Updated March 2020
Ever since the dawn of film, Horror has played a part in its development. Acting as a mirror to our inner most 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. Making us jump, scream, reevaluate humanity and relive the childhood monsters under the bed. While giving us some of the finest artistic 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 to face your demons with others. Embracing the collective and personal experience of theatre, while bringing classic literature to life with sound and pictures.
This is a genre that has taken us to places that exist only in our deepest imaginations. From the haunted house to mythological creatures and the deepest reaches of space. Allowing us to explore the unknown corners of our lives, while reflecting the social landscape of the day. While acting as a mirror to the very social themes and anxieties that create public opinion, action and social policy.
So dim the lights, lock the doors, and join us as we explore our list of the essential horror films everyone should see.
Just don’t have too many nightmares.
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 classic gothic horror tales. Taking the classic literature and ideas inherent in Victorian horror, while adding its own unique visual style. Bathing stories in dramatic sets, vivid technicolour and the period charm of British film. Creating 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 1950’s and 60s British film.
Fisher took classic literature and set it free on screen, allowing the characters to travel beyond the literary roots of their creation. With 1958s Dracula and 1961s Curse of the Werewolf clear examples of Hammer allowing its horror icons to break free of their chains. 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.
Marking a change in direction for Hammer Horror in 1968. The Devil Rides Out replaced the gothic horror audiences had become accustomed too. Journeying instead into hidden occultism in sleepy rural England. Allowing the amazing Charles Gray and Christopher Lee to have fun with their characters, while exploring new ground with an amazingly sharp screenplay.
With a back catalogue full of riches, the power and creativity of Hammer stands 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)
Two years before he brought us Superman the Movie. Richard Donner’s The Omen placed the biblically inspired story of the anti-christ’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, largely due to a clever screenplay that dovetailed fiction with religious text. Creating its own unique version of the anti christ’s return to earth. A version that has cemented itself into 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, while never allowing the demon to fully show. Playing with the fears of a parent 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 own child versus the welfare and lives of others. A choice that 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 the films place in modern cinematic folklore.
The Orphanage ‘El Orfanato’ (2007)
Learning from the visual style and delivery of Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Devils Backbone’. Bayona’s 2007 film places story before scares in a visually stunning ghostly tale, that sublimely builds tension through place and performance.
Creating a film that delicately plays with the emotional horror of bereavement and loss. While weaving a story that may or may not be supernatural in construct. The enigma of death and the guilt of life wrapped into a beautifully shot film, that remains in your heart and sole long after viewing.
“Seeing is not believing. It’s the other way around. Believe, and you will see”Aurora (The Orphanage)
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) transfers the action to the urban decay of 90s Chicago. 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 who was viciously murdered due to a relationship with a white woman, his hand 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.
“Your death will be a tale to frighten children, to make lovers cling closer in their rapture. Come with me, and be immortal”The Candman
Black Christmas (1974)
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 a present in sight is simply not acceptable.
Black Christmas has become a legendary horror, subverting the joys of Christmas with a slasher film that’s truly scary. This is a film that came before the Slasher masterpiece of Halloween, and is in many ways the template for Carpenters film. Cleverly ensuring the killer is kept in the shadows, their motives unclear. While telephone conversations with the mysterious killer acted as the inspiration for ‘Scream’ in 1996. Black Christmas may have been low budget, but it shines with horror, subverting the happiest time of the year into an urban blood bath.
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 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.
Poltergeist II does not make our list, but does deserve 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 here’s a chilling clip of him in action.
IT – Chapter One and Two (2017/19)
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 its translation to the screen. Equally the casting of IT Chapter One demonstrates an understanding of earlier King adaptations such as Stand By Me. As Muschietti bringings together some of the finest young talent in Hollywood. In effect creating a Losers Club that you can truly 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 the fictional town of Derry. While the towns adults ignoring the real horror of their own lives and the town they call home
Meanwhile, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise the Clown, embodies the sinister presence of Tim Curry’s earlier 1990 portrayal. While also adding layers of Victorian gothic horror. His clown never appearing too human, with the ‘IT’ behind the mask always evident.
When combined with IT Chapter Two (2019) we are given a visceral journey into the childhood traumas that make the adult. Both exploring and uncovering the 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.
IT Chapter One and Two are designed to be seen in as singular journey. With Stephen King’s novel finally receiving a confident and beautifully filmed translation to film. While Muschietti creates one of the finest film horror journeys of the past decade.
