From Alfred Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick: The ultimate guide to the best horror films of all time
At a time when millions of people are forced to remain home amid strict social distancing measures, we’re here to deliver an expansive list of horror gems to keep us entertained during the lockdown.
While the outside world appears a scary prospect of its own right now, the world of cinema and iconic sub-genres of horror can offer another type of terror altogether.
Horror, which has existed as a genre of film for more than a century, was first inspired by literature from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley and, to this day, still enjoys a close relationship with novelist like Stephen King continually repurposing his work for the big screen.
The great John Carpenter once said: “There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.”
Through different takes on the genre, horror has been riding a rollercoaster of success both commercially and critically. “I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation,” David Cronenberg once said. “Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face. Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film” and it is a sentiment that many great directors have carried with them,
Below, we detail the sub-genres of horror and the films we consider to be the best representation of that category.
Films whose shocks – or ludicrous attempts at them – have stood the test of time.
Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense with good reason. In Rear Window, the innocuous central character (James Stewart) is recuperating from an accident. Stuck in a wheelchair and unable to leave his apartment, he wards off boredom by watching his neighbours through his upper-storey window, becoming something of a voyeur as he pieces together the meaning of their actions. Things take a sinister, then dangerous turn when he sees evidence that a man in the adjoining building may have committed a murder. Best viewed without distractions.
For something more firmly in the horror genre, try Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds, an unusual tale of nature striking back, given added tension through Hitchcock’s directorial skill and some arresting camera work; or his even better known 1960 homicidal-maniac thriller, Psycho.
The late, great Stanley Kubrick’s only horror film, The Shining elevates Stephen King’s claustrophobic ghost story into something unbelievably menacing and eerie. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes on a job as caretaker at a resort hotel which is closed for the winter, leaving Jack, his wife and son completely isolated for months. The previous caretaker had killed his family and himself, for reasons that gradually become apparent. The carefully chosen and distinctive look and sound of the movie’s key scenes enhance the growing sense of dread amazingly. Some horror film lovers consider this the scariest movie ever made. It is certainly in the top ten.
The Sixth Sense is M. Night Shyamalan’s continuing claim to greatness. It’s a great, slow-paced, suspenseful story of a young boy who is burdened with the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, and the therapist who tries to help him. Does it matter that by now, everyone already knows the surprise ending?
The Fly, released by David Cronenberg in 1987, isn’t so much a monster movie — in spite of the obvious presence of a monster — as yet another body-horror tale in the Cronenberg style. It’s a deft remake of a creepy 1958 drama involving the bugbear of the ‘50s, atomic testing resulting in a mutation. In Cronenberg’s version, scientific chutzpah backfires, causing a housefly-human hybrid to develop.
For true classic horror, and to purge the taste of contemporary vampire remakes, consider Dracula, the dated but effectively macabre 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi in his most famous role. An honourable mention also goes to Roman Polanski’s subtly terrifying masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.
Finally, the prototype of all evil-child horror films: The Bad Seed (1956). More for nostalgic laughs than for genuine scares, the film is based on the premise that evil and criminality are hereditary traits. A young mother begins to suspect that her outwardly perfect little girl – played with gratingly false sweetness by child actress Patty McCormack – is actually a serial killer.
Good Old-Fashioned Scary Monsters
Sometimes nothing will do but seeing Tokyo stomped on.
Halloween viewing might also include some of the beloved gigantic monsters treading on helpless cities – and nothing is more of a classic than the original Godzilla (1954). Overlook the bad English dubbing; it’s just part of the experience.
My personal preference along those lines would be Gammera, who appears in a series of Japanese movies, including Gammera the Invincible (1966) and Gammera vs Monster X (1970). Gammera, a giant, a mostly benevolent sea turtle who also flies (while rotating like a frisbee) and emits rays from his shell openings, makes for the best quality entertainment, in my opinion, in the established genre of giant mutated animals at battle.
The quintessential scary film monster may well be the great white shark in Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film enhances the distinctive terror of the sea monster by making it a plausible real-life predator. The story, the acting, Spielberg’s direction, and John Williams’ well-known musical score, create a perfect storm of fear, suspense, and heroism.
Kitschy 1958 outer-space monster film The Blob is both silly and badly made, but its story, of a sort of alien, man-eating amoeba made of raspberry jelly, has been prominent in the nightmares of many a ‘50s and ‘60s child. It should be part of any classic horror festival. So should Them! (1954) a potboiler by incredibly prolific Hollywood director Gordon Douglas, in which nuclear testing has produced gigantic mutant ants which begin attacking the locals. It’s both ridiculous, and surprisingly well done for a giant insect film.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien is definitely worth a mention, for effective suspense and some of the nastiest, most relentlessly homicidal alien beings in film, as well as for Sigourney Weaver’s popular alien-fighting heroine, Ripley. In the vampire category, 30 Days of Night (2007) offers a dark storyline with the some of the most suitably frightening, intractably evil members of the blood-drinking undead ever filmed. A group of vampires have themselves shipped to northern Alaska, just in time for a full month without the constraints of direct sunlight.
The 2008 American monster film Cloverfield is a fairly clever, found-footage update of older giant monster tales, making good use of gargantuan, city-destroying alien monstrosities. The plot is a bit thin, however, and the film may be best known for the hand-held camera work that caused literal nausea in cinema audiences. It’s a twice-removed sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane, is a more sinister, suspenseful abduction tale with a twist, in which John Goodman plays a man who may be the heroine’s protector from a mysterious worldwide threat, maybe a lunatic holding her captive, or possibly both.
