Thursday, October 1, 2015

The 25 Greatest Classic Horror Films

We thought October was the perfect month to unveil our choices for the 25 Greatest Classic Horror Films. Note that these are "classic" horror films, which means they must have withstood the test of time. Thus, you won't find any movies made after 1980. You also won't find any science fiction films, though sometimes the horror and sci-fi genres seem to overlap. But, on the basis they were more sci-fi than horror, we omitted some fine pictures like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both versions of The ThingQuatermass and the Pit. In compiling our list, we considered historical significance, influence, and fright factor for each film. Some well-known horror movies didn't make the grade. Frankly, we have never been impressed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, or even Kwaidan.

1. Curse of the Demon (Night of the Demon) (1958) - If Hitchcock had made a straight horror film, I think it would have turned out like this one-of-a-kind chiller about a villain that conjures up a rather hideous demon to dispose of those who oppose him. Niall McGinnis shines as the kind of Hitchcock bad guy that lovingly cares for his mother and hosts a Halloween party for the kiddies.

Kyra Schon in Night of the Living Dead.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) - Long before The Walking Dead TV series, George Romero made flesh-eating ghouls fashionable with this drive-in classic. It's funny, scary, gory, and grim (especially the ending, which has caused some critics to label it a Vietnam War analogy).

3. Brides of Dracula (1960) - No Dracula and no Christopher Lee? No problem--as those constraints inspired Hammer to reach new heights with an intelligent vampire tale filled with fine performances, an imaginative plot, and the best ending of any vampire movie.

4. The Last Man on Earth (1964) - Writer Richard Matheson didn't care for this Italian-made adaptation of his popular novel I Am Legend, in which a plague of vampirism wipes out most of the Earth's population. I think it's an inventive, effective chiller with a strong Vincent Price performance.

Margaret Johnson in Burn, Witch, Burn.
5. Burn, Witch, Burn (Night of the Eagle) (1962) - An amateur witch tries to further her husband's academic career, but runs afoul of someone else practicing the black arts. I'm flummoxed as to why this smart look at believers vs. skeptics isn't better known.

6. The Leopard Man (1943) - Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) dubbed its most famous scene "one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed." I agree. But this Lewton-produced mystery, set in New Mexico, also boasts several other tension-filled set pieces (especially the cemetery murder).

7. Halloween (1978) - This ultimate slasher film is a remarkably well-crafted picture from director John Carpenter. His use of the widescreen frame is a virtual textbook on creating suspense using nothing but space.

Sharon Tate as Sarah.
8. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)- Roman Polanski's parody of vampire films is so good that it stands on its own as a first-rate horror picture. Polanski displays an uncanny understanding of the genre, from the snowy setting to the famous dance of the vampires (the film's original title). Sharon Tate exudes charm as the heroine, proving she was more than just a pretty face.

The famous pool scene in Cat People.
9. Cat People (1942) - With the first of his RKO films, producer Val Lewton proved that the horror in our imaginations is far more frightening than what any filmmaker can show us. It also boasted rich psychological undercurrents with its themes of sexual repression and jealousy.

10. Nosferatu (1922) - F.W. Murnau's silent vampire classic still chills today thanks to the director's haunting visuals and Max Schreck's memorable Count Orlok. It's the first horror screen classic.

A shadow scene from The 7th Victim.
11. The 7th Victim (1943) - Val Lewton's eerie tale of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village predates the better-known--but far less effective--Rosemary's Baby by three decades. Mark Robson's use of dark shadows gives the film a noirish feel.

12. The Innocents (1961) - The best of the horror films in which the supernatural elements may be real or (more likely in this case) imagined. Deborah Kerr gives a tour de force performance as the unhinged governess and Martin Stephens matches her in possibly the best child performance of the 1960s. Superior in every way to The Haunting.

Elsa Lanchester as the unwilling bride.
13. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - James Whale's masterpiece is generally considered the finest Universal horror film (though personally, I'm quite fond of Son of Frankenstein). Thematically rich, Bride gives the Monster a voice and Karloff the opportunity to make the creature all too human.

14. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) -Hammer's best Frankenstein movie is a potent portrayal of obsession for the sake of science. Peter Cushing is excellent as the driven doctor, but Freddie Jones matches him as the sympathetic "monster."

15. Horror of Dracula (Dracula) (1958) - Along with The Curse of Frankenstein, this vampire classic established Hammer Films and reinvigorated the horror genre for a whole new generation. It also transformed Van Helsing into an action hero, presented a new Dracula that inspired genuine fear, and made genre stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Chris Lee in The Devil Rides Out.
16. The Devil Rides Out (The Devil's Bride) (1968)- Christopher Lee portrays the hero in this lively tale, set in 1929, about an aristocrat that heads a cult of devil worshippers. Charles Gray makes a formidable villain and his appearance in a car's rearview mirror is genuinely creepy. Ditto for a daring rescue during one of the cult's ceremonies.

17. The Uninvited (1944) - This well-made ghostly tale remains unique for two reasons. It was a mainstream Hollywood film with a big-name star (Ray Milland) at a time when horror movies were "B" fare. It also featured actual ghosts--unlike later films where the lines of reality become blurred (e.g., The Innocents, The Haunting).

Bernie Casey as the head gargoyle.
18. Gargoyles (1972) - For many years, I felt as if I was the only person who truly appreciated this unique made-for-TV terror tale set in the Southwestern U.S. However, a 2011 DVD release and a recent showing at an Austin, Texas, "drafthouse cinema" confirms that I am not alone!

19. Black Sunday (1960)- Bathed in deep shadows and swirling fog, Mario Bava's black-and-white masterpiece made a genre star of Barbara Steele. She plays a witch who returns from the grave to wreak vengeance.  (Note to self: Never remove a gold mask from a rotting corpse!)

Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night.
20. Dead of Night (1945) - The first great horror anthology is most famous for its clever and disturbing framing device. The individual tales are all good, but the one with Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist is chilling.

21. Psycho (1960)- The shower scene and the staircase murder still pack a wallop, but it's Hitchcock's narrative structure that makes Psycho so memorable. For many of us, it was the first film we saw where the (supposed) heroine was killed halfway through its running time.

22. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)- The most famous film of the first horror superstar, Lon Chaney, Sr., is a must for this list. In addition to its historical significance, Phantom offers two iconic scenes:  the crashing of the crystal chandelier and the unmasking of Erik.

Rathbone in a publicity still.
23. Son of Frankenstein (1939) - With Bela Lugosi's Igor and Lionel Atwill's one-armed prefect, Universal created two of its most famous horror film characters. This unheralded classic has other virtues, too: Karloff's last appearance as the Monster, Basil Rathbone's manic performance, Jack Otterson's brilliant sets, and Frank Skinner's music.

24. Phantasm (1979)- A youth, a tall undertaker, dwarf zombies, and a deadly flying sphere.... Phantasm doesn't always make sense, but if Luis Bunuel had fashioned a surrealistic horror film, I'd like to think it would have turned out to be something like this.

25. Suspiria (1977) - I originally included Italian director Dario Argento's Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (1975) in this final slot, since it helped define the Giallo genre that grew out of Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. However, I bumped it in favor of Argento's supernatural classic about the world's most terrifying dance academy. In addition to Argento's trademark camera work, his use of color is breath-taking.
Red is the dominant palette in this scene from Suspiria.

Honorable Mentions: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter; The Masque of the Red Death; Trilogy of TerrorThe Exorcist; The Tingler; and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.


  1. Oh dear... I've only seen about three of these. I'm not much of a horror fan, but this does seem like the definitive classic horror list!

  2. Interesting list but it seems very arbitrary on your tastes more than the greatest films of the genre. Many omissions like the films of Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula). But I must say I share the passion for Curse of the Demon. But I would rank The Haunting instead of The Innocents. This is however a question of tastes more than anything else. Finally, where is Rosemary's Baby?

