With Halloween just around the corner I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite horror films. We all love a good scare (well, most of us) and there’s nothing like a good horror film to provoke that spine-tingling, adrenaline-rushing, blood-curdling reaction out of you. Everyone is obviously going to have their own ideas of what they find scary and will also have their own unique reactions to the films that depict those scares. For me the best horror films are those that play with the psychological aspects of fear. They don’t simply resort to jump-scares and bloody imagery as a means of frightening their audiences, they understand what it is beneath the surface that makes people afraid and they go after it. They provide their scares by building an environment of insecurity and dread through atmosphere and tension. They can be subtle and ambiguous or blatant and clear so long as they understand the nature of whatever fear it is they are trying to exploit. Fear is an incredibly complex emotion and it takes a good deal of intellect and skill to understand how to harness and express it in any medium including film. What follows is a list of the 10 films that I have found to be the most terrifying.
10. The Haunting (1963)
There are many who hold that what you don’t see in a horror film is always scarier than what you do. No film exemplifies this better than The Haunting, the definitive haunted house movie. Not once do we ever see a ghost in this film and yet the tension and the scares are always present. People are naturally afraid of what they cannot understand or explain and so Robert Wise was able to exploit this fear through ambiguity and uncertainty. We are never sure how much of what is happening is in Nell’s head or how much of it is real. Even when it is clear that something supernatural is at work, or at least appears to be, the ambiguous nature of the threat means that we’re never sure what to expect. Sometimes less really is more and The Haunting is proof of that.
9. Evil Dead II (1982)
It shouldn’t even be possible for a film to be both terrifying and hilarious at the same time and yet, somehow, Sam Raimi pulled it off. Even though The Evil Dead is more of a conventional horror and is certainly scary in a more traditional way, for me the second instalment takes the cake due to how depraved and batshit insane it is. Between the tree rape, the fight between Ash and his disembodied hand and the laughing deer head, we’re never sure whether we should be laughing or screaming. Whereas The Haunting succeeds in being scary through restraint and subtlety, Evil Dead II succeeds by doing the exact opposite. The bizarre mixture of masterful slapstick and over-the-top blood and gore was somehow able to blend together to create what is easily the most successful horror-comedy (that I can think of) ever created.
8. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Probably the most artistically directed and least conventional horror film on this list, there was a time when Don’t Look Now was more famous for its steamy sex scene than it was for its scares. Today however this film is a horror classic, providing a beautifully haunting essay on terror and dread. The film flirts with supernatural and occult ideas with Venice itself portrayed as an almost otherworldly city, full of strange sights and unsettling people. The ambiguity and vagueness of it all makes for a stunningly creepy atmosphere. On top of it all of course is the overlying fear of loss with the two leading characters broken and traumatised by the death of their young daughter. The pain and suffering they undergo is then stretched to horrific proportions as the film builds up to its terrifying finale.
7. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There’s something about this film that really gets under my skin. Putting the satanic themes aside, the dread and paranoia that Rosemary experiences throughout her disturbing pregnancy is almost unbearable to watch. Watching her struggle to keep her sanity as she loses her ability to distinguish between reality and fiction is like watching a living nightmare. This idea that everyone she knows and trusts are somehow abusing and torturing her without her knowledge and that everything in her life that makes her feel loved and safe might be an illusion is a frightening one. Polanski’s ability to interweave the fearful aspects of the mysterious and the mystical has a petrifying effect as Rosemary descends deeper into madness and fear.
6. Alien (1979)
The tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream”. The iconic chest-burster scene is of course the moment when the screams are at their loudest and it still manages to get a good jump out of me whenever I watch it. What really makes this film a cinematic horror classic though is the claustrophobia it evokes. Surrounded only be the silent, timeless void of space, these characters are trapped by the dark, mechanical confines of their ship with a silent and deadly beast. The uncertainty of their surroundings builds a palpable source of tension that only grows more and more agonising as the crewmembers become more confined and afraid. Giger’s incredible design of the alien, a terrifying monster with a cold, metallic exterior, plays no small part in heightening the fear in this chilling film.
5. The Thing (1982)
Thinking about it now the premise of this film is very similar to that of Alien. Both films depict an unknown life form that terrorises a group in an isolated location from which they cannot escape. However what made The Thing a scarier experience for me is that, as well as having the same sense of claustrophobia as Alien, it also has an added element of paranoia. This being can assume the form of any one of these characters and so we are never sure who we can trust. The moments when the group is (seemingly) alone are ripe with tension as they attempt to discover if everyone really is whoever they appear to be. Much like in Alien, the grotesquely horrifying design of this creature adds just as much to the scares as Carpenter’s expert direction.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Probably the most influential horror film to be made in the last 50 years, this story of demonic possession has set the standard for what a modern horror film should be. Depicting a compelling tale of fear, loss and faith and combining it with a forbidding supernatural concept, The Exorcist delivers scares across the spectrum as two priests gather to combat the wrath of the demon-child. Regan provides this film with a fascinatingly scary villain who is as unpredictable as she is menacing. With such daunting moments as Father Merrin’s silhouette emanated by that eerie light, the climax on those hard, fatal steps and of course the crucifix scene, few mainstream horrors have managed to be as frightening or as shocking as this film.*
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
This film is every single kind of fucked up! Watching the teenagers in this film fall victim to Leatherface’s homicidal rampage was scary enough, but what really horrified me was that dinner scene where we see Leatherface and his warped, deranged family in all of their depravity. While I’m all for horror films that dig into the psychological themes of fear and terror, sometimes all a film has to be is completely and utterly terrifying in order to become a staple of its genre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film that is immense and unrelenting in its horror. Not much more needs to be said about this film because it simply is what it is: a frenzied, depraved, insane horror film.
2. The Shining (1980)
It wouldn’t be a horror list without some mention of Stephen King and Kubrick’s The Shining remains the scariest adaptation ever made of King’s work. One thing Kubrick always knew how to do well was atmosphere and his use of unsettling music, uncomfortably long takes and creepy imagery made him the perfect candidate to direct what is perhaps cinema’s quintessential horror film. Nicholson’s performance as the violently unhinged Jack Torrance is wonderfully demented in the way Nicholson knows how to do so well and remains one of the craziest performances in any horror film. The film’s scariest moments from the creepy twins to the lady in the bath to the climatic chase in the maze have all become iconic since the film’s release and still scare me out of my wits.
1. The Innocents (1961)
The film absolutely terrifies me to my core every time I watch it. The Capote-penned story of a governess who is given the charge of two delightful children in a house with a tragic and disturbing history is a monument of everything that I love in a horror film. It is dark, ambiguous, subtle, sinister and beautiful. The underlying mystery of this estate, its strange occurrences and whether or not the children know anything about it is immaculately crafted and stupendously executed. The uncertainty surrounding these occurrences, whether there really is something evil at work or if they are merely the fantasies of a chaste governess, is every bit as fascinating as it daunting. This is gothic horror at its finest and there is no other film that frightens me as much as this does. I still get chills whenever I hear that song about the weeping willow.