It’s been a long road so far but we’re finally coming to the end. Now that we’ve reached the top twenty, I’m going to slow down a bit to allow myself to discuss each film in a little more detail. A brief reminder before we begin: this list is subjective so remember that there’s no need to scream at me about how one film should be higher or lower. These are simply my choices. Disagree? Tell me what yours would be! Now, let’s talk about five films I consider to be superior to Jaws and Halloween!
20. The Witches
One of the first horror films I ever saw, Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches has haunted my dreams ever since. When it first came out, many critics admired the film but wondered who exactly it was made for. Surely a film about a bunch of child killing, bald headed monsters could not be intended for children to watch, could it? I’d say quite the opposite. Not only can children watch The Witches, I think they should.
Children’s films these days, particularly of the horror or fantasy variety, suffer from a severe lack of stakes. Anyone see the Goosebumps movie? It was fun and all but did it ever feel like anyone was in actual danger? NOPE. In The Witches, the danger is very real. Right from the start, when Luke’s grandmother tells him about her doomed friend Erika, who vanished only to reappear in a painting, we know the movie is not playing around. The rules and signs she tells Luke about witches mirror what most children hear from their parents about strangers. Many of us grow up believing that there are monsters out there all too eager to eat us up.
The witches in the film aren’t merely a heightened representation of ‘stranger-danger’ however. If they were, The Witches would be little more than the most demented PSA of all time. The witches also represent authority figures, the kind who so frequently dismiss children as things that should be seen and not heard. This is a prevalent theme in all of Dahl’s novels and one which his heroes are constantly fighting against. In the film and novel, our two young protagonists are turned into mice, which makes it even more difficult for them to get the attention of adults. They do though and they then win a seemingly impossible battle against an army of witches. This makes their victory all the more triumphant considering how much the odds are stacked against them. The message here is that it doesn’t matter how small you are, you can still kick ass if you use your brain. That’s a message kids need to hear. The Witches works so well because it highlights real world fears while deftly blending them into a fantastical story straight out of the darkest fairy tales.
Clive Barker’s adaptation of his own novella remains one of the most unique horror films to come out in the 80s. Here was a decade made up of iconic villains such as Freddy, Jason, Michael, Leatherface, and Chucky. Pinhead, with his striking and menacing look, must have seemed like another attempt at creating a new horror villain with massive sequel potential. What people forget is that he is in the film very, very little. He’s not even listed in the credits as Pinhead, but as “lead cenobite”. Barker never intended for him to appear in a sequel but, of course, it happened anyway and is unfortunately still happening.
Hellraiser is not a film about a mad slasher or about demons, but a film about desire, passion, and the addictive qualities of both emotions. Julia, the repressed housewife (brilliantly played by Claire Higgins) is so unfulfilled that she quickly becomes more than willing to sacrifice a few men in order to appease the needs of her undead lover, Frank. The early scenes of carnal pleasure between her and Frank are sensual and erotic while her interactions with her boring husband are cold and perfunctory. This allows us to sympathize with Julia while still being repulsed by her actions. The line between pleasure and pain is blurred as she continues her dalliance with Frank, which allows Barker to make smart, subtle points about how far people are willing to go just to stop feeling numb.
But let’s not forget the cenobites either. Despite their limited screen time, they make a lasting impression. And Pinhead, with his stately voice and calm demeanor, makes the biggest impression of all. When he told the young heroine Kirsty, “we have such sights to you show”, a chill ran up our spine and his fate was sealed as one of the new faces of the horror genre. The design on these creatures remains unmatched, proving that Barker is as adept at creating ghoulish, imaginative creations for the page as he is for the screen. It’s a shame that none of his other films match Hellraiser in terms of nightmare quality and dark exploration of human themes but even if he had only made this one film, Barker would still be regarded as one of the all time great horror directors. Hellraiser accomplishes what all the best horror stories set out to achieve: it takes a hard look at the human soul and exposes the darkness underneath.
18. The Monster Squad
Of all the films on this list, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad is my most personal choice. I’m fully aware that I’ve listed scarier, smarter, and overall better films but I don’t care. The Monster Squad struck a nerve with me that all those other films didn’t. First of all, when I was a kid, it was one of the very few VHS tapes in the horror section that I was allowed to rent. And rent it I did. So often that I eventually wore out the store’s copy and had to track it down somewhere else.
I liked it so much for one very simple reason: it was pure wish fulfillment. I wanted to fight Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I had many an imaginative game with my friends where I did just that. Here was a movie where I actually got to see kids fight monsters and live vicariously through them. The fact that all the characters were relateable, complete with the nagging sister who turned out to be far more important to the squad than anyone else, only added to my enjoyment of the film.
