Anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with horror movies. Always have been. I don’t really know why. I can probably trace it back to having very young parents who never monitored what I watched and let me watch horror movies as a 5 year-old. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember! I love the feeling of being scared, and knowing when it’s over that everything will be okay. And even when they’re cheesy, I still adore the concept.
So, I thought I’d start my top tens with what, in my opinion, are the greatest horror films of all time. I will try to be objective, so while these may not be MY top ten, they are the ones that I think belong there based on multiple criteria. This was an extremely difficult task for me, but I think I nailed it! So…here goes! WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
10. SAW (2004)
“I wanna play a game.”
Saw introduces us the the infamous Jigsaw, a brutal serial killer who tests his victims’ will through torturous “games.” The irony of the Jigsaw killer is that he is not actually a killer: his victims do the killing for him.
We start out with two strangers waking up in a decrepit public bathroom together, chained up, each with an audio tape with different instructions involving freeing themselves and killing the other, or people will die.
Saw definitely pulls a lot of inspiration from an earlier and similar film, Seven. Many of the themes are similar. As with “John Doe” in Seven, Jigsaw is motivated by the immorality he perceives in the people of this world. Saw was also a revolutionary kick-starter to the “torture porn” sub-genre. While it’s not the first of it’s kind in that category, (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit on Your Grave preceeded it) it definitely sparked a new era of many gorier films to follow, including Hostel, Turistas, and 8 more Saw films.
Saw is not only gory, but psychologically taxing as well. And it asks us one of the most primal questions a person can face: Just how far are you willing to go to save your own life, or the life of someone you love? Are you willing to cut off one of your own limbs, or even kill a stranger to ensure your survival?
9. JAWS (1975)
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
With one of the most iconic quotes of all time, along with with of the most recognizable theme songs of all time, Jaws confirms our fears that it is in fact NOT safe to go in the water. This film, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, takes Fourth of July in a sleepy island town and turns it into our worst nightmares. Playing on our innate fear of the unseen, Steven Speilberg brings those fears to life in the form of a huge, man-eating shark.
The genius that is Jaws is that you hardly ever see the shark throughout out the movie. His presence is often implied, with underwater footage and of course, that dreadful music. Dun…dun dun…dun dun dun dun….with 2 simple notes, John Williams created the score that would instantly inspire terror for generations to come. We very rarely see the shark, more often just the results of his feeding frenzy. Speilberg is genius in this effort, borrowing from some of the same strategies Alfred Hitchcock used to create suspense. “A bomb is under the table, and it explodes. That is surprise. A bomb is under the table, and it doesn’t explode. That is suspense.” Using Hitchcock’s strategy of keeping the shark “under the table” for most of the movie results in a huge payoff in terror and suspense.
8. A QUIET PLACE (2018)
“Who are we if we can’t protect them?”
This 2018 film takes us to a post-apocalyptic world where monsters guided only by sound are waiting to kill anyone and everyone. We meet the Abbott family, who are trying to survive while remaining completely silent at all times.
As the movie progresses, we learn that the family is trying to find a way to communicate with others and prepare as the matriarch of the family will soon give birth. They know they must have a plan to cover for the noise and ensure their survival.
This movie is terrifying when you think about it. First of all, it’s brilliant. A movie almost entirely without dialogue that still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat. Can you even possibly fathom having to live your entire life not being able to make any noise, or you could be killed? Especially with children? Oh, did I mention one of the kids is also deaf, so she can’t even hear if she makes a sound? Also, Emily Blunt deserves an Oscar for the scene where she gives birth without screaming. This movie is crazy intense, and really portrays how far family will go to protect one another.
7. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you..”
When you hear that rhyme, you know what is about to follow. A Nightmare on Elm Street introduces us to Freddy Kruger, a child murderer who got off on a technicality, and was subsequently burned to death by a group of town vigilantes. Now, Freddy is after their children, and can only get to them… IN THEIR DREAMS.
Wes Craven reignited the teen slasher genre with this new and horrifying concept: If you die in your dreams, you die in real life. This idea has been a long deep-seated fear for many, and a theory often discussed. If we reach death in our dreams, would we actually die? Is that why we always manage to wake up at the last possible second, right before death? Craven played on this question and fear with Freddy, showing us you can die in your dreams and never wake up. In fact, Craven was inspired by a true story about a group of Asian kids, all from the same neighborhood, who died mysteriously in their sleep after a string of vivid nightmares.
