The Criterion Collection

Flavorwire’s 50 Essential Horror Films, Final Countdown


Happy Halloween!

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 our must-see movies, below. Then, catch up with parts one, two, three, and four.

10. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein — starring Elsa Lanchester as the immortal figure with lightning-streaked hair — is the rare film sequel that’s even better than the original. Reluctant to shoot a follow-up to his 1931 movie Frankenstein, director James Whale was given creative freedom to explore the carefully balanced pathos and comedy of the monster (Boris Karloff) and his mate. The work is now considered Whales’ masterpiece. The film’s most memorable scenes — including the monster’s meeting with the hermit and the Bride’s dramatic introduction — remain some of the most iconic moments in horror film history. The inventive set pieces and shadowy, expressionistic shots captured by John Mescall’s cinematography and Charles D. Hall’s art direction are inventive — all highlighted by an incredible Franz Waxman score. Lanchester’s wonderfully bizarre characterization of the Bride was modeled after the swans she saw in Regent’s Park in London, which she described as “nasty creatures” that were always hissing. The Bride only appears on screen for mere minutes, but she remains a powerful symbol of the genre and one of its finest creations.

9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Blending supernatural chills, satanic themes, and the mundane reality of a 1960’s housewife, Roman Polanski created a disquieting study of urban anxiety and a rare portrait of gender/sexual anxiety. A young, newly married couple (John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) move into an ominous New York City apartment that seems to shelter a host of eccentric characters. They’re a little too anxious and excited about Rosemary’s pregnancy. Isolation and increasing paranoia slowly erode Rosemary’s fragile psyche that crumbles amid terrifying nightmares and surreal encounters. Polanski’s subtle, but powerful portrayal of Rosemary’s disintegration allows our imagination to run wild. The gothic apartment and other sinister touches are atmospheric and finely detailed. Polanski expertly builds tension throughout the movie and delivers the final blow during the film’s unforgettable closing scenes. Rosemary’s Baby helped initiate a wave of satanic panic horror that spread throughout 1970’s cinema.

8. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel inspires divisive discussions for fans of the movie and its source material, but there’s no denying the film’s intensity and palpable atmosphere — set in the isolated mountain landscape at the fictional Overlook Hotel. The movie walks a blurry line between tragic domestic drama and supernatural thriller, revealing one troubled man’s descent into madness. Kubrick leaves us wondering if the unhinged Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is actually seeing the menacing spirits that haunt the looming hotel, or if they’re the disturbing invention of Jack’s psychosis. The Shining isn’t a particularly gory film, which is part of its genius. Kubrick’s low-angle shots and masterful depiction of spatial relationships range from claustrophobic to grand, all contributing to the film’s unnerving feel. The unrelenting menace of Kubrick’s movie continues to haunt audiences 32 years later.

7. Dracula (1931)

The erotic and terrifying figure of the vampire has entranced and frightened audiences for decades, and the mythic creature became a screen legend when Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi first donned a cape in Tod Browning’s 1931 horror classic. Every Hollywood vampire film the followed the Universal picture modeled itself after Lugosi’s captivating and distinctive character — right down to his widow’s peak, stylized mannerisms, and thick accent. It was a melodramatic performance that took cues from his theatrical background (Lugosi played Dracula on Broadway before making his screen debut) and created a mysterious, Euro-decadent eccentric with a darkly romantic streak. Karl Freund’s expressionistic cinematography is gorgeous and gloomy, taking inspiration from Dracula’s predecessor, Nosferatu. Still, Freund and Browning established their iconic influence with original scenes, and the addition of sound reminded audiences that this human (sexual) monster could easily integrate himself amongst society circles. Lugosi’s definitive Dracula may not be scary to modern horror audiences, but his influence is far-reaching and mesmerizing.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s zombie opus was made on a shoestring budget, but its impact was monumental. It’s a model of effective independent filmmaking at its finest and changed the horror genre forever. Ignoring hoary voodoo clichés, Romero placed his zombies in the American landscape. The premise was simple — seven strangers in a deserted farmhouse fight for their lives, battling the undead — but the material’s intelligent handling and allegorical overtones elevated it beyond B-cinema territory. Romero’s microcosm of characters, who must overcome their differences in order to survive, paralleled with the turbulent 1960’s timeframe, imbues the movie with a nihilistic quality. There have been numerous Romero imitators, but Night of the Living Dead remains the definitive zombie classic.

