And here's the last lot...
10. Alien (D: Ridley Scott, 1979)
Ridley Scott’s space based horror classic has lost none of its terrifying power in the three decades since it was first released. It also remains a truly timeless film due to Scott’s direction; the wonderfully worn down industrial look of the human world and the wonderfully weird, utterly original, utterly horrific and iconic design of the alien and everything connected to it. But the real power of the film is, like Carpenter’s Halloween, in its chilling simplicity. Mostly likeable, relatable people stalked by a horrific and seemingly unstoppable monster looking to appear suddenly from the shadows to kill them at any given moment. The cast are all great, especially Ian Holm as the treacherous android, and Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, a character that is the touchstone for her career and that defined the tough, smart, capable, yet still feminine heroes who would follow in her wake. This film looks utterly gorgeous in every way from the design to the cinematography to the miniature model effects. Plus Jerry Goldsmith goes and adds yet another classic score to his resume. Sci fi horror doesn’t get any better than this. Well, perhaps just one other movie manages to. But more about that later. Alien produced a classic sequel (Aliens), which is arguably an even better film than its progenitor, though not strictly a horror film, so is not eligible for this particular list. It also produced one very good if flawed sequel (Alien 3), one terrible sequel (Alien: Resurrection), and one interesting prequel (Prometheus). Oh, and the godawful Alien vs. Predator spin-offs too. But for sheer pant wetting class all the way you can’t top Sir Rid’s original. Because remember, in space nobody can hear you scream.
9. Poltergeist (D: Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Ah, the summer of 1982, when classic genre films fell from the sky like golden rain. It was the summer of ET, The Thing, Star Trek 2, Mad Max 2, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Tron. And a certain little horror film co-written and produced by none other than king beard himself, Steven Spielberg. The Freeling family – dad Steven (Craig T Nelson), mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), young son Robbie (Oliver Robbins), and youngest daughter Carol-Anne (Heather O’Rourke) live in Cuesta Verde, California, a new build suburban housing estate. Steven also works on the estate selling the remaining houses off to new buyers. Soon, though, strange things start happening around the Freeling’s brand new house, events mostly centred on their young daughter, 6yr old blond moppet Carol-Anne, who hears whispered voices in the TV – the ‘TV People’. At first the disturbances are just strange and kinda cool. But when Carol-Anne announces that “They’re heeeere!” and then goes and vanishes in to thin air (or her closet), Mom and Dad Freeling call in the paranormal experts to investigate. The scientists, quickly finding themselves out of their depth, call in a highly regarded psychic medium to try and find out what is going on and where poor little Carol-Anne has got to. Enter four-foot nothing Tangina, one of horror cinema’s greatest characters played to the quirky hilt by the late great Zelda Rubinstein. Poltergeist is a Spielberg movie through and through, even though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper directed it. The set up and the setting are pure Spielberg - middle class suburbia where something decidedly abnormal is about to happen to normal people. Also the film's shot set ups and the way the actors are directed, especially the kids, reeks of The Beard. Poltergeist is a modern haunted house movie using (then) cutting edge special effects to tell a chilling story of ghoulies and ghosties. But primarily it is an emotional tale of helpless and harried parents who have lost a child and are desperate to find her and rebuild their fractured family. The cast is excellent with especially strong work from JoBeth Williams as Diane and Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina. But the film really hits home through the sweetly realistic performance of the cute as a button Heather O’Rourke as little Carol-Anne. It is part of the sad legacy of Poltergeist that the poor little mite passed away suddenly five years later from a misdiagnosed bowel condition. She was aged just 12. Also, Dominique Dunne who played eldest Freeling child Dana was murdered by her ex-boyfriend only five months after Poltergeist premiered. Two terrible clouds that will always hang over what is an utterly brilliant film.
“Let’s go get your daughter.”
