The Ten Best Horror Movies

60 Comments

With Halloween round the corner and me working on my horror-suspense novel “The Mine”,  I thought this would be as good a time as any to make a Top 10 List of my favorite horror movies. Plus with Rakhi Ka Insaaf and Arundhati Roy in the news and a consequent mass hysteria regarding  shrinking genitals in the air , what indeed could be more appropriate? So here without further ado, is my Top 10 list of horror movies (Actually 11 because I just could not prune this list), in chronological order.

Invasion Of the Body Snatchers (1954): “They are here, already. You are next. You are next”. What happens when everyone you know suddenly starts speaking with an uniformly unemotional voice, when the whole world as you know is exactly the same but yet not quite?  A horror classic for the ages. Seen as an allegory for the suppression of free-will in the face of indoctrination and an indictment of both Communism and McCarthyism, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” works on many levels—- as a purely political movie and also as a potent reminder of mankind’s visceral fear of being absorbed and assimilated into a  larger whole, of having our individual freedoms taken away for the sake of  totalitarian “order”.

The Seventh Seal (1957):  Bergman’s classic about a crusader playing a game of chess with Death, considered by many to be one of the greatest movies ever made, will not normally be slotted in the horror genre. But if horror is defined as something that fills you with dread, you will be hard pressed to find anything better.  Stark black and white visuals of plague-ridden Europe, apocalyptic in its despondency combined with Bergman’s patented “light on the face” effect (as showcased supremely in the last scene of “Wild Strawberries but in a different context) makes “The Seventh Seal” an unnervingly eerie experience. For me of course the most terrifying thing about the movie will be its message—–that contrary to what we are led to believe, at the end of our lives there is be no kind and gentle God waiting to rain mercy and love. Instead stands Death, cold and implacable, inflicting terrible tortures on our souls (“The Dance of Death”) as we journey across the great beyond.

Night Of the Living Dead (1968): Drops you in the middle of the action and refuses to let go. Undeniably the most influential zombie movie ever, establishing many of the conventions of the genre, this claustrophobic, immensely fast-paced film about a group of strangers boarded up in an abandoned house while the undead close in on them from all sides, has its starkest moments when the group, despite their existential threat outside, keep fighting among themselves, with visionary director George Romero contrasting the horror outside with that raging inside.

Clockwork Orange (1971): Yet another movie that normally would not be considered to belong to the genre. However what could be more frightening than Alex and his “droogs” indulging in some of the most wanton acts of cruelty shown on screen (“ultra-violence”) to the cheery tune of “Singing in the Rain” or the State playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at full volume while having Alex’s eyes kept open with clamps (so that he cannot close his eyes to the images shown) as a part of curative torture? What indeed can be more frightening than the realization that our greatest monsters are not gargoyles or creatures from the sea but normal human beings and the societal structures they create and which in turn creates them? “Clockwork Orange”, Kubrick’s vision of urban dystopia is as chilling and relevant today as it was when it was first made.

Carrie (1976):  In Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (based on the Stephen King novel) when the high school’s beautiful bunch humiliates a disturbed, highly introverted girl (played by Sissy Spacek), she spontaneously unleashes mayhem around her, leading to horrific deaths for her tormentors. What makes “Carrie” for me a cut above the more famous “Exorcist” is that while the latter’s shock value lies in its depiction of religious blasphemy (personally which left me cold), “Carrie” is unique in the way it brings out the horror of school life, the relentless cruelty shown by the cool kids to those socially awkward, a reflection of the essential sadism of human nature.

The Omen (1976): Horror themes that exert the most impact are those which tap into some of our most primal fears. “Omen”, like its more illustrious predecessor “Rosemary’s Baby” plays on one of these—namely  that there is something “not right” with an offspring. Where “The Omen” scores over “Rosemary’s Baby” (despite the latter being directed by Roman Polanski) is in its ability to create a darkly disturbing atmosphere of Biblical evil, helped in no small measure by its use of Latin chants for accentuating the feeling of dread, and the elaborately constructed horror-set-pieces, like the one where Damien’s governess commits suicide. One of the rare movies which retain the power to make you twitch nervously in your seat over multiple viewings, even when, because you have seen it so many times before, you know when exactly the “moments” are coming.

