I noticed something weird when re-reading last year’s blog post on this subject. I was ranking the 31st – 40th-best horror movies when I realized that some of my rankings were way off. “Get Out,” which I ranked as #32, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a first for the genre. Surely it deserved a higher slot than #32. The film before it on this list, “It Follows,” though just three years old, remains wholly re-watchable, and its stylistic and tonal similarities to 1978’s “Halloween” make it, like “Get Out,” a high-water mark in horror cinema during the genre’s recent quality resurgence.
In hindsight, surely both of these movies should rank higher on this first-part list than, say, “The Cabin in the Woods,” a meta-horror comedy from 2012 that, while equally original, likely won’t age as well. I will posit that they should even rank higher than “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which I enjoyed in the 1980’s but which rarely comes up anymore in discussions about great horror movies. And yet I ranked “Cabin” at #10 and “Nightmare” at #18. Of course, I hadn’t seen “It Follows” when I compiled the first two posts on the subject; and “Get Out” hadn’t even been made at that point.
What can I say? Like every other post on my site, I leave the written content as is (grammatical corrections notwithstanding). The content is what it is, and I’m certainly not the only critic – amateur or otherwise – to rethink a movie’s rank or rating after voicing his or her initial opinion about the film. With that being said, below is my latest list – the fifth in a series – of great horror movies:
41) Jacob’s Ladder (1990): The street cred on this film is enough to earn it on the top spot on this list. The director: Adrian Lyne, who redefined the thriller with “Fatal Attraction: just three years prior. The writer: Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for “Ghost,” released earlier that same year. The star: Tim Robbins, fresh off the success of the sports comedy “Bull Durham.” The plot: Jacob Singer, a Vietnam Vet who survived a wartime shooting, comes home to news that his youngest son has passed away and that his wife is leaving him. He has since found new love in the form of Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), and a new job as a post office delivery driver. But something’s not quite right. Jacob has been seeing ghastly, ghostly visions and having nightmares that make him question his own time and place…and so, it seems, have his fellow platoon mates (Eriq LaSalle and Ving Rhames among them). Why can’t they remember more about that fateful day on the battlefield beyond a few scattered images? And why did Jacob’s doctor die in an unsolved car bombing? This is powerful, sobering, nightmarish stuff, with an ending that borders on profound. As Jacob Singer, Robbins delivers a career-best performance, all haunted eyes and ashen face. “Jacob’s Ladder” is not only the place where Heaven and Hell meet, but it is also a mesmerizing piece of horror art. If you like this, see also “The Jacket” (2005).
42) Train to Busan (2016): I had never even heard of “Train to Busan” until it was recommended last year by a former coworker. This subtitled, real-time horror thriller from South Korea, is basically a zombie movie on steroids, and an American remake is no doubt being planned. Those filmmakers will have a tough time topping this adrenaline rush of a film, which follows a Seoul-to-Busan express passenger train as zombies take over its carriages in the wake of a national disaster. The not-yet-zombies-but-maybe-soon riders are a sympathetic lot, and include a workaholic father who has all but forgotten his daughter’s birthday; the daughter herself, who would rather spend the day at her mom’s house; a resourceful husband and his pregnant wife; a stowaway who knows of the danger that his fellow riders face; and a high school soccer team. Okay, the last 15 minutes are a bit too over-the-top, even for the genre, and it could be argued that the length of time it takes for an infected person to turn into a zombie is decidedly inconsistent from victim to victim, but for most of the journey, you’ll be so engrossed that –like all good foreign films – you won’t even realize you’re reading subtitles. If you like this, see also “World War Z” (2013).
43) It: Chapter One (2017): Yes, I’ll say it: 2017’s big screen adaptation of the children’s half of the events in Stephen King’s mammoth 1986 novel isn’t as good as the 1990 ABC-TV miniseries event. Well…that isn’t accurate, exactly. The setting is updated from 1958 to the late 1980’s (so that the sequel, which will focus on the adults, can be set in the contemporary present). Although this allows for realistic Y.A. profanity and a few jokes at the expense of New Kids on the Block, the timeline change – along with the changing of events (who did what to whom, etc.) – infuriated purists. My beef was that try as he may, Bill Skarsgård’s take on Pennywise the (Interdimensional) Dancing Clown simply doesn’t hold a candle to Tim Curry’s Emmy-worthy interpretation. Skarsgård gives the clown-who-isn’t-really-a-clown a sort of off-kilter insanity that is respectable, to be certain, but Curry, whose 1990 performance is equal parts laughs and menace, owns the role. Still, the production values in the 2017 version are top notch, and the child performances are as good as, if not better than, those in the 1990 original (shout out to the luminous Sophia Lillis, who plays “Losers’ Club” tomboy Beverly Marsh). If you like this, see also “Stephen King’s It” (1990 ABC-TV version).
