Even though I, personally, haven’t seen any of the Friday the 13th flicks (I know, I know, some horror fan I am), I have seen many of the films which made Jason Voorhees possible. In honor of the day, here are the top ten horror films ever made. These aren’t necessarily the scariest horror films of all time – even Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (2009) is scary, but a cinematic masterpiece it is not.
These movies are greater than the sums of their parts, and they shape the art of filmmaking as much as they do the horror genre.
- Wes Craven’s Scream (1996)
This is the most recent release on this list because there is nothing scary about contemporary horror (or, at least, mainstream horror). Jump scares and Avatar-influenced CGI do not a genuinely disturbing horror film make (why speaking like Yoda am I?). I’d rather see practical special effects, even if they look rougher around the edges, because at least they’re more real than Jessica Chastain screaming at a green screen in Andrés Muschietti’s Mama (2013).
Scream is as smart and witty as it is bloody and fun, with its tongue-in-cheek, self-referential revisionism of the “slasher” subgenre paying loving tribute to what makes us all love horror films so much. It’s an altogether entertaining thrill ride, whether you’re in the mood to laugh or in the mood to… well… scream. The most lasting horror movies don’t require you to turn your brain off, as you blindly accept the busty blonde protagonist’s decision to go looking for her missing boyfriend, by herself, in the dark, unarmed, because all you have to do is be more intelligent than a lazy scriptwriter and you’ll survive a horror movie – wow, terrifying.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate the irony of the Ghostface mask becoming a Halloween staple for nineties kids everywhere at elementary school costume parties? The whole point of the movie was to call out our desensitization to violence, not to propagate it. At my school, there were even masks fitted with tubes for fake blood to run through.
- Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)
Overlong and overly pretentious, this Stephen King adaptation can, at times, be unintentionally hilarious (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, I’m looking at you). However, the basic premise – a young family trapped with a homicidal patriarch inside a hotel which may or may not be haunted – is horrifying enough that it works despite King’s notorious disapproval, and it has yielded a number of iconic images (like Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” line, which the American Film Institute immortalized on its “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes”). It’s evidence of King’s genius and Kubrick’s instinct, an auteur whose signature style involved literary adaptations in each genre; Kubrick’s secretary heard him in his office throwing books against the wall until he found the inspiration for his attempt at “the scariest film of all time,” and the fact that he made something scary, even though it’s slightly beneath him, is true to the pure spirit of horror.
- Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982)
Maybe it’s because my sister looked eerily similar to the towheaded (and creepy) Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) when she was younger, but, growing up, our parents delighted in torturing us with repeat viewings of this Steven Spielberg-produced ghost story. I’m twenty-one years old and Poltergeist is still too scary for me – there’s just something visceral and bloodcurdling about the idea of your own home tearing your family apart. The New York Times selected Poltergeist as one of the thousand finest films ever made.
- Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990)
Between this and The Shining, Stephen King must not be a fan of my home state, Colorado (but, considering how many of his novels are set in Maine, he must not be a fan of his own home state, either). In any case, Misery is more a psychological thriller than it is a proper “horror” film, but it’s the only filmic adaptation from the literal “King” of Horror to win an Academy Award (Best Actress for the incomparable Kathy Bates as the crazed Annie Wilkes; Bates has since gone on to star in FX’s American Horror Story), and its themes are not all that different from The Shining – a writer trapped by a blizzard on a Colorado mountainside. My grandmother saw the movie before she retired, and, when her coworker asked how she liked it, my grandma told her the shots of the Rockies are beautiful, and her coworker, not knowing anything else about the movie, went to go see it for herself.
Suffice to say, my grandma’s coworker is not the type of person to enjoy movies like Misery.
- Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Atmospheric and chilling, Rosemary’s Baby is a far more artistic “Antichrist” tale when compared to Richard Donner’s entirely overrated The Omen (1976). A “cursed” film, it was released the year before the director’s pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, and their friends, were murdered in the Polanski-Tate residence by Charles Manson’s “Family.” My grandma (the same one from the Misery anecdote), when she was pregnant with my dad, had scratches appear on her back much like those that appear on Mia Farrow’s back after Satan rapes her in Rosemary’s Baby.
