Digital Polyphony

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Top 30: Favorite Horror Movies


Happy Halloween, all. Every year about this time, I tend to always watch the same horror movies, even if I've seen them a dozen times. So below are thirty that, due to my re-watching, I would have to say are probably my favorites. 

I wasn't sure what to really include in the term "horror." Normally I use that as a bit of catch-all term that includes thriller and suspense. I pretty much decided that if I included those attributes, this film would be overrun with Hitchcock films and Peeping Tom and Silence of the Lambs would be a predictable Top Ten. So I'm using the strictest definition of horror: something supernatural, something unexplained or a slasher flick.

I debated not putting this into a numbers game, but people like things listed. So, however loose it might be, I suppose you can consider this my favorites of favorite as we progress to my favorite making my other favorites less favorite. In other words, don't take the numbers too literally.

Honorable Mention: Shaun of the Dead


This was one such movie I wasn't sure to include, it's a comedy first, but it's also a damn good zombie movie too. I don't know anyone who doesn't love this movie, though, and to be honest, it being on any list, whether it be comedy or horror pretty much a given. It nailed a concept that had been dabbled in before, but never quite got right, so well that every single movie that has tried to do the same thing is automatically compared to it. Comedy-horror needs to poke as much fun at itself than it does trying to give us punchlines, and Shaun of the Dead does that every five seconds.

Another more-comedy-than-horror movie for me is Beetlejuice. That scene with the snake is still creepy.

30: Creepshow


There was a time when the anthology approach to horror was all the rage. Hell, some of my favorite horror movies are anthologies, even a recent one titled Trick R Treat really reminded us how good they can be. Sometimes short stories are a more effective way to present certain plots - no reason to stretch it. What we end up with Creepshow, though, is a nice bit of variety, from legit scares to a humor to just weirdness. 

Other awesome anthologies you should check out: Trilogy of Terror, Asylum, the original Tales from the Crypt movie, Body Bags, Kwaidan, Black Sabbath and the aforementioned Trick or Treat. I really wish this style would come back more often.

29: The Hitcher


A single performance can make anything great. Here, it's Rutger Hauer at his most demented and nuts.  It's a very simple idea: a young man is traveling across the country and picks up a hitchhicker who makes his life a living hell. The police get involved, as well as a woman, and things start to go badly as the hitcher sets up the young man to take the fall for all his bad deeds. I've always loved the setting of the desolate desert blended with the paranoia: even an open wasteland can feel closed in and claustrophobic. The world is coming down on him, and the hitcher has to be brought to justice. Not bad for a script that was originally just a screenwriter's thesis project.

28: Freaks


What can I say other than that Freaks is freaky. It used actual carnival entertainers and deformed people to tell its story, and it really makes me uncomfortable. The title pretty much says it all, but what's not said is that it's got itself a pretty good story of revenge and one of the most intense and frightening climaxes in the genre. I mean, you have a man with no legs and arms squirming on the ground with a knife in his mouth with the intent to kill you. Yeah...that's pretty freaky...and that's just a few seconds of one scene.


27: Sleepaway Camp


The camp setting was all the rage of the 1980s. You had teens going out to camp or swim or hike...and then bloody craziness happened. The Burning is one I considered for this list, as well as the first Friday the 13th, but they just missed the cut. One that didn't, though, was Sleepaway Camp and if you've seen the film you know why. It plays out relatively straightforward for any slasher: people are at camp, there's something weird going on and suddenly bodies start to pile up. But Sleepaway has one major twist at the end that puts it all in perspective and actually makes you rethink the entirety of the film. I love it when a movie does that, and that twist makes Sleepaway Camp a far smarter slasher flick than it probably deserved.

26: The Innocents


Did you ever see The Others? Did you like it? Well, imagine that only better. So whether or not you disliked it or liked it, this adaptation of A Turn of the Screw (a novel) is just classy and refined to perfection, not to mention with a haunting and depressing ending to it all that gives me goosebumps just having to write about it. Beautiful cinematography is another aspect I loved about this movie as well: it's gorgeous. The use of light and shadow and just the quality of every shot is rarely matched in the genre. Even if you know the twist, the road there is so well done it doesn't really matter.

