If you’ve taken the time to read my writing, you’ve probably worked out I love horror. You may also (I hope) love it too. I’m not great at top ten lists, in that I’m a person for whom scoring a subjective thing such as film tends to know my opinion will change, and just isn’t regiment enough to stick at it. This is not a list of what I think the best made, most wonderful, genre altering horror films of all time are. It is not a history lesson in the genre either, it is personal. This is my list, picked entirely emotively, I can’t guarantee that this list would be the same in a few years, but then isn’t that the brilliance of film? I’ve tried to explain my reasons for each film. Effectiveness, influence and longevity are, I suppose, my criteria. As well as what each film means to me. In the twenty five years since I would scan the back of horror VHS boxes in the video store for grisly images, my love of gore remains intact, but an appreciation of the more subtle stuff has evolved. I’d love to know how people react to this as a top ten.
10. Interview with the Vampire
“Evil is a point of view. God kills indiscriminately and so shall we.”
While others in this list may not be films for repeat views, Interview with the Vampire sneaks in mainly for the reason that I’ve never watched it and not enjoyed it. I could probably see this once a year without being bothered by doing so, and I am not one for rewatching films often. It may also have been the first 18 rated film I watched start to finish, at far too young an age (blood! Boobs! Irresponsible babysitter!). I love Stephen Rea, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise weren’t parodies of themselves back then, Kirsten Dunst was a talented child actress and most importantly of all, Neil Jordan was tailor made to direct this. It isn’t particularly scary, but it plays like a dark take on another good Brad Pitt film from the same time, Legends of the Fall (also worth watching). It’s an epic. I’d love to see more films from the series of books which it is based on from Anne Rice. Fun fact: some of Interview with the Vampire was filmed in Lewisham, believe it or not.
“Lucie was only a victim. Like all the others. It's so easy to create a victim.”
About halfway through my first watch of Martyrs I almost turned it off. It felt like aimless, violence for violence’s sake. Particularly given that it was aimed at women rankled at the time. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. The film does explain its methods eventually. This is off the wall, twisting, turning and brutal. Finally, Martyrs has a reveal which admittedly will make or break the film for you, but I loved it. There are many, many great horror films to come out of France over the last fifteen or twenty years (Inside and Switchblade Romance, Frontiers, The Ordeal… the list goes on) but this is my favourite. It’s not one for too many repeat views due to the relentless brutality, but for originality it gets in my top ten. Martyrs is existential, nihilistic, devoid of hope. Themes which probably run right through my top ten! The American remake is a steaming pile of watered down, sanitised rubbish, to put it kindly. Do not waste your time. See this if you haven’t.
8. The Devil’s Backbone
“Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph.”
Guillermo del Toro is a favourite of mine. With the exception of Pacific Rim (which wasn’t awful, I suppose) I’ve loved all of his films. The Devil’s Backbone was something I’d read about, and being young and naive, rented to put on while I did art coursework. Not realising it was in subtitles I was forced to ditch the pencils and give the film my full attention. I’m so glad I did. A film of subtlety, originality and depth. Essentially a coming of age ghost story, the ghost is exceptionally well thought up and executed. So to speak. The Devil’s Backbone is also further proof to my theory that all good ghost films are actually mysteries. Ghosts creep me out. Despite my not believing in them, a good film can make me for an hour or two. Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is also an amazing, beautiful film but for some reason I prefer The Devil’s Backbone for this list. Probably because it is more of a pure horror, although neither really aim to chill quite like Crimson Peak does, which was also in consideration. This may have been the film which got me into foreign language cinema properly. I certainly can’t thank it enough.
7. The Mist
“You don't have much faith in humanity, do you?”
The first time I saw this the Mist blew me away. It shocked me. Charlie Brooker once said zombies are the misanthropes’ monster of choice, but this is the most misanthropic horror film (to have come out of Hollywood) I have ever seen. Frank Darabont had to fight to keep the ending, was denied it being released in black white, which it looks awesome in, and from the sounds of it fought tooth and nail to have this come out as close to his vision as possible. Frank, I salute you.. Who else has noticed that the only truly good season of The Walking Dead was the one where Darabont was involved? The plot involves a mist which descends on a small town and the monsters which emerge from it, both unreal and human. The humans are almost more scary than the monsters. I used this film in my philosophy degree,the characters are so good. Stephen King and Frank Darabont have a long history of making great films (Shawshank being the obvious but The Green Mile I would place above it) and The Mist is sadly overlooked. It’s not one to warm your heart, in many ways, but this is a horror top ten, not a romance one*. This is a brilliant film. It will be interesting to see the series. I have a feeling it will be watered down.
