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The Top 10 Horror Films of All Time

by Jack Sommersby

From aliens to zombies to psychics to sharks, this list's got 'em all!

Some honorable mentions: Lewis Teague's Alligator, Brad Anderson's Session 9, Larry Cohen's The Stuff, Dan Curtis's Burnt Offerings, Allan Holzman's Forbidden World, Damiano Damiani's Amityville 2: The Possession. P.T. Anderson's Event Horizon, William Lustig's Maniac, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street and Alan Parker's Angel Heart.

10. Mutant (1984)

Two vacationing brothers traveling the back roads of Georgia find themselves neck-deep in some serious trouble when they're stranded in a community where the citizen count is steadily declining. Almost all of the store fronts are locked up, the sparse roads hardly have any traffic, the school is temporarily closed, and the only thing open is the office of a doctor who's baffled at all the disappearances and doesn't believe it's anything as harmless as a flu bug going around. The brothers, Josh and Mike, take temporary refuge at an old lady's house until their car can get fixed, but after Mike is mysteriously gone the next morning, Josh, not finding a filling station to tow and fix their car, starts to investigate and, with the help of the over-the-hill local cop, discovers that, due to the contamination of the town's water supply from the improper disposal of chemical waste by a negligent conglomerate, people are turning into zombie-like creatures with a hot yellow substance for blood (the palm of their hands crack open oozing the stuff), a disliking for bright light, and quite a whole lot of frenzied hostility to boot.

This kind of well-traveled cinematic territory can be done either well or bad, and ace director John "Bud" Cardos, who also scored with Kingdom of the Spiders and The Dark, does it well and works equal wonders with the low budget here. Using shadows and sound and an instinct for whetting our appetites with just enough insinuating stimuli to keep us glued to our seats in armrest-clinging mode, he uses tactfully suggestive imagery (an empty chair still rocking when the sheriff enters an apparently-empty house; household lamps lacking bulbs; dark and dank cellars that can hide all sorts of unseen malice) rather than pounding us on the heads with blatant "Gotcha!" presentations that have little in the way of staying power in our minds. It's wonderful how Cardos get us to intimately know the lay of the town so when hell really does start to break loose, the claustrophobic feel of their surroundings coming down on the main characters is palpable. Also helping matters are the three-dimensional portraits outstandingly etched by Bo Hopkins as the cop and Wings Hauser as Mike (with the latter showing he can play a hero as persuasively as he played the vicious pimp in Vice Squad). Finally, there's the ultra-terrifying score by Richard Band, which, though it's got some stiff competition, ranks as this genre's absolute best.

9. Dead and Buried (1981)

In the small and tranquil seaside town of Potter's Bluff, a series of gruesome murders have started that have thrown sheriff Dan Gillis into a tailspin of disbelief and frustration in not having the slightest clue who's responsible. First, a vacationing photographer is seduced by a beautiful woman on an otherwise-deserted beach and then ambushed by some very disagreeable men, tied up in a fishnet to a pole, doused with gasoline, and lit on fire by the very same woman. Then a drunken fisherman is done in on his boat at night with some very sharp instruments, then a passing-through family of three, then a young hitchhiker. We see the people responsible for the mayhem, and they turn out to be the town's common citizens in all age ranges and professions. And there's an element of the supernatural at work: skin samples Gillis is finally able to attain show they came from the dead; and the local mortician with serious delusions of grandeur who loves the challenge of working on marred bodies for funeral presentations is harboring a very dark secret that also might involve Gillis's too-good-to-be-true homey wife and his trusted confidants. Which leads to a devastating, shattering conclusion that's guaranteed to haunt well after the closing credits roll.