I've reviewed nearly ever other movie on this list or have at least acknowledged it because all of them I like, but I've still not done this one. Put it on the to-do list.

25: Pieces


The slasher genre is a often a guilty pleasure. Very rare is one synonymous with the term "good film." You have "good slashers," though, which is a relative phrase. Pieces is not a good film, but it's a damn good slasher film. It's a weird blend of perversion meets slasher that feels incredibly satisfactory, plus there's a good dose of cheesiness that rounds it all out nicely. I suppose I just wanted to put a cheesy, classic and maybe overlooked slasher flick on this list and it was down to this one or The Burning. Let's give it up for cheesiness...speaking of that.


24: Re-Animator

The camp horror that is Re-Animator is a treasure to behold. Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs teamed up for a number of horror movies in the 1980s (and into the early 90s) but Re-Animator just got so much of it right. It's cheesy and fun, gory and hilarious at times. Just look at the tagline: "Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders...and another on his desk." That little line really summarizes the entire mood of the movie. Tongue-in-cheek, a bit goofy and with a few decapitations for good measure. Re-Animator has one of my favorite horror themes as well.


23: The Wicker Man


I love a film that makes you rethink the entirety of the film. You'll see that trend in a lot of these movies. It's usually some reveal or sudden turn toward the end that makes you realize you were being played all along. The Wicker Man is a perfect example of this, and no not the Nicholas Cage one where he punches people while in a bear suit, but the classic British film from 1973. You're walking along, just checking out this weird little town on this weird little island, then things just start getting weird. 


22: Alien


To this day, still the best science-fiction/horror blend out there. There's a lot. From Event Horizon to The Fly, but here we have people journeying through space and coming in contact with an unknown life form...and it's far worse than they could possibly imagine. The sheer originality of Alien and the ambition of diretor Ridley Scott to form this unique world and utilize the artistic merits of HR Gieger just thrusts Alien to the top of the genre. Then you have the execution and solid acting, the great visuals that, to this day, still look fantastic, the haunting mood of this desolate spacecraft. Alien is so rich in atmosphere I think it's more the setting that's appealed to me than an Alien going around killing people - the film is, essentially, a highly stylized slasher movie at heart. Execution in film is everything, and Alien gets it all perfectly. Not just one of my favorite genre movies, but one of my favorite movies period.


21: Halloween


Halloween is one of only two slasher movies that I never seem to tire of. The thing is, the film has become such a part of pop-culture, a lot of people know about it, know what will happen and how it happens without even really needing to see the film. It really set the standard for how these movies play out, and to me that standard often falters in other films. Halloween manages to be sharply directed with the tension building and building until it finally explodes. It's not about how many people die, how cool the killer is or whether or not there's blood (there's every little blood, actually). It's about the moments of anticipation that it nails perfectly, and it's done so well I still get enjoyment out of watching the craftsmanship at work.


20: Deep Red


A lot of people love Dario Argento's Suspiria when it comes to the Italian Giallo genre (essentially a slasher genre). For me, I've always been partial to Deep Red (and Bird With the Crystal Plumage, for that matter). The use of music and gorgeously foreign setting makes it all a little off-center as well, as though you're journeying into someone else's dream and bad things just start happening. Argento's Giallos are, what I consider, the "classy" side of the slasher genre. The stories are usually simple, but well told, and the characters more mature and grown-up while still finding moments of fun and humor along the way. Deep Red is, to me, Argento's finest film.

19: The Haunting


To this day, still the best haunted house movie made. It's no surprise it came from the 1960s, as the 60s and 70s really knew how to nail the idea of scaring people (Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Legend of Hell House come to mind). Though there were a lot of haunted house movies during this era, Robert Wise's The Haunting, utilizing sound better than any of them, knew how to really get under your skin. Bumps in the nights. Knocks on the doors. Footsteps down the hall. Nothing in The Haunting was really a "jump scare" where someone says "boo!" It was an exploration of how even the simplest things can be incredibly scary.

