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 Carl Theodor Dreyer (Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Sybille Schmitz)
The first bite is the deepest.
In 1932, the New York Times’s film critic was not impressed. ‘Vampyr’, he declared, was ‘one of the worst films’ he’d ever seen, but added grudgingly that director Carl Dreyer could always be relied upon to be ‘different’. And ‘Vampyr’ is different, a film like no other. Dreyer spun his cinematic nightmare from two stories from a Sheridan Le Fanu collection. It stars Nicolas de Gunzburg (a Russian aristocrat who bankrolled the film, appearing under the alias Julian West) as an occult-obsessed young man who visits a French village haunted by a vampire. The lord of the manor dies and his young daughter is gravely ill, bite wounds to her neck. His intention, said Dreyer was ‘to create a daydream on the screen and to show that the horrific is not to be found around us, but in our own unconscious mind.’ And ‘Vampyr’ is often compared to a waking dream, full of strange hallucinatoryimages that strike dread in audiences even today. CC
Dir Lucio Fulci (Katherine MacColl, David Warbeck)
All I have to do is dream.
Outside the arthouse, horror is the only cinematic genre where pure surrealism is not only acceptable but expected – and there are few more graphic examples than Fulci’s bonkers bayou bloodbath ‘The Beyond’. There’s a plot of sorts, but it’s fairly standard: a young woman inherits a hotel which happens to have been built over a gateway to hell. But this is merely a loose framework within which Fulci goes all out to upset and horrify his audience: faces melt inexplicably, tarantulas rip out human tongues, zombies rise from the grave, eyes are repeatedly torn out. The result is more accurately nightmarish than almost any other film on this list, a true descent into the depths of meaningless, unpredictable, terrifyingly beautiful horror, with a scorpion-sharp sting in the tail. TH
Dir Masaki Kobayashi (Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama)
Pack up your troubles.
Based on traditional Japanese folk tales and filmed in ravishing wide-screen on hand-painted sets, these four stories – of raven-haired women, beautiful female spectres, blind singing monks and ghostly samurai warriors – created a template for much of the indigenous supernatural cinema that would follow. The eternally youthful wife in The Black Hair, in particular, prefigures the many raven-haired women with shadowed ivory faces found in modern J-horror movies such as ‘Ringu’. Kobayashi’s stylised use of colour is more symbolic than naturalistic, and coupled with the avant garde electronic score by Toru Takemitsu, which also incorporates sampled natural sounds, it generates both a haunting atmosphere and some subtle supernatural chills. NF
Dir Henri-Georges Clouzot (Véra Clouzot, Simone Signoret)
Schools out forever.
There’s much fun to be had with French filmmaker Clouzot’s boarding school-set puzzler from 1955, a suspenseful comic tease with added frights. First, there are the grotesque characters, each horrific enough in their own way, from the boo-hiss headmaster (Paul Meurisse) to his nervy wife (Vera Clouzot) and bullish mistress (Signoret). Clouzot has been tagged the ‘French Hitchcock’, and it’s a fair enough comparison: like his British counterpart, he allows for ample playfulness amid the scares. Apart from being compelling right to the final frame, the main reason why ‘Les Diaboliques’ deserves a place in this list is the way that Clouzot continually upends us with the ambiguous aftermath of the headmaster’s murder – as well as how he pulls off an unforeseeable scare late in the day. DC
Dir Ken Russell (Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave)
In lesser hands, the wild theatrics and camp stylings of Ken Russell’s story of religious persecution and demonic possession in seventeenth-century France would turn ‘The Devils’ into no more than a fleshy, hysterical romp. But what’s brilliant about ‘The Devils’ is that Russell achieves a real, serious sense of fear and claustrophobia alongside the ample lunacy. Partly that’s down to Reed's reserved performance – compared, at least, to the madness around him – which means that when his character, Father Grandier, is finally tortured we feel the full horror of corrupt government and wayward religious fervour directed towards him. That said, ‘The Devils’ is also hugely fun, from Derek Jarman’s immense, overwhelming set design to Vanessa Redgrave’s vulnerable, possessed performance as Sister Jeanne. In March 2012, the BFI finally released ‘The Devils’ on DVD as part of an impressive two-disc package: a fitting tribute to Russell, who died in November 2011. DC
Dir Dario Argento (David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi)
Argento fans have a tendency to divide into two camps: those who prefer his relatively straightforward, plot-driven early giallo thrillers and those who revel in the surrealistic beauty of his post-‘Suspiria’ dream-movies. ‘Deep Red’ is the film which unites the two camps, combining propulsive narrative intrigue with a series of kill scenes more elaborate and expressionistic than anything the director had yet attempted. Thanks in large part to two likeable lead performances – Hemmings and Nicolodi have a real rapport as the amateur sleuths on the trail of a serial murderer – it’s also Argento’s most breezily enjoyable film, chucking in a fistful of witty, satirical attacks on Italian masculinity and some of the finest prog-fusion freakouts ever committed to tape. TH
Dir Ingmar Bergman (Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann)
It's all in the mind.