*I reckon I could do a romance top ten. It would be fucking depressing though.
6. The Blair Witch Project
“I'm afraid to close my eyes, I'm afraid to open them.”
When I first saw Blair Witch it was in the cinema, arriving as the most hyped horror of my 14 years. I was desperate to go. Unfortunately, being fourteen, I went to see it in a group of fourteen year olds and spent the whole film joking, talking and laughing. Cinema behaviour I’d now punch myself in the face for. Goddamn kids, enjoying their youth and still having fun in other people’s company. Having grown older and more isolated, this film has properly scared me. It also singularly changed the genre. For better or worse. Possibly more than any other horror film in my lifetime. It has been redone so many times that, like Night of the Living Dead for me, it has now lost its power, its uniqueness, for younger viewers. I assume. I’m not young anymore. Hopefully it has not, the terror in the absence of help, the feeling of being lost, is still so, so powerful. I have come close to feeling that lost, going around in circles in an area where every turn is identical, devoid of humanity. But since my aunt died we don’t go to Welwyn Garden City. Any good horror plays on our fears and the Blair Witch Project does so in a unique way that shifted the cinematic approach. Conversely, it could be argued it also drove horror underground for a long time as it tried to emulate the verite style.
“This kind of thing... it doesn't start by one person telling a story. It's more like everyone's fear just takes on a life of its own.”
This film was the first film to terrify me properly at home. Ringu is practically tailor made to terrify on television, for obvious reasons if you have seen it. I saw this at about 17, late at night on channel 4, with an introduction by Mark Kermode, I think, which is what convinced me to stick with it. Being seventeen, I may have had “heightened paranoia”. I may also not have slept that night. Sadako, that well and that TV scene are now horror iconography. The sense of the inability to escape is, I think, what any horror film that actually wants to scare you needs to capture. It Follows got close, admirably close. Ringu does it brilliantly, paranoia stroking the back of your neck in every scene. Brief digression- inability to escape is what Shaun of the Dead riffed on so well, that the ambling zombies are actually pretty easy to dodge. It was, in my opinion, all that was good about Shaun of the Dead, I hate that film. Don’t ask me why. Anyway back to Ringu, the US remakes were average, as US remakes almost always are, as previously discussed. Ringu is an excellent take on ghosts and spirits, that will remain a classic for years.
“This is not caving, this is an ego-trip.”
Dog Soldiers was a lot of fun, and The Descent got great reviews, so I arranged to see it with my girlfriend at the time. She was so late that I had time to see this on my own before she arrived. I was annoyed at the time but she did me a favour looking back. You don’t need to have been caving to understand the terror that comes from wriggling down tiny tunnels with caverns and drops, but it helps. But I happen to have been caving, and The Descent captures the fear brilliantly, as well as throwing in buckets of blood, well realised creatures and an almost otherworldly sense of history. Without wanting to give too much away, for some reason the explanations for the horror really worked for me. I came out of the cinema and it was dark, I was so shell shocked I had to find a brightly lit burger bar to sit in. It may have been the first time I went to the cinema alone, too, and probably explains why I liked it so much; I wasn’t aware of anyone else and thus didn’t get distracted or taken out of the story. A year or two later I had a projector at home and showed it to my friends during a film evening. They were both shaken by it. It was great watching them squirm! The gore is incredible, the injuries eye watering and the claustrophobia oppressive, not to mention it is basically an all female cast, which shouldn’t be a thing, but is sadly. The Descent is awesome cinema.
“Martin hates boats. Martin hates water. Martin... Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the mainland. I guess it's a childhood thing.”