This was only the second film by director Gary A. Sherman, and he handles the tricky material with finesse and style. You'll definitely jump at all the intended times, but you'll also be satisfyingly unnerved throughout because Sherman cares about taking his time in enveloping the audience with the kind of creepy atmospherics so you don't have to wait for the "Boo!" moments to make you feel you're at a real horror film. With the desaturated color schemes and retro production design (the sun never seems to come out; and I don't think there's a push-button phone anywhere to be found), Potter's Bluff feels like a genuine old town, one that possesses such an initially-disarming aura that when the elements of violence and black magic are introduced, it feels like the supreme violation. In the special-effects department, Stan Winston's work, with rotting flesh and dismembered body parts, have an organic freakishness; and the menacingly-suggestive lighting by Steve Poster would make Beezlebub weep with envy. The cast, looking more like genuine denizens than movie stars, adds to the texture, with James Farentino particularly forceful as the hero who unearths the kind of dark truths no human should ever be made privy to. The same screenwriters responsible for Alien have concocted yet another winner.

8. The Invisible Man (1933)

"We'll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there..." are the words spoken by the title character in director James Whale's unrivaled masterwork about poor, struggling chemist Jack Griffin who discovers a potion that renders his entire body invisible. As the film opens, a man in a long trench coat with bandages and goggles on his face and gloves arrives in a country village, rents a room in an inn, and tries finding a cure for the irreversible malady he's inflicted upon himself while trying to keep outside parties from discovering his secret. But the potion has a terrible side effect that drives its subject stark-raving mad. Soon, Griffin loses his temper because of interruptions and assaults his landlords, causing pandemonium among the concerned citizens and the town police officer to be called; they witness the unbelievable but have a hard time convincing outside law enforcement of it after Griffin escapes out of town. Back home, he confronts his scientific colleague to share in his breakthrough, insisting they sell this secret to the highest-bidding nation which will then be able to take over the world. Meanwhile, the entire city, after finally being convinced, has started a widespread manhunt while Griffin goes on a murder spree that giddily feeds his growing megalomania.

Seventy-seven years after its release, the special effects still hold up very well. The unwrapping of the bandages and removal of the clothes to reveal the unseen body mass are exceedingly well done; as are inanimate objects moving around with a ghostlike dreaminess, footprints being made in the snow, etc. The build-up of the scenes is never rushed or harried -- the gripping story has enough innate intensity so it can be trusted to enrapture the viewer without being overstressed. Whale's consummate camerawork knows what to look at and how to look at it. The lighting brings out the lushness of whites and the glossiness of blacks. The dialogue is perfectly par for the course. The story structure neatly starts with Griffin already being invisible so we're spared unnecessary scenes leading up to it. And darned if there aren't some nice touches of dark humor that dexterously blend in with the proceedings. But the main strength that puts the film way over the line lies in the deft psychological layering of its protagonist, a classic study of a homicidal maniac whose last remaining strands of humanity we gradually see evaporate in the face of power and greed that's both affecting and disturbing. As Griffin, Claude Rains is simply magnificent.

7. The Dead Zone (1983)

By far the very best screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel, this David Cronenberg-directed classic stars Christopher Walken as John Smith, a small-town schoolteacher who's involved in a serious car wreck, awakens from a coma after five whole years, and discovers he has the ability to see into the pasts and futures of the people he touches. His life has been ruined (his longtime fiancee has married someone else, his job is gone, his physique has steadily deteriorated leaving him with a limp), and after getting unwanted attention from the press while still in the hospital (he touched a nurse, saw that her daughter was in a burning house, alerted her, and she was rescued), he tries to isolate himself by moving away. But soon he's reluctantly agreeing to help the sheriff track down a serial killer, and after saving a boy from a drowning he foresaw, he sees that he has the ability to change the future, which couldn't come at a better time because a nasty local politician running for the Senate has some very dastardly plans for the country when he eventually becomes President that only John can do something about though not while sealing his own fate.

