What better way to celebrate Icons of Fright’s ten year anniversary, than with a barrage of our favorites?, whether they be lists of our favorite entries into the French horror genre, our favorite badasses, or like this one, the films that make up what is (in my opinion), the greatest horror films of all time. Like always, art is subjective, so before you rabid fright fiends call foul on me, just remember, this is “Jerry’s Ten Greatest Horror Films of All Time”, so it is just that: mine. So if you disagree, comment and tell me yours, as Icons of Fright has always been for the fans and comprised OF fans, so feel free to sound off! With all of that said, it’s go time!
10.) RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
Stuart Gordon’s film adaption of the H.P. Lovecraft story “Herbert West: Reanimator” is thought of to many, as one of the best horror comedies of all time. I agree with that thought, and it’s a definite addition to this list. Every subgenre of horror has its king, and RE-ANIMATOR is the crown-bearing, undisputed champion.
A perfect blend of humor and horror, RE-ANIMATOR‘s sometimes protagonist, sometimes antagonist Herbert West (a perfect performance by Jeffrey Combs) is one of the horror genre’s most cherished characters. A scientist obsessed with bringing the dead back to life (with some terrifyingly odd results), West does everything he can to succeed, even if it means experimenting on cats, fathers or well..a rival professor. RE-ANIMATOR is a gory, hilarious and utterly enjoyable ride, filled to the brim with great performances from Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott and let’s not forget Arnold Schwarzenegger’s frequent stunt double, Peter Kent, as Melvin, the naked re-animated corpse. It’s full of so many memorable scenes that continually find themselves being referenced by horror fans (Megan almost being taken advantage of by the head of Dr. Hill STILL gives me the creeps), the combination of great writing by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Stuart Gordon, great direction by Gordon, and a score by Richard Band (one that caused a lot of PSYCHO fans to point and scream), the film ended up being a melting pot filled with the perfect ingredients.
Many horror films have been horrific, and many have been funny, but none of them have been as successful at creating the perfect combination of both, as well as RE-ANIMATOR was, and still is.
9.) A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
When Wes Craven wrote A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, I’m sure the guy never imagined how massive the character of Freddy Krueger would get, or how much of a pop culture-influence the film and its following sequels would end up being. Here the director thought he was just making another metaphorical horror film of his (Craven’s written films are always multi-dimensional, this one focusing on the sins of the father coming back to haunt the children), and instead of just being that, the 1984 horror masterpiece ended up keeping fans up at night, creating an icon out of Freddy and the man behind the mask, Robert Englund, and also jump-starting the career of another star of the film, Johnny Depp. More than just the trivia having to do with who made it, who starred in it, and the similar, the film itself is a force to be reckoned with, one of the few genuinely iconic and lasting horror films.
Telling the tale of Nancy Thompson, a high school student, who along with her friends, are haunted (and hunted) in her dreams by a horribly scarred, makeshift claw-wearing child murderer named Freddy Krueger (or Fred Krueger in this one). Little by little, Nancy’s friends are off’d one by one, until Nancy decides to stand up to her fears, find an inner strength and defeat the dream stalker once and for all (the following sequels obviously didn’t buy that).
While the film works on the level of a fun and creepy slasher film, what sets A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET apart from other horror films released around that time, is how complex the film actually is. As previously stated, it’s a film more about self-empowerment and not only refusing to let one’s fears get the best of them, but also denying that fear the power that it craves. It’s a film about facing the issues that our parents sometimes put in front of us, and choosing not only to go down another path, but not letting those obstacles defeat us. Craven succeeds the most as a director when he tackles the writing himself, and thought the occasional misfire happens when Wes handles the screenwriting (ahem, MY SOUL TO TAKE), films like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES really put Craven on this writer’s list of great horror auteurs who can spin a yarn and tackle both duties as perfectly as anyone. In addition to that solid writing and directing, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET‘s other elements help make the film pretty much as close to a perfect horror film as possible, including some innovative special effects (the wall scene STILL looks as amazing as ever, as does the rotating room gag), as well as likable performances by Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, Johnny Depp as her boyfriend Glen, and of course Freddy himself, Robert Englund. Where as the series got a little hokey towards the later sequels, the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET goes for more scares and atmosphere, and less for laughs and one liners. Freddy didn’t need to play Nintendo or be in 3-D to get laughs from people, because he didn’t need laughs, he needed to steal the children of the people who took their revenge against him, which makes the film genuinely frightening.
