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 Herk Harvey (Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger)
It’s impossible to experience the monochrome weirdness of David Lynch’s first feature, ‘Eraserhead’, or the ghoulish zombie nightmare that is George Romero’s ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ without recalling the eerie atmospherics, off-kilter images and disorientating dream sequences found in this influential cult movie. Emerging from a river sodden and somnambulant, Mary Henry (Hilligoss), is the sole survivor of a drag race crash, but her mental disorientation and a mysterious white-faced man later draw her to an abandoned carnival pavilion in Salt Lake City. Mary’s sense of dislocation is exacerbated by episodes in which she seems to become invisible and inaudible to those around her. Shot in three weeks for a paltry $33,000, it features a creepy organ score. NF
Dir Neil Marshall (Shauna Macdonald, MyAnna Buring, Natalie Mendoza)
'Subterranean nightmare blues.'
What might have been a routine ‘chicks with picks’ movie is lent extra emotional depth by the complex group dynamics of six young women who plunge into an Appalachian cave system and discover they are not alone. As well as the cold, the dark and the claustrophobia, they find ancient, blind and ferocious predators with a highly evolved sense of smell. As the women fight to survive, they must also cope with their own half-buried secrets: betrayals surface, tensions explode and loyalties disintegrate. Still grieving for her husband and daughter, Sarah (Macdonald) is driven to the edge of madness by this blend of terror and suspicion. A smarter, nastier big sister to the blokey ‘Dog Soldiers’. NF
Dir Andrzej Zulawski (Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Heinz Bennent)
'Down in the tube station at midnight.'
‘Unrelenting’ is a word often applied to horror movies, but it’s rarely appropriate: even the most extreme movies need the occasional moment of downtime to allow the audience to catch their breath. Not ‘Possession’. Zulawski’s film starts relatively quietly – an expat couple living in Berlin find their marriage falling apart – and builds through a series of arguments, betrayals, unexplained occurrences, bizarre satirical interruptions and scenes of extreme horror until the intensity is almost unbearable. The lead performances are remarkable – Isabelle Adjani’s explosive freakout in the metro station remains one of cinema’s most devastating kicks in the face – and the script is both politically bold and emotionally draining. The effect is quite simply unique, a window into a singular form of creative insanity: it’s not the characters who are possessed, but the film itself. TH
Dir Don Siegel (Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter)
'The pods next door.'
Is it a crafty satire of all-American consumerist conformity or a conservative parable about the creeping evils of Commie infiltration? It’s the open-endedness of Siegel’s masterful adaptation of Jack Finney’s bone-chilling novel about shape-shifting pod people which makes it so durable – it really is all things to all people. But none of this would mean a thing if it wasn’t also a massively entertaining and propulsive watch: sure, the whole stiff-collar, white-picket-fence ’50s thing looks a little creaky nowadays, particularly when the pipe-smoking boffins get involved, but that only adds to the otherworldliness of Siegel’s vision. Then, of course, there’s that dynamite ending, one of the bleakest in horror, and bold as hell for the time. TH
Dir Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard)
'A year later their footage was found...'
Although the alleged anthropological footage of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980) pre-dated Myrick and Sánchez's terrifying faux documentary by nearly two decades, this film made them the founding fathers of modern ‘found footage’ horror. Shot for $50,000 in just eight days, it purports to show an edited version of the grainy, hand-held videotape shot by missing film students Heather, Josh and Michael, while investigating the Blair Witch legend in and around Burkittsville, Maryland. There are interviews with locals, footage of the trio getting hopelessly lost in the woods, and increasingly hysterical arguments. At night, inside their flimsy tent, they are assailed by creepy scuffling and eerie screams. Crucially, since neither director was a horror nerd, they cut a highly original path through the dark woods of our imagination. NF
Dirs Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer (Michael Redgrave, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael)
It’s Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy that most people rightly remember about this Ealing Studios anthology of horror yarns, woven together as a series of tales told by guests at a tea party at a remote cottage. The tales themselves vary in quality, but the talent involved – the cream of Ealing – remains impressive. As well as the ventriloquist’s episode, the other strong segment is directed by Robert Hamer (‘It Always Rains on Sunday’) and features a mirror that reflects another time and place. For this story, a husband (Michael) is possessed, dragged into the mirror and inspired to try and kill his wife (Withers). Horror disappeared from cinemas during the war, so this marked a return to screens for the genre.DC
- Don't be a dummy
Dir Georges Franju (Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel)
Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘The Skin I Live In’ was inspired in part by Franju’s clinical, monochrome movie about an obsessive professor of plastic surgery. With the help of his lover/assistant, Louise (Valli), Professeur Génessier (Brasseur) abducts and peels the faces off young women. He then grafts the victims’ flayed visage on his daughter Christiane’s badly scarred face, which in the meantime is hidden and protected by a featureless plastic mask. Effectively imprisoned by her father, who feels responsible for the car accident in which she was disfigured, the infantilised Christiane is like a caged baby bird waiting to find its wings. There were reports of audience members fainting during the facial surgery scenes, but for Franju this was a tale of anguish rather than a horror movie per se. NF
Dir Wes Craven (Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, John Saxon)
'Freddy’s coming for you.'
In 1996, Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ – a knowing, post modern riff on the teen slasher movie – revived the jaded cycle for a new, cine-literate generation of horror fans. Twelve years earlier, Craven had done the same, his dream-invading Freddy Krueger revitalising the tired ‘kids to the slaughter cycle’ that was kick-started by ‘Friday the 13th’. With his ragged, stripy sweater, battered hat and finger-knives, Old Pizza Face sliced his way into the Elm Street teens’ dreams, visiting the sins of the fathers upon a new generation, and becoming an instant horror icon. Ignore the dumb ending imposed by crass New Line executives, but look out for the scene where Nancy (Langenkamp) warns her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), ‘Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.’ NF
Dir Ruggero Deodato (Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen)
'You found it here first.'
One of the few ‘Video Nasties’ that lives down to its provocative title and lurid cover art. Yet for all its crude excesses – a foetus is ripped from its mother’s womb, a tortoise is skinned alive, genitals are sliced off – ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ does achieve an undeniable visceral intensity. This is largely due to Deodato’s pioneering use of the faux-documentary technique now adopted by every ‘found footage’ horror film, from ‘Blair Witch’ onwards. After witnessing the barbaric practices of an Amazonian tribe, sensation-seeking American documentary filmmakers develop a taste for rape and murder. For all its graphic depictions of cruelty and torture, the most appalling thing about this cannibalistic carnage is the laughable way that it purports to condemn the exploitative violence that it so obviously delights in depicting. NF
Dir Pascal Laugier (Mylene Jampanoi, Morjana Alaoiu)
'The turn of the screw.'
No ‘Saw’. No ‘Hostel’. One of the biggest surprises thrown up by the Time Out horror poll is that none of the torture-porn horrors of the past decade crept into the list… except ‘Martyrs’. Pascal Laugier’s unrelenting, nastily effective film does, perhaps, show the Americans how to properly do torture (try watching metal screws being pulled out of a young woman’s skull). It opens with a terrifying scene: a girl of about 11, her hair hacked short, running out of an abandoned abattoir, soaked in dried blood. Cut to fifteen years later, and the girl is out for revenge against her torturers – who, it turns out, are members of a martyrdom cult. If that has you reaching for a bucket, wait for the American remake; it’s being produced by makers of Twilight and is likely to be a tad less nihilistic. CC