It’s the spookiest time of year and time to count down my top ten favourite horror films spanning nearly forty years of thrill-seeking cinema…
Honourable Mentions: The Conjuring films (2013/2016), The Descent (2005), The Evil Dead (1981)
(10) The Witch (2016)
a.k.a. ‘Which Witch is Which’
Robert Eggers’ tale of a Christian family attempting to live in the American wilderness may be the most recently released film on this list but it’s set in the earliest time period. It’s a chilling tale of paranoia and loss as the looming threat of being corrupted and taken by a witch causes the family to suspect and eventually turn on each other, all culminating in a brutally chilling ending.
The Witch is intense and immersive from its strange historical dialect to the cold crisp New England woods, and its oddness sets it aside from other over the top rollercoaster thrill rides of today. Using an ominous soundtrack to generate creepy atmosphere and building dread, the period’s religious fervour takes the narrative to unexpected places in this unusual and underrated gem about temptation and madness.
(9) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
a.k.a. ‘A Night of Fright is No Delight’
Wes Craven’s franchise-starting critical success may have aged into kooky campness but it remains a strange enigma with an influence still being felt today. The slasher genre that began with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween was elevated to a whole new level when Craven foregrounded themes of alcoholism, parental neglect, trauma and perversion that had only awkwardly lurked in the background before.
A pumpingly hilarious synthy soundtrack and a final girl played against type make this an iconic entry into the horror canon, not to mention the introduction of legendary murderous villain Freddy Krueger. Craven’s real stroke of genius was the invention of a killer who attacked his victims in his dreams, allowing for psychedelic settings and supernatural events such as the infamous Johnny Depp blood geyser. It’s a bold sinister classic.
(8) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
a.k.a. ‘The Warlock of Wimbledon’
Edgar Wright’s excellent Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy kicked off with Shaun of the Dead, a zombie comedy which sees its group of protagonists attempting to pop down to the pub and hide out until the apocalypse blows over. An all-star cast of future stars, including a hilarious cameo from a duplicate cast, results in a group dynamic that works perfectly, especially Simon Pegg’s unlikely hero Shaun.
What makes Shaun of the Dead so great is the sheer inventiveness and fun of each and every scene, whether it’s debating which records can be used as weapons, figuring out whether a hit and run victim was already a zombie or not, or even a fight with pool cues and a Winchester rifle to the tune of Don’t Stop Me Now. Shaun of the Dead is touching, dark and funny, and it will be forever debated whether it or Hot Fuzz is the best of the trilogy. (It’s Hot Fuzz.)
(7) The Babadook (2014)
a.k.a. ‘Jeepers, It’s the Creeper’
‘You’ll scare because you care’ remarked Mark Kermode about The Babadook on its initial release, and it’s this philosophy that is so crucial to any great horror film. A sympathetic cast of characters is an important ingredient, and the mother/son relationship of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is an absolute winner. Essie Davis is outstanding as Amelia Vanek, a mother trying to cope with her son’s strange behaviour.
The same principles of Nightmare on Elm Street apply here, except this time around the mother is the focus – the serious and terrifying themes of the film manifest themselves as fairytale creature the Babadook, a monster which possesses Amelia in the thralls of a nervous breakdown. Grotesque and suspenseful, The Babadook‘s avoidance of jump scares and focus on three dimensional characters rather than stereotypes round out an impressive debut.
(6) Let the Right One In (2008)
a.k.a. ‘A Highland Fling with a Monstrous Thing’
Tomas Alfredson’s twist on the coming of age genre follows Oskar, a 12-year old boy who is bullied at school, and his relationship with vampire neighbour Eli. Rather than depicting vampires as predators and monsters, Let the Right One In sees it as a curse, a psychological and physical disorder that drives Eli to kill. The two lonely children find a similar situation in each other, and though their own cultural perceptions of the relationship are vastly different, the unlikely pair somehow form an unbreakable bond.
Let the Right One In isn’t frantic or loud or even that ominous but instead the characters of the two young children are the focus. It’s a soft sweet tale with bursts of horror and violence, a story about humanity even in those who have unspeakable tendencies. This is the classic couple on the run story retold in innovative fashion, and from an entirely new angle, and it’s far more compelling and touching than it has any right to be.
(4/5) Scream/Scream 2 (1996/1997)
a.k.a. ‘Mystery Mask Mix-Up’
Both Scream and equally phenomenal sequel Scream 2 walk an incredibly difficult balance between self-conscious parody and pitch-perfect homage. Where the first film is a send-up of the slasher genre by a cast of characters who know all the tropes, the second expands the focus to a world fixated on the popularity of horror films, delivering on the promise of a bigger body count and more elaborate deaths.
With the Scream films, Wes Craven turned the thematic lens back onto the horror film itself, delivering an insightful and thrilling look into the relationship between cinematic violence and real violence. Scream and Scream 2 are tense, perfectly-made, timeless forays into horror packed with invention, whether it’s the addition of a ‘whodunnit’ element to the killer, or the famous 90s faces that play the characters of each film. This is the master of horror at his absolute best, and remember: ‘Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.’
(3) The Shining (1980)
a.k.a. ‘What the Hex Going On?’
Iconic director Stanley Kubrick’s visit to the horror genre was initially met with a distinctly lukewarm reception, earning a Razzie nomination for worst director, but just as with all his work it came to be far more appreciated years later, and deservedly so. The Shining plays out like an elaborate puzzle, filled with incredible detail and eye-catching visuals that have haunted paranoid fans for years.
It’s a film that rewards analysis and examination, that reveals more and more hidden depths with each probe, that’s endlessly enticing and thrilling. Kubrick’s films are so wonderful precisely because they’re the focussed vision of a single auteur at work, and The Shining illustrates this perfectly. It’s one of the most atmospheric creations of all time, a labyrinth of horror that seems to acquire new meaning with every re-watch. Which other film could produce such a compelling and amusing theory about the faking of the moon landings?
(2) Alien (1979)
a.k.a. ‘Spooky Space Kook’
Ridley Scott’s best films have to be Alien and Blade Runner, two meticulously paced futuristic thrillers that are creature feature and conspiracy thriller respectively. The former transferred Spielberg’s Jaws into the depths of space, creating something arguably stronger through the use of vast space and isolation, coming at the perfect time in cinema history to combine the old and the new as the blockbuster came onto the scene.
Alien isn’t an action film – that honour belongs to sequel Aliens. Instead, it’s horror all the way, a suspenseful masterpiece about what it means to be human led by one of the best protagonists of all time, Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Ellen Ripley. Alien pioneered and influenced so much of what would follow, yet nothing like it has ever been successfully made since. It’s unique, totally engrossing and devoid of cliche.
(1) The Orphanage (2007)
a.k.a. ‘Haunted House Hang-Up’
Arriving in the wake of the wondrous Pan’s Labyrinth, directorial debut of J.A. Bayona, The Orphanage is the epitome of all the advantages of the horror genre. It’s a heartbreaking and breathtaking tale that encompasses everything so good about the other films on this list and ties them all together. It’s enigmatic, elegiac and eerie in equal measure.
Rather than spoil anything more about The Orphanage, I urge all and any horror fans, or indeed fantasy and fairy tale fans to seek out this tremendous film if you haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet. Expect haunting imagery, a deep and complex mystery and wonderful performances and characters all round. It’s a worthy top spot without question, and one of my favourite films of all time.
Written by Tom Besley