8.) ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
As far as potentially demonic kids go, there aren’t very few films, as shocking and with as much lasting impact as Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. Instead of going for the evil kids angle (i.e.-THE OMEN), ROSEMARY’S BABY instead gets deeper into your skin, by having the story be before the child is born, focusing on Mia Farrow’s character of Rosemary and her husband (played by one of my all time favorite directors, John Cassavetes) moving into a new building and the soon-coming strange events that happen faster than you say “oh shit, Satanic cults!”.
Polanski followed Ira Levin’s novel of the same name pretty closely, and added his genius touches to the film, making it his own. It’s a very atmospheric film, full of more than its share of unsettling scenes involving Rosemary and her building paranoia that her husband might have something to do with the odd-feeling ambiance going on, full of people mysteriously dying, horrible dreams of being raped by some form of demon as her husband their eccentric neighbors watch. It’s one of the few horror films that give you an uneasy feeling, without ever having to resort to a gross-out type of film. It’s all about suspense and tension, about Rosemary’s descent into madness and the fear that she’s not only right about her suspicions but that she’s carrying something very evil inside of her.
What makes ROSEMARY’S BABY apart from so many movies that deal with similar subject matter, is that to many, it’s not even obvious whether or not the whole thin is in Rosemary’s head. Sure, the classic ending of “God is dead, Satan lives!” is pretty obvious it seems, but who knows if she was drugged, or just plain ol’ went nuts. I’ve always felt that it was left to interpretation, an element that makes it that much more enjoyable than it already was, prior to the ending.
7.) THE EVIL DEAD (1981)
By far one of the best and most innovative independent films of all time, my love for Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD is quite epic. Here’s a little bit of proof:
There’s just something absolutely magical and even terrifying about it, and it’s a film that I think gets even more enjoyable and perfect with age. Telling the story of a group of friends spending the weekend in a cabin, and accidentally unleashing some incredibly fucked up demons, THE EVIL DEAD shows how possible it is to overcome budget issues (or the lack of a budget), as long as you have a vision and some hardcore dedication from your cast and crew. The absolute hell that Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsey Baker, Sarah York and Hal Delrich all went through is well documented, and if they had gone through less, the film wouldn’t have been as absolutely insane.
It’s a very scary ride, full of some of the most interesting camerawork of all time, and with a genuine terror-filled feeling to it, THE EVIL DEAD never heads into the territory that the second and third films in the series did (don’t get me wrong, I love EVIL DEAD 2), and that’s why the first film stands so firmly on its own. It also boasts what is, in my opinion, one of the best final scenes of all time, as the demon spirit bursts through doors, heading straight towards Bruce Campbell’s Ash character. Badass .
6.) THE THING (1982)
One of the many examples of how much John Carpenter likes to bum us the hell out (in a good way), 1982’s THE THING not only gave viewers one of the best remakes of all time, but also one of the greatest films, horror or otherwise.
A retelling of the 1951 film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (which was an adaption itself, of Joseph Campbell’s book, WHO GOES THERE?“), Carpenter’s THE THING follows a research facility in Antartica, that is soon invaded by an alien life form, turning the men on each other, and even themselves. The film’s helicopter pilot protagonist, MacReady (Kurt Russell), attempts to take charge of the situation and find out which of the men are infected by the alien, leading to some of the most tension-filled scenes in horror history. Scenes like the one in which Richard Dysart’s Cooper character tries to revive a fellow researcher, and out of nowhere the body’s chest opens up, sports some gnarly teeth and bites Cooper’s arms off, STILL creeps me out. Sporting some of the best practical effects of all time (courtesy of the great Rob Bottin), some amazing cinematography by Dean Cundey, and a great score by Ennio Morricone, Carpenter’s THE THING is a perfect case of every ingredient being top notch, all coming together to make a flawless film.
