Updated July 2020
Ever since the dawn of film, Horror has played a part in its development. Acting as a mirror to our innermost fears, while challenging us to face the ghosts of our deepest anxieties and terrors. Whether fictional, religious or real, horror has played with the psychology of human fear, shining a light into the darkest corners of human existence. Subsequently making us jump, scream, reevaluate humanity and relive the childhood monsters under the bed. While giving us some of the best films of the past 100 years; the genre allowing directors to open up their imaginations on screen.
Horror has enabled the public sharing of emotional and psychological fear; the cinema acting as a safe place in facing our demons with others. In turn, embracing the collective and personal experience of theatre while bringing classic literature to life with sound and pictures.
Horror has taken us to places that exist only in our deepest imaginations, from the haunted house to the deepest reaches of space. Allowing us to explore the unknown corners of our human experience while reflecting the social landscape of the day. At the same time, as holding a mirror to the very social themes and anxieties that create public opinion and social policy.
So dim the lights, lock the doors, and join us as we explore our first part list of the essential horror films everyone should see.
Just don’t have too many nightmares.
Director: Terrance Fisher and others
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Founded in 1934, Hammer Horror has become synonymous with melodramatic gothic tales. Taking classic Victorian horror, while adding its unique visual style, in bathing its stories in dramatic sets, vivid technicolour and the period charm. Therefore building a catalogue of movies that have become classics of horror and British cinema.
Hammers first colour horror movie came with 1957s The Curse of Frankenstein. Building on the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s while introducing the world to the horror double act of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Director Terrence Fisher, creating the very template for a decade of hammer horror films. His visual style embracing theatrical Victorian gothic horror while reflecting the cinematic landscape of the 1950s and 60s British film.
Fisher took classic literature and set it free on-screen, consequently allowing each character to travel beyond the literary roots of their creation. With 1958s Dracula and 1961s Curse of the Werewolf clear examples of Hammer allowing horror icons to break free of their chains. Therefore cementing their place in the world of modern horror for decades to come. While 1959s Hound of the Baskervilles built upon the stark imagery of the 1939 film, delightfully emphasising the gothic horror of the Devon moors.
Later Hammer decided to embrace a new aesthetic with The Devil Rides Out 1968. Simultaneously replacing the gothic horror audiences had become accustomed too with occultism in sleepy rural England. The fantastic Charles Gray and Christopher Lee set free in character development, with a screenplay of darkly delicious dialogue and action. As a result, cementing a whole host of new Hammer films leading into the 1970s.
With a back catalogue full of riches, the power and creativity of ‘Hammer’ have stood the test of time. And while it movies are tame by modern horror standards, they remain some of the best Halloween night pictures out there.
The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Two years before he brought us Superman the Movie. Richard Donner’s The Omen placed the biblically inspired story of the antichrist’s return into the hands of a child. The child’s unsuspecting adoptive parents slowly realising the demon held within.
The Omen created its own mythology, primarily due to an intelligent screenplay that dovetailed classic fiction with religion. Creating a unique version of the antichrist’s return to earth. That has cemented itself into broader public belief ever since its release in 1976.
But beyond its religious themes, Donner takes the 1970s cinematic fascination with the occult and removes the horns and demonic iconography; subverting the innocence of a child on-screen. Meanwhile, hiding the demon from the unsuspecting audience. Simultaneously playing with the fears of every parent in discovering their child is not what they thought them to be. The final scenes bathed in the terror of an impossible choice. The life of your child versus the welfare and lives of others; a decision no parent would ever want to make.
As a result, The Omen cleverly implants its ideas into the imaginations of us all; its themes and concepts only strengthened by the terrible accidents that swept through the production; cementing its place in modern cinematic folklore.
The Orphanage (El Orfanato) 2007
Director: J A Bayona
Borrowing from the visual style and delivery of Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘The Devils Backbone‘. Bayona’s 2007 film places story before scares in a visually stunning ghostly tale that sublimely builds tension through place and performance. Therefore, delivering a film that delicately plays with the emotional horror of grief and loss. More importantly, weaving a supernatural story with far more human emotions; the enigma of death and the guilt of life wrapped in a haunting dream.
Director: Bernard Rose
Born in the imagination of the formidable Clive Barker in a collection of short stories The Books Of Blood (1984-1985). Barker’s original story took place on a Liverpool housing estate, as its residents investigated the urban legend of a local serial killer. However in translation to film, British director Bernard Rose (Paper House) transferred the action to the urban decay of 90s Chicago. As a result creating a nuanced horror that speaks to social themes of poverty, crime and race in 1990s America.
University researchers Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Lemmons) are investigating local urban legends, with a particular interest in the Candyman legend of the Cabrini Green housing project. A rough, crime-ridden estate of abject poverty, populated by black families. The legend of revolving around the son of a slave viciously murdered following a relationship with a white woman. His hand cut off, and his body smeared in honey, before being thrown naked into an apiary. The community of Cabrini Green still living in fear of legend, alongside the abject poverty of the racial segregation still alive and well.