The Shining (1980):    A dark exploration of loneliness, silence, dementia and the dis-associative power of dreams, brought to life by the combined genius of Kubrick as a director and Nicholson as an actor, “The Shining” is a study in how to construct a gripping narrative with its the ominous buildup, tautly gripping middle and an unforgettable climax (The scene in which Jack Nicholson bursts through the door with a cheery “Here’s Johnnie” being now a part of cinematic folklore).  The very definition of psychological horror, a chilling portrayal of one man’s descent into insanity, if there is just one out of these ten you would watch, I would recommend this.

Se7en (1995):  A dull and dreary cityscape, awash with rains and a set of intensely flawed characters form the backdrop for this,  the ultimate serial killer movie. Leatherface may be more gruesome and Mike Myers of Halloween more wanton, but really none of them can match the nameless John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in terms of being pure diabolical. Spacey has perhaps overall ten minutes of screen-time but so powerful is his presence that even in such a brief period, he is able to leave an indelible impression  in the pantheon of truly epic screen villains, a monster whose most killing ability is not the way he dispatches people but in how he brings out the evil inside them .

The Blair Witch Project (1998): The whole ” discovered footage” basis of “The Blair Witch Project” was not new (it had been used for instance in the execrably brutal nasty “Cannibal Holocaust”) at the time of its release. What however was novel was the way the movie’s directors used the then new medium of the Net to promote it as a “real fake” movie , a tactic that was then nothing short of revolutionary. Of course that’s not why the Blair Witch Project is one of my favorites. It is because here is one place where the evil is never shown explicitly, but only through indirection. I have always felt that the impact of horror is usually compromised once the monster comes out of the shadows and here the makers don’t make that mistake. The other reason I like it so much is because of the last scene. When you see it for the first time, you might not realize its sinister significance but then once you remember a remark, made in an off-the-cuff way in the beginning, only then does the horror truly sink into you. (Many viewers who have not paid attention to every detail miss this “remark”.) Any movie that can send a chill down your spine after it is over, I would say is pretty special. The premise of real-life handycam footage and indirection has been used several times hence—–sometimes pretty well (Cloverfield) and sometimes pretty derivatively (Paranormal Activity) but never has its exerted as much an impact as the Blair Witch Project.

The Ring (2003): Horror snobs would turn their nose up at me when I say that I have never been a fan of Asian horror—no not of  Takashi Mike’s “Audition” or “Chakushin Ari” (made in the US as “One Missed Call”), not of “A Tale of Two Sisters”, not of “Cure” (an excellent plot I felt ruined by avoidable obscurantism). The only two I have really loved have been Ju-on (The Grudge) and Ringu (The Ring). Of them, Ring (the English version) is my favorite not just for the way it brings out the implacability of evil but also for that famous jump-out-of-your-seat sequence towards the end, which made even a hard-boiled horror freak like me give a start. What makes it even more remarkable was that it freaked me out when I saw it, for the first time, in a cross-Atlantic flight on a small screen stuck on the behind of the front seat, not really an atmosphere conducive for watching horror movies !

Saw (2004): Possibly the most controversial choice in this list, there are no half-measures for Saw— you either love it with a passion or hate it deeply. I saw it for the first time in a dollar theater in Detroit, going in with no idea as to what I was getting into. When the movie finished in an almost operatic climactic sequence, I was clapping—-applauding the director’s vision. Most people get so carried away by the stomach-churning torture-porn of Saw that they never really appreciate how cleverly the movie is constructed. Constraining the action  inside a filthy room, developing it through dialog between two terror-stricken men who find themselves chained to the pipes with a dead body in their midst knowing nothing about why they were there, everything about Saw—-from its premise to its use of lighting and jump-cuts are genre-defining, not to forget, of course, an ending to end all endings. Well not quite. “Saw” spawned six sequels, some of them actually not half-bad (with innovative use of the concept of time and story-interweavings) and numerous torture-porn wannabes (Hostel I and II, Turistas, reboots of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hills Have Eyes, Halloween) with each of which trying to amp up the horror by showing progressively more cringe-worthy acts of cruelty. However  not a single one could replicate the original’s subversive cleverness.