In other words, guys, I’m fairly certain that I’m the son of the son of the Devil. I don’t play no games.
- Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I get physically sick, watching this movie – that’s how awesome it is. It’s one of three pictures in Hollywood history to win the “Big Five” Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel by Ted Tally), Best Leading Actor for Sir Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, and Best Leading Actress for Jodie Foster as FBI Agent Clarice Starling. It’s also one of the only horror films to ever receive any such recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
- John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)
Jamie Lee Curtis cemented her “scream queen” acting legacy in this horror classic, inspired by her own mother’s “scream queen” role (Janet Leigh in Psycho). Halloween paved the way for Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream. It’s preserved by the Library of Congress for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.”
- Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)
The third Stephen King adaptation on this list, it is based upon King’s first novel – he was so unknown at the time that they misspelled his name as “Steven” in the credits. I think Carrie is more “tragic” than it is “scary;” the climactic prom sequence still brings a tear to my eye every time, and, now that I’ve won prom king at my high school, it will always rouse nostalgia in me. If I was Carrie (Sissy Spacek), I would’ve done the same thing.
And that’s perhaps the most unsettling thing about it. It’s a monster movie without a monster – you sympathize with Carrie White’s telekinetic mass murder. Just like The Silence of the Lambs is one of the only horror movies ever to win Academy Awards, Spacek and Piper Laurie (Carrie’s psychotic mother, Margaret White) were among the first horror movie actors to be nominated for Oscars: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.
I could rant for paragraphs about how Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake is one of the worst ever –the otherwise talented Chloë Grace Moretz is miscast as a blonde, big-breasted Carrie, who would be prettier if only she let her hair down more often, and the film leans too heavily on the scene-stealing Julianne Moore as Margaret. There’s a reason it’s not called Carrie’s Mom, you guys – it’s called Carrie; your focus is all off. Carrie is supposed to be the Cinderella story from Hell, and the character isn’t supposed to be an ugly duckling who puts on a dress and becomes a beautiful swan.
The fact that her senior prom is the happiest night of Carrie White’s life should only serve to highlight just how pathetic and tragic she really is. She’s not “misunderstood” – she’s the supernatural equivalent of a school shooter. But the movie begs the question of who’s truly responsible for the “prom night massacre,” and the answers are challenging as well as haunting.
- Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)
Even Carrie owes a thing or two to Psycho (De Palma’s choice to change the name of the high school from “Chamberlain” in the book to “Bates” in the movie, Pino Donaggio’s post-Bernard Herrman “screeching violin” score). It has more obviously impacted the likes of Halloween and Scream, with their knife-wielding serial killer antagonists, and Craven’s killing his leading lady (Drew Barrymore) off in the first act of Scream mirrors Hitchcock’s killing his leading lady (Janet Leigh) off in the first half of Psycho, a legitimate shock to audiences who expect them to play a bigger part in the rest of the plot. Leigh’s murder scene in the shower is considered the most famous in all of cinema.
Coincidentally enough, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the titular “Master of Suspense” in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012), and The Silence of the Lambs and Norman Bates were both drawn from real-life serial killer Ed Gein.
- William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)
This is not just my favorite horror movie – it’s one of my favorite movies in any genre. I don’t know what there is about it, but it’s so purely cinematic that it makes me obsess over it – the epic battle between good versus evil, the special effects, the unsurpassed musical score, the complex characterizations. “The scariest movie of all time” is a lofty title to live up to, and so I think the film’s experienced a great deal of backlash as a result against the hype, but the fact that people don’t think it’s scary to watch twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) turn into a monster before our very eyes, is pretty scary in and of itself.
Sorry, Not Sorry
Notice that I didn’t make any mention of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007), James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012), or Wan’s Insidious (2010). The oldies really are the goodies, as far as horror is concerned, and the genre has strayed too far away from its roots to be as good as it used to be. Sometimes, a horror movie is good for more reasons than just how loud it can make you scream.
Sometimes, it’s good because it haunts your heart, possesses your soul, drives you mad, and makes you feel more things than just “fear,” and it makes you think about a hell of a lot more.