Sense of Wonder: 50 Best Horror Films of All Time?

What makes a film great, and who gets to decide? These questions arise every time someone makes an effort to pick the best – whether the best of the year or the best of all time. When a critic writes up a year-end Top Ten list, at least we know we are seeing a personal selection of favorites, but when a group gets together and votes, the implication is that some sort of objectivity is being displayed. Like ratty data, the little quirks of individual taste are eclipsed by general agreement, yielding a solid picture of quality.

At least, that’s the theory. In practise, these lists reflect more upon the group that made them than upon the quality of the films that make the cut. What emerges is a sort of consensus, but that consensus means something only in relation to the nature of the group. Thus, we may complain about the taste of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but whether we like their selections or not, we know that the Oscars represents a consensus of people who work in the industry, who favor serious ambitious films as long as they are not too radical or experimental.

All this is prelude to discussing a couple recent attepts to select the 50 Best Horror Films of All Time. Last month, media retail giant HMV issued their list, based on a poll of their customers. Typically, the result was a popularity contest in which lots of fan favorites scored highly; although many great titles were included, the list was marred by some real howlers, such as SAW at #5.:

1.The Exorcist. William Friedkin (1973)
2. The Shining. Stanley Kubrick (1980)
3. Alien. Ridley Scott (1979)
4. The Silence of the Lambs. Jonathan Demme (1991)
5. Saw. James Wan (2004)
6. Halloween. John Carpenter (1978)
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes Craven (1984)
8. Ring (Ringu). Hideo Nakata (1998)
9. The Wicker Man. Robin Hardy (1973)
10. The Omen. Richard Donner (1976)
11. The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock (1963)
12. The Thing. John Carpenter (1982)
13. Lost Boys. Joel Schumacher (1987)
14. Dawn of the Dead. George A Romero (1978)
15. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Tobe Hooper (1974)
16. Jaws. Steven Spielberg (1975)
17. The Blair Witch Project. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez (1999)
18. An American Werewolf in London. John Landis (1981)
19. Se7en. David Fincher (1995)
20. Poltergeist. Tobe Hooper (1982)
21. The Amityville Horror. Stuart Rosenberg (1979)
22. Candyman. Bernard Rose (1992)
23. Scream. Wes Craven (1996)
24. Carrie. Brian De Palma (1976)
25. Friday the 13th. Sean S Cunningham (1980)
26. Final Destination. James Wong (2000)
27. The Evil Dead. Sam Raimi (1981)
28. Hellraiser. Clive Barker (1987)
29. Hostel. Eli Roth (2005)
30. Salem’s Lot. Mikael Salomon (2004)
31. The Descent. Neil Marshall (2005)
32. The Hills Have Eyes. Wes Craven (1977)
33. Wolf Creek. Greg McLean (2005)
34. Misery. Rob Reiner (1991)
35. Rosemary’s Baby. Roman Polanski (1968)
36. Child’s Play. Tom Holland (1989)
37. The Orphanage. Juan Antonio Bayona (2008)
38. The Entity. Sidney J Furie (1981)
39. Nosferatu. FW Murnau (1922)
40. Night of the Living Dead. George A. Romero (1968)
41. House on Haunted Hill. William Malone (2000)
42. The Haunting. Robert Wise (1963)
43. It. Tommy Lee Wallace (1990)
44. Audition. Takashi Miike (1999)
45. The Changeling. Peter Medak (1980)
46. The Mist. Frank Darabont (2008)
47. Suspiria. Dario Argento (1977)
48. The Vanishing. George Sluizer (1993)
49. Shutter. Masayuki Ochiai (2008)
50. Planet Terror. Robert Rodriguez (2007)

In response, The Vault of Horror invited a handful of the “Cyber Horror Elite” to vote for their Top 50, and the results are here. The concept was to offer a contrast between the tastes of casual viewers and hard-core fans, but this list also includes some highly dubious selections:

1. Halloween (1978) dir: John Carpenter
2. The Exorcist (1973) dir: William Friedkin
3. Psycho (1960) dir: Alfred Hitchcock
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968) dir: George Romero
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir: Tobe Hooper
6. Frankenstein (1931) dir: James Whale
7. The Shining (1980) dir: Stanley Kubrick
8. The Thing (1982) dir: John Carpenter
9. Alien (1979) dir: Ridley Scott
10. Nosferatu (1922) dir: F.W. Murnau
11. Dawn of the Dead (1978) dir: George Romero
12. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) dir: James Whale
13. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir: Wes Craven
14. Jaws (1975) dir: Steven Spielberg
15. The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
16. The Haunting (1963) dir: Robert Wise
17. King Kong (1933) dir: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
18. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) dir: Roman Polanski
19. Dracula (1931) dir: Todd Browning
20. The Evil Dead (1981) dir: Sam Raimi
21. Poltergeist (1982) dir: Tobe Hooper
22. Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio) (1960) dir: Mario Bava
23. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) dir: Rupert Julian
24. An American Werewolf in London (1980) dir: John Landis
25. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) dir: Jack Arnold
26. Friday the 13th (1980) dir: Sean Cunningham
27. Evil Dead II (1988) dir: Sam Raimi
28. Alucarda (1978) dir: Juan Lopez Moctezuma
29. Carrie (1976) dir: Brian DePalma
30. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) dir: Francis Ford Coppola
31. The Fly (1986) dir: David Cronenberg
32. The Fog (1980) dir: John Carpenter
33. The Wolf Man (1941) dir: George Waggner
34. House on Haunted Hill (1959) dir: William Castle
35. Night of the Demon (1957) dir: Jacques Tourneur
36. Frankenstein (1910) dir: J. Searle Dawley
37. Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994) dir: Michele Soavi
38. Thriller (1983) dir: John Landis
39. The Addiction (1995) dir: Abel Ferrara
40. Aliens (1986) dir: James Cameron
41. Phantasm (1979) dir: Don Coscarelli
42. The Thing from Another World (1951) dir: Christian Nyby
43. Zombi 2 (1979) dir: Lucio Fulci
44. The Mist (2007) dir: Frank Darabont
45. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) dir: Jack Clayton
46. The Living Dead Girl (1982) dir: Jean Rollin
47. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) dir: Joseph Green
48. The Return of the Living Dead (1985) dir: Dan O’Bannon
49. Suspiria (1976) dir: Dario Argento
50. Salem’s Lot (1979) dir: Tobe Hooper