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60 thoughts on “The Ten Best Horror Movies

  1. Umm…great list…though any list for that matter is a matter of debate…

    But…how did you miss “It”? Like going by the logic of Hitchcok, and “fear comes from imagination” thing…can’t believe you missed or didnt consider keeping “Pennywise the clown” Also, you being from that era, (a little senior to me as you are :)) I tho’t it was an automatic choice…also “Silver Bullet”…but that';s just my personal favorite, as it was the first horror movie I watched in a cinema hall, in Ramkrishna Mission auditorium, Golpark… :)

    Also, I didn’t expect Saw, and Ring though…not much a fan of Jap horror and slasher…and also even if I was, I guess there are way better movies in either genre than these two…

    Great job, anyways…lists to make now,

    1. Greatest movie villains,
    2. Greatest and seductive, sexy book villains,
    3. Greatest horror scenes… :)

  2. I find the choice of ‘Seventh Seal’ interesting.It is perhaps most powerful movie in terms of imagery but Bergman very consciously used disturbing visuals in ‘Hour of the Woolf’. I do like the fact that you broke the pattern of horror films.
    I would add Rosemary’s Baby, The Innocents, The Devil’s Backbone, 301/302 (Not strictly horror), The two sisters (I hope the name is right, that Korean movie you did not like), Dark Habits, The wicker man (not the new one), The Haunting, Eraserhead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Audition, Rec (which was later made into Quarantine), The Thing. Also, for me horror is never complete without Freddie, Jason and Mike Meyers. O yes! And our very own Samri.

  3. Superb list. My favourite – The Ring is on here – I have some very fond scary memories of it!
    What’s also interesting is many of these movies got remade (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) again and again and that’s how different generations discover these gems.

  4. @Sumantra Bandh Darwaza is my personal Ramsay favorite as well.
    Ok GB no 301/302 it was perhaps not really horror but very disturbing. I could never pick up 10 I need 50…

  5. Since you have explained The Exorcist is not in the list I will not ask you about that. But I really think that The Omen is overhyped. The movie which really scared me was The Ring (I thought the very idea of the video cassette is novel). There are few others that I liked (not necessarily horror or top 10 material but scared me)like Psycho, The Sixth Sense, The Skeleton Key, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and some desi movies like Mahal, Woh Kaun Thi and Monihaara.

  6. Great list, GB! Though I am easily scared by horror films, I thought the original Omen and Se7en were the best.
    @Tejaswy, hehe ur right! Most unjust of GB not to include at least one Ramsay horror gem like Bandh Darwaza!

  7. I would put a Hitchcock in there. The obvious choice would be Psycho but The Birds would be much more difficult to pull off. I would also like a few earlier movies in there like say Nosferatu or Faust. the weakness of the list is that it contains no movie from prior to 1954.

  8. I love the Asian Horror Genre … One name i found missing was Dark Water. In horror movies generally there is no clear closure or reconciliation or if there is one, it pretty much spoils the fun! (Don’t want to bring Tantriks in the climax do we?) Personally, i felt Dark Water is one such movie where everything seems to make sense (even more than Ju-on where evil is shown to have no pattern or an end)!
    Though it had a “Tantrik” ending i would also add “Raat” to the list. The dream sequences were pretty scary! Also its one Indian horror movie where you dont have ghosts with melting faces or oversized canines!

  9. Exorcism of Emily Rose is scary for the fact that it is based on true story.

    And i disagree with you on Blair Witch vs Paranormal … PA is immensely more scary given the really “controlled” nature of the surroundings …

  10. Wow! Killer List! @ Aditi Sen: ‘Eraserhead’ Great addition! @ GB, I don’t know if you’ve watched them, but definitely figures in my top 10: Les Diaboliques, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Night of the Hunter. But, my favorite horror movie of all time, probably wouldn’t feature on everyone’s list: Jacob’s Ladder. Tim Robbins is worship worthy!

  11. All said and done, I am keenly awaiting a sequel titled ‘GB’s list of 10 awesome Horror Movies’ featuring the likes of Ramsays and so on …

    I am sure, that many others would like that too..

  12. In my opinion, any list that does not mention Psycho, Noseferatu, Silence of the Lambs or for that matter, The Night of the Hunter remains an incomplete representation of the genre. I have avoided horror as a genre mostly but having seen most of the movies mentioned here, I differ at some points:

    I would have put ‘Hour of the Wolf’ instead of ‘The Seventh Seal’, although it is tough to choose between the two…

    Shining was good, in parts. One felt that actors other than Nicholson robbed much from the movie…

    Birds (Hitchcock?) should find a place somewhere… and if you do prefer gore, Sweeny Todd is a recommendation. I had an opportunity to watch the play in Italian, at Spain and even without knowing much of the language, it had a profoundly disturbing effect!

