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 James Whale (Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke)
Gods and monsters.
The door opens and the monster lumbers in, taking his first unsteady baby steps. He’s alive! But as he turns to the face the camera, there’s a ghoulish deadness behind his eyes. How we picture Frankenstein’s monster is defined by make-up legend Jack Pierce’s handiwork: those neck-bolts, the flat head, the sunken eyes. In 1932 the audience was expecting Bela Lugosi as the Monster, but he’d been dropped by the studio (and Lugosi himself had disapproved of the way the script turned Mary Shelley’s philosophising creation into a non-speaking part). Boris Karloff, then a relative unknown, was cast by on-the-rise director James Whale, who also brought to ‘Frankenstein’ his trademark dry wit. Not that his film lacks scares, and a scene in which a farmer carries the limp body of his daughter through a village celebrating Frankenstein’s wedding is still deeply shocking. CC
Dir Jacques Tourneur (Simone Simon, Kent Smith)
Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up.
The idea of horror as an act of political or cultural subversion may have gained traction in the ’70s, but it’s been there all along: what is Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ if not a satire on class? The message in Jacques Tourneur’s eerily beautiful ‘Cat People’ may be more subtle, but it’s equally persuasive: this is a study of the innate power of female sexuality, and how suppressing that power can force it to burst forth in unexpected and dangerous ways. Simone Simon plays Irena, A Serbian immigrant whose repressive childhood – involving, the film implies, sexual abuse – causes her to transform into a deadly panther in moments of arousal. The film’s power lies in the way Tourneur subtly explores these themes without ever crossing the line of taste, or losing sight of the emotional tragedy at the story’s core. TH
Dir Tomas Alfredson (Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson)
Biy meets vampire.
An instant classic? If its position in the top 100 is anything to go by, then yes. Tomas Alfredson’s creepy horror, whose snowy setting suits its sadness, is a coming of age story about falling in love for the first time. Twelve year-old Oskar (Hedebrant) falls for the girl next door Eli (Leandersson). He tells her she smells funny and lends her his Rubik’s cube (this is 1981). But the sweet he offers makes her violently sick. And her eyes bleed if she goes into his flat uninvited. Eli is a vampire: ‘I’ve been this age for a very long time.’ Director Alfredson didn’t want polished performances, so cast non-professional actors. Eli is spookily ageless, most memorably in a scene stroking the face of her devoted middle-aged minder/body-snatcher like he’s her wayward son. CC
Dir David Cronenberg (James Woods, Sonja Smits, Debbie Harry)
Long live the new flesh.
Cronenberg’s most prescient film explores, through the eyes and media-altered mind of sleazy cable television programmer Max Renn (James Woods), the dangerous world imagined by the censors – one in which exposure to extreme images destroys the viewer’s ability to distinguish between plastic reality and perverse fantasy. As the late-night Videodrome channel’s violent imagery distorts Max’s perception, we are forced to share his subjective point of view. So we can’t be sure if his sado-masochistic relationship with Nicki Brand (Blondie singer Harry) is any more real than the vagina-like orifice that has opened up in his stomach. And when Max slots a video tape into this corporeal opening, flesh and technology meld into one. ‘You have to learn to live with a strange new reality,’ insists self-styled media evangelist Brian O’Blivion. And how. NF
Dir (James Whale (Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger)
Is ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ the best film inspired by Mary Frankenstein’s nineteenth-century bone-chiller? Time Out’s panel of experts voted it so. Director Whale tried to duck out of making a follow-up to his 1931 hit ‘Frankenstein’, but the studio turned the screws and Whale caved, declaring that if he must make another film, it would be a real ‘hoot’. But while ‘Bride’ is full of camp, sly humour, Karloff’s return as the lumbering monster is also incredibly moving. Dr Frankenstein has given up playing God and tinkering with cadavers, but his dastardly mentor Praetorious blackmails him into creating a mate (Lanchester) for the monster. Legendary make-up ace Jack Pierce’s look for the Bride – barbed wire scars, diva make-up, frizzed out hair streaked with lightening bolts – and Lanchester’s jolting movements, eerily innocent, make this an American gothic to remember. CC
Dir Peter Medak (George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas)
Did it just get cold in here...?