A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced a new face in horror with Freddy Kruger and spawned 6 sequels, proving to us that nightmares never really die.
6. THE STRANGERS (2008)
“It’ll be easier next time.”
In The Strangers, we meet Kristen and James, a couple headed to his family’s summer home for a relaxing weekend, that turns out to be anything but. Although this movie received lukewarm reviews, in my opinion, it is truly horrifying. Again, playing on some of our worst fears imaginable: A home invasion with no escape and no one to call for help.
Starting with a knock on the door in the middle of the night, and a haunting voice, 3 masked strangers stalk and psychologically torture the couple. With no way out, how far will Kristen and James have to go in order to survive? Inspired by real life events, including the Sharon Tate murder by the Manson family, and the Keddie Cabin murders of 1981, The Strangers takes you on a slow and deliciously terrifying journey into horror.
What makes this film so truly frightening is the complete and utter lack of emotion and motivation from the killers. In one of the most chilling moments of the movie, Kristen asks her captors “Why are you doing this to us?” to which one of them responds with a blank voice, “Because you were home.” With this, director Bryan Bertino is playing by the rule of “the less we know about the boogeymen, the scarier they remain.”
And that ending…
5. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
“You’re all doomed.”
There’s definitely something to be said about a film that launched a franchise with 11 sequels. At first look, Friday the 13th may just seem like a poor man’s Halloween. John Carpenter’s hit film inspired many imitations with the use of a notable date as part of it’s premise. Films such as Friday the 13th, April Fools Day, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and many more were able to capitalize on this strategy. Thanks to the innovations of earlier films like Black Christmas and Halloween, we have a whole sub-genre of horror involving our favorite times of year! In Friday the 13th, we get an idyllic and seemingly safe locale. Some of our favorite childhood memories can be tied to lakes or summer camp. No one would ever expect to be murdered there.
The original Friday film takes place at Camp Crystal Lake, where a group of teens are working to re-open the camp after its closure years earlier. One by one, the camp counselors meet their untimely and grisly deaths. In this film, we only know Jason as a young boy who drowned in the lake years ago, which isn’t even revealed until the end of the movie.
Then comes the kicker: The killer in the woods is a woman, a mother who worked at the camp and lost her son to drowning because the counselors weren’t watching out for him. With this plot twist, I think the filmmakers aim to create sympathy for this killer. A heartbroken mother, who believes irresponsible camp counselors were responsible for her son’s death, and now she’s taking her revenge? Not a hard act to get behind!
Friday the 13th is cheesy but effective, and proves to us once again that no good can come from being alone in the woods!
4. THE SHINING (1980)
“Come play with us Danny.”
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece takes us to the Overlook Hotel, a stunning getaway for the affluent, with ominous threats lurking around every corner. Or at least, for some.
Anyone who knows me knows that The Shining novel is my favorite book. I’ve read it no less than 15 times. So, as a fan of the novel and Stephen King’s work overall, it’s important that I view this film as separate and unrelated to the novel. If you compare it to the book, you will be truly disappointed.
As a standalone film however, The Shining is spectacular. The eerie score and stunning visuals take you to another world, where ghosts roam freely and you’re truly never safe, even from those you love.
In The Shining, we meet the Torrance family: Jack, Wendy, and Danny. The family has been tasked with spending the winter alone in the Overlook, with Jack serving as caretaker for the hotel. Snowed-in with no contact to the outside world, the family soon begins to come apart at the seams. For this is no ordinary hotel. The Overlook itself is a monster, devouring everything and everyone that it desires, and it’s eyes are focused on Danny. Young Danny has a special gift: “the shine.” A second sight, psychic powers, the ability to hear the thoughts of others, and communicate telepathically with others like him.
With its sights set on Danny, the Overlook begins to work through Jack to achieve it’s goal. Soon Jack is possessed by both the hotel, and by demons from his past. With nowhere to run, and a patriarch who has gone insane, how will the family survive? The Shining is a journey both into the paranormal, and how the deepest cracks in a family dynamic can destroy them from the inside out.
3. SCREAM (1996)
“What’s your favorite scary movie?”
Wes Craven re-invents and revitalizes the horror genre again with this one simple question. The teen slasher genre is back, and this time it’s ultra self-aware!