    1. DRACULA meets the historical significance criteria, but I don't think it holds up very well. ROSEMARY'S BABY borrows a lot from THE 7TH VICTIM, which I think is a superior film. But I enjoy reading different opinions!

  3. I made a top 10 list a while back and the titles our lists share are: "Curse of the Demon" (my October choice), "Dead of Night", "The Innocents", "The Seventh Victim" and "The Bride of Frankenstein". Not bad says I. We could host a joint Hallowe'en screening easily.

    If I had gone beyond ten, "Son of Frankenstein" would be there. I feel myself getting lost in that cavernous set and I so want to sit poor old Wolfie down and give him a nice calming cup of cocoa.

    Full disclosure, the other five of that ten are "Island of Lost Souls", "The Body Snatcher", "The Haunting", "The Mummy" and "House of Wax" for which I have an unaccountable, yet abiding fondness.

    1. Not bad at all! And hence, that's why I'm a regular reader at your blog,

  4. Rick, this is an excellent list of horror films. I love that it includes lesser known selections such as "The Devil Rides Out" which has some chilling moments like what ones sees in a rear view mirror, "The Last Man on Earth" with the incomparable Vincent Price, and "The Innocents" which is mesmerizing because of Deborah Kerr. I personally much prefer "Son of Frankenstein" to the much more hyped "Bride of Frankenstein" (the sets are remarkable in "Son") but we can agree to disagree there.

    1. Thanks, Toto. Yes, Deborah Kerr is brilliant in INNOCENTS and Vincent Price underrated in the chilling LAST MAN. if I were listing my personal faves, I'd have SON OF FRANKENSTEIN ranked higher than BRIDE. I placed it higher here because its success as a sequel surely contributed to Universal's decision to launch its monster movie series.

  5. I like your inclusion of Gargoyles. Our dad showed us that film when we were 10 years old and I believe it was our very first Cornel Wilde picture. We've watched dozens of Wilde films since then, but we always associated him with those darn gargoyles.

    1. Always loved the Cornell Wilde line, where he says, "The end of your world, the beginning of ours."
      Followed by the standard maniacal laugh.

  6. The only thing I would have included is 1963 "The Haunting," in my opinion the best supernatural horror movie ever. I love every single one of the movies you include. I'm obviously a huge horror fan, and I copied your list to remind me to have an October feast of great stuff!

  7. Hi! I, too, feel "The Haunting" is the best of them all. Hmmm... What is it you don't care for about that film? My daughters and I were coming up with 31 'horror' films for each day of the month. (I say 'horror' because I included the 30-minute-long hilarious "Laurel and Hardy Murder Mystery" which takes place in a haunted house and "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" with Don Knotts which scared the heck out of me as a 10-year-old!) As a group, we watched the pre-code Fredric March version of, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Yes, it was great! Believe me, we came up with some wonderfully scary movies! (Val Lewton's "I Walked with a Zombie" is particularly eerie. Watch it alone, late at night in the dark, on a hot night with a slight breeze blowing through the curtained window..!)

    1. THE HAUNTING is OK, but I think THE INNOCENTS is a superior version of the "are the ghosts real or imagined" mini-genre.

  8. Love to see "Curse of the Demon" in the #1 spot on your list. I've always thought this film didn't get the attention it deserved. "Gargoyles" has been one of my favorites since I first saw it as a teen on it's original terrified my kids when they were growing up, too. "The Uninvited" has been on my best ghost story list for 30 years, and "The Innocents" scared the pants off me when I was 12. I couldn't go to sleep in a dark room for a month.

    One omission on your list is "The Changeling," George C. Scott's magnificent ghost story from 1980. This is the finest example of a ghost story from the last 35 years. I note that others brought up the original "The Haunting," which is also not on your list. I didn't see this film till the 80's, but it takes Shirley Jackson's novel in the right direction, to my mind.

    1. Thanks for the great comments. I need to see THE CHANGELING again. It's been a long time and it has a strong following.