Read our retrospective look at IT Chapter One here
Read our review of IT Chapter Two here
Without question one of the finest 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 its insecure lead 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 to be released from the grip of his mother. Yet is equally afraid to enter the real world without her security. The result being a internal psychological battle, as his deceased mother clashes with his personal need for freedom.
Psycho inspired a stream of later horror movies, including Halloween. But, unlike many of the films that came after, Hitchcock’s ability to directly tap into human fears make it one of the finest horrors ever made. Psycho understands the fears of finally listening to the distant nagging voice in your head. While coupling these with fears that true horror comes with a gentle smile and not an evil glare. All wrapped up with a fear of disappointing our mothers.
From its stripped back poster design to the invention of the modern horror/sci-fi genre. Ridley Scott’s Alien has imbedded itself into modern cinematic history. While continuing to enthral new audiences with a trip into the coldest reaches of space. Cleverly combining the emergence of the 1970s slasher film with classic 1950s science fiction. Alien weaves both into a stark and bold new genre in science fiction/horror. While using its stark colour pallet and sound to create a vacuum of isolation and terror for the viewer.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film is not your standard horror fair, and the therefore you may be surprised at it making our list. Playing out in a high rise apartment, over the course of party. Rope is in essence pure theatre on screen. A gloriously dark exploration of murder, and revenge that still captivates new audiences.
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 their college friend, Brandon (John Dall), and Philip (Farley Granger) store the victims body in a chest. While placing the chest pride in the middle of their apartment for a dinner party with friends. Both young men testing their ability to get away with murder in front on an unsuspecting crowd. As the victims body is hidden in plane sight of their guests, his coffin a table for drinks and canapés.
“By what right do you dare to say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you decide that that boy in there was inferior and could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?! I don’t know who you are but I know what you’ve done. You’ve murdered! You choked the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could, and never will again!”Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) – Rope
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 truly 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. While reflecting the dangers of the human need to circumnavigate natures laws.
The Devil’s Backbone ‘El Espinazo del Diablo’ (2001)
Ghosts are often used in film 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 ghosts having meaning and purpose, while desperate to share their hidden knowledge. However for Del Toro the locations and symbolism inherent in his story set during the Spanish Civil War are often far more scary than the ghost at its heart.
The Devils Backbone not only uses its period location and time to great effect. But also dovetails the real terror of the adult world with messages from the supernatural world. Children caught in the middle, both living and dead. As opposing forces build to a dramatic and emotional conclusion. A nuanced and sublime ghost story that offers far more than simple shocks.
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu marks the beginning of the Vampire on screen, a prelude to everything that came after. Its style and cinematography giving birth to the vampire on screen.
Murnau’s silent film was based on Bram Stokers classic novel Dracula, however the Stoker estate refused the film the rights to the Dracula name. Not realising the power the film would have in translating the 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 immortal and long since copied style in Nosferatu.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
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 also explored themes of young people paying for the mistakes made by their parents and communities. In the case of Elm Street this was group of parents taking justice into their own hands by murdering a pedophile. 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.
“One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For YouA Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) New Line Cinema
Three, Four Better Lock Your Door
Five, Six Grab A Crucifix
Nine, Ten Never Sleep Again”
Read our retrospective look at Nightmare on Elm Street 2 here
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s The Shining has long been debated due to its divergence from the source material. Playing with the key horror themes of King’s novel, while stripping back many of the novels supernatural elements. In turn creating an uncomfortable enigma for its audience as psychological horror weaves itself into the supernatural terror of The Overlook Hotel. However, Kubrick also wraps King’s story with a far more human horror. One that will forever be debated in construct and delivery. While equally resulting in a masterpiece of film.
The Shining relates to a number of human horror themes, from the treatment of the native Indians as America was colonised. Through to what we would class as the horror of domestic abuse and addiction. Themes of family breakdown, domestic violence and alcoholism sitting at the heart of Kubrick’s ultimately human horror.
Let us expand on this concept by looking at Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy. This is a women desperately trying to hold her family together, while equally fearing the volatile nature of her husband her Jack. She therefore finds herself stuck in a relationship that offers little emotional support and love. Always placing her son Danny first, but equally unwilling to accept the true nature of her failing marriage. For Wendy Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel represents her eyes being opened to the domestic abuse she has long endured. While also accepting that she cannot change the man responsible for her own pain.
