Home > Film & stuff > My 13 Favorite Horror Films: Unabridged

My 13 Favorite Horror Films: Unabridged

Thank you for all of the kind feedback on the first half of my 13 Favorite Horror Films list. Now, here’s the complete countdown:

I think I’ve been asked, “Do you like horror movies?” more than any other film-centric question. People LOVE horror films of all kinds, but I’ve always felt somewhat out of the loop because I’ve never responded much to them. So when people would ask if I like horror, I generally responded by saying I just like good movies, some of which end up being horrific by genre; meanwhile, all I could think is how much I hate things like Final DestinationI Know What You Did Last Summer, or the Leprechaun films. Torture porn like the Saw or Hostel franchises don’t do much for me either. This overall judgmental attitude was wrong, however, because the term “horror” evoked the wrong feeling in me. I shouldn’t have thought of bad acting, hokey music, and goofy violence when thinking of horror. Just like anything else, there’s good and there’s bad, so I started to focus on what makes a great scary movie rather than what makes a bad one.

Maybe it’s years of systematic desensitization or maybe I’m a born sociopath, but I don’t frighten too easily anymore. Even if a loud burst of music cues while a mirror breaks onscreen, that brief moment of surprise doesn’t leave me feeling scared. I need an assault on my morals that leaves me feeling disturbed. I need depravity and debasement. I need to see the worst of human behavior on full display. When a horror film points out the worst in people and leaves no hope, I’m all in. Horror needs to cut deep and strike a nerve.

I’ve compiled my 13 favorite horror films (subject to change by the day) after reading an impressive comprehensive list of the 100 best horror films of all-time as determined by Time Out London. Not all of my picks are on Time Out’s list, but many are, so feel free to refer to their opinions for some British perspective. I don’t know what their criteria was for choosing, but mine’s simple: I really like these movies. Many of my choices have common themes–genre blending, realism, paranoia, vulnerability– but I ultimately made my picks based on the gut feeling I get when I watch them. Horror, like comedy, is highly effective at evoking an emotional response, and these 13 all resonate strongly with me in some way. There are certainly other types of films that are their own brand of terrifying for various reasons, such as Schindler’s List or Requiem for a Dream or Norbit. When you think about it, any war film is terrifying, but they don’t possess that element of what actually creates a horror film. So, in reverse order, here… we… go… (Fair Warning: There may be some spoilers, but most of these movies are quite old, so get over it)