18: The Fly


I could have put a number of Cronenberg films on this list. Scanners, Shivers, Videodrome and The Dead Zone are some of my favorite movies. I would put Naked Lunch in that same style as well as it's every bit as troubling and disturbing as seeing a vagina on James Woods' torso. With The Fly, though, we not only get a good sense of disturbing horror, but Cronenberg really balances it out with great characters and a great narrative - something he may or may not do in his other movies. It's a methodical, well-tuned piece of horror, a great example of how to really remake a movie and turn it on its head. It won't be the last remake on this list, though.

17: Don't Look Now


Don't Look Now is a balance of haunting fear and disturbing unraveling. A father still thinks he sees his recently-deceased daughter running around Venice and it begins to drive him insane until he finally tries to confront the "demon from the past" (for lack of a better word. Analysts of this film have noted the use of Red as a motif and others have written various thoughts regarding the father-daughter relationship as a whole (and why the mother is strangely not a part of it all). Don't Look Now is just one unsettling and very smart movie that every horror fan should see.


16: The Bride of Frankenstein

One of two James Whale pictures on this list, and it's arguably his masterpiece. This is one of those films I can just watch repeatedly, still impressed by the maturity of how the material is approached. This wasn't cheap scares, it was thoughtful drama if anything. I've realized that I'm not one to really enjoy cheap jump scares and so forth, but something well crafted, well acted and knows how to present a mood and atmosphere. The crown jewel of Universal Horror of the 1930s.


15: Nosferatu


I don't know if any other movie on this list as as creepy of imagery as this classic silent film. Let's be honest, silent movies are a bit creepy to begin with. But German Expressionism is particularly creepy because those Germans loved to play with shadow and light and really distort reality when they could. In the case of Nosferatu, you not only have that, then you have Max Schrek walking around in what is still regarded as some of the best make up in film. It feels so authentic and weird that you sometimes think it's found footage more than just a really well done film. The long shadows, the lanky figure, the curved's one of the most creepy and simultaneously beautifully shot films I can think of.

14: The Evil Dead 2


I don't know many horror fans that wouldn't have this one their list. Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, a very mean-spirited severed hand. It's got everything, from comedy to gore to legitimate jump scares (something Raimi is particularly good at). It's just a fun movie from beginning to end, b-movie schlock at its finest.

The other Evil Dead movies are great too, but this one really seemed to just get everything right. The first Evil Dead lacked the Bruce Campbell factor, he was there but not really the Ash we eventually meet in this one, and Army of Darkness was more fantasy. Fun fantasy, but fantasy. This one just got all the elements right.

13: Rosemary's Baby


Rosemary's Baby is hours of uneasiness with an incredible finish. It's like eating a delicious meal that isn't sitting well with you, but at least you get awesome ice cream at the finish. The sense of dread that it manages for most of its runtime, and never getting tired of trying to figure it out or wonder what's about to happen, is a testament to just how damn good it is. There was a documentary on either Roman Polanski or horror movies, and they note how you can tell how well done something is by whether or not you're leaning your head to peek around a corner when someone is off-screen talking. You get that a lot here: the setting and sets are beautifully shot in how "there" you feel, and Mia Farrow's performance makes the final reveal one of the greatest in cinematic history.

12: An American Werewolf in London

I don't know about you, but I've always felt that the werewolf hasn't ever really got its fare shake. Vampires, zombies and even Frankenstein's monster certainly have. You have to go back to the original Lon Chaney Jr film to get something even respectable, but it wasn't really one of the more memorable ones to me either. Then it was ignored for a many years. Who would have though an awesome comedy-meets-horror werewolf tale would get it so right. In fact, I think it's the best werewolf movie by a considerable margin. Great story, a terrific sense of self-awareness that brings some humor to the absuritdy of it all and still some of the best practical make up and special effects you've ever seen. This was also one of the first horror flicks I remember seeing on television as a kid, and boy did it scare the shit out of me. It still does at times, like the scene with the werewolf stalking in the subway.

