First…here’s a couple of Honorable Mentions:
Silence of the Lambs (1991) Hugely successful suspense thriller film that isn’t technically a horror movie but it’s close. This classy chiller became one of the few movies ever to capture the ‘Big Five’ awards at the Oscars. (Best picture; Best director for Jonathan Demme; Best actor for Anthony Hopkins; Best Actress for Jodie Foster; and best screenplay by Ted Tally.) This film introduced us to the bizarre and terrifying Dr. Hannibal Lecter, also known as “Hannibal the Cannibal”. Hopkins’ mesmerizing performance is one of the most chilling portrayals of a madman ever on film.
Jaws (1975) This one is a little too bright to fit into a proper Halloween mold, but I had to mention it. Spielberg put himself on the map with this magnificent film, which made people afraid to go to the beach for years. Brilliantly directed and acted, the simple story of three men hunting for a shark is so absorbing that you just can’t turn it off. It’s one of those films you watch over-and-over again. Spielberg was clever to keep the shark off-screen most of the time, only popping up occasionally, to snack on one of the characters and startle the viewer. Everything is done just right in this film. It’s not only one of the best horror movies ever; it’s one of the best films ever made. Just a great, great, great film.
And now to the List:
25. Child’s Play: (1988) The idea of a doll coming to life and killing people had been done before this, but it’s never been done better. Voiced by Brad Dourif, (Who’s creepy enough in his own right) the demonic doll Chucky, possessed by the spirt of a serial killer, is a scary, nasty and memorable addition to the modern roll call of famous monsters. Your “friend to the end” is a frightening gift from hell! Pretend the sequels never happened and just focus on the excellent 1988 original.
24. The Descent: (2005) A tense and claustrophobic horror entry which is unusual for its all-female cast. This story of a group of women spelunkers who are hunted down by subterranean monsters manages to create and maintain a relentless mood of impending doom throughout its entire runtime. Taking place almost entirely underground, the constant darkness adds to the overall atmosphere of terror, and to the sense of being trapped with monsters who are waiting to spring out at you from the shadows at any moment. Once the suspense begins, it never stops for a moment.
23. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954) He’s the biggest thing in the East (literally) and the success of the Godzilla films over a 50-plus year period has been outstanding. Many people have a low opinion of the big reptile because they think of the silly Godzilla sequels that became increasingly aimed at children, and which ruined the reputation of a great screen monster, but the original Godzilla film was a moody, somber thriller and an allegory about the atomic bomb, which was still recent history when this movie was made. This is the best of the Godzilla films by far. (Sorry fans of the newest one, but it just is!) The original Japanese title was Gojira.
22. The Exorcist (1973) Intense adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling book. This story of the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl (Linda Blair) is a real nail-biter. It won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The whole cast does an excellent job and Willaim Freidkin’s directing is excellent. The sequels were all terrible but this one will keep you transfixed.
21. The Sixth Sense (1999) An intelligent and well-acted film, with the now-famous twist ending that made M. Night Shyamalan (temporarily) popular as a director. This is one of Bruce Willis’ best performances, but it’s young Haley Joel Osment who steals the show. A clever film.
20. Alien (1979) The beginning of the Alien franchise is still the scariest. Many people prefer the more exciting sequel Aliens, but I see that film as more of an action film than a horror movie. The first film is a prefect mix of sci-fi and horror, building suspense with the monster lurking menacingly in the shadows, rather than filling the screen with a thousand aliens. Ah, those were the days, when the Aliens didn’t need the Predators to carry a film.
19. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) Based on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, this is the best of the many versions of the Jekyll/Hyde tale. The strength of this perennial tale is that it is character-oriented, focusing on the angst of Dr. Jekyll as much as on the evil of Mr. Hyde. Frederick March won an Oscar for his wonderful portrayal of the main character(s).
18. Freaks (1932) A unique horror film about circus freaks driven to revenge against their tormentors. Director Todd Browning collected a genuine group of side-show oddities to star in the film, and they do an excellent job. I can’t think of any other film like this one.
17. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) The last but far-from-least of the pantheon of great Universal studios monsters. The Creature–also known as the “Gill-man”–was a wonderful addition to the ranks of the classic cinema creatures. This is a very atmospheric film with great underwater photography. The scene where the Gill-Man swims underneath a beautiful female swimmer, mirroring her moves, is an artful underwater ballet of tension, and a classic moment in cinema.
16. The Birds (1963) One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Beautifully filmed and directed, with a strong lead performance by Tippi Hedron. The simple but epicly frightening concept of the birds taking over is done so effectively that this film will have you on the edge of your seat. Hitchcock could build suspense like no one else could.
15. Them (1954) One of the best of the 1950s atomic mutation films. The giant ants here may not look great in terms of realistic special effects (too bad they didn’t use Ray Harryhausen) but the film is still a tense horror classic due to the excellent script, directing and acting.
14. The Golem (1920) A forgotten silent film classic and a great example of German expressionist cinema. How many films are based on Hebrew mythology? The Frankenstein-like Golem is one of the greatest silent film monsters. A chilling horror film that isn’t as well remembered as it should be.
13. The Mummy (1932) Another of the great Universal pantheon of monsters, the Mummy first stalked his way into cinematic legend in this well-made and gloomy film. Throughout most of the film, the Mummy is unwrapped and played by horror film legend Boris Karloff. As the evil Imhotep, Karloff radiates menace and yet gives the character a sympathetic side. (No one could do that as well as Karloff.) The best of the Mummy franchise.
