Welcome to Part 5 of my countdown of the 100 Greatest Horror Films! Read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 here. We are almost to the top 50 folks! This section contains quite a few stories about the Devil. He’s green goo in one film, Robert DeNiro in other, a black goat in the last one, and he even pops up in the only Disney movie that will appear on this list (no, not Fantasia). Other entries include a criminally under-seen vampire story, a terrifying look at voodoo, and a paranoid thriller that involves aliens, God, and evil hippies! Enjoy!
60. Prince of Darkness
The first John Carpenter film to make an appearance on this list—and far from the last—is probably his most hotly debated work. There are those who love it for its soaring ambition, oppressive score, clever ideas about science and religion, and truly haunting images. Those who hate it dismiss it entirely, citing poor performances and a dull as dullsville second act to label it as one of his weakest efforts. The detractors aren’t wrong. The performances are weak and the second act is a muddled, boring mess. However, I believe this to be one of the rare cases where the good elements far outshine the bad. The thought that the Devil is actually some kind of ancient anti-matter that the Catholic Church accidentally got ahold of and locked away for a thousand years is such an inherently interesting idea it could be the subject of a whole film series. Carpenter uses it to paint science and religion as opposite sides of the same coin. They’re both strict and unwavering in their views without realizing that each side is talking about the exact same things. This allows for some fascinating conversations between Donald Pleasance’s priest and Victor Wong’s professor. After the strong opening, the movie does lose its footing, becoming another iteration of Carpenter’s favorite trope: a bunch of people trapped in a building with some malevolent force trying to get in. And this is hardly his best version of that, though the sinister music does make the events feel more suspenseful and engaging than they actually are. Then comes the finale. This is where Carpenter says “fuck it” and shoots for the moon. He comes up with one of the most unique explanations for prescient dreams, which adds to the science vs. religion angle rather than confuses it and his final shot is absolute perfection. He cuts at exactly the right moment and builds to it with horrifying inevitability. For me, it’s one of the most haunting conclusions I’ve ever born witness to. Even after I first saw the film years ago (and didn’t care for it much) that ending stayed with me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get it out of my head.
59. The Devil’s Rejects
Confession: I like all of Rob Zombie’s films, even both Halloween remakes. What can I say? The man can’t write dialogue for shit but he sure does know how to create striking images and a nightmarish reality. I debated giving this spot to House of 1,000 Corpses because it’s a little more traditional horror but The Devil’s Rejects is a funnier, scarier, and more mature piece of work. Granted, that’s sort of like saying a dick joke is more mature than a fart joke. Still, The Devil’s Rejects succeeds where other films of its ilk fail. Rather than a wink-wink nudge-nudge pastiche like Grindhouse, Machete, or even House of 1000 Corpses, this plays exactly like a lost 70s horror film that would been right at home on a drive in screen. It’s dirty, nasty, bleak, and wickedly funny. Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, and Sheri Moon Zombie manage to make their characters utterly evil, charismatic, and even a tad sympathetic. They’re assisted by the true villain of the piece, Sherrif Wydell, played with unrelenting malice by veteran character actor William Forsythe. He’s terrifying, a deranged monster whose acts of revenge gradually become far worse than anything his targets have done. The film’s violence is extreme to be sure, but Zombie makes sure that the true horror comes from the characters.
58. God Told Me To
Writer-director Larry Cohen is one of the most underrated figures in the horror genre. Unfairly labeled as a purveyor of B-movie shlock, many of his films have made a lasting influence on the genre that even some of the most hardcore horror fans don’t recognize. His schizophrenic 70′s chiller, God Told Me To is the best example of that. Tony LoBianco stars as a detective investigating a series of murders seemingly inspired by divine intervention. Not content to make a movie about this one idea, Cohen throws everything at the screen from aliens to spree killers to immaculate conception to just plain old surreal imagery. The result is a mad film that keeps us on edge from beginning to end due to the fact that we don’t have the slightest idea what’s coming next. It’s unique, unsettling, and can be viewed as a precursor to The X-Files.
57. Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury’s novel is a classic and the PG rated Disney adaptation somehow retains everything memorable about the book. The colors of Fall pop off the screen, which adds to the feeling we’re watching a dark childhood memory of October. The perils and wonders of youth are ably reflected through the two young protagonists. Similar to The Lady in White, the film recalls the time in our lives when horrors were not only expected but actively sought after. Jason Robards gives a moving, tender performance as the elderly father who longs to run through the woods with the boys but is too far into adulthood to remember how to do that. He finds his spirit again in his encounters with the ringleader of the haunted carnival, Mr. Dark. Jonathan Pryces plays Dark as a charming Devil, one who enjoys his work and has nothing but contempt for the whims of humanity. The finale is less about action and more about our heroes proving that people are worth saving, despite their base instincts. For all the horror present, this is a film that serves as a great example of G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote: “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
56. The Beyond
Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci is regarded as one of the masters of the genre despite most of his filmography being absolute garbage. Those who praise him have probably only seen The Beyond and nothing else. They can be forgiven for believing him to be a genius though cuz The Beyond is quite a piece of work. What starts as a fairly standard haunted house story rapidly transforms into a bizzare phantasmagoria. Fulci and his makeup team conjure up horrifying images straight out of their most twisted nightmares. The strength of the film comes entirely from them. The plot is mundane and the acting perfunctory. The sense of dread coupled with the dreamlike quality of the action is what sticks in the brain and a haunting, bleak ending cements its place on this list. The Beyond is a film that follows you home.
