The 100 best horror films: the list
The best horror films, as voted for by more than 100 experts including Simon Pegg and Roger Corman
By Derek Adams, Dave Calhoun, Cath Clarke, Sarah Cohen, Nigel Floyd and Tom Huddleston, with the generous support of everyone at FrightFest and Cine-Excess. Explore the individual top tens of every contributor.
Dir Clive Barker (Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Sean Chapman, Doug Bradley)
From the disturbed imagination of gifted British fabulist Clive Barker comes a Faustian pact with a difference, involving a mysterious puzzle-box, a painful rebirth and the diet of human flesh needed to put the skin back on the flayed muscle of jaded sensualist Frank’s resurrected body. By solving the puzzle, Frank enters the world of exquisite cruelty presided over by Pinhead (Bradley) and his fellow Cenobites – glamorous sadists with a penchant for ripped flesh and transcendent pain. Despite Barker’s determination to ‘embrace the monstrous’, the fetishistic appeal of the Cenobites goes hand in hand with an atmosphere of clammy, mind-warping dread. The unsettling moral ambiguities of Frank’s relationship with his ex-lover Julia (now his brother’s wife) resonate far more than the conventional sub-plot involving his teenage niece Kirsty. NF
Dir David Cronenberg (Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold)
The same, but different.
More than any other Cronenberg film, ‘Dead Ringers’ tests the limits of what constitutes a horror movie. Yes it has blood, ‘tools for operating on mutant women’ and a general tone of deep disquiet, but it’s first and foremost a study of domestic psychosis under unique circumstances. It’s also an unparalleled acting showcase: using computer-controlled camera technology, Jeremy Irons was able to portray both lead characters, twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. What’s remarkable is how clearly he delineates between them: Elliot the steely, ‘masculine’ shark; Beverly the passive ‘feminine’ carer. As in ‘The Fly’ (see No 23), Cronenberg’s interest in the tenuous connections between body and mind is combined with an unexpectedly sensitive portrayal of romantic attachment, making the brothers’ inevitable psychological collapse all the more effectively disturbing.TH
Dir Brian Yuzna (Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez)
How the other half live.
There’s no country in the world where ‘Society’ means more than here in the UK, and no era in living memory when it has been more painfully relevant – it even opens with a rewrite of the ‘Eton Boating Song’. This is a story of how the aristocratic rich don’t just suck the poor dry economically, spiritually and politically, but physically too. The tone may be slick – there are times when it feels like ‘The OC’ with added goop – but the intention is deadly serious, and first-timer Yuzna’s slow reveal of information is wonderfully sly and subversive. Then there’s that epic finale, still one of the most shocking in cinema, a kind of ‘La Grand Bouffe’ for SFX nerds with added fart gags and death-by-fisting. The make-up technician was called Screaming Mad George. Says it all, really. TH
Dir Pier Paolo Pasolini (Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi)
Don’t look now.
Pasolini’s final film doesn’t belong to the horror genre in any traditional sense at all – but it’s hard to imagine any film on this list surpassing this 1944-set vision of despair for its sheer provocative transgression and devastatingly bleak and pessimistic view of humanity. Drawing on the writings of the Marquis de Sade and influenced by Dante’s ‘Inferno’, Pasolini imagined four fascist libertines taking a group of young men and women prisoner in a stately home in Italy and subjecting them to an unimaginable cycle of terror. Rape, torture, murder, the forced eating of shit – it’s all here. The film provoked outrage in many quarters, but, viewed now, any claims that it is pornographic seem ridiculous. It’s a complete absence of pleasure that Pasolini provokes in this disturbing portrait of a society gone to the dogs. DC
Dir JA Bayona (Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep)
Hide and Shriek.
What could be more scary than a haunted house? A haunted orphanage, that’s what. ‘The Orphanage’ is classic creepy ghost story, full of creaking floorboards and things that go bump in the night – the kind that will give you the collywobbles. Guillermo Del Toro protégé JA Bayona has an intuitive sense of what’s scary. Laura (Belén Rueda) has bought the orphanage she spent part of her childhood living in, with her husband and seven-year-old son Simón (Roger Príncep). They haven’t told Simón that he’s adopted or that he is seriously ill. But one day, reading Peter Pan, Simón says matter-of-factly that he will never grow old. Has he been listening at doors? No, one of his imaginary friends told him, he says (imaginary friends or the spirits of the orphanage’s past residents?) And when Simón goes missing the ghost story begins. CC
Dir Don Coscarelli (Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm)
In space, no one can eat ice cream.