Now let’s look at Jack. A man who views his family unit as an inconvenience to the life he thought he would have. His career as a teacher in taters due to his alcoholism and anger. Behaviours that have led to him, on at least one occasion ‘accidentally’ injuring his son Danny.
“It was just one of those things, you know. Purely an accident. My husband had, uh, been drinking, and he came home about three hours late. So he wasn’t exactly in the greatest mood that night. And, well, Danny had scattered some of his school papers all over the room, and my husband grabbed his arm and pulled him away from them. It’s… it’s just the sort of thing you do a hundred times with a child, you know, in the park or in the streets. But on this particular occasion, my husband just used too much strength, and he injured Danny’s arm. Anyway, something good did come out of it all, because he said “Wendy, I’m never gonna touch another drop. And if I do, you can leave me.” And he didn’t, and he hasn’t had any alcohol in, uh, five months”Wendy Torrance – The Shining (1980)
For Jack the Overlook Hotel is an escape from his home life, but the isolation only magnifies his failings, while his addictions haunt and taunt him. The very hotel that should have provided healing instead acting as a conduit for all his negative thoughts.
While there are also supernatural references within Kubrick’s vision of King’s work, his film plays more to the true horror of families where abuse and control are a part of daily reality. Reflecting family breakdown and the horror of unchallenged addictions and domestic violence. While striking at the heart and inner fears of the viewer. Far worse than ghosts and poltergeists, The Shining holds a mirror to the real horrors that exist in families behind closed doors.
“Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about MY responsibilities?! Have you EVER thought, for a single solitary moment, about my responsibilities to my employers?! Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the 1st?! Does it matter to you AT ALL that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a contract, in which I have accepted that responsibility?! Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principle is? Do you?! Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities?! Has it ever occurred to you?! “Jack Torrance – The Shining
Doctor Sleep (2019)
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 a number of key 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 end result is one of the finest horror films of 2018/19. One that exudes the class and style of Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece. While equally and lovingly translating Stephen Kings sequel to the big screen. Ultimately creating a virtual bridge between Kubrick and King that lovingly honours both visions of the original source material. Interlacing the supernatural elements of King’s vision with the far more nuanced and real horror of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic Overlook Hotel. Especially within the delicious directors cut, that we urge people to seek out and savour.
But aside from the links to the past, Doctor Sleep also embraces its place in telling a new Stephen King story. Introducing us to one of the finest horror characters of recent years in 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. Ultimately creating a horror film that dovetails the past and present, while providing a truly horrific and exhilarating journey into the power known as The Shining’.
Funny Games (1997) & (2007)
Michael Haneke is well known for his ability to play with psychological terror, while exploring wider society and the its fears and apprehensions. For example, with his 1992 film ‘Benny’s video’ Haneke took aim at a youth culture obsessed with violence on film. While exploring the gaps between reality and fiction in the actions of boy who lives his life through video. His horrendous actions a mere reflection of the video culture he has absorbed.
With both his original 1997 Funny Games and its subsequent remake in 2007. Haneke took aim at the safety and security of the middle class family. Once again taking audiences to the very extremes of human psychology and fear. While providing us with a home-invasion thriller where the true horror comes from our own 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)
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. From introducing a black male hero to focussing on human psychology rather than the undead at the films heart.
Splatter horror that would later become a staple of Zombie films is in short supply in Romero’s vision. Replaced by a tense exploration humans facing 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 plays 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 crisis.
Ari Aster’s feature film debut plays homage to the classic horror of Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now. In creating a claustrophobic story of a family unravelling. While their lives are manipulated and controlled by an unseen force. Equally littering its narrative with clues to the events unfolding, like breadcrumbs on a trail of terror. Encouraging the audience to find the darkness present before the family on screen.
Aster cleverly using image, sound and hooks that delicately combine to delve into our sub-conscious fears. Wrapping the audience in darkness, while playing homage to the occult films of the 1970s.
“It’s heartening to see so many strange, new faces here today. I know my mom would be very touched, and probably a little suspicious, to see this turnout. So my mother was a very secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties. It honestly feels like a betrayal just to be standing here talking about her. She was a very difficult woman to read. If you ever thought you knew what was going on with her, and, God forbid, you tried to confront that. But when her life was unpolluted, she could be the sweetest, warmest, most loving person in the world. She was also incredibly stubborn, which, maybe, explains me. You could always count on her to always have the answer. And if she ever was mistaken, and, well, that was your opinion, and you were wrong.”Annie – Hereditary (2018)
Building on his debut Hereditary, Ari Aster takes us on a journey that not only plays 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 an hallucinogenic trip into in 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 unpick the bright, colourful and warm tones of an ultimately dark folk horror.