5. Nosferatu (1922)

F. W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece introduced the vampire as a gnarled, stooped, feral creature. This was before audiences became distanced from Bram Stoker’s classic novel thanks to clichéd and flamboyant interpretations of the famed Count. German actor Max Schreck completely embodied the fiend, with claws and fangs that resembled bats and rodents. He became death itself. (See Shadow of the Vampire for a compelling, albeit fictional, look at the mythic drama surrounding Schreck’s methods.) The movie haunts with its atmospheric artistry and creeping terror, and audiences still have an instinctual response to its stark compositions and indelible images — like the Count’s ominous shadow lurking along a staircase and his corpse-like figure rising from a coffin.

4. The Exorcist (1973)

Even 40 years after the release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, scenes from the director’s religious horror tale are as frightening today as they were then. Much of the horrific imagery is shocking: a possessed little girl masturbates with a crucifix and spews obscenities, and holy statues are vandalized with vulgar, phallic symbols. Friedkin treated the material with grave seriousness, however, and set much of the drama in each character’s everyday life. A priest tries to cope with his mother’s declining health and an actress juggles the needs of her family and career. That’s when the evil seeps into their worlds, which plays to our deepest fears. If the darkness can’t be contained with science (the film’s hospital scenes are some of the most disturbing in the movie), and doesn’t discriminate (even an innocent, little girl could be victimized), it could befall anyone.

3. Jaws (1975)

Jaws scared people out of the water 37 years ago and continues to frighten people on land and sea today. Considered the first Hollywood blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s greatest movie played on one of our most primal fears (being eaten alive), in a way that was terrifyingly plausible. There’s no mythical monster in Jaws — the great white shark is real, it attacks, and can be found in almost every ocean in the world. It speaks to audiences on a level that is disturbing and difficult to fully grasp, because the average human being isn’t often in a situation where they become the prey. Apart from its monster, Jaws features some of the best writing, acting, and direction in cinema, making it an emotional, in-depth, and thrilling experience that modern blockbusters rarely emulate.

2. Psycho (1960)

Masterfully crafted, deceptively simple, and impeccably detailed, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho set the bar most modern movies struggle to reach. The film is visceral without being gory, elegant yet frightening, and powerful because of its implied menace. The symbolic aural and visual tension Hitchcock expertly manipulates, set to Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score, toys with our expectations throughout. As soon as Hitch slaughters his top-billing actress in an unforgettable and incredibly edited scene, we know all bets are off. “Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ,” the director once said. Anthony Perkins gave a landmark performance as the deeply disturbed Norman Bates, who evokes our sympathies before terrorizing us. Psycho plays with our deepest fears — of crime, punishment, sex, and death.

1. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s Halloween gave us the template for the modern slasher film — from the final girl (virginal Laurie Strode lives to fight again, while her promiscuous best friends succumb to grisly deaths) to the unkillable madman (Michael Myers — who’s personified as absolute evil at multiple points in the film). It also features Donald Pleasence in what was to become his most recognizable role — the tortured Dr. Sam Loomis. Unlike later slasher fare, which broke things down to their lowest common denominator, Halloween took a smarter, simpler approach and avoided convoluted gimmicks. Myers’ complete lack of motive made him terrifying. He wasn’t a monster as much as he was a force of nature (not unlike the shark in Jaws), and he could just as easily be stalking us. Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey milked maximum effect out of their tiny budget, utilizing the Panaglide camera to achieve some truly inspired shots that felt almost too pristine to be featured in what was regarded as a B-movie at the time. The film was a serendipitous experience all the way around — from the happy accident of finding the perfect mask (a modified Captain Kirk), to the debut of scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, to the amazingly effective and minimalist score that Carpenter composed. Early reviews of the suspenseful classic were negative, but word of mouth quickly spread. Halloween became a horror sensation and is essential viewing on the spookiest night of the year.

Catch up with our previous installments: parts one, two, three, and four.