10. The Exorcist: I’ve long been chastised for my insistence that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist suffers from miserably inconsistent pacing. Well, I still consider the film to be a rollercoaster in regards to momentum, however that doesn’t mean I don’t find the film frightening. On the contrary, The Exorcist is terrifying. The moments in which Regan is under complete evil influence are petrifying and impacting. No one is going to forget that green vomit spewing forth from this poor kid’s profane mouth, and no one is about to look at that notorious crucifix scene and say that’s not terrifying. Uh-uh, not happening. This one is truly frightening, despite any shortcomings.
09. Insidious: Insidious often earns comparisons to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. There’s fair reason for that, as both ultimately drop terror in the middle of a comfortable family in their impressive abode, one of the family’s children the focal target of a menacing presence. However, the similarities beyond that point really aren’t too detectable, and James Wan’s execution is severely different from Hooper’s. Wan is a master of suspense, and his understanding of drawn out single shots and jarring aesthetic imprints is one of a kind in today’s cinematic landscape. Insidious isn’t just a terrifying film, it’s the first to incite actual fear in this viewer since (believe it or not) the American remake of Ringu.
08. Poltergeist/Poltergeist II (TIE): Poltergeist is a terrific “haunted house” flick, with an assortment of scintillating twists. Poltergeist II isn’t as technically refined, and features a few sequences that some would brand too outrageous to support. It’s doubtful that any would side with my belief that Poltergeist II is as unnerving as its predecessor, but I could care less. While the first film makes for a more entertaining viewing experience as a whole, the second features the creepiest SOB to ever stumble into frame. That’s right, I’m talking about Kane, that senile old bastard with danger in his eyes and a haunting medley on the tongue. That dude is beyond frightening, and he single handedly sees Poltergeist II share a spot with the amazing Poltergeist.
07. Jaws: Nobody watches Jaws and thinks, I wanna go for a swim! It just doesn’t happen. The reason being the believability of Steven Spielberg’s aquatic epic. Sharks exist. Great white sharks exist. They’re also known for taking the occasional bite out of surfers. This is a very tangible topic to take to film, and between Spielberg’s genius directorial tactics and the magical connection between Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss (Dreyfuss and Shaw constantly butted heads on set, and still turned in stellar performances that completely work) viewers are left with one of the most unsettling features history has to offer.
06. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Creating an honestly scary slasher film is no easy task. As slashers continue to see frequent production that accomplishment becomes even rarer; ideas become increasingly cliché, originality seeping out of the package. But back in ’84 Wes Craven concocted an idea that was almost guaranteed to leave heads spinning. What if innocent youth were murdered in their sleep, when the human body really is totally defenseless? There’s no way to escape that, and it’s mortifying to contemplate. Freddy Krueger may not be my favorite villain to grace the big screen, but in terms of outright fear factor, he might very well be the most intimidating creation ever birthed.
05. Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock is one of, if not the most influential figure in genre history. Hitchcock had a thorough grasp on fear and precisely how to create it. His cinematic techniques are still mimicked today and his standout efforts are still cherished, placed on many a pedestal. Psycho is the legend’s finest accomplishment. Alfred shattered rules, disposing of the films heroine and marquee name in roughly 45 minutes, toying with taboo topics such as incest and breathing life into an unsuspecting but profoundly threatening villain in Norman Bates. This film is wrought with tension and anchored by psychological turmoil that paves the way for one of the most memorable finales ever filmed.
04. The Shining (1980): Stephen King has never been too pleased with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. That’s understandable, the film differs from the source material in a multitude of ways. If you’re a purist, you too may consider the film… off (for lack of a more appropriate term), but if you’re willing to separate – in your mind – King’s story from Kubrick’s, and watch this one with an open mind, you’re in store for something special. The Shining is unbelievably chilling. From the ghosts of the twins, to the decaying nudie in room 237, to Jack Nicholson’s extreme spiral in the pic’s waning moments, The Shining is the definition of special filmmaking. It’s also one of the most frightening features available to fans today.
03. Alien (1979): Is Alien science fiction? Absolutely. Is it just as much horror as it is science fiction? No doubt. Ridley Scott’s out of this world tale of the murderous xenomorph and the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo still stands as an innovative and revolutionary picture. Ridley Scott took to the director’s chair and proved that the perfect blend of visceral jolts and suspenseful storytelling can make for an absolutely beautiful film. Alien is about as close to a flawless film that you’ll find, and it hasn’t lost a shred of impact over the last 34 years. The fact that it really launched the career of the stunning yet powerful Sigourney Weaver is just icing… just icing!
02. Black Christmas (1974): Bob Clark hasn’t received one tenth of the credit he deserves. Without Black Christmas, the slasher subgenre is radically different today. Without Black Christmas, we may never have seen Halloween. Without Halloween we may never have seen Friday the 13th. Without Friday the 13th we may have never been gifted A Nightmare on Elm Street, and without A Nightmare on Elm Street we probably never see the birth of the Scream franchise. That’s how monumental Black Christmas is. The film proves that sometimes less is more, and a slasher doesn’t require an intimidating man in a hideous mask to manufacture scares. We never even get a great shot of the maniacal “Billy”, and oddly enough that’s part of what makes this picture so damn amazing. Still a favorite, Black Christmas is arguably the greatest seasonal horror film in existence.
01. Halloween (1978): Think the suburbs are safe? John Carpenter would disagree. The now iconic Michael Myers shattered the comfortable middle-to-upper-class façade when he stalked through the cozy streets of Haddonfield, Illinois and slaughtered a handful of unsuspecting babysitters. The motive has always rested in question, the mask is completely ambiguous and the combination makes for a senseless killing spree that shocks. But beyond the story, there’s something remarkable about this picture, and that’s Carpenter’s cinematic style. His willingness to hold shots for prolonged periods, and leave his leads carrying very, very lengthy uncut scenes pays major dividends. This is what true mystery and suspense is all about, and yet, it’s also everything an animalistic slasher should be. This, my friends is a masterpiece!
The Thing, The Ring, Night of the Living Dead, The Descent