Candyman’s horror comes from mixing urban legend with the uncomfortable realities of a racially divided America still living in the shadow of slavery. Its white middle-class university researcher getting far more than she bargains for as she crosses the divide of wealth and race in 1990s America. Once seen never forgotten, Candyman is a truly unique horror film that stays with you forever.
Black Christmas (1974)
Director: Bob Clark
Santa Claus stalking houses for a night has become strangely normal in our view of Christmas traditions. However, a serial killer stalking a group of students with not one present is simply not acceptable.
Black Christmas has become a cult horror classic, by subverting the joys of Christmas with a terrifying slasher film. Offering the world a taste of what was to come with Halloween and Friday 13th a few years later. By cleverly keeping its killer in the shadows; their motive unclear. Meanwhile, also providing the template for ‘Scream’ in 1996.
Poltergeist (1982) and Poltergeist II (1986)
Director Tobe Hooper and Brian Gibson
While directed by horror maestro Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Poltergeist feels firmly rooted in classic Steven Spielberg territory. Not only providing a ghost train ride but also a film filled with the imagery of childhood fear. From toys that come alive to the monster in the closet and scary tree outside your window. Poltergeist is determined to take you back to your childhood terrors and succeeds in bending those childhood fears that kept you awake into a gloriously outlandish paranormal ride.
There are echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sitting alongside The Twilight Zone, each making Poltergeist extremely fun and yet also visually chilling. While Jerry Goldsmiths terrifying yet tender score further emphasises the childhood horror of the films key themes.
Meanwhile, Poltergeist II deserves an honourable mention for giving us one of the most chilling preachers ever seen on film; Kane (Julian Beck). Although the rest of Poltergeist II never managed to live up to his performance. The horror of preacher will never leave the thoughts of anyone who has viewed the sequel.
IT – Chapter One and Two (2017/19)
Director: Andy Muschietti
IT Chapter One (2017) shines with both love and care for Stephen King’s source material. With its director Andy Muschietti understanding the core themes of the book in a faithful translation to the screen. Bringing together some of the best young talents in Hollywood in creating a Losers Club, you can genuinely believe in.
Muschietti allows his young cast to own their characters. Both cast and crew understanding the need to surround the young people with the isolation and adult indifference of Derry. The town’s adults ignoring the real horror of their own lives and the town they call home
Meanwhile, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Clown reflects the sinister presence of Tim Curry’s 1990 portrayal. At the same time adding layers of Victorian gothic horror; his clown never appearing too human.
When combined with IT Chapter Two, we are given a visceral journey into the childhood traumas that make the adult. Both exploring and uncovering childhood fears and choices that we try to forget. The choices and experiences that subconsciously gnaw away at our character, opportunity and relationships in later life. Providing us with a homage to Stephen King’s writing and character building. While never attempting to play to mindless screen horror over core literary messages.
Read our retrospective look at IT Chapter One here
Read our review of IT Chapter Two here
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Without question one of the greatest horror films ever made, Hitchcock’s Psycho remains a cinematic ride of pure psychological horror. Not only exploring the thrill and torment of murder through the eyes of the insecure Norman (Anthony Perkins) but also, delving into the sexually restrictive and confined morality of a young man held prisoner by the ghostly commands of his dead mother.
Hitchcock weaves his tale around Marion Crane, who commits a crime of passion while in the throws of an unhealthy love affair. A victim who becomes a criminal, much like the young motel owner she meets while fleeing her crime. Both characters wrapped in events outside of their control, with sexuality and desire leading to ultimate destruction.
Throughout the film, Norman screams for release from the grip of his mother. Yet is equally afraid to enter the real world without her security. Resulting in an internal psychological battle, as his deceased mother clashes with his personal need for freedom.
Psycho inspired a stream of horror movies, from Halloween to Friday 13th. But, unlike many of the films that came after, Hitchcock’s ability to directly tap into human fears make it one of the most potent horrors ever made. As a result coupling the fear of listening to the distant nagging voice in your head, with the real horror of a gentle smile, and not an evil glare. All wrapped up in the terror of disappointing our mothers.
Director: Ridley Scott
From its poster design to its slogan Alien reinvented the horror/sci-fi genre. Its timeless mix of terror continuing to enthrall new audiences with a trip into the coldest reaches of space. Cleverly combining the 1970s slasher film template with classic 1950s science fiction. In weaving a stark, creative, and terrifying new genre. The stark colour pallet and stereoscopic sound combining in a vacuum of isolation and terror for the viewer.