Story-wise, the film succeeds greatly as well, examining how quickly people will turn on each other when faced with danger and paranoia. As the film’s tension mounts, and people begin to drop, MacReady and the rest of the gang don’t know who to trust, and even if they’ll be able to trust themselves, with the film culminating in only two of them left alive, with next to no chance of survival, and unsure if either of them are inhabited by the alien. A perfect example of how horror doesn’t necessarily need a happy, wrapped in a bow ending, THE THING might not have been a massive hit at the box-office, but its rabid fan base and admirers would agree with me in saying that it’s one of the best damn horror films of all time.
5.) THE EXORCIST (1973)
If there was ever a film that caused people to run to church, it would definitely be William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST. It scared the living shit out of people upon its release, and it continues to do the same, despite what the young, hip “nothing scares me” kids of today might say (I’m looking at you Ariel Smith).
An adaption of William Peter Blatty’s novel that was released two years prior to the film, Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST is a film that while on the surface is about a young girl being possessed by a demon and the absolute horror that she, along with her mother and two priests go through trying to get it out of her, where the film shines (in my opinion) is how great of an examination it is of the character of Damien Karras and his lack of faith and having to find that faith in order to help Linda Blair’s young Regan. It’s a film about believing in something, no matter how hard it can very easily be. Sure, when you think of THE EXORCIST, you are most likely to think of head-spinning, masturbating with a crucifix, some gnarly split pea soup or by all means, “Tubular Bells“, but for me, it’s always been the tortured character of Father Karras that stays with me anytime that I sit down and watch the film.
Led by some unconventional directing from Friedkin, (including firing a gun on set, or slapping a Jesuit priest in order to get an authentic reaction) THE EXORCIST is a shocking and terrifying film, full of some career-defining performances by Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller. It gets under your skin and in your head, staying there and gestating for quite some time, leaving a very lasting mark. It’s one of the very few perfect horror films, and I don’t mean that in a loose way, it’s absolutely perfect in every capacity.
4.) PSYCHO (1960)
The horror films that test the time, are typically the ones that invoke something in our heads and hearts, whether it be a familiar and terrifying song or appearance, a certain scene, or just some damned good acting. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 adaption of Robert Bloch’s classic novel, PSYCHO, is just that kind of film. One that contains the classic music (courtesy of Bernard Herrmann), the identifiable killer (Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates is the boy next door that will kill the absolute shit out of you, right before talking to his dead mother about why, in his mind, she had killed HIS victim), and also, a couple of handfuls of scenes that will never be forgotten. A perfect amalgamation of so many wonderful elements, coming together to give us a enthralling, sometimes shocking, and always entertaining yarn of a story.
Following Marion Crane, a young woman who makes the impulsive decision to steal a large sum of cash to run off with. Upon driving for hours and hours, Marion finds the Bates Motel, a motel off the side of the road, and decided to stay the for a night. A decision that we soon learn would be a fatal one, Marion hides her money, takes a shower and is met by the edge of a knife many times over, as she screams repeatedly, while water and blood begins to pour down the drain. One of the most famous (and rightfully so) scenes in cinematic history, the shower scene is one that kept viewers out of showers for years, and is right up there with tons of other classic scenes. Where the mystery continues, is us as viewers not knowing who killed Marion. Motel manager, Norman Bates finds the body, yells “what have you done?!” to his mom, and gets rid on the body. Soon after, Marion’s fiance’ and sister show up, trying to find their missing loved one, and bites off more than they could chew, when it is revealed what dysfunctional truths awaits them.
In my opinion, PSYCHO is by far Hitchcock’s masterpiece. An absolutely perfect film, and one that i find myself gravitating towards watching at least once a month or so. It has the perfect mix of mystery, thriller and horror elements all rolled into one dose of classic film perfection. A scary as hell black and white film, full of one of the best performances in horror (Anthony Perkins would be typecast as Norman or Normal-like characters for the rest of his career after his genius performance), and some amazing directing from Hitch, the film just fires on all cylinders, I mean hell, even the Saul Bass credits are to die for. It’s a melting pot of a talented cast, crew and easily one of the best horror films ever.