Released the same year as Cronenberg's near-brilliant Videodrome, The Dead Zone works on so many levels that it's not the easiest film in the world to categorize. It's got elements of the horrific, to be sure, but it's also a thriller, a romance, a meditation on individual responsibility, all of which are flawlessly encompassed into an intelligent, literate script that's beautifully realized and sprinkled with delicious ironies. And Cronenberg handles it all with applaudable aplomb. His sense of narrative is fluidly steady without any bumps along the way, every sequence is shaped with dramatic focus, the moments meant to creep you out do so with mature couth, and the overall whole is really all of a piece without taking the easy way out by pumping each scene for sensationalistic payoffs. He respects the contextual value of what he's been handed and serves the material diligently yet not mechanically -- he vivifies it just enough to leave his own distinctive stamp on things. And holding everything together is Walken's career-best turn as the fragile psychic who's the only one capable of stopping the destruction of mankind. He's terrific, and so is this major cinematic accomplishment that's a genuine work of art.

6. The Thing (1982)

From horror maestro John Carpenter comes this stellar remake of the well-regarded 1951 original dealing with a 100,000-year old alien creature that makes its way to a American scientific outpost in Antarctica and leaves bloody Hell in its wake. The title villain kills its victims and has the unique ability of flawlessly imitating them, which makes it nearly impossible to know if a crew member has or hasn't been infected; even the person who's been taken over doesn't consciously know if he's been. With just twelve team members, paranoia starts to run high and the helpless sense of isolation is intensified. Attempts to reach a rescue crew have been unsuccessful, and when the communications hardware has been destroyed, the crew is left to their own limited devices to combat and destroy a ferocious foe that, if allowed to reach outside civilized areas, will succeed in imitating every person and creature on the face of the earth. And as the tensions percolate, the humans find their trust in one another is more and more limited, which is a severe liability in that maybe one falsely suspects another of being a "thing" and thinks doing away with him is siding on the side of safety.

It's a terrific story premise, of course, and Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster have maturely developed it by stressing the psychological aspects as well as the special effects. Generously helping out in this is the cast who're exemplary right across the board (with Kurt Russell as stalwart a hero as he was in Carpenter's Escape From New York one year prior), and they succeed in delivering the kind of definitive characters that enable us to care -- for how disastrous it would've been if we couldn't muster up the merest of sympathy for people in a most nightmarish situation? While the characterizations aren't particularly "deep," we know just enough about them to sustain the necessary interest. That's not to say the f/x factor isn't impressive, too. Genius Rob Bottin has concocted some truly dazzling set pieces with various stages of the creature that scrape the very height of imagination; being that it's conquered other worlds, there are neat remnants of other species mixed in with the human takeovers, resulting in a hodgepodge of a monster with no single consistent form. And it's an exceedingly handsome production with many images of eerie beauty (like a helicopter emerging from a cloud bank chasing after a seemingly-innocent dog) and a final conclusion that's atypically bleak in a refreshing sort of way.

5. Creepshow (1982)

With a superb screenplay by Stephen King and dynamite direction from George A. Romero, this extraordinary comedy-chiller is far and away the best comic-book movie ever made. What's served up on this tasty tray of horror anthologies? First, there's the matter of a long-dead rich man's disgusting corpse crawling out of his grave to get his Father's Day cake that was denied him when he was murdered by the daughter fixing it for him. Second, there's mentally-challenged country bumpkin Jody Verrill unwisely touching a small meteorite that's landed on his farm which starts to infect his body with a rapidly-growing green-grass-like substance. Third, a jealous husband enacts his revenge against his cheating wife and her boyfriend; he buries them alive from the neck-down on the beach with the threat of the upcoming tide while he watches via remote in his home. Fourth, at a university a mysterious crate from an Arctic expedition dated back to 1834 is tampered with and a violent beast escapes, which is maybe good news for a professor looking to get rid of his obnoxious wife. Fifth, a malicious obsessive-compulsive meets his match when cockroaches threaten the sterility of his penthouse apartment.

Walking a fine line between scares and laughs, Romero miraculously sustains a fun-filled tone from start to finish to where the violence isn't unpleasant and the jokes aren't overly hokey. Working with the gifted cinematographer Michael Gornick, he gives everything a bold and controlled color schema of vivid primary colors with unorthodox camera angles that place us smack dab in the middle of the Creepshow comic book where the tales unfold from. And it helps that there's neither a bum note in any of the out-there stories -- the absolute maximum entertainment value has been derived without a single overlong bone in their bodacious bodies -- nor a single negligible performance that could've jarred the tone -- even Stephen King's amateurish acting as Jody is oddly endearing. Like Romero's Dawn of the Dead, this is a piece of high-grade cinema where every facet and aspect seems to have been thoroughly thought through and gloriously realized by a filmmaker who shows he cares about giving his die-hard fans exactly what they've come to expect from someone validly regarded as a true master. (Advice: Stay far away from the two dreadful sequels that do wrong all the things the original does right.)

