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 Charles Laughton (Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish)
Sleep, little ones, sleep.
Charles Laughton’s only work as a director may be terrifying, but is it really a horror film? That uncertainty is doubtless the reason for its low placing in this list, because there’s no question about the film’s quality: this is a near-perfect example of pure cinema. There are strong ties to the genre: Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a murderous preacher whose pursuit of hidden booty leads him to hunt down a pair of hapless orphaned children through a mystical Southern dreamscape. But more than half a century after it was made, ‘The Night of the Hunter’ continues to shrug off attempts at easy categorisation: if it’s a horror movie, then it’s also an adventure story, a crime thriller, a coming-of-age drama and a fairy tale. One thing remains certain, however: it’s a masterpiece. TH
Dir Jonathan Demme (Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins)
You know your film has made an impact when even animated kids films start making comical references to it. We’re talking, of course, about Anthony Hopkins’s infamous ‘Chianti’ line – a scene so memorably repulsive and yet played with such overegged, psychotic glee that it’s become a bit of a running joke. Based on Thomas Harris’s second novel, Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-conquering monster feasts on our primal fears by presenting us with a gothic smorgasbord of blood and offal and some clever sleights of hand. Hopkins’s portrayal of prolific man-muncher Hannibal Lecter is barnstorming but rather thickly sliced (it’s not quite up there with Brian Cox’s earlier Lecter representation in Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter’), and yet ‘Silence…’ fully justifies its Oscar haul: it’s expertly written, superbly performed and scary, tense and stomach-churning by turns. DA
Dir Tobe Hooper (JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Craig T Nelson)
See you on the otherside.
Although Steven Spielberg is credited as the co-writer and producer of this 1982 frightfest, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he wasn’t just sitting behind a desk. His directorial influence is evident everywhere, from the cosy suburban milieu to the ‘Close Encounters’-like shafts of ghostly light that permeate so many scenes. Spielberg claimed that the ‘named’ director, ‘Texas Chain Saw’ maverick Tobe Hooper wasn’t ‘a take-charge sort of guy’ – though he has always stuaunchly defended Hooper’s creative contribution. Whatever the reality, the film is memorably scary, at times feeling almost like a checklist of horror iconography: spooky kids, creepy clowns, skeletons, ghosts, gore, Indian burial grounds... Shot in pre-CG times, one can only wonder how much invisible string they used for all the flying furniture. DA
Dir James Whale (Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton)
Perfect weather for ducks.
Believed lost for over 30 years, they found ‘The Old Dark House’ in the Universal Studios vaults in 1968. Thank goodness! What a tragedy it would have been to lose this deliciously ghoulish comedy of manners. The film was adapted from JB Priestley’s novel ‘Benighted’, and sees a young couple, a chorus girl, a war veteran and a gruff self-made industrialist take shelter in a tumbledown Welsh mansion during a rainstorm. Its inmates, the Femm family, are quite frankly bonkers. Head of the household is Horace (a juicily camp turn by Thesiger: ‘It’s only gin. I like gin,’), who’s constantly bickering with his batty, deaf sister. Upstairs, their 101- year-old dad is bedridden and Saul their pyromaniac brother is locked in the attic, while Morgan the mad butler (Karloff) is getting fighting-drunk in the kitchen. Full of acid wit and howlingly funny, ‘The Old Dark House’ is one of the most giddily glorious films you’re ever likely to see. CC
Dir Mario Bava (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc)
The little death.
Bava’s ghoulish small-town ghost story may feel a little tame following the explicit eeriness of his groundbreaking ‘Black Sunday’, but ‘Kill, Baby… Kill!’ is still a radical and unsettling work. When a coroner is called to a small town to inspect the corpse of a maid, he finds a silver coin inserted into her heart. The village is suffering under an ancient curse – and those who speak out about it meet bloody and untimely ends. Embracing the opportunity to shoot in full colour, Bava creates a lurid, entrancing dream-world which clearly informed the work of Argento and Fulci, and indeed any director interested in exploring otherworldly ideas: one scene, where the hero seems to pursue a vision of himself, is an almost shot-for-shot antecedent of David Lynch’s disturbing final episode of ‘Twin Peaks’. TH
Dir Robin Hardy (Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland)
'The ultimate sacrifice.'