Forty years on Alien remains fresh and remarkably undated. Much of this achieved through a filmmaking process that understood the importance of balancing effects with a story. In turn, focusing on the need to build suspense and never reveal too much to the viewer. The resulting film still making new generations jump, bite their fingernails and scream in terror.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film is not your standard horror fare and continues to enthral and surprise new audiences. Playing out in a high rise apartment, over the course of a party. Rope is essentially a chamber piece of theatre. A gloriously dark exploration of murder, and revenge that manages to bathe its audience in a sublime psychological horror.
Based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, Rope took inspiration from the case of Leopold and Loeb. Two upper-class American graduates who murdered purely to test their intellect and ability.
Opening with the murder of a college friend, Brandon (John Dall), and Philip (Farley Granger) store the victim’s body in a chest. At the same time, moving the make do coffin to ‘pride of place’ in the apartment. Both intent on testing their ability to get away with murder in front of a dinner party crowd. The victim’s body hidden in plain sight of their guests, his coffin a table for drinks and canapés.
Director: James Whale
James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book has seared itself into pop culture. Even if you have never seen the original film, you will know the character created by Boris Karloff, and the imagery of Whale’s production. In a similar vein to Nosferatu, Frankenstein creates the film version of the monster. Copied numerous times since its release but never equalled.
Karloff’s monster is a man with a child’s brain, a misfit who doesn’t match the society of his birth, or the expectations of his maker. Allowing for scenes that are scary and tender in equal measure as the monster tries to find his place in a world he never asked to join.
Frankenstein is pure cinematic beauty from start to end, an ode to Shelly’s work on screen that still packs a punch in visual and emotional horror. At the same time, reflecting the dangers of the human desire to circumnavigate natures laws.
The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) 2001
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Ghosts are often used in films purely for sudden shock and audience reaction. Creating a way to make viewers jump and squirm while offering no real explanation of their presence. However, with The Devils Backbone, Guillermo del Toro takes the classic ghost story into new realms. The apparitions having both meaning and purpose; desperate to share their hidden knowledge. The Civil War locations and symbolism of grief far scarier than the ghost at its heart.
The Devils Backbone not only uses its period location to significant effect but dovetails the terror of the adult world with childhood innocence. As the opposing forces build to a dramatic and emotional conclusion.
Director: F. W. Murnau
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu marks the beginning of the Vampire on screen, a prelude to everything that came after. Murnau based his silent film on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; however, the Stoker estate refused the film the rights to the Dracula name. Not realising the power his film would deliver in translating Stoker’s written word to moving image.
With much of the film based in shadow, Nosferatu carries a dream-like quality, the deepest fears of our subconscious reflected on screen. The power of early German filmmaking and expressionism didn’t start here, but it did find its timeless and long since copied style in Nosferatu.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Due to the plethora of sequels following it, many people have forgotten the sheer genius of Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street. A film that not only created the cult horror figure of Freddie Krueger but explored themes of young people paying for the mistakes of their parents. In the case of Elm Street, this was a group of parents taking justice into their own hands by murdering a paedophile. Unaware that man would return in the dreams of their own children to exact his revenge.
Craven delivers a cinematic journey to hell, while never using his heroine as simple bait or fodder for the villain. In the process giving us some of the most iconic scenes in horror history, alongside one of its creepiest musical scores.
Read our retrospective look at Nightmare on Elm Street 2 here
Read our review of Scream Queen! here
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
In May 1980 Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining received its world premiere, its cinematic and cultural influence showing no signs of dissipating forty years later. As film fans old and new continue to unpick the reasons for its sheer brilliance. For me, as a young teenage film fan, The Shining was not only my introduction to the genius of Stanley Kubrick. But also my first real experience of the power horror films could wield in the public imagination. Wrapping the viewer in the deepest and darkest corners of the subconscious mind, while challenging them to think beyond simple jumps and scares.
However, like many films now classed as a masterpiece, The Shining did not find universal favour on its initial release. As a result, receiving mediocre critical reviews, alongside award ceremony snubs for Kubrick. Mainly due to the film’s divergence from Stephen King’s source material; the author openly expressing his unhappiness with Kubrick’s film adaptation.
Within King’s book, Jack is primarily a good man struggling with the inner demons of his addiction, while in turn, caring deeply for his family. While Wendy is a robust and assured figure, who wants her husband to get back on track. Subsequently leading to the family unit overcoming the evil of the hotel.
However, for Kubrick, Jack does not walk away, freezing to death in a maze of his own making, his addictions never overcome; his character never redeemed. Considering the links between King’s own recovery from alcoholism and his novel it is therefore easy to see why King disliked Kubrick’s adaptation.
Of course, Kubrick made other significant changes, introducing the river of blood, the creepy Grady twins and the death of Dick Hallorann. The latter courting controversy as Kubrick explored the racial segregation and injustice of America. With an axe-wielding deranged white man violently dispatching a man of colour. More importantly, placing this within corridors adorned with culturally appropriated symbols, patterns and colours of Native American life.