8. The Shining (D: Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Stanley Kubrick was a filmmaking god and a well known perfectionist who would do endless takes until he got exactly what he wanted. He punished his actors by doing so. None more so than poor Shelley Duvall who was reduced to a crying nervous wreck due to the endless hell she was subjected to in making The Shining. But it paid off in spades. Kubrick's film of Stephen King's haunted hotel tale is a coldly unnerving descent in to madness as writer and winter hotel caretaker Jack Torrance, seeing ghosts in the closed for the winter Overlook Hotel, descends in to homicidal madness and tries to kill his nervy wife and young psychic son. King's novel is more involved with the ghosts and the supernatural goings on which Kubrick chopped right back so that the madness of Torrance becomes the focal issue with the ghosts may or may not being part of his psychosis. Apart from a few second unit location shots the entire film was shot on soundstages in London. The Overlook hotel was built on those stages as was its snowbound exterior in a marvel of design and art direction. Technically the film is a triumph from its design to its cinematography to its editing and minimal score. But it is the intensely precise and utterly chilly direction of Kubrick's and the compelling performances by Nicholson and Duvall that truly sells the film. Nicholson has never been better being hugely scary with that axe. And your heart aches for poor Shelley, for her character and for the actress herself.
7. The Haunting (D: Robert Wise, 1963)
Robert Wise's film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic story The Haunting of Hill House is the greatest ghost story ever made. Wise was a genius. He was a director who worked in almost every genre and made classics in them all. For Sci-Fi see The Day the Earth Stood Still and (to a lesser extent) Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For musicals see West Side Story and The Sound of Music. For horror see this movie. The Haunting sees parasychologist Dr Markway (Richard Johnson) bringing together a small group of sensitive people to take part in an experiment at Hill House, a grand old pile that's allegedly heavily haunted. The doctor wants to prove the existence of the paranormal and hopes to do so at Hill House. The main character is Nell (Julie Harris), a fragile young woman who spent most of her adult life caring for her demanding and now deceased elderly mother. Nell is both excited and fearful to be at the creepy old Hill House. She is also strongly attracted to the thoughtful, caring and intelligent Markway. The rest of the group is made up of provocative and sensual clairvoyant Theo (Claire Bloom) and young playboy Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the future inheritor of Hill House. After a sinister warning from departing housekeeper Mrs Dudley the group settles in for what will soon become a terrifying stay in the old house as the supernatural presence there begins manifesting itself in increasingly dangerous and disturbing ways. The Haunting is gloriously old school. The emphasis is on character and the psychological impact of what scares us. Wise employs highly effective sound effects, a few subtle physical effects and creative camera set-ups and editing to make the audience uneasy and to deliver genuine shivers. He is helped by strong performances all round, especially from the wonderfully fragile Harris as Nell and the charismatic Johnson. But the real star is Wise and his technical team who deliver a truly scary ghost story without any cheap tricks all the while keeping character and story to the fore. A note of interest: the entirety of the film was shot in England doubling for the USA. This was due to the British subsidiary of MGM being the ones who put up the money. A great film then, just forget all about its appalling CGI filled 1999 remake from Speed director Jan De Bont
6. The Thing (D: John Carpenter, 1982)
Another summer of 82 classic, John Carpenter’s adaptation of John W. Campbell, JR’s novella Who Goes There, filmed once before in 1951 as Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, is the pinnacle of sci fi horror. A US team in Antarctica discovers that an alien life form, frozen for millennia in the ice until being unwittingly awoken by Norwegian scientists and escaping, has now infiltrated their isolated base. It soon becomes apparent that the alien kills living beings, absorbs them and essentially becomes them, creating the perfect place to hide. What follows is a tale of frozen paranoia and terrifying body horror as the survivors of the US base try to discover which of their number may be a Thing while also trying to prevent it from escaping and reaching civilisation. Carpenter’s movie is stupendous in every way. It is nerve shredding tension from start to finish based around a smart, tight screenplay which gives us distinctive and relatable characters played by a top notch cast led by Kurt Russell as tough and cynical pilot Macready. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is arguably his best work to date and Ennio Morricone’s score is wonderfully low key and throbbing. But outside of Carpenter’s work, arguably the greatest impact of The Thing is in the still startling and hugely effective make up and mechanical creature effects by Rob Bottin. Along with the work of Rick Baker in a certain werewolf film Bottin’s work on The Thing remains as the high point of make up and creature effects in cinema to this day. Just watch the entirety of the defibrillator sequence and what follows. Two words: spider-head. Brrr The Thing also has a brilliant and classic Carpenter ending – bleak, nihilistic, open ended. On original release The Thing was a flop, opening and quickly closing, all the alien attention in ‘82 going to a certain little dude trying to phone home. Since then the film has become highly regarded and is now a recognised modern classic. Just as it should be.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me!”