Oh, and if you're wondering what other good werewolf movies are, the best seem to strangely be the indie kind: Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers.

11: Fright Night


You've probably noticed a lot of 80s Horror flicks on this list. Well, I grew up in that decade so that's why, but one always sticks out the most to me. Sure, I might like others more, but I don't realize that until I actually sit and think about it. My mind always goes to Fright Night first because of one thing: a hell of a lot of character. Fright Night has personality in spades, and it's one of those movies that is so simple when you think about it, you can't even believe it. It shows you don't need complexity in a scary movie, you just need good storytelling and great characters. Roddy McDowall steals the show as Peter Vincent here, a low-rent Van Helsing if there ever was one, and is one of my favorite performances of any horror movie.

10: The Horror of Dracula

To this day, I can't get enough of this movie. It comes down to the two leads: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula. Not only that, but like a lot of Hammer horror, the film is just incredibly rich with Gothic atmosphere. Dark, bloody, great cinematography and set design - and to think it's really just a dressed-up B-movie with just great stage actors. This was the first in a long line of Hammer's Dracula movies, but I still think it's the best mainly because of these two leads in what is really their career-defining roles.

9: The Shining


Speaking of creepy imagery, The Shining is chalk-full of weirdness. Kubrick really knew how to compose a shot to appeal to an audience subconciously and when he's playing around with the horror genre, you know he's thinking about the psychological aspect and completely messing with your head. The Shining is less about the story or even the characters, because I think most people think back to certain "moments" they visually recall. The jump cuts and the long-takes, the way Kubrick shot the final climax in the snow or even the opening as we traverse the winding road to the Overlook Hotel. Throw in one of Jack Nicholson's best bat-shit crazy performances and you have a classic and one of my favorites.

8: Night of the Creeps


Aliens, bugs, virus, zombies, spaceships, possessed dogs, axe-murderers, a love story and The Bradster. Night of the Creeps is the 1980s time capsule that's almost a parody of the 1980s, and it's also almost a parody of horror movies as well considering how much it crams into it. It all comes together nicely, though, and Night of the Creeps is one of the purely fun and entertaining horror movies of any era. I just love the humor and the characters, and even feel a little sad when bad things start to happen to the characters I like. Plus, this did the lawnmower bit before Peter Jackson, though Jackson made it so much more in his equally-fun horror classic, Braindead (or Dead Alive if you prefer)

7: A Nightmare on Elm Street


The first A Nightmare of Elm Street was, and probably still is, Wes Craven's masterpiece. It's dark, scary, bloody and incredibly original. It's a slasher movie with a twist, and that twist comes from a basic human fear of nightmares and dreams we can't control. It plays on two levels: the regular slasher "guy goes around and kills teenagers" plot but a psychological horror film as well. We don't know what's real, what's fantasy and when we and the characters are being manipulated. Freddy Krueger may have become a self-parody in later movies, but the first is a twisted and dark version that's still the standard.

And in case you were wondering, the only other Elm Street movies I can say I truly liked were the third one (and I suppose the forth one to an extent, but barely) and New Nightmare, which brought it all to a fitting end and bookended the whole franchise with the darker, more sinister Freddy that we saw here. In fact, New Nightmare just missed my favorites list. It's just an incredibly original take on a then-tired idea, and there's really not another horror film quite like it with a self-aware nod to the genre as a whole.

6: The Exorcist


Do I need to write anything here? Nah, I don't think I do. So instead I'll tell you about the first time I saw this classic. I was in college, and if you've read my Immune to Fear Blog you know it was this time I really started to explore film and, especially, the horror genre. The Exorcists was one of those movies that I heard about ever since I was a kid, but never actually sat and saw. Well, it was October. It was some random night and I got myself a copy to watch. Alone. In the dark.