The most notable element of the second list is how little it differs from the first. The two share over twenty films in common,* or more than 40%. Sure, the Cyber Elite’s list features less emphasis on recent popular favorites, but it also leaves off several great films that were selected by fans at HMV: RING (1998), THE WICKER MAN, THE BIRDS, and SEVEN. In their place we get some dodgy cult items like THRILLER (which is a short music video for god’s sake) and the truly execrable THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (the inclusion of which I have to suppose was someone’s idea of a joke).

In general, I find it difficult to take seriously any “best of” list that excludes certified classics like HORROR OF DRACULA and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN while including the aforementioned SAW, not to mention HOSTEL, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (either version), THE LOST BOYS, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE AMIITYVILLE HORROR, FINAL DESTINATION, THE ENTITY, SHUTTER, PLANET TERROR, THE FOG, DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, CHILD’S PLAY, FRIDAY THE 13TH, SHUTTER, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, SALEM’S LOT (either version), and especially THE MIST.

Other picks are eccentric to say the least. For example, director Jack Clayton’s classic THE INNOCENTS, an adaptation of Henry James The Turn of the Screw, is bypassed in favor of his much less frightening film version of Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.

HALLOWEEN, THE OMEN, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, JAWS, BLAIR WITCH, POLTERGEIST, SCREAM, and HELLRAISER are popular and/or fan favorites. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, AMERICAN WEREWOLF and ZOMBIE 2 are fun. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and DRACULA are historically important “classics” because of their great lead performances (by Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi, respectively). WOLF CREEK, THE DESCENT, EVIL DEAD, THE ADDICTION and PHANTASM have some crude intensity and/or cult appeal.

But are any of them truly great films? Are KING KONG and MISERY even horror films? And why, oh why, does that dusty pseudo-classic NOSFERATU make it onto both lists? Is the power of conventional wisdom so strong that it blinds viewers to the fact that this film shoudlbe retired from best-of consideration from now until the end of eternity? Surely, a 50 Best of All Time list is the place to make a few distinctions, not just go along with the flow?

My personal rantings aside, I suppose these lists are no worse than others of their type, such as the American Film Institute’s on-going series of top 100 lists in different categories. What they lack is a clear picture of the consensus they represent. As is often the case, the lists say as much about the people who made then as about the selections themselves, but at least with AFM and AMPAS, we have some idea of what the groups represent (essentially mainstream taste with some high-brow aspirations).

In the case of the HMV list, the consensus is a “popular” one but popular among a specific set of customers, who may or may not be well informed and may not even have seen many of the best horror films ever made. The Vault of Horror’s list tries to offer a more “elite” view (although their use of the word elite is obviously tongue-in-cheek), but there is little or no suggestion of any underlying guidelines, principles, or aesthetics that would distinguish as something more than another popularity contest.

Perhaps this goal is an elusive one, ever out of reach. But the illusion – like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – is what makes these exercises seem interesting and worth the attempt. At the very least, the two competing lists give us fans another reason to re-examine some of our favorites (and perhaps not so favorites) while pondering why we like, for example, Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD more than his earlier NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Film, like all art, is there to be appreciated. We may not agree with these lists, but even if we reject them, they help to enhance our appreciation. 

FOOTNOTES:

  • These are the titles common to both lists: THE EXORCIST, THE SHINING, HALLOWEEN (1978), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE THING (1982), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979), JAWS, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, POLTERGEIST, CARRIE (1976), FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE EVIL DEAD, ROSEMARY’S BABY, NOSFERATU (1922), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), THE HAUNTING (1963), THE MIST, SUSPIRIA, ALIEN, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).

RELATED ARTICLE: Click here for Horror Filmmakers Pick their Favorite Horror Films.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

2 Responses to “ Sense of Wonder: 50 Best Horror Films of All Time? ”

  1. Steve, thanks for sharing your thoughts and criticism of LOTTD’s list of 50 Best Horror Films. Any individual choices or collective list is subjective, and is likely to be controversial in the horror subculture, but it would have been helpful for some stated definitions of “horror” and criteria for choices to have been included with voting process and the posted list of films. I have addressed both of these areas as they informed my choices, and I provide my own list (which incidentally includes HORROR OF DRACULA; and in my definition of the fantastic which sees the boundaries between horror, sci fi and fantasy to be artificial and at times forced) which can be read at

    http://www.theofantastique.com/2008/12/01/top-horror-films-controversy-definitions-biases-and-criteria/

    Thanks again for discussing the list. May the discussion and debate continue.

  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I had read your explanation of your choices; in fact, I was adding an update here to link to it, but you saved me the trouble!

    Obviously, people will always quibble about these lists, but when we know what the underlying criteria are, we have a clearer, more throught-provoking picture of what the list “means.”

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