I recently took the 31 Horror Movies in 31 Days challenge (sometimes referred to as Hoop-tober), and while I am sure to fail miserably, so far I have been plugging along. My goal this month has been to seek out horror movies that I haven’t seen before, leading me to finally catch up on older classics like Dead Ringers, The Uninvited, Don’t Look Now, and Prom Night.
This project has also made me realize that I have watched a lot of horror movies since I began working in the Music, Film & Audio Department of our library over four years ago. While I was a casual fan at the time — I have always enjoyed a good scary movie for the same reason I enjoy, say, roller coasters — I can now say that I’ve grown to respect the genre. I’ve written before in defense of horror movies, and also shared a list of haunted house films as well as a list of children’s movies that terrified me while growing up. This year, seeking out previously unwatched horror movies has inspired me to take stock of my favorites from over the years. So here are my top twelve favorite horror films (soon to be revised, and listed chronologically since I’m not sure how to rank them):
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There is no explicit violence or gore in this film, just a sustained sense of looming paranoia and dread. Young Rosemary Woodhouse moves into an old apartment building with her husband Guy, and soon after becomes pregnant. The apartment building and its eccentric inhabitants make for a claustrophobic and unsettling viewing experience. Guaranteed to give you the creeps!
For me, the real terror of this movie lies not in its (spoilers) supernatural ending, but in its depiction of the horrors of puberty and adolescent cruelty. And in what could be called a very unhealthy mother-daughter relationship.
An American dancer travels to Germany to study at a ballet school in the Black Forest where it just so happens horrific murders are being perpetrated. This is a Dario Argento movie, meaning that the plot will not necessarily “hang together” or even make sense, but everything will look absolutely gorgeous and spooky. What makes this movie really stand out though is its killer soundtrack by Pittsburgh’s own Goblin. Warning: there is gore in this movie, although it is all highly stylized.
In my book, still the gold standard by which all slasher films in the horror genre can be measured. Even on a recent re-watch, the film does not come across as campy. It is still legitimately scary, and the John Carpenter composed score is sparse, terrific, and eerie.
Dawn of the Dead (1979)
Although I find Night of the Living Dead more creepy, I prefer its 1979 sequel. While Dawn is still scary and violent, it also has a sense of humor. And you come to really care about the characters, which adds a sense of tragedy and existential dread to the whole proceedings.
I have a pretty loose definition of what constitutes a horror movie — if something frightens me or makes me uncomfortable, I’ll call it horror. And this movie scares the bejesus out of me. I am terrified of outer space (I haven’t seen Gravity, but I’m pretty sure it would make this list), and on top of that, this movie has one scary monster. It also has a strong female protagonist in Ellen Ripley, making it one of my all time favorite movies. Oh, and it also has Jones the cat.
The Shining (1980)
I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post growing up under the shadow of the Timberline Lodge (the exterior location for The Shining), and that is probably the reason my parents thought it was a-okay for me and my brothers to be watching this movie as little kids. That and it was the 80s. The location (an empty, isolated hotel in winter) and the beautiful, unsettling visuals are enough to make this a totally great horror movie, even before Jack Nicholson goes crazy or those twin sisters show up.
The Changeling (1980)
I actually hadn’t seen this film until a couple years ago, but it came highly recommended by almost every horror movie lover in my department at work. It’s a ghost story, and a haunted house story, and features one fantastically creepy attic. Director James Wan has mentioned in interviews that this is one of his favorite horror films, and if you’ve seen Insidious or The Conjuring you may notice that some of their scarier moments were inspired by this film.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Pan’s Labyrinth is often considered director Guillermo Del Toro’s best film, and rightfully so. But if you’re looking for a straight-up ghost story, this is the film that gets the job done. Everything about this film is sad and beautiful and unnerving, from the setting (an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War) to the atmospheric visuals.
28 Days Later (2002)
This is the film that introduced the concept of the “fast zombie.” Things are creepy long before the zombies show up though, as our hero Jim wanders around an abandoned London alone. Like with Dawn of Dead, you come to know and care about the characters in this film, making the threat of violence all the more gut-wrenching. This is also one of the first films to effectively be shot entirely with digital cameras, and it gives 28 Days a gritty 1970s look and feel.
The Descent (2005)
Those with claustrophobia should steer clear of this film! Things go pretty terribly in this film long before any creepy crawlies show up. A group of women cavers go spelunking in Appalachian country, but little does the group know that their dare devil leader has planned to take them into a system of unmapped, unexplored caves. The group gets lost, and stuck in many tight spaces, and then…did you hear something out there in the dark? If you’re looking to get scared, this is the movie for you.
This movie is not scary, but it is amazingly off-the-charts bonkers. If you’re a fan of 80s films, men in short shorts, Jersey accents, unintentional laughs, and implausible twist endings, then you should give this one a try.
I left off some newer favorites (House of the Devil, The Babadook, and It Follows) since I feel like I need to sit with them for a while before I know where they land on this list — and because making best-of-lists is serious business!
What about you, dear reader? What are your go-to scary movies? What have I missed? Do you have any recommendations?