraveling at how helpless she is to help her daughter. Linda Blair had the monumental task of being the possessed child and she really delivered. Though she’s aided by great makeup and another woman’s voice, the intensity she brings in the scenes before she’s really possessed is wonderful. Were it not for the precociousness of another child actress she would have won the Oscar. The real MVP, and co-lead character, of this movie is Jason Miller as Father Karras. While Regan may be possessed, its Karras who carries much of the narrative weight as the priest questioning his own beliefs. In his character, the film’s battle with faith and the devil is made literal as he makes the most powerful choice at the end of the film.
It was said that Friedkin was meticulous in making this movie, like filming the exorcism scenes on a refrigerated set, and his direction is a big reason why this film was nominated for 10 Oscars. In the original cut, there’s not a shot out of place or used for an exploitative reason. The “Version You’ve Never Seen” is a bit more gratuitous in including that infamous spiderwalk scene, but still a powerful film.
And there you have it; the Top 10 Horror Films of All Time! What say you?
When he's not enduring Shade Samurai training from Victoria Grayson, you can find Terence spends his time being an avid watcher of television, Criterion film collector, Twitter addict, and awards season obsessive. Opinionated but open minded, ratchet but with class, Terence holds down the fort as the producer of the Power Hour podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @LeNoirAuteur.