Horror cinema is a monster. Mistreated, misunderstood and subjected to vicious critical attacks, somehow it keeps lumbering forward, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. For some, horror films are little better than pornography, focused purely on evoking a reaction – be it terror, disquiet or disgust – with little thought for ‘higher’ aspirations. For others, they’re just a bit of fun: a chance to shriek and snigger at someone’s second-hand nightmare.
But look again, and the story of horror is also the story of innovation and non-conformity in cinema, a place where dangerous ideas can be expressed, radical techniques can be explored and filmmakers outside the mainstream can still make a big cultural splash. If cinema itself has an unconscious, a dark little corner from which new ideas emerge, blinking and malformed, it must be horror.
What was the first movie to show sympathetically that physically disabled people had hopes, desires and inner lives of their own? That was Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’. The first movie to depict a dynamic black hero who wasn’t some kind of token figure? Look no further than ‘Night of the Living Dead’. The first to depict a woman as an ass-kicking action hero? ‘Alien’.
And these are merely the most obvious examples: dig deeper, and you’ll find groundbreaking depictions of female sexuality (‘Cat People’, ‘Carrie’), high camp (‘Bride of Frankenstein’), media and morality (‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, ‘Videodrome’). These are movies that moved society forward, that allowed viewers to confront and discuss issues previously considered taboo.
And horror is aesthetically revolutionary, too: no other genre combines the real and surreal so regularly, and to such intoxicating effect, from the haunting nightmare landscapes of ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘Frankenstein’ to the explicit art-gore nightmares of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. It’s also the most democratic genre: inventive low-budget horror movies like ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ can be every bit as powerful, groundbreaking and – importantly – lucrative as their more pricey and prestigious counterparts.
After Time Out had conducted polls last year to nail down the 100 best British films and the 100 best comedy movies, horror seemed the obvious next step. For one thing, it’s a genre dear to many people’s hearts: like comedy, it has a huge number of ‘specialists’, those who spend their entire careers directing, appearing in or writing exclusively about horror movies. That’s perfect for a piece guided entirely by polling, and it’s made for a contributors’ list peopled partly by big names –Roger Corman, Simon Pegg, Guillermo del Toro, Clive Barker, even Alice Cooper – and partly by fanatics, from expert writers like Kim Newman and our own Nigel Floyd, to iconic ‘scream queen’ Sybil Danning, movie-obsessed director Joe Dante, Mexican legend Coffin Joe and ‘Human Centipede’ creator Tom Six.
It was fascinating to watch the list come together. We took top ten lists from each of our contributors, and assigned each of the films a points value – we’ll not reveal our secrets here, but rest assured it was entirely democratic. At first, ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ seemed to be taking an unassailable lead, but in the later stages, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Shining’ started to pull alongside. But what was most enjoyable was seeing the real oddball outsiders – the arthouse chillers, the fiendishly inventive lowbrow splatterfests and the genuine underground weirdies – secure their place in the top 100.
The result is a list of films guaranteed to amaze and delight hardcore horror fans and newcomers alike. All of horror is here, from silent spookiness to modern mayhem, from creepy fairy tales to outright grand guignol savagery, with of course the requisite number of vampires, zombies, witches, ghosts, demons, Nazis, aliens, serial killers, possessed kids, redneck maniacs and face-eating tarantulas.
As many have noted, horror is in a bit of a tough spot at the moment: blame the rise of digital video, blame the offputting, exploitative nastiness of torture porn or the disbelief-shattering irony of the postmodern ‘Scream’ cycle (none of which appear on our list, interestingly), or blame our increased awareness of true horror in the real world, but there’s no denying that horror cinema is in need of a shot in the arm.
We hope that by celebrating not just the industry-standard classics but also the most exciting and original oddities from the past century, our list might provide vital inspiration for filmmakers who are considering a move into horror. We also hope that it sparks a furious debate between ourselves, our experts and our audience about exactly why this most divisive of genres should still inspire so much passion, ingenuity and controversy – and so many undoubtedly great movies.