44) Halloween II (1981): A “Halloween” sequel comes out this month that jumps forward from the 1978 original to the present to find a still-alive Michael Myers chasing a still-alive Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The film supposedly ignores the events of every previous “Halloween” film except for the original, which is a decent idea except that it should’ve also included the first sequel, “Halloween II,” in its timeline. In the 1981 sequel, a wounded Laurie is rushed to Haddonfield General Hospital after surviving her first encounter with Michael only to learn that he survived his balcony fall at the end of the first film. He zombie-walks to the hospital itself, dispatching various nurses, paramedics, and security guards along the way. Meanwhile, viewers learn more about the dark branch of Laurie’s family tree. My assessment: the acting is terrible and the dialogue is even worse. Still, there are a few good scares, swift pacing, and a believable sense of one man’s killing spree continuing on later into the same, very long night. If you like this, see also “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” (1988).
45) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) are a virginal, newly-engaged couple that finds themselves stranded when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. But look, there’s a light (“over at the Frankenstein place”). Will they find aid there, or sexual liberation masked as depravity? That all depends on the mood of their host, Dr. Frank N. Furter (a career-best Tim Curry), especially considering that Brad and Janet interrupted the good doctor’s hosting of the Annual Transylvanian Convention (he proclaims himself in song as a “Sweet Transvestite” from the town of Transsexual, Transylvania). All is still well, though, as Frank N. Furter has designs on both Brad and Janet. She, however, is more taken by the doctor’s latest creation, a blonde-haired Adonis named Rocky (Peter Hinwood). But what’s up with the rival scientist Dr. Scott (Jonathan Adams), who seems especially interested in UFOs? Confused yet? “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is goofy stuff to be sure, and more kitschy than scary. But really, what can you expect from a B-movie that is most famous as a Halloween season, midnight movie, audience participation rite of passage? Now, let’s do the Timewarp again, and give this ribald sci-fi-horror-comedy-musical another viewing. If you like this, see also “Shock Treatment” (1981).
46) Hellraiser (1987): The most original entry on this list may be 1987’s “Hellraiser,” a Lovecraftian nightmare from horror novelist-turned-filmmaker Clive Barker. Bad boy Frank purchases a puzzle box that literally transports him to the portals of S&M hell, controlled by the maddening Cenobites (including one who would later be known as “Pinhead”). Enter Frank’s former lover Julia, now married to his older brother Larry and a gruesome return to our realm for Frank himself to make this less of a love triangle and more of a blood-soaked race against time as Larry’s estranged daughter Kirsty (scream queen Ashley Laurence) discovers what has transpired and hurries to undo the damage. Or something like that. I had no idea what to expect the first time I watched “Hellraiser,” more years ago than I’d like to remember. Despite obvious budget constraints, however, the film held up on a recent re-watching. I do wish that more screen time was given to the Cenobites…but then again, isn’t that what sequels are for? Fun fact #1: Nine –count ‘em, nine – sequels were spawned. Fun fact #2: The late Roger Ebert simply reviled “Hellraiser.” I think he missed the mark with his notorious review. Fun fact #3: The FX sequence in which Frank’s skeletal form emerges from the floorboards is as impressive as the werewolf transformation scene in “An American Werewolf in London.” Fun fact #4: The first cut was rated “X,” and the film was initially banned in Canada! If you like this, see also “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” (1988).