3.) THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
There are very few films that still scare me as much as they did the first time that I saw them. Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE has and will always be one of those types of films, one that gets so deep under my skin and psyche that I’ve always found it hard to shake after watching it. It’s a very unsettling film, and though the legend of it being so gnarly and bloody is a bit inaccurate (don’t get me wrong, it’s terrifying, but not all that bloody or gory, most of the shocks come from what you THINK you might have seen, not what you DID), the film succeeds so very well at giving a feeling that this could happen to you, with a simple mistake of taking a wrong trip, and ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A group of youngsters heading to make sure a recent string of grave robberies didn’t involve a relative’s grave in an old VW bus all decide to pick up a hitchhiker who ends up being one crazy son of a bitch, cutting himself and others, before getting kicked out and rubbing his bloody hand on their bus. Lost, the gang stop at a gas station ran by a eccentric man, who directs them back on the path. Lost again, the gang stumble upon an old house, and are soon met by a mentally challenged man, sporting a chainsaw and wearing the face of someone else. The man (“Leatherface”) knocks one of them in the head with a mallet, before slamming a sliding door shut. After hearing something, one of the girls is instantly attacked by Leatherface, grabbing her, and putting her right up on a meat hook, before chainsawing the previous victim’s body parts. Just that scene gives you a feeling of what you’re getting yourself into: an absolute hell on Earth. There isn’t a single positive element to the film, it’s a gnarly, vicious and emotionally draining film, full of a dark atmospheric and dirty aesthetic, one that does not instantly wash off as soon as the film ends. These teens are stalked and killed by Leatherface, his brother the hitchhiker and also the man running the gas station. A family from hell, and with a taste for human furniture and food, the survivors don’t survive very long, and for Sally, the heroine from the film, the film’s poster tagline rings true: “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”. The final shot of Sally escaping in the back of a truck, screaming hysterically and crazily, while Leatherface swings his chainsaw in a dance that still makes me feel dirty and frightened, making viewers cringe, in the best of ways.
Notorious for one of the most trying film shoots of all time (heat strokes, people wanting to kill Hooper by the end of the shoot, rotting props, 110 degree weather..the film from hell), it’s obvious that a lot of yells and mind-losing scenes weren’t completely an act, as you can tell the actors involved were on the brink of REALLY losing their minds, something that translates so well to the film. You can tell that EVERYONE involved gave the film 200% of themselves, catapulting the film into an authentically real feeling experience, making THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE rise above just another slasher horror film, and into legendary status, which is very well deserved. It’s a perfect horror film, and a perfect film in general.
2.) JAWS (1975)
There are about a million things to say regarding Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, but I think I’ll just mention a few. Growing up, you develop a feeling that could best be described as nostalgia, remembering something very special to you, and for one reason or another, that sentimentality stays with you. A lot of the time, as an adult, you hold onto those pieces of nostalgia, and unfortunately when you decide to revisit them, you’re sorely let down. It’s happened a billion times with a billion movies, but JAWS, thankfully, has and never be one of those types. It’s a film that packs just as hard of a punch and hits all of the cylinders perfectly.
An adaption of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel also titled JAWS, Spielberg did what very few could do: turn a book that could have very easily been made into a schlock-filled B-movie, into something more: the beginning of the summer blockbuster. Universal’s gamble on the young director paid off in spades, as Spielberg’s innovated style, dedication to assembling the perfect cast, and decided to go with the “less is more” approach to the film’s first half scared the absolute shit out of millions of people, and turned a good book into a flawless film.
Dealing with a chief of police in over his head, the film deals with being a fish out of water, so to speak, and how Chief Brody’s weight on his shoulders leads him to not only confront the massive Great White shark that is terrorizing the residents of Amity, but also leads him to confront his fears of the water, of the responsibility to the island, and to his family. Spielberg cut out the mafia subplots of the book, and thankfully, the affair between Mrs. Brody and Matt Hooper were also taken out, making the story tight and to the point in the film.
From the opening scene, in which young Chrissie Watkins goes skinny dipping in the ocean, as her drunk suitor passes out, and is attacked by a creature that we can’t see, we’re instantly plunged into absolute terror. We might not be able to see the shark at first, but by god, we’re able to feel it. It sends chills right up your bones, something that happens multiple times throughout the film. When Alex Kitner gets killed on his raft later on in the film, your heart beats like a freight train, and when his shredded raft washing up, you can’t help but to feel the horror that is in his mother’s eyes. When the film’s second half kicks in, and Brody, along with Hooper step onto Quint’s boat, you instantly know that things will not be the same by the end credits (and they’re not). The trio passes their time looking for the giant fish by comparing scars, telling stories, and giving us one of the greatest monologues of all time, before it’s interrupted by a taste of what’s to come. When the inevitable showdown happens, and Quint loses his grip, sliding into the sharks mouth, it is to this day, one of the scariest images of all time. There’s a sense of absolute desperation that flows through those final scenes, as the shark quickly comes for Brody and the chief blows the beast straight into the sky and hell, with blood everywhere, and a fear of the ocean being taken away from Brody.