Old fashioned in the best sense of the phrase, Medak’s oft-neglected supernatural thriller uses pure cinematic technique to scare the hell out of us. The magisterial Scott plays a well known composer who, following the death of his wife and son in a road accident, takes up a teaching job in Seattle and moves into an eerie, haunted Victorian house. Even the most hackneyed scenes, such as a séance in which a scribbling medium attempts to contact the unquiet spirit of the murdered boy, are staged with consummate skill and emotional conviction. Guillermo del Toro maintains that the best ghost stories all have an undertow of melancholy. That’s certainly true here.
Dir Alfred Hitchcock (Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor)
Our feathered friends.
Along with ‘Psycho’, this loose spin on a Daphne du Maurier novella marked Hitchcock’s main foray into horror territory. ‘The Birds’ sees pernicious flocks of birds follow a metropolitan, San Franciscan blonde (Tippi Hedren) to a sleepy coastal town, and it’s these winged creatures that terrify as Hedren fights to resist being pecked to death. Hitchcock often scares by suggestion as crows appear on telegraph wires and the noise of them becomes increasingly intense – but he also shows full-on, unsettling aerial attacks, and the special effects for these scenes still endure. Psychologically, ‘The Birds’ is perhaps not Hitchcock’s most fully realised film, but it’s certainly one of his most open as we are left to wonder why, exactly, Hedren’s fledgling romance with Rod Taylor and his claustrophobic relationship with his mum (Jessica Tandy) inspire such avian terror. Just imagine those birds in 3D. DC
Dir David Cronenberg (Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis)
Friends don't let friends teleport.
David Cronenberg’s delirious reimagining of that old story of a scientist whose experiments with teleportation lead to a nasty genetic mixup, ‘The Fly’ isn’t just one of the very finest horror movies, it’s also one of cinema’s great tragic romances. Charming, tentative and beautifully written, the initial relationship between leads Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis harks back to the screwball romances of old, which only makes Goldblum’s ensuing physical and mental degradation all the more horrifying to behold. In Cronenberg’s hands, this genetic disease becomes a forceful metaphor for everything bad you can imagine, from cancer, Aids and ageing to lost love and inexplicable heartbreak. Beautiful, sickening, exhilarating, savage, inspiring and inspired, ‘The Fly’ is humanist cinema at its most non-human, and a master filmmaker’s finest hour. TH
Dir FW Murnau (Max Schreck, Greta Schröder)
Birth of a nation.
The film that made it all happen, Murnau’s loose, unofficial adaptation of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ may not have been the first horror movie (that honour probably goes to George Meliés’s ‘Le Manoir du Diable’) but it’s certainly the most influential. So many keynotes of the genre emerge fully formed here: the use of light and shadow, threat and tension, beauty and ugliness, a man in grotesque make-up threatening an innocent girl. And what’s remarkable is that it remains a deeply unsettling piece of work: Schreck’s contorted performance, not to mention that hideous, batlike make-up, may be the film’s most iconic image, but the plague-of-rats scene is deeply unnerving too – we can only imagine how it must have seemed to audiences emerging from the First World War. TH
Dir Tod Browning (Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles)
Pretty on the inside.
A horror film? Try a tender, humane tale of love and betrayal. Director Tod Browning had himself run away from school to join the circus. And in ‘Freaks’ he assembled a cast of ‘sideshow freaks’ (they’re also fine actors) to tell the story of beautiful trapeze artist Cleo (Baclanova) who marries midget Hans (Earles) for his money and poisons him. Browning sketches life on the road with tremendous affection and humour: take the man who marries one Siamese twin but can’t stand her sister (‘I’m not having my wife lying in bed half the day with your hangover!’). What makes ‘Freaks’ a horror film is its disturbing, macabre ending, as the ‘freaks’ chase Cleo and her strong-man lover through the forest – though of course the real horror here is the cruelty of the so-called ‘normals’. ‘Freaks’ was banned in the UK for 30 years until the mid ‘60s. CC