I’ve written about so many damn horror movies already that some people have asked me if I’m going to have enough to fill the list. Silly people, of course I am! I’m already bemoaning the films I had to leave out. Anyway, here is the next ten in my countdown. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 here. Below you’ll find two of the most popular zombie films ever made, two films featuring mutated cannibals of sorts, a couple of Stephen King stories, one classy as all hell haunted house, a supernatural killer, a waking nightmare about Vietnam, and one very dangerous chainsaw!
40. The Hitcher
Few films are able to match Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher in terms of sheer nightmare power and raw intensity. Those are two qualities that rarely go together effectively. In presenting their unique spin on the urban legend of the mad slasher hitchhiker, Harmon and writer Eric Red provide a gritty thriller with overt supernatural undertones. It’s clear that Rutger Hauer’s menacing villain is not a real world killer but an ancient demon of the road, even though this is something the movie never quite declares. He does things that are absolutely impossible, prompting some critics to deride the film for being illogical. This is besides the point. His actions are meant to lead C. Thomas Howell’s dimwitted protagonist down a path of darkness, forcing him to commit acts of horrific violence that mirror his foe. Howell’s fate is sealed the moment he picks up Hauer. There’s no chance of him escaping with his soul intact. The nihilistic nature of their conflict is too grim for some to handle but that’s down to the taste of the viewer, not the film itself. The Hitcher’s unrelenting bleakness is what makes it so powerful.
39. The Descent
Neil Marshall’s gripping film about a group of female friends who encounter inbred monsters while exploring a cave system would be terrifying enough without the monsters. The early scenes of them traveling through tight corridors and nearly getting trapped are so effectively staged and photographed, you feel like you’re stuck in there with them. The feeling of claustrophobia is enhanced when the monsters show up seeing as the film has already firmly established that there is no possible escape. Marshall makes excellent use of light and shadow, displaying a firm command of the camera and the dark environment surrounding his characters. There’s enough tension here to cover ten movies but that doesn’t stop Marshall from throwing in some more. The dynamic between the protagonist and her traitorous friend is as riveting as the traditional horror elements and leads to the film’s most shocking moment. It also serves as a not so subtle reminder that even when you’re in the dark and surrounded by monsters, it’s the other humans you’ve got to watch out for.
38. The Haunting
In the course of writing this list, I’ve discussed a few haunted house films and (with the notable exception of House) I’ve used the word “classy” to describe all of them. This is to say they are films of mood, atmosphere, and character rather than jump scares and CGI ghosts. There is no greater example of a classy haunted house flick that Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jacksons The Haunting. The film is so subtle we even wonder if there are spirits in the house or if they’re merely figments of the lead character’s fractured subconscious. That doesn’t make the film any less terrifying though. All the scares come naturally, from a knock on a door to a ringing bell. These are things that could easily happen in any old house but that also might, just might, be evidence of ghosts. The Haunting chills precisely because we hear sounds like that in our own homes and casually dismiss them as ordinary occurrences even as the film’s most memorable line shoots into our brain like an arrow: “some houses are born bad.”
With his novel, Stephen King explored what is presumably the greatest fear of most famous authors: the psychotic fan. Rob Reiner’s faithful adaptation keeps the intensity of the novel but is most notable for Kathy Bates’ mesmerizing, hilarious, and menacing portrayal of Annie Wilkes. You can never quite figure out what she’s going to do next, whether she’s going to praise James Caan’s Paul Sheldon or break his legs with a sledgehammer. Bates strikes just the right note; over the top without becoming cartoony. Caan is excellent as well and as the game of cat and mouse between them intensifies, little moments, like hiding a match, take on levels of Hitchcockian suspense. The suspense reaches a fever pitch during the third act and the film’s final scene leaves us shaking cuz even though Annie Wilkes is dead, we also know there’s a lot more people like her out there. Want proof of that? Take a look at any comments section on any website. A part of her is in every rabid fan who believes themselves to hold ownership of someone else’s material.
36. The Mist (Black and White Version)
The version of The Mist that played in theatres is excellent. It’s a well-made, frequently unnerving monster movie with smart ideas about the nature of mob mentality. That’s not the version I’m putting on this list though. Writer-director Ftank Farabont wanted to release the film in black and white but the studio wouldn’t let him. Idiots. The black and white version available on DVD and Blu Ray is ten times scarier. The creatures look better and more otherworldly while the sense of fear is heightened due to the titular mist permeating the screen. I honestly don’t believe you’ve fully experienced The Mist until you’ve seen it this way. Now, let’s talk a bit about the ending before moving on. There are those who consider it a cheap shot (no pun intended) but it works for me because it hammers home the idea that fear can cause people to make terrible, ill informed choices, no matter how well intentioned they are.