5. The Exorcist (D: William Friedkin, 1973)
Everyone knows this film. Its name has lived in infamy for almost forty years now. The tale of a little girl called Regan (Linda Blair) who gets possessed by the Devil and who is eventually confronted by elderly Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and young Father Karras (Jason Miller) in an attempt to drive the loathsome evil our of the child once and for all. William Friedkin’s film adapted from the William Peter Blatty novel of the same name by Blatty himself is for sure one of the most disturbing and terrifying films ever made…even if you don’t believe in the Devil. What the film does is expertly plant the idea in your head, the ‘What if…?’ It makes the seemingly absurd utterly believable. This is partly down to the slow burn character and theme driven screenplay, the realistic and gritty style of direction and the naturalistic performances, especially from Linda Blair as Regan. The reality of what this then twelve year old child had to endure, with the brilliantly horrific Dick Smith make-up, the freezing set, and the awful things she was required to do while possessed, are horrific enough by themselves, let alone the fictional story she and the director are conveying. The increasing horror of Regan’s possession is the spine of the story but I always forget the other major part, which is all about Karras, dealing with his wavering faith and the loss of his mother. Also there is Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother having to deal with what is happening to her daughter. And cop Kinderman (Lee J Cobb) investigating the grisly death of a friend of Regan’s mother near to their house. All of this adds up to a rich, character and story driven film filled with chilling ideas and sequences that still shock as much today as they did forty years ago. The mark of a truly great film, The Exorcist works on many levels, taking itself deathly seriously and giving its audience a cinema experience that might make them question their own personal beliefs, if only for a moment.
4. Dawn of the Dead (D: George A. Romero, 1978)
In 1978 George A. Romero ventured back in to Dead territory for the first time since Night of the Living Dead with this, his sequel to that movie. However Dawn of the Dead is a different beast to the seminal original. Night is a wonderfully dour, deathly serious, starkly shot in black and white and utterly humourless affair. Dawn, though, is bright, garish, fast paced, action packed while being highly comic book in tone and feel. Yes, it is still apocalyptic. And thanks to the legend who is Tom Savini it is still extremely gory. But this time Romero is determined to have fun with the genre he created. And also to take aim at the deficiencies of late 70’s US culture as he saw it: namely consumerism gone mad. As the zombie epidemic spreads and grows worse, helicopter pilot Stephen picks up his girlfriend - TV reporter Fran, and his SWAT Team friend Peter along with another SWAT Team buddy of Peter’s called Roger and flies off looking for a safe haven. Soon they spot a large out of town shopping mall and decide to put down there. Deciding to stay, the four secure the place, getting rid of the zombies inside and locking it down. And for a while things seem to be going well. They have everything they need with this huge palace of consumerism all to themselves. But before too long the outside world comes a calling and everything goes straight back down in to hell. Made for only $600,000 and funded and produced by Italian horror legend Dario Argento, Dawn of the Dead went on to become massively successful grossing nigh on $100m worldwide. Despite its hard core gore and shocks it also garnered wide critical acclaim with smart reviewers seeing through the gore and comic book trappings to the sly social commentary and pointed jabs at 1970’s America. To this day I cannot visit a shopping mall without thinking of how all the people shuffling around seemingly aimlessly are just like those poor mindless ‘consuming’ zombies. And it always makes me giggle.