Read Here’s Johnny! The Shining at 40 here
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Connecting the competing visions of Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece with Stephen Kings 2013 follow up to his 1977 novel was never going to be easy. After all its no secret that Kubrick’s film deviated from King’s source material, changing several character’s and outcomes. Therefore, Director Mike Flanagan had a tough job in pleasing both the die-hard fans of the 1980 film and those who loved King’s novel.
But surprisingly the result is one of the best horror films of 2018/19. Exuding admiration for Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece, while lovingly translating Stephen King’s sequel to the big screen. In turn, building a bridge between Kubrick and King that lovingly honours both men’s visions. With the supernatural terror of King’s imagination interfacing with the far more nuanced horror of Stanley Kubrick.
But aside from the links to the past, Doctor Sleep also embraces its place in telling a new story. Introducing us to one of the scariest horror characters of recent years with Rose the Hat. While never shying away from the abject horror of the True Knot gang, especially in the nerve-shredding and horrific scenes involving ‘Baseball Boy’.
Funny Games (1997) & (2007)
Director: Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke is well known for his ability to play with psychological terror while exploring wider society and its fears and apprehensions. For example, with his 1992 film ‘Benny’s video‘ Haneke aimed at a youth culture obsessed with violence on film. Exploring the gaps between reality and fiction in the actions of a boy who lives his life through video, his horrendous acts a mere reflection of the video culture he has absorbed.
In both his original 1997 Funny Games and its subsequent remake in 2007. Haneke aimed at the safety and security of the middle-class family. Once again taking audiences to the very extremes of human psychology and fear. At the same time, providing us with a home-invasion thriller where the real horror comes from our role as viewers. As we passively watch the ensuing bloodshed and cruelty of young male perpetrators, while doing nothing to stop it. Both young men using the camera to address the audience directly, ensuring the audience are spectators. While the sadistic games they play become more and more threatening.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
In 1968 George A. Romero introduced the world to a horror film that would change the landscape of the zombie picture. Romeo’s black and white film, notable for its political references to The Vietnam War challenged pre-conceptions of horror. In both Introducing a black male hero and focussing on human psychology. Rather than the undead at the heart of the film.
Splatter horror that would later become a staple of Zombie films is in short supply in Romero’s vision. Replaced by a tense exploration of humans facing a crisis. The classic tension of the family home invasion replaced by a group of strangers who quarrel and clash in political and social views on the terror surrounding them. In many ways, this tension and exploration of human behaviour play to the disaster movie genre. As those trapped desperately seek escape from the world collapsing outside their front door.
A classic that would give birth to the modern zombie movie, Night of Living Dead still haunts us all in its ability to capture the darkness and panic of humans facing a crisis.
Director: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s feature film debut is a homage to the classic horror of Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now. In creating a claustrophobic story of a family unravelling. Their lives manipulated and controlled by an unseen force. Its narrative littered with clues to the events unfolding, like breadcrumbs on the trail of terror. Asking the audience to find the darkness present before the family on screen.
Aster cleverly using image, sound and hooks in delving into our subconscious fears. Delicately and slowly wrapping the audience in darkness, while paying homage to classic occult films of the 1970s.
Director: Ari Aster
Building on his debut Hereditary, Ari Aster takes us on a journey that not only pays homage to The Wicker Man but also redefines folk horror for a modern audience. With Aster using the Swedish countryside to create a horror bathed in sunshine. While equally launching the audience into a hallucinogenic trip into terror. A remote community embracing naive young travellers, while weaving them into the folklore of their hidden lives.
Midsommar gets under your skin, its stark whites blazing through your mind, as you descend into a rabbit hole dark folk horror.
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) 2008
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Vampire films have become a staple of modern horror, from Salams Lot through to Near Dark and The Lost Boys. But what happens when you combine vampire mythology with the classic coming of age themes of loneliness, difference and anxiety?
The answer is a film that combines the horrors of growing up with the fears of blood-sucking eternal creatures. Two children isolated and lost in the darkness; one a bullied and friendless human; the other a vampire child walking the earth in endless seclusion. With both children becoming protective and dangerous friends, their love young love of each other, leading to the destruction of those who threaten them.
Let the Right One In talks to the deepest fears of early adolescence, while letting in the darkness and friendship of a creature who may just enact the very things we dream of but never do.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
“Rather than Alfred Hitchcock’s delicate, suspenseful manipulation, Hooper follows the lead of fellow independents George A. Romero (Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and Wes Craven (Last House On The Left (1972) and feeds the audience through a mangle of unrelenting horror and violence. Once his film starts, it doesn’t let up until the fade-out: other horror films are as frightening, but few are so utterly exhausting.”Kim Newman (Empire Magazine) 1st Jan 2000
To echo Kim Newman’s wise words would be an understatement of the power of Tobe Hooper’s seminal slasher film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre not only created the slasher film but also inspired countless directors to push the boundaries of the horror on screen. Dovetailing themes of real crime with a new breed of visceral terror. It would be fair to say that without Texas Chainsaw cinema may never have seen the emergence of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street or Alien. Still incredibly difficult to watch to this day, Hooper created a handheld work of art, that screams for your attention and never lets you go.