Let the Right One In ‘Låt den rätte komma in’ (2008)
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 classic coming of age themes of loneliness, difference and anxiety?
The answer is a film that combines the horrors of growing up with the horrors 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 eternal seclusion. 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)
“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 had seen the emergence of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street or Alien. Still incredibly difficult to watch to this day, Hooper created a hand held work of art, that screams for your attention and never lets you go.
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 extremely clever film making, following its literary roots with reverence, while providing a far more complex portrayal of teenage life than its given credit for. Its horror laced with bodily change, sex, bullying and parental control. While also incorporating themes of parental control, child abuse and religion. Carrie never allows for simplistic good versus evil cliches in its narrative. Ensuring the audience build empathy and love for a character who ultimately causes destruction. While also never being solely to blame for the final outcomes of her actions.
Carrie matches a journey into into the desire to control the situations and people who cause you harm, fear and rejection. With the true horror of child abuse and control at the hands of a parent who suffers with mental illness. While equally exploring the failings of a school system in showing care and understanding. Far more than just a horror film, Carrie is a coming of age story with horrific conclusion
The Birds (1963)
Following his 1960 masterpiece Psycho, Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ is a terrifying and beautiful enigma of horror. Never attempting, or needing to explain the reason why birds attack the people of Bodega Bay. Instead, Hitchcock is content to wrap us in the frenetic winged chaos of a story that starts with pet shop and ends with nature fighting back. While our sweet feathered friends turn on us in a gathering storm of destruction that places humans in the bird cage.
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 shive down the spine. Giving birth to 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)
Salò was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film before being brutally murdered on 1st November 1975. And remains one of the most controversial films ever made. Premiering just weeks after the filmmakers murder. its depiction of torture, brutality, control and sex is certainly not for those of a sensitive disposition.
Pasolini takes the Marquis de Sade’s 18th-century novel to Italy in 1944. Where a corrupt interim government was established at Salo following Mussolini’s rescue by the Nazi’s from Italian partisans. His film exploring the darkest reaches of human sexuality, control and fascism, in a manner 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 own 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 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 powerful and uncomfortable portrait of the 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)
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. Upsetting countless more people that Hitchcock’s Psycho of the same year. Loathed by critics of the day, Peeping Tom vanished from cinema’s screens and public scrutiny. In turn 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)
Once seen never forgotten, Austrian horror masterpiece Goodnight Mommy not only follows in the footsteps of director Michael Haneke (Funny Games). But also plays homage 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. Horror that plays with the bonds between child and mother, while deconstructing the safety of family.
The Innocents (1961)
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. Deborah Kerr’s emotionally repressed Miss Giddens slowly descending into a cave of mystery and lies. The children she cares for embodying her greatest religious and spiritual fears.
Cinematographer Freddie Francis cleverly uses a black-and-white CinemaScope frame to its full, bathing each scene with gothic darkness and vibrant white light. Drawing the viewer into a world of childhood innocence versus adult fear; still sending 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 lets go.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
“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 finest explorations of parental grief ever brought to the screen. The safety and security of family, home and companionship subverted into 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.
There has long been considerable debate about whether Spielberg’s Jaws is part of the horror genre. In our opinion it most definitely is, and is also one of its finest examples. Its style and subject matter playing with the human fear of natures superiority to human power. Spielberg building tension while never showing his full hand. The most horrifying scenes coming from what you don’t see. Whether that be a women violently pulled around by an unseen force or a boy innocently swimming, as the beast below stalks him. Spielberg’s Jaws is one of the finest examples of creature horror ever made, and one that has never been equalled.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Based on the Tom Harris novel, Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film has stood the test of time as one of the greatest psychological horrors. Bathing its audience in a world of criminal psychology versus our fascination with ‘evil’. Silence of the Lambs wraps us in the pure terror of the sociopath. Hopkin’s ‘Hannibal Lecter’ calmly listening to Mozart while matching the intelligence and vigour of his psychologist interrogator at every step. While Foster‘s FBI agent screams with vulnerability and inner strength in equal measure. The race to stop a killer in the hands of two ostracised figures, one with a badge and one with a mask.