In the perennial category of killer robots, Ex Machina is the best recent entry. Alicia Vikander is Ava, an android whose creator claims to be self-aware artificial intelligence. Young scientist Caleb is asked to study Ava and determine whether she is, in fact, sentient. Suspicion of the mysterious, reclusive android-builder leads Caleb to ignore the real danger. Well done cinematography and special effects add to the film’s tension.
“One of us! One of us!”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is most famous as a showcase for the talents of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both ageing out of Hollywood relevance and dismissed into a supposedly second-rate ‘hagsploitation’ horror film — which, in spite of lack of industry support, and in spite of their equally famous mutual hatred, they turned into a chilling masterpiece. It is also frightening in its own right, a claustrophobic tale of two bitter women virtually devouring each other to the point of death.
The Blair Witch Project is the quintessential found-footage horror film, one that horror fans either love or hate. In its nicely streamlined storyline, a group of university students decide to make a short documentary on a spooky local legend called the Blair Witch but end up finding it more real than they had expected. The film scrupulously follows one of the cardinal rules of horror: the less you show, the scarier it is.
Videodrome is strange even by director David Cronenberg’s standards. The 1983 film about a cursed cable-TV programme seems to foreshadow Ringu/The Ring, but it takes a different direction. Features some of Cronenberg’s characteristic body horror in a story that veers from the frighteningly real to the dreamlike.
Cube (1997) is an unadorned story of six people, strangers to one another, who wake up to find themselves in a bizarre, dangerous, high-tech labyrinth. They must use their various talents and resources to escape without setting off the concealed dangers placed along the maze, and without turning on one another.
Angel Heart (1987) features Mickey Rourke as a Sam Spade-type private detective with a problem that goes well beyond his missing person case, in this bleak fusion of film noir crime story and supernatural horror.
Off the Beaten Path
Odd horror is the best horror.
It Follows (2014) is built on an intriguing and original concept: the monster a sexually transmitted disease. Filmed in a naturalistic style that gradually allows the nightmarish quality of the film’s relentless ‘monster’ to sink in. Different, and effectively scary.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) is a critically acclaimed feature by writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour. The moody, black and white film is set in a grim, industrial town with the distinctly comic-book name of Bad City. It is inhabited by thugs, drug dealers, prostitutes, junkies, and beggars. It also happens to contain a young female vampire. Amirpour gives the film the look of a spaghetti western incongruously set in present-day Iran, with generous hints of other film genres, from classic horror to anime. The imagery is striking, from the dreamy close-ups of ordinary objects to the wonderful use of the vampire girl’s flowing chador as a parallel to Dracula’s cape. It also has a fantastic soundtrack.
Pontypool (2008) may be the zombie film for people who detest zombie films. As surly radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) endures his workday at the single radio station in Pontypool, a small town in northern Ontario, strange things are happening to the local residents. The reason, it is gradually revealed, may have something to do with our misuse of language. Mazzy and his two co-workers remain trapped in the station, trying to make sense of the growing plague and to warn outsiders, even though their warnings may be accelerating the disaster. Unusual, eerie, and suspenseful.
Also in the zombie genre, but with a twist, is last year’s The Girl With All The Gifts. In a dystopian, zombie-ravaged future, the remaining humans keep the rare zombie children who retain their intelligence and free will in high-security facilities, thinly disguised as schools. The story follows one of the inmates, a little girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua) as she endures captivity and struggles to understand her nature.
In spite of being a popular success, Get Out can be called offbeat for its unusual theme: racial horror, applying the classic theme of justified paranoia. A young black man and his white girlfriend visit her parents, in an upscale community where the couple seem to be welcomed, but where attitudes are weirdly off, and where the white residents seem to have plans for their token black visitor. Genuinely frightening and intense.
It’s terrifying! It’s funny! It’s…the film that ridiculed itself!
The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is perhaps the ultimate horror film parody, referencing dozens, possibly hundreds, of horror movies from Evil Dead to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from Nightmare on Elm Street to Ju-On. The story is essentially that of a typical slasher film — five college students travel to a secluded cabin for a fun weekend, where they meet with unexpected horrors — but there is more going on. The five are being remotely monitored by laboratory technicians in a vast, advanced facility whose purpose is only gradually revealed. The story gleefully mocks horror film conventions even while using them very effectively to advance the increasingly complicated plot. Includes what may be the most gruesomely violent, yet funny, extended scene ever made, in which virtually every horror film threat known to cinema takes part.
The Final Girls (2015) is a straightforward spoof which simultaneously laughs at slasher films, and provides a legitimate slasher film plotline. Everything from the title (referring to the customary “final girl(s)” who are the last to survive the serial killer’s attacks) to the stock characters are horror film caricatures, in a story set at a Friday the Thirteenth-style summer camp.
Zombieland (2009) is a violent and raucous comedy as well as a scary, post-zombie-apocalypse story. Meek but determined survivor Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) joins a small team of zombie fighters (Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone) on a road trip across the newly zombie-occupied America. Features a completely goofy scene with Bill Murray as himself.
Little Shop of Horrors was a mediocre 1960 horror-comedy about a giant man-eating plant. Frank Oz’s 1986 pop musical version makes it a loopy but enjoyable success, with inspired casting such as making the lead singer of Motown group The Four Tops the voice of the deadly plant.