Welcome to Part 6 of my countdown of the 100 Greatest Horror Films! We have reached the the top fifty so we are now a little more than halfway through. You can read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 here. Below, you’ll find films about cannibalistic serial killers, grotesque and beautiful monsters, a man with second sight, some vampires, a few ghosts, and one very, very scary film about the nature of fairy tales. Enjoy!
50. The Silence of The Lambs
The only film on this list to take home the Best Picture award, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs remains a gripping piece of work that deftly combines scenes of suspense and terror with introspective characterization. That walk Clarice takes into the bowels of the insane asylum—which may as well be Hell—is a stunning introduction to Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lectar, the cinema’s most charming cannibal. While I do slightly prefer Mads Mikkelsen’s take on the serial killer, it cannot be denied that Hopkins commands the screen. To me, it’s no wonder he won Best Actor despite being on screen for a mere sixteen minutes. His presence is felt from beginning to end. Ted Levine is terrifying as Buffalo Bill, even though modern morons view his performance as offensive to the transgender community. If I have to explain why that’s idiotic and ill-informed, I don’t want to talk to you. Of course, the best performance in the film comes from Jodie Foster. Her Clarice is a hero for the ages, resourceful, intelligent, and able to break through all the stumbling blocks a woman faces in the male dominated world of the FBI.
49. Nightbreed (Director’s Cut)
I first saw Clive Barker’s Nightbreed when I was around 12. Its VHS cover, which proudly displayed a rogues gallery of ghoulish creatures, suggested it was right up my alley. After taking it home and excitedly watching it, I was puzzled. My Dad asked me what I thought of it and I remember telling him, “it feels like there’s parts missing.” Turns out, I was right. Nightbreed was infamously hacked to pieces by Morgan Creek and re-marketed as a slasher movie at the last minute. The result was a disjointed, confused film that rushed through its paces. Much of the cut footage was thought to be lost but was thankfully found a few years ago and the long awaited director’s cut was released. It’s a vast improvement over the studio cut even though it still has pacing issues. I believe those issues to be the result of Barker refusing to tame his imagination, a choice I greatly admire. What the film lacks in story, it more than makes up for with stunning make-up effects and terrific world building as it focuses on the poor hero, Boone, and his journey to Midian, the land “where the monsters dwell”. Barker is not at all subtle with his metaphors as the monsters obviously represent minorities and the underclass while David Cronenberg’s Dr. Decker is a blatant critique on the very idea of normalcy. It’s also just fun to suggest that many psychiatrists are far more disturbed than their patients. Cronenberg is surprisingly effective in his only substantial acting role. He succeeds largely by not doing much of anything, reciting his lines in a flat, unaffected manner that creates a sense of cold calculation. But it’s the monsters who steal the show of course. Barker unleashes all of them during the wild, final act and the make-up team does a beautiful job of giving life to images that were previously only in his head. Nightbreed is an insane example of creativity run amok. I mean that as a high compliment.
48. The Dead Zone
David Cronenberg’s early films are as wild and unhinged as Nightbreed—which could be what attracted him to that project—but his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is where he first showed a little restraint. Good thing too. His early work is too blunt to be successful and he lacks Barker’s imagination. He made the wise choice to focus on the characters in The Dead Zone, resulting in a moving, meditative film about the dread that comes from knowing the fates of those around you. Christopher Walken gives a haunted performance as Johnny Smith, the schoolteacher gifted with second sight after a car crash. Actually, ‘gifted’ is the wrong word. Cursed would be far more accurate. Knowing the future takes away all of his own personal choices, leaving him trapped to either change the terrible things that are going to happen or become a willing participant in them. Neither choice is a good one. Still, he manages to consistently make the right call at great cost to himself. It’s a testament to both King and Cronenberg that they’re able to take an idea that should seems so appealing to most people and spin it on its head by showing how horrible life would truly be for a person who can see into the future.
47. The Birds
I hate when people tell me they don’t like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I’m perfectly willing to hear actual criticism against the film but no one ever has any. They say the effects look silly by today’s standards and the movie has no explanation for the bird attacks. First of all, congratulations, you’ve noticed that special effects from the 1960’s are not as convincing as the ones used today. What an astute, careful eye you have! Can’t get anything past you! The effects obviously look silly at times but they were state of the art for the time period and I think they add to the film’s creepy factor. They make things seem a little more other-worldly and highlight that fact that these are no ordinary birds. Also, do you really think these effects look worse than some of the shoddy CGI used today? As for the lack of an explanation: THAT’S THE GODDAMN POINT! There is NO reason for the attacks and that’s what makes them so terrifying. They happen completely out of the blue and without warning, suggesting that something like this could happen in the real world at any moment. Furthermore, what explanation would satisfy you? Do you want the movie to explain that they’re actually aliens or that the atmosphere is poisoning them or God sent them to smite us? What the fuck would that add to the movie? The Birds is great so shut up.