55. Session 9
Most horror films that use an abandoned asylum as their setting feel the need to fill it with some nonsense to make it scary. A mad slasher, a few vengeful spirits, an evil clown, and so on and so forth. Not the case with Brad Anderson’s Session 9. It lets the asylum speak for itself. Madness practically seeps out of its walls, infecting every member of the doomed team of asbestos cleaners tasked with cleaning it up. There’s no need for a mad slasher. The place is more than enough to scare us and the characters shitless. It’s a building that breathes, that contains secrets no sane person would want to know, where shadows of the atrocities committed there linger and take on a life of their own. We watch with rising dread as each character succumbs to the building and invites its insanity into their own brains. None more so than Peter Mullan’s lead character, a tortured, unstable man whose grip on reality is shattered piece by piece. Session 9 is so profoundly scary because it provides a look at a place no one should ever go to and makes us question if we would be able to go in and escape with our sanity intact. I know I wouldn’t be able to.
54. Angel Heart
Most people remember two things about Alan Parker’s Angel Heart: (1) Lisa Bonet’s controversial sex scene that caused Bill Cosby to almost kick her off The Cosby Show (what an evil, hypocritical monster he is) and (2) Robert DeNiro as Louis Cyphre, the most idiotic pseudonym for The Devil ever used in any medium. Forget those two things. Yes, Louis Cyphre is a stupid, obvious name but it’s not dumb enough to dismiss the whole movie. As for Bonet’s sex scene? It’s passionate, creepy, and surreal, which perfectly suits the tone of the film. Angel Heart is a dread filled mix of film noir, mystery, and horror. Mickey Rourke gives one of his best performances as the morally flexible protagonist. Harry Angel is your standard hard boiled private detective but Rourke has a great deal of fun with the role, adding depth that would have been absent without him. What works best about the film though and what really gets under the skin is the way it suggests that there is no escape for some people. Sure, you can ask for forgiveness or make a grand act of redemption but sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the Devil is going to have his due no matter what.
53. The Serpent and the Rainbow
Voodoo is a scary subject that far too few films are willing to explore so thank goodness for Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Very loosely based on the non-fiction book by Wade Davis, it follows Bill Pullman’s anthropologist as he investigates claims that some Voodoo priests are turning people into zombies and using them as slaves. The film wisely never comes out and says that anything supernatural is going on and instead provides a scientific and mystical explanation. This makes us as uncertain and wary as Pullman’s character, a feeling that carries all the way to the film’s haunting conclusion. Beyond that, this is an fascinating look at an untapped world. Craven’s sense of place has never been better.
Everyone is aware of director Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy but very few have seen his mesmerizing vampire film, Thirst. A devout priest turns into a vampire after volunteering for a medical experiment that goes wrong. Naturally ashamed of his newfound lust for blood, he is unable to keep his needs at bay and soon gives up his sacred religion entirely to become a true creature of the night. A young girl falls into his path and becomes his paramour after he turns her. What could be a very simple, obvious allegory for a sexual awakening is instead used as a springboard for ideas about faith, desire, compassion, and guilt. This is a richly layered film where nearly every action has a subtle double meaning. It’s also tremendously exciting and creates some scenes of hilarious screwball comedy by poking fun at the supernatural strength of vampires. All of Park Chan-Wook’s films defy easy categorization and Thirst is no exception but it may be his most human film, which is sort of odd. He needed to make a film about monsters to get into what makes us tick but hey, that’s what all great horror films do isn’t it?
51. The Witch
I know The Witch only came out a month or so ago but it earned a spot on this list the second after I saw it. Robert Eggers’ debut feature is a taut, terrifying film that feels like a lost piece of New England folklore. The antiquated dialogue adds to the sense of unease and gives the story a nice poetic quality. Eggers builds dread from the very first frame and never lets the viewer feel remotely safe. It’s a testament to his craft that he’s able to make witches scary again while not forgetting the violence inflicted upon countless innocent women accused of witchcraft. This makes the last shot as horrifying as it is triumphant. If you missed this one the big screen, get ahold of it as soon as it becomes available elsewhere. It’s going to be hard for 2016 to give us a scarier movie.
Stay tuned for Part 6 as the top 50 begins!