The Fly (1986)
“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. As the doctor slowly becomes the monster as Frankenstein mixes with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide.
The Lodge (2019)
The Lodge wraps you a feeling of quiet discomfort from the outset. While slowly building a sense of unease, with a pace that may leave some horror fans cold. However, this is a film less interested in quick shocks and gore than it is the cold reaches of psychological horror. With Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz once more visiting themes of family, trust and subverted innocence. Coupled with a exploration of family separation, loss and the role of step parents in family structure. Creating a film that never fully embraces mainstream horror not unlike their groundbreaking debut Goodnight Mommy. The Lodge is a trip into the deepest reaches of psychological terror, where the void between victim and predator pervades proceedings.
In a similar vein to Ari Asters Hereditary, The Lodge begins rooted in domestic family life. Richard (Richard Armitage) having left his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) for new partner Grace (Riley Keough). Consequently breaking his once happy family in two. With their young daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) caught in the middle of the parental turmoil. While Mia and Aiden both vehemently apposed to their fathers new girlfriend. Both children confused at how their dad could have fallen for a women who was once part of a religious cult.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenters relentless science fiction horror plays 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 a fascinating links to classic TV science fiction. The story echoing themes raised in the Tom Baker Doctor Who story ‘The Seeds of Doom’. Alongside classic B-Movie science fiction ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Thing from Outer Space.
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)
Where did cinematic horror begin? Many will reference early Universal monster epics, or F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. However horror truly began with Robert Wiene’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A silent film that expanded the notion of horror beyond the ghost stories of early cinema into psychological and visual terror.
First screened in Berlin almost 100 years ago, the films design plays with sharp angles, Picasso like buildings and winding streets. A pure dream on screen that slowly becomes a visually haunting nightmare. Creating the template for many modern filmmakers including Tim Burton and David Lynch. Its carnival based story becoming the first film to truly subvert the playground of touring entertainment into a world of horror.
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)
Long before plastic surgery became a medical gift and nightmare in equal measure. Eyes Without a Face tackled the psychological damage of disfigurement alongside a fathers guilt and maniacal need to fix his daughter. Georges Franju’s film 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. The films narrative taking you 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)
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. Landis cleverly taking the classic werewolf stories of Hammer and Universal while injecting them with gloriously dark humour.
Landis opens the film with our young American backpackers (David and Jack) in the back of sheep van, their travelling companions possibly heading to slaughter. A scene that firmly sets the trajectory for both boys, one becoming a rotting corpse who walks the earth in limbo, the other becoming a werewolf who kills without control. London 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 laughs often leading a film to fall into more genre more than another. However, with American Werewolf this fine line is walked with perfection. Landis throwing the audience from the darkest of humour to the scariest of scenes in a heartbeat. The film joyously revelling in its ability to confuse its audience and play with their emotional connection to the characters on screen. While Rick Bakers werewolf design and transformation shocks the audience to its core. Its visual and physical wizardry still head and shoulders above anything seen in modern day 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)
Get Out (2017)
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets The Stepford Wives in “Get Out,” in which a white girl brings her black boyfriend home to meet her parents, whose superficially warm welcome masks an unthinkably dark secret. Blending race-savvy satire with horror to especially potent effect, this bombshell social critique from first-time director Jordan Peele proves positively fearless — which is not at all the same thing as scareless. In fact, from the steady joy-buzzer thrills to its terrifying notion of a new way that white people have found to perpetuate the peculiar institution of slavery, “Get Out” delivers plenty to frighten and enrage audiences. But it’s the fact that Peele doesn’t pull a single one of his punches that makes his Blumhouse-backed debut a must-see event”Peter Debruge (Variety) January 24th 2017
Jordan Peele’s debut feature cleverly dovetails the horror of racial segregation with the terror of white supremacy. In a film that takes the horror genre into the real and imagined world. Creating a truly unique portrait of continued slavery in a country of supposed diversity and equality. This is horror in reflective mode it’s scares no match for its intelligent narrative.
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’. Wrapping you 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 genre it inhabited during the 70’s, Suspiria also shines with female empowerment in a world of witches, blood, dance and dreamlike visuals.
One 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.
John Carpenters Halloween gave birth to the modern slasher film. Creating the iconic man in the mask murderer. Damaged by childhood experience and intent on wreaking revenge. Made on a shoe string Halloween took inspiration from a number of early films including ‘Eyes With Out a Face’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. While introducing the classic vulnerable babysitter concept. A concept that would be returned to multiple times over the proceeding decades with mixed results.
