For your Halloween enjoyment and edification… a Top Ten list searching for movies that combine film fans’ love with critics’ admiration, across the board, across the decades.
We should tell you this list is not really for horror nuts: You crazies tend to already know every title out there, and we’d have to start breaking down subgenres within the ever-expanding horror category. So we keep it simple. And welcome your comments and debate.
dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Perhaps the best known—and most respected—film from the master of suspense. The story of a felonious woman and (not-so) meek motel owner is a fine work of craftsmanship, a brilliant, uncomfortable view of crime, punishment and the little tics inside someone’s head. Nominated for four Oscars.
dir. Ridley Scott
Just two years after George Lucas proved outer space was just right for a swashbuckling adventure, Ridley Scott told us it was the place for a paranoid monster nightmare. Shot with one foot in the independent 1970s and the other in the world of pristine special effects, Alien was nominated for two Oscars, winning Best Visual Effects. The sequels were pale follow-ups, the prequel probably will be too.
The Exorcist (1973)
dir. William Friedkin
Terrifying from start to finish, Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestseller puts a little girl in unthinkable, believable peril, with the devil to blame. No matter how many times you see it, every leap up the stairs by Ellen Burstyn is a cinematic study in hide-your-eyes tension. Nominated for ten Oscars, won Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. The expanded version (“you’ve never seen”) has been around about a decade, but nothing beats the original.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
dir. Roman Polanski
Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes should have bought a townhouse. Instead, they end up in a Manhattan apartment building of horrors, surrounded by wackos with a Batphone to the Prince of Darkness himself. Farrow’s sweet innocent Rosemary—and her soon-to-be-born baby—become prime targets of these neighbors and their hidden agenda. The suburban nightmares of the 70s were yet to come; in Polanski’s take on Ira Levin’s book, the danger was still in the big city. Nominated for two Oscars, with an acting win for Ruth Gordon.
dir. James Whale
On the National Film Preservation list, Whale’s classic manmade creature shocked and saddened long before he spawned four sequels, then became a Halloween icon, a TV sitcom joke, and a wonderful influence on Mel Brooks.
The Thing (1982)
dir. John Carpenter
Having to work in the Antarctic is bad enough. Being terrorized by an alien creature that can take on other forms is just too much. John Carpenter, on a serious hot streak at the time, makes you forget the 1951 original (also known as The Thing from Another World) with a tight tale of paranoia and survival.
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
dir. F.W. Murnau
Nine years before Tod Browning’s Dracula, art student Murnau used light, shadow and angles to create this creepy silent version of the Dracula myth, and influence it for years to come. If you’re renting the film, be aware there have been numerous musical scores through the decades.
The Shining (1980)
dir. Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick’s super-creepy polarizing adaptation of the Stephen King novel is just too popular to omit from this list. Some find it schlocky, others see it as artistry. I think it’s probably somewhere in between, but with enough overwhelming atmosphere, legitimate frights and supernatural nuttiness to be a winner. It’s worth noting The Shining was nominated for two Razzie awards, for Shelley Duvall’s acting and Kubrick’s direction.
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
dir. Bela Tarr
On viewer and critics lists, this little-seen chiller takes place in the icy dead of winter, testing many moviegoers’ patience with a freakish village, visiting circus and only 39 shots in a 2-hour, 25-minute film. So why is it here? It’s the 12th most popular horror film of all time on the IMDb, scores a 96 on Rotten Tomatoes, and is the top rated movie in the genre on Metacritic. If you’re a cinephile, it’s worth a look.
The Evil Dead (1981)
dir. Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi’s first full-length feature has become a beloved cult horror-humor favorite, putting Bruce Campbell’s chin in the limelight and Mr. Raimi’s ample filmmaking skills on the map for a long time to come. Many directors (think Peter Jackson) have cut their teeth on low-budget horror, but Raimi made his foray a movie to remember.