Robin Hardy’s folk horror looks so harmless – all that rumpy-pumpy and frolicking in the bushes on a remote Scottish island. Throw in Hammer grandee Christopher Lee and some campy tunes, and the whole thing could have ended up as a kind of ‘Carry On up the Maypole’. But something nightmarish lurks beneath the surface, as a dour Presbyterian policeman (Woodward) arrives to investigate a 12-year-old girl’s disappearance. He is not impressed by the pagan bacchanalia, though is rather smitten with lusty landlord's daughter Willow (Ekland). The magnificent Lee (who was paid nothing to act in the film) is laird of the manor and master of ceremonies. Released as a B-movie and neglected for years, ‘The Wicker Man’, vintage British horror, is now a gold-seal cult classic. CC
Dir Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (Manuela Velasco, Ferrán Terraza, David Vert)
Whatever you witness... never stop recording.
Its title derived from the record button on a video camera, [REC] is still the best of the ‘found footage’, shaky-cam films inspired by ‘The Blair Witch Project’. For a late-night reality TV show, perky presenter Ángela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo follow a firefighting crew on a routine call to a Barcelona apartment block. Inside, they are attacked by a shrieking old woman wearing a blood-stained nightdress. Suddenly, the building is locked down by megaphone-wielding cops squawking something about a public health threat. Trapped inside with the panicking neighbours, Ángela maintains a running commentary as all hell breaks loose. A so-so sequel will soon be joined by Plaza’s comedy-horror ‘[REC] Génesis’ and Balagueró’s bleaker ‘[REC] Apocalypse’. NF
Dir Alejandro Amenábar (Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston)
I said it in our ‘50 Terrifying Movie Moments’ poll and I’ll say it again: nothing makes the follicles stand on end like a creepy psychological chiller. Especially when it involves spooky kids humming nursery rhymes. Alejandro Amenábar’s ghost story is steeped in hair-raising menace, even though nothing violent ever occurs. The tension is palpable as we watch Nicole Kidman’s mother of two photosensitive children slowly go doolally when things start going bump in the night. The scene of her daughter dressed in white lace, playing with a wooden mobile while singing a childish tune is still one of the most spine-chilling of all time. DA
Dir Jacques Tourneur (Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis)
Devil in disguise.
Jacques Tourneur never intended to show the audience the demon that terrorises his ‘Night of the Demon’. But producer Hal E Chester insisted the flaming beast make two personal appearances to bookend this tale of an American psychologist, Dr Holden (Andrews), a world-renowned paranormal sceptic. He’s in London to debunk a devil cult, whose apparently avuncular leader, Dr. Julian Karswell (MacGinnis), he takes for a harmless fake (he should really be paying more attention to Karswell’s devilish goatee). Tourneur was right about the monster – it’s B-movie silly. But the French-born director knew his business and elsewhere gives an object lesson in frightening the audience out their seats with the mere placing of a hand on a banister. Scriptwriter Charles Bennett was likewise enraged by the demon: "If [Chester, the producer] walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead.’ CC
Dir Alexandre Aja (Cécile De France, Maïwenn Le Bosco, Philippe Nahon)
Vive le difference!
The retro stylings of this Gallic shocker testify to a prodigious knowledge of old school slasher and giallo films, matched by a knowing, modern cinematic sensibility that gives an extra twist to the remorseless terrorising of De France and Le Besco’s holidaying students. One senses that things won’t end well when we first see Gaspar Noé’s favourite actor, Nahon, fellating himself with a woman’s severed head. The imaginatively gruesome killings and chase scenes come thick and fast and the nerve-jangling sound design exacerbates the tension, making it virtually unbearable. Then, with one staggeringly ill-judged and gob-smackingly offensive plot twist, the entire film falls apart. Aja’s tendency towards unreconstructed, old-school chauvinism surfaced again in his remakes of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Piranha’, though in a more humorous vein. NF