Director: Brian De Palma
Adapted from Stephen King’s book of the same name, Brian De Palma’s Carrie not only plays with the horror of coming of age but also offers us a complex and fascinating journey into isolation, religious extremism and hate.
Carrie is brilliant film making, following its literary roots with reverence, in providing a complex portrayal of teenage life. Its horror laced with bodily change, sex, bullying and parental control. While also incorporating themes of domestic violence, child abuse and religion. Never allowing for simplistic good versus evil cliches in its narrative. By ensuring the audience build empathy and love for a character who ultimately causes destruction; never solely to blame for the outcomes of her actions.
The Birds (1963)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Following his 1960 masterpiece Psycho, Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is a terrifying and beautiful enigma of horror. Its story never attempting, or needing to explain the reason why birds attack the people of Bodega Bay. Instead, content to wrap the audience in frenetic winged chaos; a snapshot in time that starts with pet shop and ends in nature fighting back. Our feathered friends turning on us in a gathering storm of destruction that places humans in the birdcage.
Hitchcock’s stripped-back sound production replaces a standard musical score with moments of silence followed by screeching bird sound. A technique that still manages sends a shiver down the spine. Giving birth to a wave of sound experimentation in horror, where less was more in creating tension and alarm in audiences.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Salò was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film before being brutally murdered on 1st November 1975; while remaining one of the most controversial films ever made. The world premiere launching it into a public sphere of debate and controversy just weeks after the filmmaker’s murder. Its depictions of torture, brutality, control and sex continuing to haunt new viewers to this day.
Adapting the Marquis de Sade’s 18th-century novel, Passolini moves the narrative to Italy in 1944. Within the corrupt interim government at Salo following Mussolini’s rescue by the Nazi’s from Italian partisans. The director’s vision playing with history in exploring the darkest reaches of human sexuality, control and fascism. As a result, creating a film that remains as stark and powerful today as it was in 1975.
The horror of Pasolini’s work comes from the power and control of those who feed their perversions and sadism without regard for humanity. While the innocent are used as an experiment in just how far humans can be pushed. Their individual young lives meaningless in a game of power, sex and control.
Many will find Salò too much to take, its horror enveloping you. But, if you believe in the power of film as art in reflecting the darkest corners of humanity. Then Pasolini’s masterpiece is a compelling and uncomfortable portrait of humanity’s darkest reaches.
“There is a lot of sex in it (Salò), rather towards Sado-Masochism, which has a very specific function – that is to reduce the human body to a saleable commodity. It represents what power does to the human being, to the human body”Pier Paolo Pasolini – 1975 Final Interview
Peeping Tom (1960)
Director: Michael Powell
Michael Powell’s 1960 film ‘Peeping Tom’ centres on a killer who films his victims as they die. A commentary on voyeurism that many filmmakers of the time avoided due to audience sensitivities. Peeping Tom, however, broke these unspoken rules and crossed a hidden line in early 60’s film. In turn, upsetting countless more people that Hitchcock’s Psycho of the same year, while making an enemy of critics. As a result, leading to Peeping Tom vanishing from cinema’s screens and public scrutiny; ending the career of one of the UK’s greatest directors.
However, in a modern world of webcams, CCTV and reality filming, Peeping Tom found its voice with modern filmmakers bringing it back from the grave. Its stunning dissection of the human obsession with recording and documenting crime feeling even more revenant in our millennial world. Peeping Tom provides a chilling viewing experience to this day and one that delves into the deepest and darkest corners of the human mind.
“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear. So I did something very simple. Very simple. When they felt the spike… touching their throat, and knew I was going to kill them, I made them watch their own deaths. I made them see… their own terror as the spike went in. And if death has a face, they saw that too”Mark – Peeping Tom (1960)
Goodnight Mommy ‘Ich seh, Ich seh’ (2014)
Directors: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Once seen never forgotten, Austrian horror masterpiece Goodnight Mommy not only follows in the footsteps of director Michael Haneke (Funny Games) but also pays homage to the complexity of Carrie. Providing us with a film that plays with our notions of innocence, family and paternal love. Ultimately creating a film where your sympathies are torn in every direction. While you descend down a rabbit hole of pure psychological and physical terror.
Directors and writers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz create a stunning atmosphere of sterility and silence. Coupled with cinematography that pulls the viewer into claustrophobic and visceral horror. Playing with the bonds between child and mother, while deconstructing the safety of the family.
The Innocents (1961)
Director: Jack Clayton
Based on the Henry James 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. British director Jack Clayton’s 1961 film still reigns supreme as the best screen adaptation of the Henry James book.
Clayton builds tension from the first scene to last, while never seeking to fully answer the ghostly themes at the heart of the story. Meanwhile, Deborah Kerr’s emotionally repressed Miss Giddens slowly descends into a cave of mystery and lies. The children she cares for embodying her greatest religious and spiritual fears.