47) A Quiet Place (2018): I really must hand it to “A Quiet Place” director and star John Krasinski. He will, more likely than not, be forever known as Jim, the sweet, lovestruck man-child from NBC’s “The Office.” But while Krasinski may be one-half of TV’s Jim and Pam, he is in real life one-half of a Hollywood power couple that endures; he is married to “Edge of Tomorrow’s” Emily Blunt. Ms. Blunt costars with him in “A Quiet Place,” Krasinski’s directorial debut and a crackerjack thriller about a post-apocalyptic America in which otherworldly creatures prey on sound, robbing his family’s (Blunt plays his very pregnant wife) ability to have natural conversation. The opening sequence sets the stakes high, and despite a few tender scenes of familial bonding, the suspense never lets up, as every scene is punctuated by a feeling of dread – what if someone simply sneezes or coughs? Will they meet with certain death? Krasinski, who followed up this early 2018 hit with the Amazon Prime series “Jack Ryan,” seems poised for great things. Well done, sir. If you like this, see also “It Comes at Night” (2017).
48) The Babadook (2014): Australia is not generally regarded as a country that churns out good horror movies, but if this 2014 export, by first-time director Jennifer Kent, is any indication, we have been underestimating the southern hemisphere country’s contributions to the genre. The feature-length remake of a much shorter film called “Monster” (also directed by Kent), “The Babadook” is, on the surface, about a young widow (Essie Davis) whose over-imaginative son (the wonderful Noah Wiseman) may literally drive her mad after his increasing insistence that the tophat-wearing, talon-fingered title character from a storybook that mommy has been reading him has come to life. Insomnia and weird happenings (doors slamming, spooky noises, and other genre staples) suggest that the boy may be more right than mommy may have first believed. On a deeper level, “The Babadook” is about grief; we learn in the opening scene that the boy’s father perished in a car accident before the kid was even born, and that while six years have passed, that may not be enough time to keep the tears at bay – not enough time by half. Should I have posted a <SPOILER ALERT> beforehand? Perhaps, perhaps not. Whether the film’s monsters are real or psychological, “The Babadook” is truly, genuinely terrifying. If you like this, see also “Hereditary” (2018).
49) From Dusk Till Dawn (1996): Santanico Pandemonium. That Salma Hayek plays a bikini-clad, snake-fondling vampire stripper named Santanico Pandemonium is really all you need to know about this wild ride of a movie. But if you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen “From Dusk Till Dawn and want know more, I’ll tell you that it co-stars George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as the fugitive Gecko brothers – one breaking the other out of jail – who hijack an RV and force its driver, a grief-stricken priest (Harvey Keitel) and father of two, to drive it south of the border to a bordello, where they will wait out the night for a rendezvous…if they can survive the hunger of the bordello’s blood-sucking employees. I will also tell you that the bordello is named the “Titty Twister,” and that Cheech Marin plays three roles and almost steals the show. The whole thing is all in good fun, and is a nice blending of horror, action, and comedy. If you like this, see also “The Lost Boys” (1987).
50) The Witch (2016): “The Witch,” subtitled “A New England Folktale,” is an easy film to admire for its artistic merit, but a hard film to simply enjoy. That being said, if you are prepped on what to expect going in, you may like it. The title seems a bit misleading, and doesn’t make itself truly relevant until the last scene. The film opens with a late-1800’s New England family banished from their village for having non-Puritan beliefs. They journey to a clearing inside which they build their own farmstead, and are beset by one tragedy after another. Is the cause of the family’s troubles the father, William, who is so devout and hard-charging that he may, in fact, drive his family to ruin? Or is it that of the mother, Katherine, who grieves the disappearance of her infant son, Samuel, and blames the kid’s sitter, teenage Thomasin? Is it that of Thomasin herself? The pubescent teen’s changing body poses a distraction to her younger brother, Caleb, who seems so eager to go hunting with dad that he may not realize he is still untested against the big, bad woods. Could it be the mischievous younger, fraternal twins, Jonas and Mercy? They seem to always be up to dickens, though they throw most of the blame at the family’s goat, Black Phillip. To be sure, not everything in “The Witch” makes sense – not even after repeat viewings. But damned if it isn’t the most period-accurate and language-accurate horror movie ever made. If you like this, see also “The Village” (2004).
That completes my list of what I consider to be the 50 best horror movies of all time. No doubt, even 50-deep, I’ve still missed a few obvious contenders, either from having never seen them nor from simply not remembering having seen them. That being said, while I love the genre, it has produced many more bad movies than good ones. After, say, #55, quality deteriorates rapidly.
Finally, I wanted to give an honorary (you could say “Golden Raspberry”) shout out to some of the worst horror movies ever made. In no particular order: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers,” “Rawhead Rex,” “Graveyard Shift,” “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.”