3. Halloween (D: John Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween is the film that made John Carpenter John Carpenter. I won’t bother to recant the story here as I’m sure you all know it by heart. And if not, why not? What’s wrong with you? Anyway, Halloween pretty much invented the stalk and slash movie and proved to be a huge hit and game changer for horror cinema. But whereas the countless imitators that followed would rely on gore and gimmicks, Carpenter relied on style, atmosphere and tension. Creating a genuinely scary mythic vibe to his bogeyman Michael Myers, Carpenter crafted a film that chills without trying. It's mostly a slow, steady build up to what is a nerve shreddingly tense and creepy finale as poor Laurie Strode (a career making turn from Jamie Lee Curtis) must defend herself and her babysitting charges from the seemingly unstoppable killing machine that is The Shape aka Michael Myers. With classic support from Donald Pleasance as Myers old shrink Dr Loomis who is hot on his heels, Halloween is a delicious cat and mouse affair between Loomis and Myers where you never really know who is the cat and who is the mouse. Halloween was a massive hit upon release. For a long time it was the highest grossing independent film ever. And it remains an undisputed classic, a game changer for Carpenter and for horror cinema as well as an abject lesson in filmmaking from a master. The night HE came home!
Laurie in the closet
2. Let the Right One In (D: Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
It’s 1982 and twelve year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a meek and bullied loner living with his single mother in Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm in Sweden. Lonely and resentful, Oskar soon meets the new arrival just moved in next door: a strange little girl called Eli (Lina Leandersson), dressed in rags and barefoot in the freezing snow. After several tentative meets the two become friends, eventually becoming close. Meanwhile local people have been attacked and killed, drained of blood. It soon becomes clear that Eli is a vampire and the old man living with her is her human slave/carer, who goes out each night and kills for her, getting her fresh blood. But when the old man messes up and goes and gets captured, Eli is forced to fend for herself and to possibly flee the area as the police and the suspicious locals begin to close in. Knowing now what his new friend truly is, Oskar comes to terms with it and helps Eli evade capture and doesn’t stop her when she flees the area for pastures new. But with Eli now gone, Oskar is left all alone to face what is likely to be an awful fate at the hands of his incessant tormentors. I adore this film. I connected right away with the chilly isolation, loneliness and sadness that underlies this mournful yet also rather lovely little tale of childhood disconnection, unlikely friendship and budding love. Adapted from John Adjvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name by the author himself, Let the Right One In is a vampire film, yes, but it is also so much more. Essentially this is a love story about two lost, lonely, damaged souls who find each other amidst a world of endless snow and torment. Restrained and artful direction from Tomas Alfredson brings out wonderful performances from the films two young leads while not ever skimping on the violence and shocks. The end sequence in the swimming pool is a standout and is one of the greatest sequences in recent film memory. The film’s cinematography is sharp and stark and the score by Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist is a thing of haunting romantic beauty. It is rare enough for a horror film to be a genuinely great film. It is even rarer for it to be a deeply touching human story and a work of art that transcends its genre roots. LTROI is not just one of my favourite horror films it’s one of my favourite films. Period. It should also be noted that Matt Reeves’ splendid US adaptation of Lindqvist’s novel titled Let Me In is almost as good too.
