The beauty of Halloween is its ability to give us time to reflect on one of humankind’s most pernicious emotions: fear. But it’s more than just a sensation — fear is a mood, an ambience, a building block for all things suspenseful, provocative and breathtaking. Fear also motivates the most compelling stories, and it has been a favorite child of filmmakers since the birth of cinema. So with Halloween just around the corner, let’s take a closer look at fear in film by counting down what I see as the best thirteen American horror films ever produced.
Before we get started it’s important to recognize that there’s a fine line between what’s considered classic and what deserves a spot on this list; these films aim to scare contemporary audiences. There are a whole host of movies that have tremendously influenced the below thirteen. (“Nosferatu,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” I’m looking straight at you.) But you can’t in good faith tell me, for example, that Bela Lugosi is more frightening than that chick from “The Ring.” And that movie didn’t even make the cut!
So with that let’s dive right into the scariest that American cinema has to offer, starting with…
13) “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
This Roman Polanski horror classic is equal parts scary and strange, a well paced and enticing nighttime flick that should scare many women to singlehood and celibacy. Or maybe I just have a thing for Satan-spawn films (because it’s surely not Mia Farrow’s dreadful haircut that’s turning me on).
12) “28 Days Later” (2002)
I’m standing by director Danny Boyle’s claim that this is not in fact a real zombie film. (Who’re you kidding, Danny?) So what is this instead? It’s a thinly veiled sociopolitical exploration of humanity. With a lot of fucking zombies.
11) “Evil Dead II” (1987)
This is actually more comedy than horror, but it scared 12-year-old me enough to warrant a spot on this list. Sam Raimi (of “Spider-Man” fame) shines in this sequel as he reworks the events of the first film, adds some chainsaws, and spruces up what’s already pretty gaudy action to produce a delightful horror film that’s perfect for a night in with your buddies.
10) “Saw” (2004)
Before the series got ridiculous (somewhere around “Saw IV” or “Saw VI” or “Saw XXVIII,” I can’t remember), we just had “Saw,” a chilling bloodbath of a film with enough moral questions to fill two Bibles and the Bhagavad Gita. Sure, at its core it’s a film about finding new ways to kill people, but it’s an extremely engaging film about finding new ways to kill people too.
9) “Friday the 13th” (1980)
After watching Alfred Hitchcock’s and John Carpenter’s films blow up all over the world, Sean S. Cunningham decided to try his hand at the slasher genre — and his youthful eagerness shows. The result is the introduction of the Voorhees family in a picture that, while frightening enough in its own right, can’t quite get over its place as the cute little sister to the real horror classics. It’s definitely still worth a viewing, though.
8) “Alien” (1979)
Who knew Ridley Scott had it in him? The future Oscar-nominee plays his audience like a whistle in this futuristic sci-fi slasher film. And who can forget Sigourney Weaver’s general bad-assery? It almost makes you forget that the alien-baby-stomach-scene is responsible for at least one heart attack a year.
7) “The Thing” (1982)
This film follows an Antarctic research team’s descent into paranoid madness as a mysterious shape-shifting alien creature assails them. Couple this intriguing B-movie plot with groundbreaking special effects and makeup and you’ve got all the necessary ingredients for another John Carpenter horror classic. You’ll never look at your dog the same way again.
6) “The Shining” (1980)
Jack Nicholson gives a frightening performance for the ages as the worst father in the world in this Stanly Kubrick thriller that makes up for its lack of standard slasher horror with sheer visceral terror. The ultimate message of this film: don’t trust beautiful naked women in bathtubs—they’re always too good to be true!
5) “Psycho” (1960)
The decision to put what is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film this far up the list is questionable. Is it a watershed movie? Yes. But so is “Dracula.” The point here is that “Psycho” is just scary enough to let its reputation carry it to a top five ranking. And besides, without Norman Bates, you don’t have Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, or two of the top three films on this list.
4) “Paranormal Activity” (2007)
I already know I’m going to catch a lot of backlash for putting this movie at number four. But my defense is simple: “Paranormal Activity” is fucking terrifying. Made on a meager budget that barely cracks five digits, this film was marketed perfectly, and it lived up to the hype. Just try watching this movie and then sleeping with your feet outside the covers — it’s next to impossible. Regardless, I can at least sleep well at night knowing that this movie is, without a doubt, the best horror film America’s produced in awhile.
3) “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
The low popular opinion this picture has today is a good example of what can happen when a great film is franchised. But before the sequels and prequels and remakes, there was just Leatherface and his petrifying, incestuous, cannibalistic family. One of the goriest films ever made at the time, Tobe Hooper helped set the standard for the modern slasher movie and revolutionized the way we see chainsaws (and the masked maniacs who wield them).
2) “The Exorcist” (1976)
This is probably the most objectively successful film on the entire list: it won Oscars, raked in a hefty paycheck at the box office, and turned the nature of horror cinema towards an extreme (and utterly blasphemous) direction. But the stories of violent viewer reactions are probably just as terrifying as the actual film itself: people passed out and vomited in theaters across the country, and one man even reportedly broke his jaw biting the seat in front of him. “The Exorcist” is without a doubt one of the greatest horror films ever made, but even it can’t shove aside the sublime film at the very top of this list.
1) “Halloween” (1978)
Enter: Michael Myers. The story of soulless evil, John Carpenter’s magnum opus has had many rivals (and emulators) but it’s never quite been topped. The acting is unbelievable (check out Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut), the cinematography is subdued and realistic, and the score ensnares you from the opening of the film to its iconic ending. Laurie Strode’s screams have haunted audiences for more than thirty years, and they’ll continue doing so as long as people are watching movies.
So that’s that. Think I missed a classic? Think I overrated something on the list? Let me know — I’d love to hear what you think. But at least check out these 13 if you haven’t already.
Hopefully they should raise a yelp or two at least.