More importantly, cinematographer Freddie Francis cleverly uses a black-and-white CinemaScope frame to its full. Bathing each scene with gothic darkness and vibrant white light. Ultimately drawing the viewer into a world of childhood innocence versus adult fear; that still sends a shudder down the spine of viewers 58 years after its release.
Much more than purely a horror, Clayton’s The Innocents is a hauntingly beautiful film, that wraps you in its mystery and never let’s go.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
“Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film remains one of the great horror masterpieces, working not with fright, which is easy, but with dread, grief and apprehension. Few films so successfully put us inside the mind of a man who is trying to reason his way free from mounting terror. Roeg and his editor, Graeme Clifford, cut from one unsettling image to another. The movie is fragmented in its visual style, accumulating images that add up to a final bloody moment of truth.”Rogert Ebert – October 13th 2002 (Don’t Look Now Review)
Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Don’t Look Now remains one of the most beautiful explorations of parental grief ever brought to the screen. The safety and security of family, home and companionship subverted into a dystopian nightmare of parenthood. While vivid red cuts through the film like a hot knife through butter. Its sublime cinematography creating a relentless feeling of apprehension and unease. A true masterclass of horror filmmaking that has never been surpassed in its ability to crawl under your skin.
The Fly (1986)
Director: David Cronenberg
“Although ostensibly a sci-fi movie, The Fly is equally a relationship drama – a romance which, as Cronenberg has often stated, ends in tragedy, as all romances must. At first, Brundle’s infusion of insect DNA leaves him galvanised, like an athlete on a performance enhancing drug; he chatters incessantly, snacks on candy bars, performs extraordinary feats of gymnastic agility using conveniently-placed water pipes – and, to Ronnie’s bemusement, his expanded stamina also extends to the bedroom.Ryan Lambie – Den of Geek (Nov 19, 2012)
Gradually, however, the fly’s DNA begins to manifest itself as a disease. Skin disorders rapidly give way to the gooey loss of teeth and fingernails, and Brundle’s increasing anger and paranoia drives a wedge between he and Ronnie.”
Taking the template of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The Fly plays with the interface between monster and doctor. While asking how far an intelligent scientist would go in achieving a scientific goal. The doctor slowly becoming the monster as Frankenstein mixes with the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
John Carpenters relentless science fiction horror pays homage to the atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. While transferring the action to Earth. Its antarctic base delivering the same claustrophobia and suspense as a ship sailing through the darkest reaches of space. The mysterious alien at its heart seeping through the base, always present but never fully seen. However, there are also interesting links to classic TV science fiction. The initial action echoing the Tom Baker Doctor Who story ‘The Seeds of Doom‘. But that aside The Thing is classic B-Movie science fiction mixed with the horror of Alien.
The Thing is ice cold and ruthless in atmosphere weaving classic science fiction with nerve-shredding horror. Playing homage to the power of science fiction and the vulnerability of humans in the face of the unknown.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
Where did cinematic horror begin? Many will reference early Universal monster epics or F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. However, on-screen fear truly began with Robert Wiene’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. His exquisite silent film expanding horror beyond the ghost stories of early cinema into psychological and visual terror.
First screened in Berlin almost 100 years ago, the film’s design cleverly plays with sharp angles, Picasso like buildings and winding streets. Subsequently creating a vivid dream on the screen that slowly becomes a haunting nightmare. In effect creating the template for many modern filmmakers ranging from Tim Burton and David Lynch. Specifically giving birth to the carnival based horror, becoming the first film to subvert the playground of touring entertainment into a world of terror.
To this day The Cabinet of Dr Caligari feels like a nightmare of no escape. Trapping you in its surreal and haunting world while embedding itself into your mind and soul.
Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) 1960
Director: Georges Franju
Long before plastic surgery became a medical gift and nightmare in equal measure. Eyes Without a Face warned us all of the dangers implicit in the practice. Tackling the psychological damage of disfigurement alongside a fathers, guilt and maniacal need to fix his daughter. With this in mind, Georges Franju’s plays with themes ranging from Shelley’s Frankenstein to Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘The Skin I Live In‘. Creating a surreal yet terrifying journey into the human mind, perfection and misogyny. Taking the audience to the darkest corners of medical advancement, while playing with the masks we all wear.
Opening in cinemas the same year as ‘Peeping Tom‘ and ‘Psycho‘, this is a film that courted enormous controversy. However its legacy in filmmaking has been a powerful sign of its artistic impact. While it’s critique of medical advancement and visual perfection feels even more important today than it did on its release 1960.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director: John Landis
Very few modern horror films have had the cultural impact of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Its mix of comedy and horror, creating a truly unique journey into friendship, mortality and physical change. Subsequently taking the classic werewolf stories of Hammer and Universal, while injecting them with gloriously dark humour.