46. I Saw the Devil
South Korea has churned out a slew of terrific genre pictures over the past ten years and Jee-Woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil is by far the most disturbing. It’s a demented game of cat and mouse played out by a deranged serial killer and a cop hell bent on revenge. Featuring scenes of grisly violence amongst sensationally choreographed action sequences, the film works best when highlighting the futility of revenge. It’s no noble task, it doesn’t balance the scales, and it brings no one back to life. All it does is bring about carnage and destroy lives, creating a cycle of violence people are powerless to stop. This where the real horror of I Saw the Devil comes from, not from the gore (which there is a LOT of) but from its cold chronicle of misery and pain.
45. Near Dark
Kathryn Bigelow’s western themed take on vampires is like Badlands for the horror genre. The word ‘vampire’ is never used and the roving band of supernatural killers are not far removed from the Manson family. Bill Paxton gives his most psychotic performance as the craziest of the bunch while Lance Henriksen is quietly menacing as the leader. Interview with the Vampire is credited with coming up with the idea of an immortal being stuck in a child’s body but Near Dark got there first and the portrayal is far more frightening. Jenny Wright and Adrian Pasdar make for an appealing pair of heroes, leading me to once again wail about Wright’s limited filmography. She should have been a massive star. Note to Twilight: THIS is how you do a vampire romance as a teenage metaphor. The whole film does metaphors well, with the murdeous actions of the monsters providing a smart commentary on real world killers. The flick also works as pure entertainment. It’s a smart, witty, action packed horror flick that grabs you from the first frame and never lets go.
44. The Changeling
I have something to say about haunted house movies: I don’t care much for the ones that function as little more than funhouse rides. I’m talking about films like Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, and Insidious. They’re sometimes scary in the moment but leave no lasting impact. That’s not the case with Peter Medak’s The Changeling. It’s quiet, atmospheric, and moving. George C. Scott stars as a man mourning the loss of his wife and daughter. Struggling to pick up the pieces of his life, he buys a new house and is visited by the spirit of a little boy. The obvious parallel to his own loss is apparent but the movie doesn’t milk this. Scott has no illusions about this spirit replacing his daughter: he simply sees a problem that he can actually fix. The mystery surrounding the boy is a good one and allows for a great supporting performance by Melvyn Douglas as the classic ‘rich man with a secret’. The real strength of The Changeling is Scott though. He injects every moment with earned tenderness and the calm, rational way he deals with the supernatural occurrences is refreshing.
43. Childs Play
Yes, Chucky has become a terrible joke over the years and this series has run its course, even though they keep threatening to make another one. Did you know a sixth film came out two years ago? Did you even know there were six films in the series? Never mind. The original is a masterful blend of horror, comedy, and action. Writer director Tom Holland understands the key element of making a movie about an evil doll: the doll has to look innocent in order to be threatening. This was lost on the producers of Annabelle. To be fair, Chucky does have a creepy vibe to him right from the start but he also looks like a doll a child would actually want. The first half hour is genuinely unnerving since we never actually see Chucky move. The camera shows him in one spot, pans to something else, and moves back to find he has shifted…just a bit. When he comes to life, it’s as jarring as it is hilarious. This is intentional. That’s the other key thing Holland understands and explains why he chose Brad Dourif to voice the little menace: evil dolls are silly. They’re not much of a threat. You can just kick them or hop over them and the characters do this frequently, which is why Holland made Chucky unkillable. You can shoot him, stab him, burn him, or throw him off a building but he’s simply gonna pop back up and keep coming at you.
42. The Frighteners
Have I mentioned that I miss the days when Peter Jackson used to make fun movies that weren’t bloated well past the point of excess? Sigh. Anyway, The Frighteners may not be as wickedly funny as Dead Alive but it’s a better movie as a whole. This is where Jackson proved himself a master of special effects, be they practical or computer generated. You can see why New Line saw this and said, “this guy can handle Lord of the Rings“. The premise of a con man psychic investigator who actually can see spirits but uses them to make his own ends meet is used to great comedic effect in the first half of the movie. Once we get to the actual mystery, the film becomes even more engaging. The grim reaper villain is a striking figure, with his cloak that seems to envelop everything around him. The action comes to a head in the incredible finale which brilliantly mixes flashbacks with the present and makes excellent use of that abandoned asylum. We even get an inspired look at heaven and hell (love that giant worm). All the performances are solid but the MVP award goes to Jeffrey Combs as Milton Dahmers, the most neurotic FBI agent in the world.
41. The Company of Wolves
Neil Jordan’s dream poem of a movie is much more than a profoundly frightening horror film. It’s the most fascinating examinations of fairy tales to ever grace the screen. Jordan and writer Angela Carter dig deep in their attempts to figure out where these stories come from, why they resonate, and how they reflect our inner desires and fears. Using the dreams of a teenage girl to weave a variety of scary tales, the film taps directly into our own subconscious. Sexual awakening, the nature of predators, and innocence lost are the main themes at play here. The surreal quality of the film adds to our uneasiness as does the nightmarish make up effects. There’s one werewolf transformation that, in my opinion, wipes the floor with every other scene of its type. The movie is also gorgeous, employing gothic sound stages to give birth to the nightmares explored. The Company of Wolves is an immensely satisfying visceral film and one to ruminate on for hours afterward.
Stay tuned for Part 7!