Halloween is bathed in the rich Autumnal colours of October cut starkly with the darkness of pure terror. This is a film that enhanced the celebration and scares of Halloween for a whole generation. Embedding the role of film in a festival of pumpkins, costumes and sweets like nothing else before or after. Despite being widely copied through 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)
Roger Eggers debut feature film set in 17th Century New England is a delight. Mixing superstition and community fear with the dread of family secrets and exclusion. The horror coming from ignorance, fear of the unknown and the menacing atmosphere of religion created by Eggers. The Witch grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, submerging you into a world of accusations and suggestion. Revelations taking time to form as the intensity and claustrophobia ramps up. This is folk horror at its spin tingling best.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Following his 2015 horror masterpiece The Witch, Director Roger Eggers gives us a maritime nightmare of epic proportions. The claustrophobic 1.19:1 aspect ratio working alongside the grain and nuance of black and white film. In not only creating a work of cinematic art, but also one that feels just as weathered as the characters at its heart. As a result, creating a dream like landscape that seeps into your subconscious and slowly eats away at your sense of reality.
Ephram Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a man on the run. His new role as assistant ‘wickie’ to the old sea dog Thomas Wake (William Defoe) a perfect escape. Both men a mystery to one another, the seclusion of their work a perfect cover from any prying eyes. While their fate lay tied to the rocky outpost they call home. However, as folklore, secrets and alcohol combine both men must face the true horror of their seclusion.
The Lighthouse is a masterpiece of atmospheric horror, paying homage to the early German horror of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari. While mixing in the psychological terror of Hitchcock and Kubrick.
Both Patterson and Defoe delivering exhilarating and enthralling theatrical performances. Bouncing off one another with a mesmeric intensity. As their characters find support, love and hatred in each others arms. The comfort and security of the lighthouse slowly becoming their mental prison.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
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 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)
The Wicker Man was originally 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. Mystery surrounding its production with so many different cuts of the film that audiences were never quite sure of its intended running time.
To this day The Wicker Man is a glorious folk horror enigma, shrouded in the bright sunlight of horror. A Film that has given birth to whole host of folk horror tales, including Ari Asters 2019 Midsommar. Playing homage to the style of Hammer horror while subverting the beauty and seclusion of an island community. 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)
Saint Maud (2019)
Religious fervour mixes with mental illness in a film that takes you to the very edges of psychological horror. Director Rose Glass’ debut feature providing visceral horror of the highest order. While wrapping its audience in a nerve shredding world of mental decline. The escape door firmly closed as we follow a deeply troubled young care worker into a dark tunnel of spiritual torment and madness. The resulting picture creating not only one of the finest debut films in a generation. But also one of the finest horror films I have seen this decade. Saint Maud is a breathtaking visual and auditory experience that slowly eats away at the nerves of the viewer.
Rose Glass’ directorial debut is nothing short of formidable. A film that buries itself in your heart and soul while terrorising your mind. Its horror and sadness engulfing you a tsunami of exquisite performances, direction and design. Saint Maud is far more than a pure horror, it’s a trip into the darkest corners of the human mind, religious extremism and delusion.
The Exorcist (1973)
Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘ kickstarted a whole stream of early 70s horror aimed squarely at the occult, religion and supernatural. And it would be fair to say that The Exorcist remains the greatest example of this rebirth. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, which in turn was very loosely based on apparent real events. The Exorcist is one of the finest horror films ever made, its intricate use of sound and visual terror crawling under your skin. While no matter of any personal religious belief you may hold, William Friedkin’s film plays with our deep rooted subconscious need for faith. Asking 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 in film history. 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 a folklore similar to the of The Omen .
Once seen never forgotten, The Exorcist is still one of the most wild and scary rides in cinematic horror, its bleakness and exploration of inner faith sending a chill down the strongest spine.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
‘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 in 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, Polanski creates an atmosphere of pure terror. Terror that has been copied but never matched in its audacious impact. Consequently subverting everyday life, romance and family into a sublime horror that still has the power to enthral.
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
Richard Donner also directed The Goonies and Superman the Movie
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
Jordan Peele also directed Us
Noah Jupe also appears in Honey Boy
Simon Killer also appears in Alone on Valentines Day
Corey Feldman also appears in Coming of Age – The Essential Collection