Welcome to Part 2 of my choices for the 100 Greatest Horror films! A word or two about the numbers before we begin: they’re mostly arbitrary. Ranking 100 films and definitively saying that number 65 is better than number 66 and so on and so forth is basically impossible. The numbers aren’t really going to matter until we get to the top 20 or so. These are simply the 100 films that had the most profound effect on me. I could have ranked them chronologically or alphabetically but thought I’d have more fun by diversifying a little bit. I’ll try to always include a foreign film, an obscure choice, a more modern film, and a classic in each section of the list. Anyway, enough of my explaining! On with the list!
Takashi Miike has made more movies than any other director on this list. I can only admit to seeing about a fifth of them—many aren’t even available in the U.S.—and Audition easily takes the top spot. It begins as a sort of screwball comedy focusing on a main character (Ryo Ishibashi) unlucky in love who reluctantly agrees to a friend’s idea of holding auditions to find his next wife. He treats the event as a joke until he meets the alluring Eihi (Asami Yamazaki), a much younger woman he instantly becomes smitten with. Their relationship is cute and awkward at first but Miike gradually reveals that all is not right with Eihi. This builds to a climax of intense violence that is too much for many viewers to stomach. It’s not on this list because of the violence though. Audition is a not-so-subtle critique of relationships and the horror comes from the idea that we can never truly know another person. It’s also refreshing to spin the idea of the older man as a predator on its head by having him become the unknowing victim in the final act. Part of the reason he falls prey to her madness is due to his unwillingness to see her as anything other than object of perfect beauty and poise. She’s more his latest toy than an equal partner and that’s what brings about his undoing.
89. Dead Alive (Braindead)
I mentioned above that Audition begins as a sort of screwball comedy. Well, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive starts as one as well and only becomes more batshit insane as it progresses. It’s a wickedly funny farce disguised as one of the goriest films ever made. Jackson goes way over the top in the very first scene and only raises the bar higher right up until the conclusion. It’s a wonderful example of how horror and comedy can work so well together. We are first reviled by a gory set piece and then find ourselves cracking up at how utterly absurd it is. Each scene is set up perfectly. Let’s look at my personal favorite: (SIDE NOTE: I’m not going to bother explaining the plot of the film because it’s only there to string a series of comic set-ups on) After two of the zombies our young hero is watching over give birth to a zombie baby, he does what any good father would do. He buys it a stroller and takes it for a walk in the park. Two upper class ladies are in the park with their own children and they are naturally wary of this eccentric man and his nervous smile. He tries his best to seem normal but the zombie baby keeps trying to eat people which results in him beating it against a pole, among other things. The ladies watch on in horror. It’s a deliberately simple premise that illicits big laughs because of the massive misunderstanding between both sets of characters. We know why the ladies are mortified and why our young hero is so desperate to look normal despite everything going wrong. The best farces are built around set-ups like that and Dead Alive gives us one after the other. It also has a manic energy that is sorely missed in everything Peter Jackson has made since. Whenever I watch one of his stuffy Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies, I can’t help but wonder what happened to the guy who once had his main character get attacked by living entrails after decimating a house of zombies using only a lawnmower. Most would say he moved on to to stories more worthy of his talents but I’d disagree.
Spiders are creepy. Very few people deny this and those who do are lying. We all have a story similar to Jeff Daniels’ character in director Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia, a memory from our childhood when we felt something small crawling up our arm…oh so slowly. This film taps into that universal terror to craft a narrative that is funny, suspenseful, and scary. What’s most impressive is the way Marshall makes these tiny creatures into a genuine threat. The scene where Daniels and a few other townsfolk rummage through the house of the latest spider victim to find a specimen walks the line between humor and horror perfectly. We cringe when they peer into a hanging coffee mug and then laugh when there’s nothing inside cuz we’ve all done similar explorations in our own home and share their relief. Then an actual spider pops up and everyone starts screaming. This is a horror film that acknowledges a shared human fear to validate it rather than exploit it. The other thing I adore about Arachnophobia—and hear me out on this one—is that it is one of the best Stephen King adaptations despite not being remotely connected to anything he wrote. It shares elements with some of his best novels: the fish out of water main character who makes waves upon his arrival into town, the idiotic sheriff who refuses to accept anything bad is going on, the kindly older woman who is taken with the hero, the few sensible townsfolk who team up to save the day, and the rhythms and routines of a small town where everybody knows each other. But most of all, the actions of the characters feel rooted in reality. No one instantly jumps to the conclusion that the town is besieged by killer spiders. They get there gradually, by pausing, looking over the evidence again, and considering all the possibilities.
87. Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski’s seminal horror film is very frequently accused of being ‘dated’, which is ridiculous. Yes, I will grant you that the Devil effects are extremely cheesy by today’s standards—and arguably by 60’s standards—but if you’re coming to the film because you want to see a pair of yellow eyes have sex with a woman, you’ve got a few problems that might be worth discussing with a professional. Those eyes aren’t the horror of Rosemary’s Baby at all. The horror comes from the sense that everyone around you, from your husband to your doctor to the kind elderly couple next door, is out to get you. There’s nowhere safe to turn and no one to trust. This is a film made up of claustrophobia and paranoia. It works on two additional levels as well. First, it’s a reflection of how women were expected to stay home and raise a child, even the spawn of Satan, without asserting their own identity at all. Second, it’s a blatant and humorous critique of the upper crust in Manhattan. They were not just materialistic people with disregard for the lower classes; they were actual worshippers of Satan. That’s the kind of bold statement only a horror film or a scathing satire could make.
86. Theatre of Blood
No list of the 100 Greatest Horror Films would be complete without a few entries starring Vincent Price and Douglas Hickox’s 70’s horror comedy features what is arguably Price’s best performance. He stars as Edward Lionheart, a failed stage actor and director who supposedly committed suicide after receiving scathing reviews from the local critics. Lionheart returns to exact revenge on his enemies and does so by using the works of Shakespeare as his inspiration. My favorite death involves two poodles being paked in a pie and fed to their odious owner, ala Titus Andronicus. It’s a fun horror film for Shakespeare lovers and horror enthusiasts alike that is given added weight when you recognize it as a reflection of Price himself, much like True Grit was for John Wayne. Price was a classically trained actor who longed for legitimacy but found success mostly in B-movies. He’d always wanted to recite Shakespeare and finally got his chance here. It was after this film that critics started taking his work a little more seriously, which is amusing. He had to brutally murder a bunch of critics to get them to pay attention. Beyond that, this is a classy ride with inventive kills and a macabre sense of humor. It’s also way more entertaining than those terminally silly Dr. Phibes movies. Sorry for that Mr. Price. Please don’t feed my dog to me.
Here’s George Romero again with his chilling tale of a disturbed young man who is either a vampire or a profoundly unhinged serial killer. As is the case with Romero’s best films, the horror set up is used as a way to explore real life terrors. His subject here is abuse, namely family abuse. Martin recalls being attacked at a young age and this is his main reason for believing himself to be a creature of the night. Was his attacker truly a vampire or is Martin’s belief masking a far more disturbing reality? Things don’t improve for poor Martin when he moves in with his superstitious elderly cousin, a man who believes Martin to be ‘cursed’. If this film were made today and handled the same issues, it would be a far too blunt allegory on victim-shaming and sexual trauma. In Romero’s capable hands, it’s a devastating psychological chiller that makes its points with such subtlety you barely notice them upon first viewing. It’s rewarding to see the film more than once as you’ll be able to note how much detail Romero put in and how layered John Amplas’ performance as the title character is. The film’s ending, shocking the first time I saw it, feels tragic and inevitable after reflecting on the themes at play.