Scream introduces us to two unforgettable characters, Sidney Prescott, and Ghostface. Sidney starts out as just your typical final girl, but as the series progresses, she becomes not only the ULTIMATE final girl, but also a total badass! And while many different villians wear the Ghostface mask, they all have the same goal in mind: killing Sydney.
Scream has all your standard slasher-flick cliches, and even goes as far as to point them out to you. It’s a not-so-subtle irony that plays out, as the victims criticize these classic horror blunders, and then fall victim to them. The fact that the movie itself is so self-aware of what you’re not supposed to do in a scary movie brings a ton of humor to the film.
Scream is smart and witty, while still horrifying. It keeps you constantly on your toes with the whodunit clues and misdirection. The humor, suspense, and terror are all balanced out seamlessly. All leading to a shocking final twist, that even if you see coming, you won’t fully see coming. This is the case with all the films in the franchise as well. Scream breathed air back into the life of the horror genre, and not only spawned 3 sequels, but inspired future film as well. Movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Halloween H20, and countless others all have Scream to thank for bringing the teen slasher flick back to life.
2. PSYCHO (1960)
“We all go a little mad sometimes.”
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the world with the release of Psycho. Filmed in black and white by a television crew, with a relatively low budget, Psycho was a major work of cinematic art. The film was independently produced and financed by Hitchcock himself. At the time however, it was highly criticized for it’s for its portrayal of violence, deviant behavior, and sexual activity. The film was extremely controversial, from it’s depiction of an unmarried couple in bed together, to a woman on film in a bra, to it’s portrayal of “cross-dressing.” It was also the first time someone flushing a toilet had been shown on-screen. Later, it became a stepping stone in making those things more acceptable in film.
Psycho introduces us to the lonely and reclusive Norman Bates, who runs the Bates Motel, a small motel off what used to be a main highway, but now is deserted. A woman on the run, Marion Crane, stops at the motel during a storm and decides to spend the night. What follows is one of the most pivotal and recognizable scenes in cinematic history.
Norman operates under the ruse that he runs the motel and takes care of his sick mother, who lives in the house behind the motel. We later discover that Norman’s mother is dead, and he has kept her body in the house, and experiences a split personality in which he acts as his mother, with no memories when he is himself again. This plot twist and the context of it was groundbreaking at the time. Hitchcock promoted the film himself, without allowing the actors to do their usual appearances, so that there was no way the plot twist could be accidentally revealed. Psycho is often referenced as the original “slasher film,” although there were a few that preceeded it. But none that surpassed it!
With one of the most well-known scores and death scenes in cinematic history, the genius of Psycho still holds up, 60 years later.
And finally, number one…HALLOWEEN (1978)
“It’s Halloween. I guess everyone is entitled to one good scare.”
Finally, the coup de gras, the horror movie to end all horror movies…John Carpenter’s Halloween. A franchise so epic, it’s films have spanned 4 decades, and still continue to this day.
Halloween tells a simple story: A psychiatric patient who was institutionalized for murdering his sister when he was just six years old, escapes and returns to his hometown, where he stalks a babysitter and her friends, all while being chased by his psychiatrist.
This simplicity is what makes Halloween the genius film that it is. No blood is shown in the movie. You don’t get any death scenes until the second half of the film. (With the exception of Judith.) The movie instills terror with dark, and shadows, and heavy breathing, and a menacing score. It is also one of the first movies that really puts on display the dangers we face in our world. Prior to Halloween, most horror films, with a few exceptions, were monster movies. Or movies about the paranormal, or demonic spirits. There weren’t many that really humanized the evil that lurks in our society. Halloween gave us the confirmation that there are faceless killers among us, who kill with no purpose or reason. We never get any explanation for why Michael Myers is compelled to kill. He just…does.
The production of Halloween is also a feat in itself. The script was written in 10 days. It was filmed in 20 days in May of 1978, in southern California, with a budget of $300,000. It was filmed mostly using Steadicam, which at the time was new technology.
Halloween is also the film mainly responsible for establishing “the rules.” The horror movie guidelines you must follow if you want to survive. It put forth the criteria and popularized many themes that would repeat in horror movies throughout the years. The establishment of the “final girl.” The killing of promiscuous or drug-using teens. The use of a theme song for the killer. Filming from the killer’s perspective to heighten the tension. Halloween is one of the most widely influential films in the horror genre. It is the blueprint for so many of the slasher flicks that follow, and holds up that standard to this day.
And…it is just plain terrifying.