4. Jaws (1975)

In what still ranks as director Steven Spielberg's finest accomplishment, a great white shark of considerable proportion is creating merciless havoc on a New England beach community right when the summer tourists have arrived to take advantage of the world-renowned beaches. The film opens with a young skinny-dipping woman becoming the first victim whose remains wash up on shore, but being that the attack happened at night without a witness, the mayor, whose primary concern is those tourism dollars, thwarts Roy Scheider's police chief's efforts to close the beaches. After a couple of more attacks, the chief teams up with ichthyologist Richard Dreyfuss and veteran seaman Robert Shaw to hunt down and kill the thirty-foot monstrosity on a boat that doesn't seem quite so big once the shark finally rears its ugly head. And how exactly do you slay such a gargantuan beast when bullets won't fatally penetrate and attempting to drown it by attaching multiple heavy barrels to it doesn't yield any better results? Let's just say that when it does finally meet its doom, the results are positively explosive.

Rather than blatantly presenting the shark from the onset, for a good while Spielberg gives us its point of view as it assuredly lurks under the sight of its unsuspecting victims -- it's a killing machine but a killing machine of grace -- with composer John Williams's brilliant score perfectly accentuating these sequences to where the suspense is jacked up to a simply unbearable level. A lot of things could've gone wrong -- the shark looking fake; the heroes being nothing more than cardboard cutouts; the exploitation factor ruinously crude -- but Jaws is an exemplary example of both cast and crew working at the top of their game in lending flawless expertise to pulpy material that is far from contextually challenging (though a long monologue delivered by Shaw about a downed wartime ship and a good many of the vulnerable crew being eaten by sharks is unforgettable). While Spielberg is indeed at the top of his game, a good deal of credit is also due Oscar-winning editor Verna Fields who demonstrates an uncanny instinct for never holding a shot too long and cutting to another to an unpredictable rhythm that's all her glorious own that puts most of the men in her profession to shame.

3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Like Romero's bravura accomplishment, this is another case of the sequel bettering the original (the 1956 Don Sigel-directed one of the same title that still does the job today). An array of alien spores make their way to Earth and take up root in San Francisco and grow into seemingly-unthreatening pods. When placed beside people while asleep, they produce perfect imitations of the person that are completely bereft of individuality and emotion; while they look and sound alike, they're soulless and heartless with the unified goal of taking over the world. Donald Sutherland is the county health inspector out to stop them, along with Brooke Adams as his feisty co-worker and Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as their friends who're helpless in seeing their fellow citizens systematically turned into vegetables with nary an altruistic aspect in their newly-formed bodies. As more and more people are taken over, the more difficult it is for our heroes to escape and warn the outside world, with the film painting one of the bleakest conclusions of all time.

In a stroke of genius derived from Jack Finney's well-regarded source material The Body Snatchers, the predominating enemy here isn't monsters or phantoms or a crazed psychopath but the basic human need for sleep that even the most resourceful of heroes is helplessly susceptible to -- the pod people can't make their enemy one of them, only the human can by eventually yielding to the inevitable. There's something bloodcurdlingly sinister about an amoral goal that isn't achieved by particularly violent means, just surrendering to something that before has brought tranquility; and a good part of the horror suggestively comes from the audience forced to ask themselves if an untroubled world without malice is worth giving up what you emotionally value most. Credit ace screenwriter W.D. Richter for covering just about every conceivable dramatic point inherent in the story premise, and for giving us flesh-and-blood characters we can readily identify with and care about. And kudos to director Phillip Kaufman for giving us heebie-jeebies galore, oodles of unbearable tension, and more than a fair share of hair-raising frights with the intensity of a blow to the solar plexus.