There’s something about kids in horror movies. They’re generally far more resourceful and intelligent than kids in a comedy, drama, or family movie. They have ideas of their own and are more or less self sufficient, which is always refreshing to see. The Monster Squad also understands something crucial about children: they like being scared and frequently seek out danger when it’d be wiser to stay indoors.
The stakes of the film are raised due to the monsters being genuinely frightening. Duncan Regehr’s Dracula remains my favorite onscreen interpretation of the character and Tom Noonan is my favorite Frankenstein’s monster. He brings a level of pathos to the role that Boris Karloff would have envied. The moment when he gets sucked into Limbo at the end still makes me tear up. Like The Witches, the danger is real in The Monster Squad, which gives the heroes a more rewarding victory in the end. It’s also slightly more fun and irreverent. After all, this is the movie that definitively answered the question of whether or not the Wolfman’s got nards.
17. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Here is the film that invented the horror comedy as we know it. Pairing two of the world’s most beloved comedians with the most famous monsters is an idea that would make most of us cringe today. If it was announced that Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill would be teaming up to take down Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers, most of us would throw our fists to the sky in a fit of rage. But in 1948, it proved to be one of the most inspired ideas of the time period and was executed to absolute perfection.
Here’s why: the scary parts of this film are genuinely scary. Bela Lugosi reprised his iconic role for the second and only time and he gives the character the same level of gravitas and menace present in Tod Browning’s film. Ditto to Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman. The transformation scenes are state of the art and the Wolfman remains an intimidating presence. The scene where he stalks Costello through the forest is creepy and atmospheric. And how bout when Dracula reanimate’s Frankenstein’s monster? When that hulking body rises up, we’re as chilled to the bone as Costello is.
Then there’s the funny parts of the film, which are fall on your face hilarious. This was at the height of Abbott and Costello’s success. They were as comfortable working with each other as they would ever be and their comic rapport has never been more finely tuned than it is here. From the opening scene in the warehouse that highlights some of their best physical comedy to the consistently funny arguments about whether or not monsters are real, they never cease to illicit gales of laughter. Costello’s unwavering cowardice provides some of the biggest chuckles but also reflects on how spooked we all can get by things that go bump in the night. He’s a precursor to Shaggy and Scooby in this sense. Like them, we laugh at his screams while telling ourselves we wouldn’t behave that way even though a small part of us knows that’s not the truth.
Finally, the movie contains one of my absolute favorite dialogue exchanges in any film. It’s two simple lines that accurately sum up the bizarre but credible logic children use to defend their unfounded fears of the thing under the bed to their parents:
ABBOTT: Listen, I know there’s no such person as Dracula, you know there’s no such person as Dracula.
COSTELLO: But does Dracula know it?
16. The Thing
To anyone that says all remakes are inferior, I give you John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film that not only equals but improves upon its predecessor. It’s also a film that highlights all of Carpenter’s strengths and none of his weaknesses. His favorite thing to do is take a bunch of characters and trap them in an isolated setting while something tries to get in. He does this in Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness, The Fog, Ghosts of Mars, and his solid Masters of Horror episode, Pro-Life. However, he’s never used this trope more effectively than in The Thing.
The terror starts brewing right away with that odd incident involving a scientist from another outpost desperately trying to shoot a dog. His American counterparts wonder why a man at the end of the world would go to such trouble. This leads them to a series of strange discoveries and the uneasy revelation that one or more of them may not be who they say they are. As the paranoia level in the group rises, so does the tension, which culminates in the classic scene where Kurt Russell ties up the survivors and tests their blood to determine which of them is the ‘thing’. The reveal shocks me every time even though I know it’s coming.
The practical effects on display are stunning. If someone ever tells you that CGI is more convincing and unnerving, show them The Thing and watch their mouth fall open. Rob Bottin and his team of artists create distinctly alien images and they consistently up the ante on the ‘ick’ factor. It really does seem that this is how an alien being would attempt to replicate human tissue. When the characters thwart the ‘thing’ during transformations, we become privy to truly unnerving special effects. How bout that head that sprouts legs huh?
Carpenter doesn’t let the effects do all the work for him though. He milks the premise for all it’s worth. We are never quite certain who is a real person and who is the ‘thing’, which ups the suspense level in every single scene. And the final shot, considered a cop out by some, drives this home even further. No matter what happens, one of those two people left standing at the end is not who they say they are, and so the film ends with fear still hanging in the air. The ending is one of the many reasons why The Thing is Carpenter’s scariest and best film.