Landis opens the film with two young American backpackers (David and Jack) in the back of sheep van, their travelling companions heading to slaughter. Consequently setting the trajectory of both boys; with one becoming a rotting corpse who walks the earth in limbo and the other becoming a werewolf who kills without control. Meanwhile, the city of London is a mere backdrop to David’s realisation that he no longer has control over his own life. His card marked back on the misty moors of the films opening act.
Comedy/horror films either excel or fall flat, the need to mix scares with laughter often leading audience confusion. However, with American Werewolf, this fine line is walked with perfection; Landis taking the audience from the darkest of humour to the scariest of scenes in a heartbeat. The film joyously revelling in its ability to defy genre boundaries. Meanwhile, Rick Bakers werewolf design and transformation remains a masterpiece of physical effects work; surpassing many of the similar effects available today through the magic of CGI.
“The undead surround me. Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely! Kill yourself, David, before you kill others…Please don’t cry.”Jack (An American Werewolf in London)
Director: Dario Argento
Dario Argento’s 1977 shocker remains the pinnacle of 20th Century Italian horror. Argento’s film inspired by classics of the genre ranging from ‘The Cabinet of Dr Calligari’ to ‘Cat People’. In effect wrapping the audience into an atmosphere of high art, experimentation and pure horror. Its colour palette glowing like a neon sign on a misty night. While its score ripples with the unconventional. Unusually for the genre, it inhabited during the ’70s, Suspiria also shines with female empowerment in a world of witches, blood, dance and dreamlike visuals.
Once seen never forgotten, Suspiria is not only visually unique but went on to inspire countless horror films. However, its rich mix of gothic fairytale and primal fear has never truly been matched.
Director: John Carpenter
John Carpenters Halloween gave birth to the modern slasher film. Not only creating an iconic masked murderer but also a franchise that continues to develop new fans over 40 years later. All the more surprising when you consider it was made on a shoestring budget. However, Halloween new how to build on earlier films, including ‘Eyes With Out a Face,’ ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ and ‘Black Christmas.’ The latter enabling Halloween to subsequently create the vulnerable babysitter theme. As a result, providing the template for a whole host of modern horrors.
Bathed in the vibrant Autumnal colours of October, Halloween embodies the pagan celebration like no other film. Embedding itself with the very fabric October 31st. And despite being widely copied in sequels and remakes the grit and grain of Carpenters film has never been matched.
‘John Carpenter’s best movies are his first four or five, made between 1974 and 1980, all of them genre flicks where imagination, intelligence, wit and chutzpah were called into play by the exigencies of low budgets and short shooting schedules. The third, the hugely influential Halloween (made in 1978 and revived for the forthcoming trick-or-treat fest) is the ultimate refined slasher movie, a style of exploitation picture spawned by Hitchcock’s Psycho. The opening shot, a long, virtuoso hand-held take with a subjective camera, introduces us to the five-year-old murderer Michael Myers who 15 years later escapes from the state asylum to his midwestern home town, there to don a mask and terrorise high school kids on Halloween night. His name is a tribute to the independent British distributor Michael Myers, a great Wardour Street character, who did a fine job promoting Assault on Precinct 13’The Guardian – Philip French (Sun 28 Oct 2012)
The Witch (2016)
Director: Robert Eggers
Robert Egger’s debut feature film set in New England during the 17th Century is a masterclass in slow-burning tension. Mixing superstition and community fear with the dread of family secrets and exclusion. Its horror coming from ignorance, fear of the unknown and the menacing atmosphere of religion. As a result, creating a film that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, submerging you into a world of accusations and suggestion. With revelations taking time to form as the intensity and claustrophobia ramps up, within folk horror at its spine-tingling best.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Director: Robert Eggers
The Lighthouse clearly pays homage to the early German horror of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Calligari. While equally layering this aesthetic with the slow-building psychological tension of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But its true genius lays in the ability to dovetail the creeping madness of Kubrick’s The Shining with Shakespearean tragedy. With Patterson and Defoe providing exhilarating and enthralling performances as they embrace the pure theatre of Robert and Max Eggers luscious screenplay. Bouncing off one another with a mesmeric intensity, as Ephram and Thomas find support, love, hatred and fear in each other’s arms. The weather-beaten lighthouse slowly becoming a mental and social prison for both men.
Robert Eggers has once again created a truly unforgettable and unique theatrical experience. One that buries itself into your memory long after leaving the cinema. While ensuring the viewer can almost taste the sea spray and smell the tobacco that pervades each frame. Ultimately creating something rare in modern film, as The Lighthouse steps from the screen and into your soul. Its direction, performances and design combining to create a truly unforgettable cinematic experience.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Beautiful, dark and gloriously realised. Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece weaves fantasy and the horror of war together in way few films before or after have managed. While also acting as a companion piece to The Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro’s film is set in early Francoist Spain 1944. The ghosts of the Spanish Civil War and horror of World War II combining into the ultimate darkness. While our young heroine discovers that the monsters of the underworld are no match for the real horrors of humans action.