35. The Hills Have Eyes
It was a close call between this and Last House On The Left but I’m going with Hills Have Eyes because it deals with many of the same disturbing themes without suffering from any glaring shifts in tone. It’s also a little more streamlined and sharply made. Both films find Wes Craven exploring the same subject, namely, the all too easy manner humans revert to savagery when pushed to their limits. Savagery is the name of the game right from the start with the mountain dwelling mutant cannibals (inspired by the Sawney Bean myth) wreaking havoc upon the unsuspecting family. They’re a terrifying bunch and it’s a testament to Craven that he makes each of them into an actual character. Their family dynamics are not that far removed from the supposedly normal, well adjusted modern people they attack. The Vietnam parallels are a little more overt here than they are in Last House, with the technically savvy interlopers finding themselves adrift in a foreign land. Both sides are fighting for survival but neither group is portrayed as heroic. There’s no one to root for here, only monsters from different worlds.
34. Shaun of the Dead
Tired of zombies and looking for someone to blame? Well, you can comfortably point the finger at Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Their satire/sendup/celebration of the sub genre made zombies cool again, to the point where the most popular show on TV is one that features the undead getting hacked to pieces on a weekly basis. Strange that a spoof caused such a resurgence but that speaks to why Shaun of the Dead is worthy of a high spot on this list. It makes fun of zombies and all their tropes while crafting an engaging narrative with characters we care about and relate to. For many, this is exactly how we would behave during a zombie apocalypse. We would search around the house for common objects to use against them and conclude that a bar is the safest place of refuge. This is also such a meticulously made film. It tells you the plot beat for beat at one point and you barely even notice. The gags work, the scares work, the characters are naturally funny, and the gore is equal parts silly and gruesome. You can’t ask for much more from a horror comedy.
33. Jacob’s Ladder
A lot of horror films deal with Vietnam. There’s the aforementioned Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left, Bob Clark’s Deathdream, and Steve Miner’s House, to name a few. However, none deal with the war with as much depth and insight as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Tim Robbins’ Jacob is not merely suffering from PTSD. He’s a haunted man now completely unable to relate to or accept the world around him. The disassociations he experiences are brought on as much by the loss of his son as his time overseas. They’re waking nightmares, manifestations of his prevalent belief that he no longer belongs. Does it matter that the ending negates these feelings? No. The events of the film are a vision of what his life will be like if he returns and the fact that death is a more hopeful option is the film’s most terrifying idea. The war would have destroyed him beyond repair had he survived. Anyone who has been through a trauma has, at one time or another, stated that they’d rather die than live through it again. Jacob’s Ladder is a painful, harrowing realization of that thought.
32. Night of the Living Dead
After a long absence from this list, George Romero makes a return with his first feature film and the one that created the entire zombie genre as we know it. That’s important to remember. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and demons have lore that goes back centuries. All the rules for zombies were created on the fly by Mr. Romero back in 1968. However, influence does not equal greatness. What makes the film a masterpiece is its uncanny ability to build dread. As soon as the vile Johnny taunts his sister by chanting, “they’re coming to get you Barbara” we feel as unsafe as she does. They’re coming indeed and their relentless assault on the farmhouse provides scenes of shock, terror, and gripping suspense. The most horrifying aspect of the film is the story of the doomed little girl in the basement, fated to eat her doting mother and belligerent father. Just thinking about her gives me chills. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Romero film without a social message and Night contains his most devastating one. As lone survivor Ben cautiously surveys the landscape, he is casually shot through the head by a redneck. The image of his body being burned with the undead brings lynchings to mind in a manner far ahead of the time period. Leave it to Romero to make a point like that back in the late sixties. He’s a true pioneer of the horror genre.
31. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film with one goal on its mind: to scare the living piss out of you. It provides no social commentary, offers very little in the way of humor, and doesn’t take much time developing its characters. What it does do is thrust them into a madhouse of carnage, look the door, and throw away the key. It is positively relentless in its mission, conjuring up images of brutality and madness that leave a lasting impression. What’s striking about it upon a second viewing is that it’s not particularly gruesome. A great deal of the violence is suggested but the movie feels so raw and dirty it seems as if it’s far more grotesque than it truly is. This is an example of the film’s uncompromising power. These events hit us like a hammer, leaving a wound that feels like it ought to be there even though we know “it’s only a movie”. The film never takes a breath and is still moving forward even as the credits begin to roll, leaving us with the terrifying and oddly elegant image of Leatherface spinning (or is he dancing?) with his chainsaw.