    However, all said, it is YOUR list :)

  13. Ho ho ho…. I am severely disappointed by your list…..Come to think of it…The Ring makes it but Rosemary’s Baby does not…..The fact that some of the readers find The Ring scary makes me wonder what they would do if they were to watch Evil Dead at Beena cinema in Budge Budge….

  14. Allow me to recommend a few more.

    1. The Evil Dead 2 (1987): While The Evil Dead (1981) was iconic in its portrayal of gore (and was a pioneer of the splatter horror film), it sequel came out several years later, when the genre was being done to death (pardon the expression) with a number of cheap imitations. Nevertheless, this film stood out immediately doe to its darkly comic undertones, and a cheerfully manic intensity. I particularly recommend the scene in which several inanimate objects come to life.
    2. Halloween (1978): John Carpenter’s masterpiece that defined the slasher genre’s conventions. Looking back at it after all these years, it’s almost surprising to see how little blood is actually shown in this movie. It’s a masterclass in creating and sustaining the right atmosphere through the length of a movie.
    3. The Thing (1982): More a psychological thriller than a horror movie, this movie explores themes of isolation, suspicion, claustrophobia, and the self-preservation instinct, and does so as well as any Romero film. Another John Carpenter masterpiece.
    4. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994): Though the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels were rather cheesy (if still fun!), this particular movie is easily one of the most cerebral horror movies of its time. The movie blurs the boundaries between reality and a movie script, and ultimately folds in on itself in a quite brilliant fashion. Craven later took the concept of making horror movie characters aware of horror movie conventions, and made the acclaimed Scream series.
    5. Frailty: This is an under-appreciated effort from first-time director Bill Paxton. A smart, neatly-crafted thriller that keeps you guessing.

  15. GB please add Ram Gopal verma ki Aag & Tashan in the list.. Seeing these two movies would alone give audience many nightmarish moments…[:p]

    On a serious note… in Bollywood, Raat was an exception.. Revathi’s acting and the background music was the highlight of the movie…

    Alas bollywood ( B grade ) mostly has been limited to “khooni atma” “Pyasi chudail” stuffs [:p]

  16. For some reasons i dont like horror movies and never end up seeing any. Instead prefer mysteries and thrillers.
    The last time a horror movie scared me, was when I was 6.

  17. Can we get all the idiots who keep commenting “first”, “second” and “give me an ipod” to stop? It was all very cute when blogging was invented but is a bit juvenile now. I have to tap my scroll wheel at least twice to get past these, and given that I’ve been reading this blog daily for the past many many many months – it adds up to a lot of finger flicks which I could have better used for digging my nose, scratching my ass, showing my finger to bad drivers etc. You are killing my productivity with your stupidity.

  18. Ahem, Ju-On not in the list? Or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”? Its like leaving out Sachin and Mohammad Nissar from a all-time great Indian team

  19. As a horror film lover I must say that any such list that does not feature Psycho(1960) is an exercise in futility. Without Alfred Hitchcock, horror movies would not have come of age. There are few other films that may deserve to feature in such a list, but might have been dropped due to constraint of ten and ten only.

    The Thing(1982): I can not think of an ending more chilling than that.
    Rec(2007): This is a recent Spanish horror movie that most people have missed.
    Låt den Rätte Komma In(2008)

    few other honorable mentions:
    El Orfanato(2007): Spanish again.
    The Others(2001)
    Tesis(1996): A Spanish horror/thriller
    Aliens(1986)
    Spoorloos(The Vanishing) (1988): this one stands out of the lot, a very original idea.

  20. The line between horror and thriller has always been a fine one. But going by the classic industry definition, a horror film must have an element of supernatural or fantasy, which is inexplicable by definition, not just unexplained during or even by the end of the movie, as a thriller might be. By that definition, Psycho is a psychological thriller, not a horror film. Dr. Richmond’s explanation at the end decisively puts it on the thriller side of the horror / thriller line.

    This line, incidentally, is not merely an academic distinction. A lot of marketing and box-office dollars are at stake when genres are assigned. I used to manage advertising products and digital marketing campaigns (was part of the subversive PA campaign) for large movie studios, and have had some interesting exposure to some of these debates, often resulting in “horror / thriller” cop-out.