‘What makes Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” so powerful, I think, is that it brings together two kinds of material, obviously not compatible, and insists on playing true to both, right to the end. Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other. Del Toro talks of the “rule of three” in fables (three doors, three rules, three fairies, three thrones). I am not sure three viewings of this film would be enough, however’Roger Ebert – August 25th 2007
The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
The Wicker Man was initially shunned by the studio who gave birth it, taking second billing in the UK to the equally beautiful ‘Don’t Look Now.’ However, in the USA The Wicker Man found a dedicated and loving audience, becoming a template for the cult horror. The mystery surrounding its production and multiple different cuts ensuring audiences never knew whether they were watching the original vision of the film.
More importantly, this has ensured The Wicker Man remains a glorious folk horror enigma to this day. Shrouded in the bright sunlight of horror, while its roots give birth to a host of new horror tales, including Midsommar. The Wicker Man’s handprints are all over modern filmmaking, remaining the best slice of folk horror ever created, but also spawning the cult genre.
‘Forty years on, The Wicker Man still stands alone. Resistant to genre labels, of its time but ahead of its time, it also harks to a world outside time – a mysterious, tantalising world of indistinct folk memory, a distant Albion that lies within us all. Technological advances have not diminished our ache for something less artificial; and, as we plunge ever faster into an uncertain future, yet reach back and wonder at a shared folk history that remains just out of our grasp, The Wicker Man’s ribald relevance is endlessly refreshed, and its earthy allure grows stronger.’Long arm of the lore: Robin Hardy on The Wicker Man (Sight and Sound – October 2013)
The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘ kickstarted a whole stream of early 70s horror aimed squarely at the occult, religion and supernatural. However, it is The Exorcist that remains the greatest example of this rebirth. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, which is likewise loosely based on ‘real events’. The Exorcist is one of the most skin-crawling horror films ever made, its intricate use of sound and visual terror burning into your memory like no other film. While no matter of any personal religious belief you may hold, William Friedkin’s film plays with our deep-rooted subconscious need for faith. Therefore, commanding its audience to suspend their personal reality, as pure evil meets pure innocence. With a demon subverting the innocence of a child, while those around her struggle with their own faith.
The Exorcist earned its legendary status through visceral horror and effects that went far beyond its time and place. The set itself a pit of pain, creativity and experimentation that left an indelible mark on all involved. While the accidents and deaths linked to the film have created folklore similar to the of The Omen.
Once seen never forgotten, The Exorcist is still one of the wildest and scariest rides in cinematic horror, its bleakness and exploration of inner faith sending a chill down the strongest spine.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
‘Horrifying and darkly comic, Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut. This wildly entertaining nightmare, faithfully adapted from Ira Levin’s best seller, stars a revelatory Mia Farrow as a young mother-to-be who grows increasingly suspicious that her overfriendly elderly neighbors (played by Sidney Blackmer and an Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon) and self-involved husband (John Cassavetes) are hatching a satanic plot against her and her baby. In the decades of occult cinema that Polanski’s ungodly masterpiece has spawned, it has never been outdone for sheer psychological terror’The Criterion Collection – Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski’s Rosemary Baby is, in essence, a film of masks and subverted trust. Wrapping you in pure psychological horror from the first scene to last. It’s themes of the occult leading to ‘The Omen‘ and ‘The Exorcist‘ to name but a few. While dutifully translating Ira Levin’s novel, with an atmosphere of pure terror, one often copied but never matched in its audacious impact. Its story cleverly subverting everyday life, romance, and family into a sublime horror that still has the power to enthral.
Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)
Director: Thomas Clay
Thomas Clay’s third highly anticipated film ‘Fanny Lye Deliver’d’ had a long and challenging journey to the screen. Languishing in post-production for almost three years due to funding pressures. However, after many delays, it premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2019. With Vertigo Releasing bringing the film to a wider audience via streaming services in 2020. But was it worth the extended wait? The simple answer is yes! as Thomas Clay brings us a delicious and complex take on 1970s folk horror. Subsequently layering his vision with themes of ideology, puritanism and freedom. As a result delivering a dissection of the social boundaries created by patriarchy, state control and evangelical belief.
Horror: The Essential Collection Part Two
(COMING OCTOBER 2020)
Actor and Directors appearing in this list can also be found in the following Cinerama articles…
Peter Cushing also appears in Star Wars – A New Hope
Black Christmas also appears in A Deliciously Dark Christmas – The Essential Collection
Anthony Perkins also appears in The Black Hole
A Nightmare on Elm Street is also explored in A Nightmare on Elm Street – 2
Michael Pitt also appears in LGBTQ – The Essential Collection
Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis also appears in Knives Out
Christopher Lee also appears in Star Wars Episode II & III