My Top-20 Horror Movies Of All Time — Finale

We’re made it here to the end — my top-5 horror movies of all time.  If you missed the first three parts, you can find them here, here, and here.

5.   Alien  (1979)

I almost didn’t list this movie at all, as I wasn’t sure if it really fit the definition of horror.  I left out Silence of the Lambs and Jaws because I didn’t think they fit the genre neatly enough, but Alien I thought did.  Does that make sense?  Of course not — but it’s my list, and I get to make those judgments, right?

That said, Alien is a tremendous movie, no matter what genre you want to stick it in.  The cast is brilliant, headed by Sigourney Weaver in her first major movie role, the always entertaining Tom Skerritt, and a host of other excellent actors;  how many movies in general — not just horror movies — have casts that are even half as talented as this one, a group that also included Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm,  Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartright, and John Hurt?

And Alien is downright frightening.  The scene where Dallas (Tom Skerritt’s character) encounters the Alien in the ventilation shaft is enough to make your heart stopand we don’t even need to get into the chestburster scene (too well known now to surprise, but a shock to those seeing the film during its release).  The Alien special effects are incredible, the idea of Ripley’s character emerging as the sole survivor and the heroine was groundbreaking for a science fiction/action film (though less so for a horror entry — see, there’s that genre thing again).  The atmosphere of the Nostromo is claustrophobic and depressing.  I could go on and on — there’s nothing I dislike about this film at all.

4.   Nightmare on Elm Street  (1984)

Wes Craven had already made low-budget horror films The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes prior, but it was this film that put the director on the map as one of the biggest names in terror.  Nightmare follows the story of a deceased child murderer who finds a way to stalk the children of the adults who killed him — by invading their very dreams and striking at them when they’re the most helpless.

Craven’s masterpiece introduced us to Freddy Krueger, an enduring icon of horror that took his place alongside the greatest movie killers and monsters of all time.  But it also introduced us to the terror of being trapped in a world of dreams where things aren’t what they always seem, and the monster — Freddy — is always in control.  This was a theme explored in a number of films and stories over the years that followed (the Matrix, anyone?), but the surreal dreamworld portrayed in Nightmare was unlike one audiences had ever seen before.

The sequels would make Freddy a caricature of himself, but in this original film, he’s at his best: serious, deadly, and terrifying.  Add in great acting performances all around, bloody special effects, and a haunting score and it all adds up to a winner.  Just remember — once you’ve seen it, don’t fall asleep.

3.  The Exorcist (1973)

The top-3 films on my list are pretty much interchangeable in that any of them could have been ranked in the number one slot (even if all three films couldn’t be more different in their composition).   I’ve seen William Friedkin’s classic (based on the best selling book by William Peter Blatty) in the top spot in any number of horror lists — and for good reason.

There’s not a high body count in this film, there’s no maniacal killer for the protagonists to hide from as they’re stalked, and the heroes at the end of the film are a pair of priests — how’s all of that for atypical for a horror film?  The story revolves around a 12 year-old girl (played by Linda Blair, in an incredible performance) who undergoes a dramatic, disturbing change in her personality.  When medical causes are ruled out, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) begins to believe that her daughter is possessed, and she calls in the priests to perform an exorcism.

The performances are all tremendous, and the final exorcism scene is one of the most chilling, disturbing events put on film.  The special effects are outstanding as well — who will ever forget Blair’s head spinning around?  And the idea of a demonic possession, to me at least, is a thousand times more frightening that some random guy running around with a knife and trying to kill me.

The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning two), and it’s well deserving of its critical acclaim, as well as its spot on my list here.

2.  Halloween  (1978)

This is the low-budget production that revolutionized the way we looked at horror films, and even thirty-plus years later, it still stands up as one of the best that the much maligned genre has to offer.

The story is incredibly simple:  as a child, a boy murders his sister on Halloween and is committed to a mental institution — then as an adult, he escapes the institution and returns to his hometown to kill again.  But in Halloween’s case, it’s not the story that makes the film, but the tremendous way that everything else in the movie works so well — a tribute to horror master John Carpenter’s magic touch.

Carpenter hits a home run in almost every way imaginable.  The casting choices are brilliant, whether it was Jamie Lee Curtis (in her debut) as the innocent heroine Laurie Strode, or the underrated Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles as her not-so-innocent friends, or the most important casting choice, veteran actor Donald Pleasence as the psychiatrist hunting his former patient down.  The female leads are authentic and believable, and Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis is our window to the madness that is Michael Myers, The Shape who stalks them.

There’s surprisingly little blood in Halloween, and the violence is tame compared to horror movies today.  But there’s tension in nearly every scene;  you can’t help but feel unease as you see Michael standing outside Laruie’s house amidst the laundry — then vanishing, or outside of Annie’s door, or across the street for little Tommy Doyle to see him.  He’s a real-world Bogeyman who’s everywhere and then nowhere at the same time, unstoppable, unfeeling, and utterly frightening.

I could rave about the film all day — from the perfection of Michael Myers’ look (who ever thought a William Shatner mask could be so creepy?) to the brilliance of the now-instantly-recognizable score — but the best thing I can say is to see it for yourself if, unbelievably, you haven’t already.  Forget the sequels (which ranged from mediocre to absolute garbage) and the Rob Zombie remake (which is instantly forgettable) — the original was — and is — still one of the best that horror movies have to offer.

1.  The Shining  (1980)

My first introduction to the great Stanley Kubrick’s “Masterpiece of Modern Horror” was a television commercial I saw for The Shining when the film was just getting released into theaters.  I distinctly remember creepy music and the visual of Jack Nicholson driving an axe through a bathroom door while Shelley Duvall screamed in absolute horror.  The scene scared the hell out of me then (as a ten year-old), and while I might have gotten a lot older since then, the film’s ability to scare it’s audience hasn’t lessened one bit with time.

The story is of a writer serving as the caretaker of a mountain hotel over the winter.  He brings his wife and their son with him to this isolated abode — but the young boy has a special gift of his own, and the hotel that they’ll be staying in is an evil place with a life of its own.

Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, the movie deviates greatly from the book (King was extremely dissatisfied to many of the changes that Kubrick made).  After having read the book, I was at first disappointed in a number of Kubirck’s alterations — particularly in Jack Nicholson’s character — but the end result is still a triumph, not just in horror films, but in film making in general.  Indeed, Kubrick took king’s story and made something else out of it altogether — but what he made was something spectacular.

Nicholson’s performance as a tortured soul slowly going insane (or was he that way from the very beginning?) carries the film, but it’s Kubrick’s hand behind the camera that makes The Shining a hypnotic, spellbinding work of art that, three decades after, still has no secrets to reveal to the viewer watching it.  It’s a movie that makes the perfect film for a Halloween night viewing, and it’s my choice for the number one horror movie of all time.


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