By the early ’80s, the home video boom had fuelled a tidal wave of American horror. But with proper financial backing and almost total creative freedom, these films were a world away from the cheapo grit of the grindhouse: directors like Stuart Gordon, Frank Henenlotter and Don Coscarelli had the funding to realise visions which would have been impossible a few years before, resulting in some of the most idiosyncratic movies in the horror canon. ‘Phantasm’ is the film that kickstarted it all, combining inventive DIY horror with a berserk plot involving homicidal space midgets, heroic ice-cream men, flying spheres which drill into the brain and of course the terrifying ‘Tall Man’. Over the course of three wild sequels, Coscarelli expanded his bizarre universe in a variety of imaginative and deliriously entertaining ways – but the original set the standard. TH
Dir Terence Fisher (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough)
The British horror boom which ran from the late ’50s until the early ’70s received short shrift on this list – which is disappointing for great films like ‘Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘Theatre of Blood’ and ‘Death Line’, but perhaps inevitable given the fact that so many films of the period have aged so poorly. But it’s no surprise to see a solid placing for the film which started it all, Hammer’s (for the time) groundbreakingly savage and saucy take on Stoker’s classic novel, and one of the key works in the modernisation of horror. All those frilly frocks, heaving cleavages and creaky sets don’t look especially modern now, but this was the film which clarified forever the link between vampires and eroticism, as embodied by Lee’s stately, stalking presence as the ultimate gentleman sex fiend. TH
Dir Mario Bava (Boris Karloff, Mark Damon, Michèle Mercier)
Tale of the unexpected.
Although anthology horror films are fiendishly difficult to pull off, in its original Italian version (as opposed to the reshuffled, re-scored travesty released in the US), Bava’s bold, expressionistic use of colour and lighting imposes a stylistic consistency on this disparate trio of tales. Boris Karloff’s sonorous intro and epilogue also help. ‘The Telephone’ seethes with twisted eroticism, as a Parisian prostitute (Mercier) is terrified by threatening phone calls from her vengeful ex-pimp. Russian vampire lore informs ‘The Wurdalak’, which starts with the discovery of a stabbed and headless corpse, then progresses to ghoulish, atmospheric scenes of blood-sucking. A nurse who steals a valuable ring from a dead body is haunted by guilt in ‘The Drop of Water’. The visual debt owed by Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’ is abundantly clear. NF
Dir Danny Boyle (Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris and Christopher Eccleston)
If every generation gets the zombies its deserves, what would ours be like? Full of rage was the answer Danny Boyle came up with in ‘28 Days Later...’, in which a group of animal liberation militants free lab chimps infected with a fatal virus. The disease quickly spreads through the British population, turning people into berserk zombies. One month later, in a London hospital, bicycle courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma, to find London cloaked in an unearthly silence. There are scenes here that will send a shiver down your spine, such as the swarm of rats running in terror from an approaching undead horde. But the real horror begins when Jim and his band of survivors reach the ‘safety’ of a group of soldiers barricaded in a stately mansion up north. CC
Dir Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kumiko Aso, Haruhiko Katô, Koyuki)
Ghosts in the machine.
Kurosawa’s cautionary philosophical tale uses the familiar tropes of dystopian sci-fi and supernatural horror to explore an internet-fixated world where online communication has eroded social cohesion, replacing personal relationships and human communication with alienated loneliness. Soul-sucking spectres appear online and spread like a virus. Seduced by cryptic messages asking, ‘Do you want to meet a ghost?’, obsessive internet users abandon friends, family and colleagues. Withdrawing from the world, they become lethargic, depressed and ultimately suicidal. Tokyo slides towards a state of spiritual decay and social entropy. Wes Craven had a writing credit on ad director Jim Sonzero’s 2006 remake, which retained the original’s morbid atmosphere and apocalyptic ending but precious little else. The original Japanese title, Kairo, means ‘circuit’. NF