Yeah, that was a mistake. But it wasn't frightening while I was watching it, necessarily. The Exorcist is one of those horror movies that stays with you and you don't relaize its effect until you're laying in bed at night and can't get to sleep.You think you see a scary little girl or a white face in your closet or just a bump in the night to make you unsettled. That's the effect of The Exorcist, and it just happens to be a well-crafted character piece on top of all that.

Oh, and The Exorcist III is not a bad little horror flick itself. Check it out. Don't see the second one. Good Lord, don't see the second one.

5: Dawn of the Dead

The zombie franchise has never really slowed down. There always seem to be a least two or three great ones every decade with at least thirty that are good and/or guilty pleasures. Still probably the best, though, is Romero's Dawn of the Dead. It has everything you want in a zombie movie. Gore. Great characters. An awesome setting in a shopping mall. It also has great twists and turns and special effects, though the zombies have always looked a bit odd in this one at times (like the Smurf-colored monk-zombie). I also think it succeeds on the social commentary level that Romero did well with the original Night of the Living Dead. The people here are just as much of the problem as the zombies.

4: The Invisible Man

There really hasn't been a great invisible man movie in a long while. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was alright, and Hallow Man entertaining, but neither are really classics. I think it's because the original The Invisible Man, directed by one of my favorites James Whale, just did it all so perfectly. You aren't going to outdo Claude Raines in this film. It's impossible…and what's so funny is a LOT of it is just his voice. This film (and Hitchcock's Notorious) really made me realize that Raines is probably one of my top 5 favorite actors.


3: In the Mouth of Madness

Paranoia and insanity, as well as a massive dose of HP Lovecraft inspiration, has never been done as well as In the Mouth of Madness. I've never seen a film make so little sense, but still make sense if you just approach it as "fuck it, monsters." Why do all these things happen? Fuck it, monsters. Why can't he leave Hobbs End? Fuck it, monsters. What's the point? Fuck it, monsters. Then, you get the payoff at the end that actually does make you realize that, even though nothing made sense, it all was there to build to one conclusion: arguably one of John Carpenters more cynical endings and probably why I loved it so much. A great performance by Sam Neill and the sharpness of the script, the callbacks and foreshadows, just makes it a highly entertaining, psychological (and still gory) horror flick. 

2: Dead and Buried

This low budget gem from the early 1980s, given to us by the writers of Alien I might add, was number one on one of my very first articles three years ago. I compared it to Jaws only with dead people, and that's still how I see it.  A Sheriff nobody believes and a situation that's incredibly bizarre and strange. It's full of red herrings and twists and turns that really up there with the best of them, and just the idea itself (which you won't fully realize until the end) is just so wonderfully realized in this New England town full of secrets.


1: The Thing

Something I noticed while putting this list together, I love mystery and paranoia. That's why I love Hitchcock so much. I also tend to love the idea of claustrophobia and people trapped, making for an interesting character study of what happens to them. Then you throw in a monster and...welll....then you have The Thing. Gory as all hell, but incredibly well acted by the cast to give a sense of anxiety to it all. Who can you trust? How can you find out who is who? The thing is thick in atmosphere. Dark. Cold. More shadow than light in the frozen continent of Antarctica.

The Thing is a blend of just about everything I like, not just about horror film, but film as a whole. Memorable characters with distinct personalities and arcs, memorable music, an amazing sense of place and mood and a mystery to unravel. Oh, and a walking head on spider-legs and mutating dogs and people. It's a film I never tire of. Then again, I don't tire of any of the movies on this list.



Others in Contention: Alice Sweet Alice, Shaun of the Dead, From Beyond, The House on Haunted Hill, Dracula, The Mummy, Asylum, 28 Days Later, Suspiria, The Burning, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Gray Velvet, Nosferatu (Herzog Version), The Devil's Backbone, Frankenstein, Black Sabbath, The Coffin Joe Films, Night of the Living Dead, Night of the Demons, Torso, Race With the Devil, Cemetery Man, Army of Darkness


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