The Criterion Collection

Flavorwire’s 50 Essential Horror Films

By
Share:

As Halloween draws near, you’ll undoubtedly see dozens of lists analyzing the scariest, goriest, and even the funniest of horror films. Nostalgia surrounding the spooky holiday conjures a breathless excitement to seek and share the movies that toy with our deep-seated fears. If you’re new to the horror genre, we don’t want you to feel left out of the fun. We’ve created a list of 50 essential films that will educate and entertain you all month long. Each week, we’ll be counting down to number one and exploring a breadth of titles. Whether you’re looking for a creepy tale to watch on Halloween night, or you’re interested in honing your horror knowledge, check out the first ten of our must-see movies below.

50. Near Dark

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire tale Near Dark is one of the most underrated horror films of our time and a fine example of the Academy Award-winning director’s early works. Combining an incredibly talented cast, darkly comedic moments, and atmospheric cinematography with western grit — all set to a hazy Tangerine Dream synth score — Bigelow brings blood-soaked sex and violence to the forefront. Twilight this is not. A roving band of moonlit killers — played to perfection by Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and company — don’t succumb to an existential crisis over their feeding frenzy. It’s f*ck, torture, kill — quick and dirty, leaving nothing but bloodshed and a trail of dust behind. The underlying story of star-crossed lovers (one human, the other not) sinks you seductively into the madness.

49. The Amityville Horror

It’s arguable that the biggest draw to the 1979 adaptation of Jay Anson’s novel The Amityville Horror is the grisly true-crime background concerning the real-life Lutz family’s experiences at 112 Ocean Avenue. For those who have been living under a rock for the past 30 years, during the 1970s, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his family while they slept soundly in their house. Months later, the Lutzes moved in and claimed to have been terrorized by evil, supernatural forces. Whether or not you believe it’s all a hoax, there’s no denying that The Amityville Horror has left its mark on the American psyche. It was one of the first true story-inspired terror films (like The Exorcist, before it), and one of the first movies to make horror franchises popular. James Brolin and Margot Kidder play the unlucky couple that moves into the creepy house with ocular quarter moon windows. When they decide to have the home blessed by a priest (Rod Steiger) and a plague of flies attacks the holy man (one of the greatest scenery chewing moments in horror), audiences were sent reeling as the battle was set: good versus evil in a memorable and horrifying showdown, all in the first 20 minutes of the movie.

48. The Blob (1958)

Tough guy icon Steve McQueen made his debut in the quintessential 1950’s monster movie, The Blob. The 27-year-old actor played a teen who discovered that the shooting star he spotted while making out with his date was actually a gurgling, oozing creature out for blood. As expected, the adults around town don’t believe him. The film was released during the heyday of low-budget creature flicks that preyed on the “age of anxiety” and scientific unknowns. The Blob’s cast of shrieking characters didn’t begin life as the genre clichés cinema has since turned them into. They embodied genuine motivations and fears — just like the famous theater scene, which effectively scared audiences who sat gazing open-mouthed at a mirror image of themselves on screen. Gelatinous monsters from space may seem like a goofy relic of the past, but The Blob’s Rebel without a Cause drama is a classic.

47. Poltergeist

The power of Poltergeist is in the way director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg imbue the mundane activities of one family with steady unease. The crackling television screen in the movie’s opening and a wide-eyed, little girl talking to invisible people inside the box is one of the most frightening scenes in the film. Those quiet, ominous moments next to the supernatural spectacle that explodes later on are an engaging contrast. Animated dolls that creep and kill, gnarled trees stretching to life, and a dark closet that becomes a portal to another world creates a dark fairy tale element. Poltergeist’s characters feel like a family that we know, or perhaps are. We identify with them and immediately get wrapped up in their saga, which puts their love for one another to the ultimate test.

46. The Orphanage

This Spanish chiller with fantastical touches from Juan Antonio Bayona — backed by super producer Guillermo del Toro — brings one woman back to her childhood home where she opens an orphanage for handicapped children. Laura (Belén Rueda) has an adopted son Simon (Roger Príncep) who begins to communicate with several imaginary friends. Simon’s communion with his otherworldly companions doesn’t end well. The Orphanage is a simple, effective, atmospheric story that is achingly emotional and beautifully photographed. Bayona treads familiar territory, but plays to our nostalgia, finely tuned and compellingly portrayed.

45. Phantasm

Phantasm dizzies with its pervading darkness, centered on a towering mortician (Angus Scrimm) with a necktie like a noose. The Tall Man is one of the genre’s most beloved icons, and Phantasm is his nightmare world that bears a strong resemblance to the lurid and phantasmagorical annals of Italian horror. Phantasm’s evil is untouchable, all-consuming, and pitch-black — the kind of darkness that marked the best of 1970’s cinema. There is no happy ending. The movie’s striking compositions and bizarre, haunting scenarios operate on another plane — nightmare logic tapping into our deepest fears.

44. Kwaidan

Masaki Kobayashi’s expressionistic, supernatural anthology Kwaidan is a departure from the bloodthirsty madmen and creatures on our list and a haunting masterpiece well worth visiting. Four segments take us through a bleak, snowy landscape to a misty graveyard — all visually stunning, eerie, dreamlike places in the mythic Japanese tale where ghosts reveal dark secrets and internal, human struggles.

43. The Wicker Man (1973)

Near the end of his career as Hammer Films’ vampiric icon, Christopher Lee became an enigmatic cult leader living the life on a lush island off the coast of Scotland in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The 1973 film is a smartly subversive jab at Britain’s socio-political and religious mores inflicted upon a counterculture era. Amongst the naked, writhing bodies is a moralistic man of the law — played by the late, great Edward Woodward — who grapples with earthy temptations on his quest for the truth. Deceptively cheerful and wildly eccentric, the film’s fiery finale devastates to the core.

42. Carnival of Souls

Herk Harvey was a commercial director before he composed the breathtaking Carnival of Souls. He cast a group of unknowns in his low-budget gem, which manages to never cross the line into complete camp despite a few rough flashes. Those strangely humorous moments worked in Harvey’s favor, in fact, adding to the film’s bizarre and eerie story about a church organist whose life is transformed after a car crash. Mary feels inexplicably drawn to an abandoned pavilion and is haunted by ghoulish figures that lurk along Gene Moore’s mesmerizing organ score. The 1962 film is one of the earliest examples of independent artistry and a fascinating study in female anxiety during the 1960s.

41. Zombie

Shortly after George Romero’s iconic zombie film Dawn of the Dead appeared on the scene, Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci — who was never shy about wanting to turn a fast buck — created his own undead classic. Fulci’s film lacks the social commentary and range of characters that Romero’s movie had, but its scrappy, unpretentious form, over-the-top gore, and exploitation feel make it a fan favorite. There is no navel-gazing in this brutal piece of zombie cinema — just pure entertainment, particularly during a now famous scene amongst cult cineastes. A topless woman encounters a zombie and a shark, and eventually the two creatures attempt to devour each other. Fulci is known for crafting scenes full of eye gore, and Zombie was one of the first to demonstrate Fulci’s fetish for extreme ocular violence.

—Continue to part two of our countdown over here.

—Continue to part three of our countdown over here.

—Continue to part four of our countdown over here.

—Continue to our top ten over here.