It’s hard to watch Swedish actor von Sydow as a tortured artist in Bergman’s portrait of a man in deep crisis without thinking of the same actor’s self-mocking act as a troubled painter in Woody Allen’s ‘Hannah and her Sisters’ (1986). This is deadly serious though: the real and imagined sit side by side and haunt each other as von Sydow’s demons take over the imagery and mood of the film as his wife (Ullman) recalls this terrible period in her life. Conceived alongside ‘Persona’, Bergman offers the full horror of an artist’s breakdown and crumbling of his marriage (and perhaps his wife’s mind too) – all of which is presented, at times, as a full-on Gothic nightmare, with characters walking on ceilings, men appearing in hallucinations as birds and a gruesome flashback in which Von Sydow’s character remembers attacking a young boy with a rock. Haunting – and even more so when you discover it emerged from Bergman’s own demons and nervous breakdown in the mid-1960s. DC
Dir Roman Polanski (Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani)
Roman á clef.
What is it about Polanski and confined spaces? With ‘Repulsion’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and finally this Paris-set film, the Polish director proved himself a master of turning the humble flat into frightening domestic terrain. Here, Polanski himself plays a man who moves into an empty apartment, previously occupied by a woman (Adjani) who attempted suicide, and finds himself at the centre of a paranoid storm in which his neighbours are increasingly accusing and vicious towards him – causing his mental state to worsen as it becomes less and less clear exactly what’s real and what’s not. ‘The Tenant’ may be set in the present, but it’s hard not to impose the horror of Polanski’s own childhood experiences in the Warsaw ghetto on to this story of the walls closing in on one man’s world. DC
Dir Michael Powell (Karlheinz Böhm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey)
The eye of the beholder.
Made the same year as ‘Psycho’ – another film about a deranged single man – this was the film that brought Powell’s career to a premature halt, so upsetting did his contemporaries find the story of a young photographer and filmmaker who disguises a murder weapon as a camera in order to trap and kill women. In retrospect, Mark Lewis (Böhm) remains a disturbing figure and his screen murders have an intimate cruelty to them – Shearer’s demise in an empty film studio is especially horrible. But surely it was the most modern elements of the film – the suggestion that the camera itself is so invasive and predatory as to ‘kill’ and the idea that Lewis is playing out a childhood trauma – that alienated viewers in the early 1960s and caused Powell’s critics to grumble instead about its portrayal of semi-naked prostitutes? This is a great horror film about the horror of cinema itself. DC
Dir Sam Raimi (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss)
Low-budget DIY horror was already a force by 1981 – the ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ folks had shown that you could make millions with an old camera, some enthusiastic friends and a few garden tools – but the movie which took the movement to new heights was Raimi’s astonishing debut. Adapting their own short ‘Within the Woods’, childhood friends Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and star Campbell secured funding from local businesses and traipsed off to the forest to make one of the most ferocious, original and unrelenting horror movies of all time. Sure, it looks a little rough around the edges now (and that still censored tree-rape scene is just unnecessarily vicious), but ‘The Evil Dead’ remains an inspiration for first-time filmmakers, a testament to the power of plasticine, glue and gumption. TH