  21. @ Dipanjan, that way a lot of the movies listed here by greatbong do not qualify as horror. I disagree that Psycho is not a horror movie only because the explanation at the end decisively explains everything and the supernatural is ruled out. The court scene is one of the weakest in the movie, and in spite of it, the diabolic smile on Norman Bates’ face at the end as the credits are about to start rolling is a scene that few can deny has an unnerving eerie effect. I am sure you’re a very erudite movie buff but it doesn’t mean you or anyone for that matter can fit movies into genre-slots that easily.

  22. @ Debapriya, is that me under a different name. I would have so imagined if you didn’t mention Rec which I haven’t seen. Our lists are surprisingly congruent.

  23. GB,

    I saw Blair Witch Project when I was in school and I totally don’t get your reference to the off-the-cuff remark in the beginning that relates to the last shot. Pleeease tell me what this is about. Its going to torment me otherwise

  24. @lexferanda I think what GB is referring to in The Blair Witch Project is the remark made about a hermit, Rustin Parr, in the beginning of the film – he would kill one child while the other faced a corner, forced to listen to their companion’s screams.

    In the final scene, Heather enters the basement looking for her friends, and her camera sees a glimpse of Mike facing the corner.

    Now its up to you to connect the dots!! ;)

  25. Sad not to see The Birds in the list. Glad to see The Shining as the “watch this if you are watching only one” recommendation. It’s the only film that has ever scared me. And yes, if Barton Fink can be considered a horror film, it sure would sign somewhere in my list. Watch it in case you haven’t yet. I think you will like the film a lot. It’s the best Coen Brothers’ film IMO.

    Your list made me realise that I have not really watched many non-English horror films.

  26. Thanks Mayank, I didn’t know that. Its interesting how many paranormal films have “normal” giveaways at the end. And then its up to you to decide which version you find less terrifying- that there’s an evil monster doing horrible things to people or that the so-called monster is just a living breathing shitting sneezing human like you and me

  27. I would like to mention a couple of recent entries….

    1. Skeleton Key
    2. Paranormal activity

    Good list though! For some reason, old horror movies really do not spook me. I am not really a big fan of horror flicks though.

  28. The list is good, but since you have included movies that doesn’t strictly fall in the horror genre, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the 1975 movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini would have made it up there easily. However, many people haven’t seen it because it was banned in many countries.

    Though I have heard and read about it during my college days, I got to watch it only last month when it was released on DVD and Blu-ray this September, hence finding it was made very easy. ;)

    A word of caution to the community here. I would not recommend the movie to anyone. If you want to watch it, kindly use your discretion because it is an extreme of everything that makes a movie R-rated.

    Lastly, on the list here, I must say it is pretty impressive. Maybe Saw and The Blair Witch Project.

    The Omen remains one of my all time favourite horror movies though never for a second it felt scary. I loved Jerry Goldsmith’s music. Remember the chorus in Latin? Sensational stuff. The movie was extremely well-made too. Fast-paced and exciting.

  29. REALLY GOOD HORROR MOVIES:

    Martyrs – France
    Three Extremes – Korea
    Ringu – Korea
    Haute Tension – France
    Let The right one in – Sweden

  30. GB,

    Nice list and quite a few interesting suggestions in the comments section. As an avid horror fan, I would like to recommend a few movies which are worth a watch…

    1) The Changeling (1980) – Classic 80’s horror with a strong plot and a great performance from George C. Scott. Few of the jump scares are quite impressive.

    2) Noroi: The Curse (2005) – Fans of Blair Witch Project should not miss this one. The movie is shot in the shakycam mockumentary style and it is a marked departure from the usual elements of Asian Horror (girl/long hair/white face etc). It starts off slowly and there are parallel story lines which eventually converge in a chilling climax.

    3) Uzumaki (2000) – Based on a very popular manga of the same name and the movie does justice to the comic. The atmosphere of dread which lingers throughout the movie is simply superb and it is at par with Ringu and Ju-On

    4) Das Experiment (2001) – Not a horror movie in the conventional sense of the word but neither is Clockwork Orange. Based on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, the movie is a crash course in psychology and is brilliant and terrifying in equal parts.

  31. I second Abhimanyu wholeheartedly…Alien was spine chilling so a great horror movie for me irrespective of whether it fits the tradiotional genre or not

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