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 Adrian Lyne (Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello)
One pill makes you larger…
A surprise entry on this list, Lyne’s psychedelic post-’Nam comedown thriller seems to have fallen from favour in recent years, but has evidently managed to stick in the minds of horror experts. In a decisive and unexpected break from his then-popular goofy-dweeb persona, Robbins plays Jacob, a worn-out war veteran whose mind begins to fragment once the conflict is over. Is he going crazy, or are there darker forces at work? Beautifully designed by ‘Fatal Attraction’ helmer Lyne, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ feels like an offbeat slice of post-hippy experimentation retooled for the MTV generation: what it lacks in depth and subtlety, it more than makes up for in shock tactics and woozy unpredictability, all anchored in Robbins’s wide-eyed and pitiable central turn. TH
Dir David Lynch (Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart)
Father knows best.
Most of David Lynch’s films were nominated at least once for this list, but only ‘Eraserhead’ actually made it (though ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ came very close). Inspired by the birth of his own child Jennifer, Lynch creates a mood of near-unbearable, panicky fear, depicting the sprog in question as more a fleshy hot water bottle than an actual human baby. Shot over five years on a budget scraped together from university funding, art grants and odd jobs (Lynch even had a paper round at one point), ‘Eraserhead’ fits squarely within the tradition of American avant garde cinema, but like many of its fellows (the films of Kenneth Anger, for example) it flirts with horror imagery and has a tone of creeping dread which more than justifies its position in this list. TH
Dir Greg Mclean (Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, John Jarratt)
Chuck another limb on the barbie.
Loosely based on real events, this backpacking serial killer chiller is precisely the kind of film to put you off ever visiting the Australian outback. Set near the huge real-life meteorite crater from which the film gets its name, ‘Wolf Creek’ verges on the outright disgusting as it tracks the unfortunate fate of two British travellers and their Aussie mate after they chance upon the seemingly helpful Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). When their car mysteriously refuses to start, jolly Croc Dundee-type Mick offers to tow them back to his ramshackle abode where he regales them with tall stories… before spiking their drinks. And then it all goes off on a bender of such epically nasty proportions you find yourself watching through parted fingers. It’s that kinda film. DA
Dir Alan Parker (Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro)
Hey Mickey, you’re so fine.
A film which treads the tightrope between horror, thriller and glossy MTV-friendly melodrama, Parker’s sizzling saucepan of spicy Southern Gothic gumbo heavily seasoned with Biblical mumbo-jumbo remains a hugely entertaining watch. It’s hardly subtle – did anyone over the age of 12 not guess the true identity of De Niro’s soul-eating dandy Louis Cyphre? – but it doesn’t really have to be: this is a movie filled with memorable images and strange sensations, from Rourke’s seductively shambolic private dick Harry Angel (geddit?) through a whole mess of cannibalistic voodoo rituals, Cajun clichés and dubious racial stereotypes to Lisa Bonet’s unforgettably gruesome fate. Laissez le mal temps roulez! TH
Dir George Sluizer (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets)
Where did our love go?
No mainstream genre has such a propensity for downbeat or uncertain endings as horror – and the final scene of ‘The Vanishing’ might just top them all. Obviously we’re not going to reveal it here – that’d just be mean – but suffice it to say, you won’t see this one coming. The rest of the film is powerful stuff – Bervoets plays a young man whose girlfriend is snatched at French truck stop by serial murderer Donnadieu, an otherwise ordinary family man. Unwilling to let the love of his life slip away, the young man finally tracks down his nemesis… and is offered a terrifying choice. Frosty, bleak and grippingly direct, Sluizer’s remarkable feature is only let down by the fact that he remade it – horribly – in Hollywood five years later. TH
Dir Guillermo del Toro (Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega)
Ghosts of the civil dead.
From its breathtaking opening shot from inside the bomb bay of a cruising warplane, you know you’re in the hands of a master with ‘The Devil’s Backbone’. Del Toro’s return to his native language following the disappointment of 1997’s heavily recut Hollywood horrorshow ‘Mimic’ proved conclusively that, working without interference, this Mexican up-and-comer was capable of remarkable cinema – a fact that has been reconfirmed time and again since. It’s odd but pleasing that ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ beat out its loose follow-up ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ on this list: it’s an odder, less showy but more complete work, depicting the trials endured by a group of boys living in a haunted orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. Cold, creepy and compelling, this is a small film from a massive talent. TH
Dir Bob Clark (Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder)
Sorority sisters in pre-slasher slay ride shocker.
A low-budget Canadian precursor of the ‘seasonal slasher’ cycle that was kicked into gear by the success of ‘Halloween’ four years later, Clark’s imaginatively nasty film traps a group of college students in a snow-dusted sorority house, where they are terrorised by an obscene phone caller before being bumped off one by one. Anticipating many now familiar conventions, Clark cranks up the level of threat through his pioneering use of prowling shots from the psycho killer's point of view, reinforced here by a discordant sound design. A sparky, pre-’Superman’ Margot Kidder gives as good as she gets, but it’s hard to tell which, if any, of the girls will survive this Yuletide slay ride. Clark also pulls off a wicked plot twist near the end, a flourish that’s simple yet devastatingly effective. NF
Dir M Night Shyamalan (Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Colette)
The film that put the unpronounceable M Night Shyamalan on the map, ‘The Sixth Sense’ was a classic word-of-mouth movie. Sure, Bruce Willis’s star power was always going to pull in the punters but once people started chatting about ‘that twist’, everyone wanted to go see it, if only to satisfy their curiosity. For me, a tormented, emotionless child will always be way creepier than any adult with a chainsaw, and here it’s little Cole Sear (touchingly played by Haley Joel Osment), a kid who says he can see dead people. ‘The Sixth Sense’ is a pretty rare form of horror in that its ambience is as melancholic as it is eerie. Quite how Shyamalan has managed to screw up every film he’s made since is one of life’s great unanswerable conundrums. DA
Dir Roman Polanski (Catherine Deneuve)
The girl can’t help it.
Polanski once said in an interview that ‘Repulsion’ is one of the films he made as ‘matters of convenience’. In this case he was on his uppers – flat broke in London – and was offered the chance to make a horror film. Which doesn’t tell the half of it. Has there been a more dread-filled study of mental collapse? Catherine Deneuve plays a repressed young Belgian woman, Carole, who lives in London with her sister and works as a manicurist. ‘Give me Revlon’s fire and ice,’ says one of her dowager customers. Fire and ice: it could be a description of Deneuve’s on screen presence, her secretive and chilliness. All around Carole, London is upbeat, going places. The youth are about to quake. In her flat cracks appear in the walls and Carole drifts off into fugues and finally psychosis. The noise of everyday life is deafening, Polanski piercing the subconscious to poke at what lies beneath. CC
Dir Hideo Nakata (Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani)
Who's that girl?
It is possibly the scariest scene in cinema history: (spoiler alert!) a man watches a video in which a ghostly figure in white, long black hair pulled witchily over her face, crawls like nothing human out of a well and then just keeps coming, out of his TV and into the real world... The ‘Ring’ is a masterpiece of fear and atmospheric terror. A journalist (Nanako Matsushima) is investigating a rumour that’s spreading like wildfire among teenagers about a spooky VHS. Everyone who has watched the video, so the story goes, dies seven days later. The drip, drip, drip of dread of Hideo Nakata’s film will turn your stomach to ice – it’s not for nothing that ‘Ring’ is highest grossing horror in Japanese film history. CC