This might be the most difficult list I have ever compiled. As an avid horror film enthusiast, I had to narrow down my top ten of all-time, out of the 177 horror movies I have seen to date, according to my IMDB account. For good measure, I added three honorable mentions to get us to a lucky 13. When it comes to horror, generally I like older films; those campy, cult-classics or ones that make you think, even if they are not really scary. Very rarely do I see one nowadays and actually enjoy it. Horror has always been a rewarding genre because you can take so much from them: you can be scared or mystified, which is the goal, but if one is so bad, you can get some humor by making fun of how deplorable it was. But on this list, there are no such films. These are my absolute favorites, for various reasons. The ones I could watch over and over again!
Honorable Mention 1: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961; Roger Corman)
Honorable Mention 2: In the Mouth of Madness (1994; John Carpenter)
Honorable Mention 3: Vampyr (1932; Carl Theodore Dreyer)
10. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971; Robert Fuest)
There is only one word needed to describe this film: bizarre. There can be no other film like it—it is that unique. It plays out like an acid-trip set to organ music from start to finish, as we follow the post-resurrection life of Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), who was possibly killed but definitely horribly disfigured in a car accident many years earlier. Dying in the crash was his beloved wife, who he is still madly in love with, and whom he seeks vengeance for. Also, a biblical scholar in addition to being a world-renown organ player, Phibes begins to murder every doctor and nurse who worked on his wife after the crash and failed to save her. Each death would be a variation on the different biblical plagues. Everything about this movie is outrageous. The costumes, sets, and music. Everything! It is a one of a kind film that you have to see to truly know how unique it is. If some of the murders and, uh, daily habits, of Phibes do not make you squirm, his self-embalming in a glass coffin to a brass band tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the finale will certainly leave you comically uneasy. The first time you watch it, “What the hell did I just watch?” comes to mind, but with each viewing you will realize that this is a hidden gem of horror film-making.
9. The Fall of the House of Usher (1960; Roger Corman)
Audiences must have been stunned upon seeing this movie. For one, Vincent Price in the lead role of the tormented Roderick Usher, shaved off his famous mustache, bleached his hair white, and thirdly, puts in a very reserved and believable performance as a man with acute afflictions of his senses who is withering away to nothing, as his centuries old mansion home dies with him. He lives with his sister, who is seeking to get married, yet Price warns the would-be suitor that she is dying—that they are all dying, due to a curse that looms over their family. This is Poe and Corman at their finest, as the popular theme of premature burial is included. You can feel the pain in Price’s mannerisms, as every loud sound, hard touch, or extreme taste bothers him. You can sense his agony as the house and the curse kill him bit by bit. “There is a monster in this film,” Corman told skeptical studio producers who did not want to finance the movie originally, “the house is the monster”.
8. The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty; 1990)
A bombastically awful reception for Exorcist II: The Heretic and a war between writer-director William Peter Blatty and the studio doomed this movie for failure, no matter how good or bad it was. Having read Legion, the book it was based on (also by Blatty), I can say the two are absolutely nothing alike. Blatty wanted to do his own thing here: a stand-alone horror movie with the same name as his novel. However, the studio demanded that it cap off an Exorcist trilogy, and then after the final cut was presented, demanded he include an exorcism scene since it was now part of the series. The end result was seen as lackluster by most people, but personally, it is one of my favorites. There is some hammy acting from George C. Scott (playing Lee J. Cobb’s role of Det. Kinderman) but he meshed well with Ed Flanders and the two are wonderful in the art of dark comedy. The demon who possessed Reagan in the first film is back again, this time in the body of Fr. Karras. However, the demon also once possessed a serial killer whom Kinderman investigated in the past and that too comes out. Yikes. Confusing! Anyway, the film expertly blends some pretty sick horror with comedy making this a highly entertaining flick. However, due to a tacked on final scene (which Blatty disowned) and horrible critical reception, The Exorcist III unfortunately bombed out at the box office before anyone knew it was there. It has since been re-looked at and has become a cult classic. I could watch this almost any day of the week. Unfortunately, within the last few years, the studio announced that Blatty’s original cut of the film has been lost, which means we will probably never see what he envisioned.
7. House of the Devil (2009; Ti West)
The only film on this list I have seen only one time, Ti West directs an ultra-fine project here, paying homage to 1980’s horror cinema by using 35 mm film instead of digital, 80’s style opening and closing credits, camera angles, transitions, and settings. It is a very simple story about a young girl who answers an ad for a babysitter. When she arrives at a creepy house with even creepier owners, she is informed that she is actually babysitting a senile woman. Okay, fine. But the rest of the story, after the owners leave, is so intense and stressful that there are no words to describe the suspense build-up, all without ever actually seeing anything scary. The use of music, lighting, cinematography, and sound turn this flick into one of the most frightening movies you will ever see, and that is before all hell breaks loose in the end…no pun intended!
6. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005; Scott Derrickson)
The only movie that ever scared me more than the number one film on this list. This is one of the most believable exorcism movies ever made, due to the fact that it plays out almost as much as a courtroom drama as it does as a horror movie. Based on a true story of a girl in France, it tells the tale of a possessed girl who died during an exorcism, with the priest now standing trial for negligence, the police saying he should have brought her for medical and psychological care, not taken the matter into his own hands. This is not a cheesy film. It is not part of that endless string of demon films that Hollywood is obsessed with. This is a horror, thriller, and drama all wrapped into one, with the stellar acting of Tom Wilkinson as the priest, who could put the fear of God into anyone. The one scene in particular that still stays with me after many years since my last viewing is Emily contorted, speaking in Latin, rattling off all the people throughout history she has possessed, putting the whole concept of evil into a timeless perspective.
5. Theater of Blood (1973; Douglas Hickox)
The most creative movie I have ever seen! Horror typecast Vincent Price always wanted to do Shakespeare, but would never get such roles because of his success in the horror genre. So what does Douglas Hickox do? He combined the two for this incredible and outlandish tale of a washed-up, fading-into-the-sunset actor who fakes his own death only so he can return to murder all of the critics who wrote bad reviews about him. However, he does it with a twist: each one gets a death from one of Shakespeare’s plays. A pound of flesh extracted here, a body set aflame there, the darkly-comic murders begin to add up on this wild goose chase that ends in typical Price over-the-top perfection. This is not a scary movie, but a good, intelligent, kill-fest; off-beat and funny enough to keep you glued to the set. Like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, there is no other like it. This is a fun film to watch. So much ado about murder!
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968; Roman Polanski)
This film is one of the strangest ones to describe, because except for one or two scenes, this really does not play out like a horror movie. Instead, it takes a Woody Allen-esque look at a couple in 1960’s New York trying to get started on their own. John Cassavetes is a low-on-the-totem-pole actor searching for his big break while Mia Farrow is a housewife. They just bought a beautiful apartment in a creepy old building, and run into some very nosey neighbors, led by the hysterical Ruth Gordon in an Oscar-winning role. However, the husband cannot seem to catch a break, and they are down on their luck…until all of a sudden, he starts to become best friends with Gordon’s husband, played by the chilling yet fatherly Sidney Blackmer. Then, roles begin to come, the wife gets pregnant, and things are looking bright, but also unexplained tragedies begin to strike, and we realize there is a lot more than meets the eye. Polanski directed a masterpiece with this film. You could almost think of it as more of a dark comedy than a horror film, but those one or two scenes I mentioned earlier get the job done. Just what is going on in the apartment next door? Weird chants, strange visits, and an unforgettable final scene ensures that you know exactly who, or what, Rosemary’s baby really is.
3. The Omen (1976; Richard Donner)
This is the first horror movie I used to watch annually, so it has a special place in my heart. Gregory Peck is an ambassador whose baby dies in childbirth. Still reeling from this tragedy, he is told that in the room next to them, another mother was giving birth, only she died and the baby lived. With no other family known, the baby is offered to Peck as an adoption. It is a blessing for he and his wife, played by Lee Remick, until they notice something is just not right with the child. The movie then takes on an investigative tone as Peck and new-found friend, David Warner as a newspaper reporter, look to find the truth about the child they adopted. Are they actually raising the Anti-Christ? Just who was his mother? Answers are revealed through some chilling twists and turns, and a stream of bizarre murders and deaths that will have you asking for more (which you can satisfy your cravings with Damien: The Omen II, which is very enjoyable, and almost made this list itself).
2. The Shining (1980; Stanley Kubrick)
The first hour of this movie is probably the most boring of Stanley Kubrick’s career, and makes Eyes Wide Shut seem like a 200 MPH car chase. But as the story develops, one thing is clear: this is a deliberately paced masterpiece of modern horror. Over the years, it has become caricatured with the famous “Here’s Johnny!” line, and at face value, it just looks like the story of a former alcoholic trying his best but who ultimately snaps, goes nuts, and tries to kill his family, but it is much more than that. This is a deep meditation on insanity, claustrophobia, alcoholism, and possession. There was no better choice for Jack Torrance than Jack Nicholson, and the entire cast blends well into this frenzy of craziness that keeps on spinning out of control.
1. The Exorcist (1973; William Friedkin)
One of the greatest movies in cinema history. Period. Along with Rosemary’s Baby, Friedkin’s sinister horror flick helped legitimize the genre in the eyes of the Academy, thus allowing future horror movies to not be looked at with disdain. This movie is painfully put together, detail by detail from Blatty’s original source material, and thrown together in a heap of terror. It is probably one of the most intelligent films ever made, combining religion with philosophy and psychology. Belief and doubt. From the moment this film was made, no exorcism film would ever be able to match it, no matter how hard they tried. This well-researched project set every precedent within this theme. The all-star cast of Max Von Sydow, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, and Lee J. Cobb only added to the realism created with terrifying special effects, subliminal imagery, and the evil that lurks in our world. It has terrified people for more than forty years. Everything about it is pure perfection. I need not add anything else.