It’s one of the most perfect films of all time, one that has and will always stand the test of time, and never feel dated or old. It holds just as much of a powerhouse punch as it did upon its release.
1.) HALLOWEEN (1978)
Everything under the sun has been said regarding John Carpenter’s classic, HALLOWEEN. There have been hundreds of articles and essays about how influential the film was (and is) to filmmaking, and really, what more could be said at this point? Well, guess what?, That’s a loaded question, because this is my article, so naturally, I have tons of shit to say. HALLOWEEN isn’t just my favorite horror films, it’s my favorite film period. An absolutely perfect thriller, in every sense of the word, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN unintentionally created a horror icon in its antagonist, Michael Audrey Myers, or “The Shape” as he’s so commonly referred to.
From the opening sequence, involving a small hand grabbing a large knife, the person walking slowly up the stairs and murdering the naked young girl brushes her hair, HALLOWEEN sucks you into the terror right away, and when it’s revealed that it was just a child who had brutally killed his sister, it’s a gut-punch moment that hit viewers with a ton of bricks, making you think to yourself, “this is a dangerously amazing movie”. When Dr. Loomis, realizes that Myers has escaped from the mental hospital that he has been in for years, he knows exactly where Michael is headed: home, and he does everything he can (to no avail) to convince people to take it seriously.
When a young Laurie Strode drops off some mail at the now vacant and run down Myers home, Michael sees her, and decides that it is now his mission to stalk Laurie and her friends. What makes the original HALLOWEEN so very scary, is that there is absolutely no motive whatsoever for Michael going after Laurie, as she isn’t his sister in the first film (that awful twist wasn’t thought of until the second film), he is simply going after the first girl he sees. He’s a deviant that wants to terrorize and scare his victims before killing them. It’s a sadistic element that is often overlooked by a lot of fans, but is very obvious. If Michael wants to just kill Laurie and her friends Annie and Lynda, he could very easily have done that, with the many opportunities that he has in the film. Instead, he makes their skin crawl, by hiding behind shrubs, dressing like a ghost, and playing the most terrifying cat and mouse game in film history.
In a lot of the films that followed HALLOWEEN, the filmmakers trying to emulate Carpenter’s movie continually failed to realize that what made HALLOWEEN so damned effective, was a complete marriage of the perfect ingredients. Carpenter gave viewers not only an iconic slasher character, but he also, along with co-writer Debra Hill (RIP), gave us very likable characters that you genuinely care about when they meet their end. You care about Laurie, because most of us WERE (or are) very similar to her character. Anyone who didn’t know how to ask the person out, or felt like they didn’t have as much self-esteem as their more popular friends find it easy to live vicariously through Laurie. Also adding an amazing touch to the film, is how enthralling it is to watch Donald Pleasence’s character of Dr. Loomis, a man who knows that the night will end in bloodshed, unless he can stop what he refers to as “the blackest eyes”. Loomis doesn’t consider Myers to be a man, but instead a force, one of pure evil. Those ingredients, all rolled into a solid story, combined with what is easily the best score of all time, all add to make an experience in storytelling and horror that never loses its touch, it’s effect, no matter how many times that you sit through it. While the later sequels thought adding a sister/niece/senior citizens controlling Myers via their cult angles, none of them were able to capture the magical feeling that the first film gave (and continues to give). It’s a flawless film, full of above the bar acting, directing and featuring some killer cinematography. I doubt there will be a better film than HALLOWEEN anytime soon, as it is, like Michael Myers, an unstoppable monster.
So now that you’ve given a glance at what is, in my opinion, the ten greatest horror films of all time, I’d love to know what your choices would be. So, like with every piece that we write, comments are encouraged, so sound off!!