12. The Thing from Another World (1951) One of the best sci-fi films of the 1950s is also an engrossing horror film. Like Alien, it superbly mixes horror and sci-fi together. Many people prefer the more special-effects oriented remake The Thing, and there’s a good argument to be made for that, but I feel this one is just a touch better because it accomplishes so much with so little. With only a few sets and a mostly B-list cast of character actors, the film creates a great feeling of claustrophobic tension, as well as providing fine interaction and banter between the cast members. The trademark Howard Hawks style of snappy, overlapping dialogue is all over this. Also, the famous scene where the men form the circle on the ice and realize they’ve found a flying saucer is a memorable moment in sci-fi film history.
11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Another silent classic and another great example of German expressionist cinema. Considered the first great horror film ever made, this odd and somewhat surreal film got the horror genre off to a good start. It’s also the first zombie movie. It’s a far cry from the Walking Dead, but it pioneered the genre.
10. Nosferatu (1922) The first of the great vampire films, this famed silent classic was very scary for its day and still entertaining today. The film tells basically the same story as Dracula, (Which is what director F. W. Murnau wanted to do at first but couldn’t get the film rights) but instead of the elegant vampire we’re used to today, we get the rodent-like Orlock, who is probably the scariest looking vampire ever. Max Schreck does a fabulous job playing the evil Orlock.
9. The Wolfman (1941) The first appearance of yet another of the classic pantheon of Universal studios monsters. The Wolfman was played in all his screen appearances by Lon Chaney Jr, who perfectly portrayed the cursed, tormented Larry Talbot, who becomes a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. This is the best off all of the Wolfman’s appearances. A wonderfully atmospheric and engrossing film.
8. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) Lon Chaney sr. was the king of horror during the silent era and this was one of his best performances. He also created the iconic make-up for the deformed phantom Eric. There have been many, many versions of this famous story (and even a Broadway musical) but it’s never been done better than it was done here.
7. M (1931) This is one of the most disturbing horror films ever because it was so realistic. What can be scarier than a serial killer who preys on children? This would be daring even today, so it was very shocking back in the early 1930s. Peter Lorre is pure evil in this German masterpiece about a killer so horrible, even the criminal underworld wants him dead. Harrowing, riveting and truly frightening!
6. Dracula (1931) Still another of the Universal pantheon of great screen monsters, Dracula is one of the best known characters in all literature and film. Bela Lugosi made his reputation playing the undead Count from Transylvania, and remained stuck in the shadow of that role forever, since his was such a powerful and effective performance. His odd broken-English way of talking made his delivery seem more otherworldly. No one could portray a totally malevolent character the way Bela could, and his is the face that still comes to mind when you think of Dracula, even 84 years later. Despite the low-budget and staginess of the production, Lugosi’s vampire made an indelible, unforgettable and legendary mark on film history.
5. The Haunting (1963) A smart, low budget psychological horror flick that takes the clever route of being vague about whether or not there are even any ghosts in this ghost story. The story centers on a woman (Played by Julie Harris) who is part of a group of researchers doing a parapsychology study in an apparently haunted house. As the weirdness of the surroundings slowly engulf her, and she begins to feel an inexplicable kinship to the old house, strange things begin to happen. However, we’re never clear whether what we’re seeing is actually the work of ghosts or just the increasingly unstable mind of our heroine. The film leaves it unclear as to whether or not the house was really haunted or if it was all in her head. It’s marvelously done and Julie Harris gives a terrific performance.
4-A. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Rounding out the pantheon of great monsters from Universal studios is the most popular of them all–the Frankenstein Monster. This was the second appearance of the Monster, once again played with great pathos by Boris Karloff. Although many consider this film better than the original, I think it falls just hair short of that benchmark. Still, this is an amazing monster film, and is best viewed back-to-back with the original, as one long film. (Which is why I’m making it a tie with.…)
4-B. Frankenstein (1931) The first and arguably the best of the Frankenstein franchise. Many may put the sequel ahead of the original but I maintain the first one is just a tiny bit better because the sequel suffered from one-too-many scenes of comedy relief. This film began Boris Karloff’s career as the king of the big-screen boogiemen. He put an amazing amount of pathos into an unspeaking monster. And this film gave us the first look at the iconic make-up by Jack Pierce, who made the image of the flat-headed monster famous world-wide.
3. Psycho (1960) Hitchcock’s masterpiece of terror. The classic shower scene is one of the most legendary, iconic moments in cinema history. Anthony Perkins shines as the seemingly meek Norman Bates, who suffers from a killer case of split-personality. This was the forerunner of the Slasher genre. There was no one who could build suspense the way Hitchcock did.
2. King Kong (1933) When you’re speaking of iconic scenes, there can’t be a more iconic image in the history of film than King Kong standing atop the Empire State Building, swatting at airplanes with one hand, while Fay Wray screams in the other. This image is still imbedded in international pop-culture 82 years later. This is not technically the first giant-monster-on-the-loose-film (The rampaging Brontosaurus from The Lost World preceded Kong) but it’s still the best, and the forerunner to the Kaiju genre. Say what you want about the visual FX, the stop-motion special effects by Willis O’Brien were state-of-the-art at the time. Fay Wray’s shrieks of terror in this film originated the term “Scream Queen”. This is the best giant monster movie ever made and the most influential.
1. Halloween (1978) I guess it goes without saying why this film is on top of the list of the best films for Halloween. But even without the title, it’s still a brilliantly frightening piece of cinema, filmed on a very low budget, without an A-List cast (The only big name star in the cast at the time was Donald Pleasance) and excellently directed by John Carpenter. The silent-but-deadly Michael Myers is the eerie embodiment of the cinematic Slasher-Killer; often imitated (I’m looking at you, Jason Voorhies) but never outdone. Forget the ever-diminishing quality of the unnecessary sequels, and the awful remake. This first and best entry in the franchise is horror gold and the best film to watch on Halloween night.