2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The country is on the verge of being overrun by blood-crazed zombies. We're not given the reason behind this havoc-causing plague; as the story opens, a Pittsburgh television station is in pandemonium, with a guest commentator laying out the facts available -- the victims are either fully feasted upon or are bitten and soon turn into zombies themselves -- but is being drowned out by hecklers among the staff who start abandoning their posts to seek safety without knowing exactly where to find it. The plague is widespread in rural counties as well as big cities, and nothing resembling a cure has been devised. Desperate with very few viable options, four people have commandeered a helicopter and eventually find refuge inside a huge shopping mall. At first they think it can be only a temporary spot, but they find a way of killing the zombies inside (they need to be shot in the head), clearing them out, and barricading the doors with semi trailers. For a while they're living high, with lots of food, electronic gadgets and entertainment. But eventually their oasis is compromised, and they must band together and fight, and they find getting back out is a lot harder than getting in.

While writer/director George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead is genuinely frightening, this colorful and imaginative sequel is considerably superior. With imagination in overdrive and first-rate craftsmanship, Romero creates a nightmarish world with a doom-laden atmosphere that clings and manages to give the proceedings lots of scope and depth and probably the most fatalistic world view ever put on film. But the bleakness is expertly mixed with lots of sly humor satirizing both consumerism and machismo: the humans are absolutely giddy over anything in the stores being theirs for free (there's even a bank where they throw now-useless money high in the air); and some of the men who underestimate the slow-moving zombies eventually wind up on quite the violent receiving end. The running time is just over two hours, and Romero's crackerjack timing and narrative sense keeps everything zipping along adroitly. The four main characters are believable and appealing, and the gory special effects by master Tom Savini are both harrowing and hilarious -- sometimes you find yourself laughing even when there's a scream caught in your throat.

1. Alien (1979)

In the faraway future, the deep-space vehicle Nostromo is halfway to Earth after a long voyage towing twenty-million tons of mineral ore when the crew of seven is awakened from hyper-sleep by the ship's supercomputer Mother. It's intercepted a transmission of unknown origin from an uncharted planetoid in the vicinity that has to be checked out per company procedure; what they eventually discover is a huge alien derelict with egg-shaped objects in the cargo's hold. When one of the crew unwisely examines one of them too closely, a hand-shaped creature explodes from one and manages to attach itself to his face; he's then brought back on board where eventually a baby alien bursts out of his chest cavity, escapes to somewhere in the ship, soon grows to adult-size proportion, and proceeds to make lunch meat of the crew. The alien possesses an acid-like substance for blood, is highly intelligent, innately hostile, and virtually indestructible. And with the crew's limited weapons and options in fighting this beast, their dour situation is made even more so when the technology they've been trusting turns on them.

While the story is far from original, the director, Ridley Scott, expertly helms it as if he'd never been privy to the rudiments inherent in this genre; going against the grain, he paces the terrifying proceedings very deliberately, tactfully, never rushing things so we're on a similar responsive level as the crew -- we're always getting useful information without it ever coming off like padding material in between the alien attacks. Scott also cannily gives us only fleeting glimpses of the adult creature until the very end so as to avoid any "man in a rubber suit" shots. That's not to say the f/x technicians haven't done their jobs: Swiss artist/designer H.R. Giger and mechanical-effects ace Carlo Rambaldi have done a remarkable job at giving the title foe an organic clarity that exudes primal terror with very little in the way of tricked-up artifice calling attention to the work behind it. Also astonishing is the staging of the Nostromo landing on the unwelcoming world: the juxtaposing of shots of computer screens and crew reactions is absolutely stellar. Add Jerry Goldsmith's superb music score and Derek Vanlint's gothic lighting along with an array of solid characterizations and top-flight acting, and you have yourself the scariest, most tantalizing tale of horror ever to grace the silver screen.

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originally posted: 10/01/10 17:23:53
last updated: 10/28/17 17:23:57
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