1. An American Werewolf in London (D: John Landis, 1981)
And so here we are at my number one favourite horror movie of all time. The story goes like this. Two young American backpackers, Jack and David, are travelling around northern England. Stopping off in the creepy village of East Proctor and its extra creepy pub, the two lads are quickly sent on their way by nervous locals, the bizarre warning of stay off the moors and beware the moon ringing in their ears. Lost in the dark outdoors, the lads are soon stalked and attacked by a savage beast. Jack is killed while David survives and is taken down to a London hospital to recuperate. The police believe it was an escaped madman who was responsible while David insists it was an animal, a wolf. Before long the deceased Jack, looking like a walking meat loaf, is visiting David to warn him that they were attacked by a werewolf and that in two days time, on the full moon, David, having survived, will become a werewolf too. Jack urges David to kill himself so as not to kill anymore people and curse his victims to limbo until the wolf’s bloodline is severed. David thinks he’s going mad. Taking pity on him, comely Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) invites David to come stay with her when he is released from hospital the next day. The following night, though, after a last ditch attempt by Jack to warn David, David does indeed turn in to a werewolf and stalks the streets and underground of London munching on the locals. The movie ends with a chaotic and show stopping finale as David in werewolf form goes on the rampage in a busy Piccadilly Circus, Nurse Alex rushing to get to him to try and calm the savage beast before the police riddle him with bullets. Needless to say it doesn’t end well for poor David. Well, what can I say about John Landis' legendary lycanthropic classic? Lets start with this: as a life long werewolf geek this was THE horror movie that as a kid I simply HAD to see as soon as I possibly could. I followed its production through the pages of Starburst and Fangoria magazines, reading every article I could find and drooling over every awesome looking photo. When it finally came out in the cinema I got my parents to go see it, then come back and report every tiny detail. And as soon as it came out on video rental I got hold of it myself and devoured it like a ravenous werewolf chomping down on a late night underground commuter. It didn't disappoint. AAWWIL is ridiculously simply plotted, darkly funny and pant-wettingly scary. Plus it still has arguably the best make up and creature effects in cinema history courtesy of Rick Baker who won an Oscar for them (they actually had to invent a new category for him for this, one which still lasts to this day.) Oh, and it also has Jenny Agutter as a sexy nurse. Result! The cast are excellent, especially David Naughton as poor doomed David Kessler and Griffin Dunne as zombie Jack Goodman. Plus the supporting British cast are just sublime, having tons of fun with Landis’ quirky and jet black humour, even delving in to silly physical humour with the likes of the well meaning but bumbling copper Sergeant McManus. What AAWWIL also does wonderfully is capture a genuine feel of Britain in the early 80’s. The TV is terrible, the tabloid newspapers are openly salacious, and the cost of living is high and getting higher. There’s an underlying feeling of grim reality to the whole thing tempered with jet-black humour, and not just regarding the carnivorous lunar activities of poor David Kessler but also about life in general in Great Britain at the time. So, things haven’t really changed that much then. My only quibble with Landis’ movie is this (and it has always bugged): why does David turn in to a werewolf on two consecutive nights? Jack tells him he turns on the full moon. Well, there is only ever one proper full moon per month. A glaring error by Landis. I understand why for story purposes he wanted David to turn twice in a row but only a slight tweaking to werewolf lore was needed. A line of dialogue to say that, for example, that someone who is a werewolf turns every full moon and the night immediately following the full moon. Anyway, it’s a minor annoyance that doesn’t spoil the overall movie experience. The bottom line is I love this movie so much that it makes me wanna howl! Beware the moon!
Time to change in to something less comfortable
A few other titles that could (and maybe should) have been included in this countdown:
The Cabin in the Woods - Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's brilliantly fun celebration and also undercutting of the horror genre would be a top five film in this list. However the very nature of the film and what it is doing I thought would be unfair to all the 'real' horror films in the list. Cabin sits above (or below?) the specific horror genre in a genre all of its own. So I decided to leave it out of this list just to be fair on all the others. But it is utter;y brilliant!
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn – Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s rollicking gangster/vampire flick with George Clooney becoming an instant movie star and Salma Hayek as the sexiest vampire with a snake ever.
30 Days of Night – David Slade’s stylish and bloody adaptation of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s classic comic book about a band of savage vampires attacking the small Alaskan town of Barrow after the sun sets for thirty days and nights.
The Wicker Man – Robin Hardy’s classic folk horror with Edward Woodward as a god fearing copper going to a remote Scottish island to find a missing child.
American Psycho – Mary Harron’s excellent adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel about psycho yuppie Patrick Bateman who goes mental in the 80’s. A career making performance from Christian Bale.
Let Me In – Matt Reeves’ US adaptation of John Adjvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In. A wonderful movie almost as good as the Swedish original.
The Woman – Lucky McKee’s brutal and shocking story about a feral woman captured in the wild by a family and then kept in their shed in order to try to tame her.