Jaws might not even count as a horror, technically, but I still can’t go in the sea swimming without fearing being eaten thanks to this film; prophetically predicted in the above quote from Ellen Brody. Still, in my thirties, I show trepidation about the ocean and the scariest monsters in UK waters are just basking sharks and Philip Green. Of course Jaws will be a lot less scary in twenty years when we’ve fished/ polluted the sea to oblivion; at which point we’ll have bigger problems on our empty plate. As an eight year old Jaws both terrified and entranced me. For years I told people I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was older; ignoring the facts that I was now terrified of the sea and completely hopeless at sciences. It’s well known that Jaws was so effective because the mechanical shark “Bruce” was so unreliable that Spielberg had to shoot around its absence, creating a fear of the unseen that I really find scary. This also explains why ghost films give me the willies something rotten. Jaws is also incredibly gory for an eight year old, and for a PG rated film.
2. 28 Days Later
“Plans are pointless. Staying alive is as good as it gets.”
This choice is probably controversial, given that it’s not technically a zombie film, but 28 Days Later is the film which catapulted me (further) into a love of zombies. I never found Night of the Living Dead scary or actually very interesting. This was I think mainly for the reason that by the time I saw Living Dead as a teenager, it didn’t seem very original. That is of course because it was thirty years after it was made when I saw it, and by that time had been imitated to death and back (yes I know) and had lost its edge. Something all films have to contend with. 28 Days Later made the fear of zombies, or infected- whatever, both more believable and more relevant, it being set in my home city of London. I know true zombies move slowly, and are about creeping fear and human ineptitude, but most of us think of ourselves as able to survive the zombie holocaust, 28 Days Later made this much, much harder to imagine with its almost nihilistic story arc. The film reinvented and reinvigorated the zombie sub-genre, and John Murphy’s score is wonderful, too. The sequel was not bad either, which is nice.
1. The Thing (1982)
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
A film I first saw on TV late one night when I was a teenager. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen! At the time it was just a novelty, but growing up and rewatching it, at first on DVD then in the cinema at the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema in London (twice) more recently, I’ve come to appreciate just what a feat it is. The terror is real, the humour keeps it entertaining, and in this digital age where CGI ruins as many (or more) films as it makes, the practical effects are out of this world (I know, I know). Humour cannot be underrated as a way of keeping a horror film going, in my opinion. Recent film, the Void, which is part the Thing homage, was an average film that could have been so much better if it hadn’t taken itself so seriously, considering the ludicrous set up.When a few of my friends and I went to see the Thing at the cinema, the girl in the group left after ten minutes saying she didn’t know it was a horror. there is something very attractive about a lady who likes her horror, however. This film singularly created my love of practical effects, and solidified my burgeoning love of horror. See it at Prince Charles Cinema* if you are lucky enough to be able to do so!
*I have received no money from Prince Charles Cinema. I am happy to, though, if they want?...
Just Missed Out
The Silence of the Lambs
A film I heard so much about I didn’t believe they could put a face being ripped off on screen. They can. Hopkins superb, Jonathan Demme on form. Rest in peace.
Remember when Tim Burton made good films? No? I’m old enough to. This is in no way scary, but it is brilliant and technically a horror. Like a comedy Candyman. Fun fact; Michael Keaton is only onscreen for 17 and a half minutes. He steals the show.
Switchblade Romance introduced me to French horror, but I found it a bit too far fetched. This is an almost perfect horror film. Relentlessly aggressive, nasty horror.
Just as for Jaws, I’m not sure I count this as horror. But it is brilliant, funny and more practical effects madness! Something I love as you’ve probably guessed.You’ve probably not guessed I used to work for a post production house.
Brutal realism from Jeremy Saulnier. Blue Ruin would be close to my top ten revenge movies, and Green Room is close here. Perhaps only missing out because of its youth. Saulnier’s only made three films, too, the handsome, talented bastard. He’s just getting going.
Crimson Peak & Pan’s Labyrinth
I’ve been over why I love Guillermo del Toro. Just see these films if you haven’t. Then see all the others.
Dead Snow & Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
Another really hard call, but the Dead Snow films are so fucking funny it almost counts against them in the horror stakes. The final scene of the second film, set to an 80’s classic, is just amazing. I almost choked with laughter, while simultaneously wanting to sing!
The Devil’s Rejects
I don’t know why Rob Zombie is so divisive. I love his films. This is the best of them. A horror-western with the most mental family you’ll ever see outside of the Jeremy Kyle show..
To use a cliche, this is a hidden gem. It’s a kind of documentary come ghost film which brilliantly captures loss, much like In the Flesh did. Seek it out.
In the Flesh. SOMEONE PLEASE PAY FOR SERIES 3!