  • 13. Diabolique (dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954): With hints of noir and dripping with Hitchcockian sensibility, Diabolique is terrifically dark and twisted while managing to be extremely fun. The wife and mistress of a sadistic headmaster team up to put his lecherous ways six feet under, but their plan inevitably hits something of a snag when his body goes missing. The performances from the two jilted lovers are spectacular and the big twist is still shocking in spite of being nearly 60 years old.
  • 12. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir: Robert Wiene, 1920): One of the first horror films and an early example of surrealist film makingCaligari is one of the most visually impressive/disturbing films of all time. It may be from the silent era, but the dark characters and terrifying imagery rival any modern day fright film, and its influence has carried through the decades to modern horror directors just as much as Chaplin has inspired modern comedy.
  • 11. The Vanishing (dir: George Sluizer, 1988): Well, I’ve gone from French to German, so why not move on to Dutch horror? I’m not sure another film has ended with such despair and terror as this. When a man’s girlfriend is abducted in broad daylight, an obsessive multi-year search for her whereabouts ensues. While we see the boyfriend’s struggle to find some answers, we also witness the normal lifestyle of the kidnapper, a family man who enjoys the hobby of snatching young women. I know I said this film ends with despair, so you might think you know what happens–trust me, you don’t. This one is a right hook you never see coming, and it will break your goddamn jaw.
  • 10.  An American Werewolf in London (dir: John Landis, 1981): Like salty and sweet, horror and comedy are a perfect blend when done correctly, and director John Landis brought his Blues Brothers experience to this spooky werewolf tale and ended up with a truly distinct film. Two young friends are on a European tour when one of them is attacked and gruesomely killed by some creature. When the survivor, David, begins to notice some changes in himself (along with some warnings from his dead friend), hilarity and terror being to intertwine effortlessly. Rick Baker’s legendary special effects frequently steal the spotlight, but a fun script and some serious shock moments make this more than just a technical exercise.
  •  9. Misery (dir: Rob Reiner, 1990): It doesn’t get much more terrifying than being seriously injured and left completely at the mercy of a psychotic nurse (the AMAZING Kathy Bates) in her secluded mountain home, which is exactly what Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) faces. Vulnerability is key in many great horror films, and few protagonists have ever been so vulnerable as Caan’s character. Annie Wilkes (Bates) seems harmless enough at first, but Mr. Sheldon quickly learns that he ain’t leavin’ without a fight. In fact, arguably the most-painful-to-watch moment in movie history occurs when he loses a fight with a rock hammer. Owwwwwww. Bates won a well-deserved Oscar for playing one of the most disturbing characters ever conceived, you dirty birdy…
  •  8. Antichrist (dir: Lars von Trier, 2009): Easily my most controversial pick, I can’t even really recommend this to you. Antichrist uses some of the most disturbing imagery I’ve ever seen, which makes the gore of Hostel look borderline childish in comparison. Along with some of the horror movies coming out of Japan and South Korea, this violence is almost unbearable to look at at times. That being said, if you can handle babies falling from windows and gruesome genital mutilation (yuck), this tale of a cold psychoanalyst who takes his disturbed wife to their cabin in the woods for some therapy is a real feast for the mind and eyes. Like many of the movies coming up on this list, Antichrist shows how frightening the prospect is of someone you deeply care about completely turning on you and becoming your worst enemy. But again, I don’t recommend it.
  •  7. Se7en (dir: David Fincher, 1995): Ooph. Much like the aforementioned The Vanishing, this ending is one of the best, but it is draining. A modern day noir blended with horror aftermath, David Fincher’s visual flair perfectly complements a bleak and brilliant script from Andrew Kevin Walker. They subvert the conventional detective story and transcend the cliches of a police/serial killer procedural at every turn. A killer on a rampage dispatches his victims in various gruesome ways inspired by the seven deadly sins, so the visceral horror elements are obvious; however, Se7en is more psychologically terrifying than anything else due to its confrontational questions about the true nature of man. Revealing the evil of mankind is far more frightening and difficult than merely showing a bloodbath (I’m looking at you, Saw).
  •  6. Psycho (dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1960): The Master of Suspense could take up every spot on this list, but that would hardly be fair. Instead I chose the Hitchcock film that made me an instant devotee to his style, not to mention that it might be the original “slasher” film. No need for a plot summary at this point, and I frankly can’t say much that hasn’t already been said. The “shower” sequence is arguably the finest piece of film ever edited, the surprise ending is the only reason The Sixth Sense exists, and we probably wouldn’t know who Brian De Palma is without Psycho. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Classics tend to be classics for a reason, and this one cannot be argued.
  •  5. The Silence of the Lambs (dir: Jonathan Demme, 1991): This detective story/psychological horror flick that dominated the 1992 Oscars is the vehicle for one of the all-time great movie heroes, Clarice Starling, and villains, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. This was an unlikely film to be so widely praised by the Academy, but it was much deserved. With very little actual screen time, Anthony Hopkins (as Lecter) jumps back and forth between being utterly charming and alarmingly sinister, managing to completely flesh out (no pun intended) this brilliant psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh. And Jodie Foster gives her finest performance ever as Starling, the resolute yet vulnerable FBI trainee who just wants the goddamn lambs to stop screaming. Her scenes with the good doctor are masterfully shot, written, edited, and acted. In fact, they’re both so exceptional that Ted Levine as serial-killer-on-the-loose Buffalo Bill was criminally under appreciated by critics. Of course, his penchant for wearing the skin of women and dancing naked in front of the mirror put him at a disadvantage to Lecter’s innate classiness.
  •  4. Rosemary’s Baby (dir: Roman Polanski, 1968): A man named Guy (played by John Cassavetes) and his wife Rosemary (the sublime Mia Farrow) move into an upscale New York apartment. Everything is fine, except for those pesky Satan-worshiping neighbors. It’s bad enough that they’re old and nosy, but to add insult to injury, they promise Guy they’ll advance his acting career if they can use his wife’s body to carry the Antichrist! Or is Rosemary just being paranoid? This was Roman Polanski’s first American film and he does a beautiful of showing the audience just enough in order to leave a little doubt right up until the frightening conclusion. Rosemary spends the last half of the film not knowing who to trust, what to do, or what’s growing inside her womb. The strong bond between mother and child is partly what makes the movie so disturbing, so be warned if you’re an expecting mother. Dark comedy blended with some truly perverse and controversial horror make this one of the most important films to come out of the late ’60s period of rebellious filmmakers.
  •  3. Alien (dir: Ridley Scott, 1979): It’s a haunted house movie, but in space… or it’s Jaws in space… It doesn’t matter– it’s just plain brilliant. With Alien, we get an introduction to arguably the greatest film heroine, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), and director Ridley Scott shows us a new kind of outer space. He abandons any notions of the Star Wars –brand of space, so there are no bright lights or fun little extraterrestrials in Alien. It’s not clean or slick either. Instead, the film is dark, dank, and industrial, populated by an ordinary, blue-collar crew of workers on a spaceship and the meanest movie monster ever conceived. Evoking themes of rape and sexual violation, a spider-like “face hugger” latches on to an unfortunate crew member (John Hurt) and impregnates him through his mouth and throat. As awful as that is, the little bundle of joy left in his chest is an unstoppable force seemingly spawned from the pits of Hell. All it does is kill, and it’s very, very good at it. Similar to Psycho, there are films before Alien and after Alien. Horror and science fiction films have never been the same since that black, vaguely phallic looking animal burst onto the screen.
  •  2. The Exorcist (dir: William Friedkin, 1973): People vomited in screenings of this movie. They passed out, they cried, and they ran screaming from the theater. Some viewers thought it was actually real. The Exorcist is as visceral and disturbing as horror gets. A mother (Ellen Burstyn) has no choice but to request an exorcism from a priest when her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), turns violent and begins to exhibit signs of demonic possession. The film is a slow build, and by the time Regan is completely taken over by the evil inside, there doesn’t seem to be any chance to save her. The Exorcist is probably the most pure piece of horror I have on this list. It’s violent, supernatural, profane, graphic, controversial, and it still manages to somehow be grounded in reality by the impeccable cast of characters. Director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty went for it all with this film, placing an innocent young girl at the center of the story and turning her into an absolute monster. Lesser men would have watered the story down, but they instead created one of the most potent films of all-time, horror or otherwise.
  •  1. The Shining (dir: Stanley Kubrick, 1980): A husband and father, the person his family is supposed to trust most in the world, loses all control and comes after them with an ax while they’re trapped in a snowed-in hotel. This is scary. But one of the most important things to remember about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is that it’s really, really funny. The brilliance behind the humor is that it heightens the prevailing terror. Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as Jack Torrance demonstrates how being funny while being menacing is a wicked combination. Some idiots people read his performance all wrong, thinking Nicholson is merely hamming it up and dominating the scenery. This just isn’t true. Jack Torrance is a fully-realized character who is ripe with subtle nuance and sly humor, and Nicholson’s brilliance comes from the fact that he never winks at the camera. A less capable actor would have played the part tongue-in-cheek, but not Jack. There’s a scene where his wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) comes to find that the hours he has spent toiling away over his typewriter has birthed nothing but hundreds of pages of the same repeating text: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the midst of her realization that her spouse has lost his mind, Jack appears and begins to intimidate and humiliate her. It’s a harrowing scene and the perfect example of just how terrifying and darkly funny the film is. See below:

    Due to film’s odd blend of black comedy, psychological terror, and graphic violence, it was grossly misunderstood when it came out, a recurring theme among Kubrick’s movies. Writer/director/musician Rob Zombie says of The Shining in the aforementioned Time Out London piece, “Hard to believe that upon its release every asshole critic bashed this film. As usual, Kubrick was ahead of the curve and reinventing the wheel along the way. He made the greatest sci-fi film of all time so why not the greatest horror too?” Nicholson lamented in a 1981 issue of Rolling Stone magazine that the film was not appreciated for its deft humor. Luckily, as with other great films like Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Shining has enjoyed a bit of redemption and it now always ends up in the conversation of the all-time great horror films. Kubrick’s unsurpassed camera techniques, the chilling music, Nicholson’s mania coupled with Duvall’s hysteria, and good ‘ol Lloyd the Bartender help make this one of my favorite films ever. It’s endlessly watchable, therefore taking the top spot as my favorite horror film.
So there you have it. There are a lot of obvious ones on the list, but hey, if anyone doesn’t include The ExorcistPsycho, or The Shining on their list, he/she might be a pod person. Maybe next time I’ll make a Most Undervalued Horror Film List. But this should do for now. Feel free to let me know where you think I went wrong or what you think I did right by e-mailing me at shortcomments@gmail.com or find me on Twitter at @cinejordan. Thanks for reading. I’m going to curl up in front of the TV for my millionth viewing of The Shining with “a bottle of bourbon, a little glass, and some ice… You can do that can’t you, Lloyd? Not too busy are ya?”

  1. Charles Armentrout
    April 24, 2012 at 6:58 am

    I agree with your comment on what justifies a horror movie. I too am not a fan of the Saw ir Hostel movies where its five or six new ways to kill someone on screen and make a quick buck. I want a scary movie to make me feel what would I do if I was placed in the main characters shoes. ALIEN definitely is my top pick for my scariest movie, mainly due to the fact it was the first scary movie I remember seeing. (VERY much looking forward to. Prometheus!) Ine

    • Charles Armentrout
      April 24, 2012 at 7:00 am

      I meant to end by saying one movie that is more recent that i took a liking to was the newer “The Crazies” movie.

      • shortcutsla
        April 24, 2012 at 10:34 am

        ‘The Crazies’ is a solid horror movie for sure. A couple other “recent” ones: “The Descent” and “High Tension.” A lot of stuff coming out of Asia is impressing me, too.

  2. May 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm
  3. October 9, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    I saw The Shining in downtown Spokane. Loved it. I saw The Exorcist in Missoula, MT, had pizza afterwards. No nightmares for this Catholic girl. An American Werewolf in London was even more interesting after watching the anniversary edition and seeing how they did the special effects – and how they still hold up. Silence of the Lambs: I still cannot look at the cover art w/o having flashbacks of the nightmares I had for 3 weeks after watching the video. Excellent blog post!

  1. June 3, 2012 at 3:13 pm
  2. November 14, 2012 at 11:10 pm
  3. February 27, 2013 at 10:42 pm
  4. July 2, 2014 at 12:10 am

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