84. Hostel Part II
Let’s get something straight here: I’m no huge fan of Eli Roth. His personality is irritating and most of his films are trainwrecks. When I first saw Cabin Fever, I walked out of the theater thinking it was one of the most idiotic horror films I’d ever seen. I still think that. His latest two films, The Green Inferno and Knock Knock, are equally horrendous, though the latter almost works as an unintentional comedy. That being said, Hostel Part II is a masterpiece even if it’s merely proof that a broken clock is right twice a day. The first film is solid but its sequel is far superior, doubling down on the elements that worked and excising the ones that didn’t. The three main characters are much more likeable than the trio from the first, which adds some much needed pathos to the gruesome proceedings. But it’s through the villains that the film really shines. As the two immoral American business men, Richard Burgi and Roger Bart create stunningly familiar characters—we all know these types of guys—hiding deeps wells of sadistic rage. Their reversal at the end, as the brash man becomes the coward and the shy man becomes the monster, works so effectively because it rings so true. These guys represent the worst aspects of the American male. They feel they have a right to assert themselves over others due solely to their privileged upbringing and believe their own insecurities can be entirely blamed on the women around them. It’s these characters who elevate the film far above the standard ‘torture porn’ fare and transform it into something profoundly unnerving.
83. The Legend of Hell House
The first haunted house movie to appear on the list is also the classiest and proof that you can make a horror film without violence or gore and still create a truly frightening experience. A team of paranormal investigators sign up to investigate Hell House, affectionately referred to as the ‘Mount Everest of haunted houses’. When they arrive, they find the house enveloped in a fog so thick it feels like a character of its own. Once inside, the usual haunted house shenanigans occur followed by the standards arguments brushing away the phenomena. Where the film succeeds is in mood, atmosphere, and a mounting sense of dread. The house itself feels like a malevolent entity forever waiting to pounce and director John Hough consistently increases the tension in its many rooms. The mystery of what’s going on in the house is revealed in a most satisfactory way and the performers, especially Roddy McDowall, are fully commited to the material. It’s everything you want in a haunted house picture.
Bill Paxton’s directorial debut shares more than few similarities with Martin and is slightly more effective. He stars as a father convinced that God has tasked him with killing demons who walk the earth in the form of humans. He enlists his two sons to help him, one of whom is skeptical while the other is eager to go along with the crimes. In the present day, one of the sons (a pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey) confesses to a bewildered FBI Agent (Powers Boothe). The central mystery as to whether the Dad is crazy or an actual prophet is engaging but takes a backseat to the more interesting ideas at play. The two parallel narratives portray a cycle of religious fanaticism that promotes unquestioning beliefs while destroying countless human lives. Paxton wisely plays the father as a good man rather than an insane zealot, which makes his character all the more frightening. A person who truly believes in something completely bonkers does not appear mad or unhinged but calm and rational. When you add in the idea that the father might not be crazy after all, you’ve got one hell of a powerful horror film. A truly underrated gem.
81. A Nightmare on Elm Street
People also like to use that dreadful word, ‘dated’, when talking about Wes Craven’s introduction to Freddy Krueger. Once again, yes, many of the effects are cheesy but I think that only adds to the nightmarish—forgive the pun—quality of the film. Also, if we’re talking about impact, few horror films made as much of a dent as A Nightmare on Elm Street. Coming along in an era where rote slasher films where everywhere, it brought imagination back to the genre, influencing a slew of filmmakers and producers to create movies that were a little more daring and fantastical. Some of those films will appear later on this list. Still, I wouldn’t put it here merely for impacting the genre. In order to make the cut, it has to be a quality film as well and I think Elm Street holds up tremendously well. Freddy Krueger is as unique a villain today as he was back in 1984 and the idea of a monster with the ability to kill you in your sleep remains ingenious and unparalleled. When children are afraid of something, their parents tell them to go to sleep and it will be all better. Then Wes Craven came along to declare that you’re not any safer in dreamland than you are in reality. It’s an idea so simple and terrifying it’s astounding to me that so many studios passed on it before Robert Shaye picked it up at New Line. Thank God he did. Otherwise, we’d have been deprived of one of the most iconic horror villains and one of the most original horror pictures. We might have gotten a few more peaceful nights of sleep but who the hell needs that?
Stay tuned for Part 3! And read Part 1 here!