No list of horror films would be complete without Hitchcock’s masterpiece of the macabre. One of the first truly contemporary horror films (and arguably the greatest thriller ever made), ‘Psycho’ introduced us to the mysterious Bates Motel, its bird-loving manager, Norman, and Janet Leigh’s doomed Marion Crane, who just had to take a shower… Hitchcock broke as many rules as he invented, and the while every inch of the film has been spoofed and satirized in pop culture, its twists still surprise, its scares genuinely fright, and its whole off-kilter atmosphere remains undeniably creepy. An absolute classic, in every sense.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Before the legendary ‘Dawn’ (1978) and the grisly ‘Day’ (1985), there was the iconic ‘Night’, when the dead walked the earth. It’s hard to believe that the contemporary zombie film was born almost 45 years ago, and that in that time, the formula has remained more or less unchanged. George A. Romero’s original low-budget shocker still has the power to chill and horrify, despite the tropes it invented (the besieged farmhouse, the shambling flesh-eaters, the fraught group dynamics, the fatal shoot-'em-in-the-head) becoming par for the course. Riddled with satirical undercurrents, its controversial violence is no less gory for being rendered in black and white, and despite its age, the film’s startlingly cynical ending remains genuinely shocking.
The Exorcist (1973)
Like Romero’s ‘Living Dead’, William Friedkin’s masterpiece has lost none of its power or its horror, despite its age. As well as featuring some of the most disturbing sequences in American cinema, this tale of an innocent teenage girl possessed by the Devil is also an unexpectedly moving meditation on faith and hope. This is an example of horror at its most intelligent and effective, and demonstrates a great filmmaker and cast at the height of their skills. While most people know the major beats of the film without having seen it, nothing compares to the sheer force of the actuality, and an exorcism that is still the finest ever committed to film. ‘The Exorcist’ is a true American work of art.
The Wicker Man (1973)
There is no other horror film quite like ‘The Wicker Man’, and there probably never will be. With no blood-and-gore, no acts of extreme violence, no monsters or serial killers, and shot in blazing daylight, the film defies horror convention. (Some have even dubbed it a musical!) Edward Woodward’s highly religious Sergeant Howie investigates a missing girl on the Scottish island, Summerisle: a community still devout to the old pagan religions. His Christian beliefs collide head-on with these friendly, unusual people, and the deeper he digs, the more bizarre the investigation becomes – before reaching a god-smacking climax that has become legend. This is an uncomfortable, creepy film, unlike anything you’ve seen before. (Be warned: avoid the atrocious American remake at all costs!)
Following barely two years after his blistering breakthrough, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (1976), John Carpenter couldn’t have imagined the impact his follow-up picture, the tale of a masked psycho stalking teenaged babysitters, would have on the world at large. The resulting film, ‘Halloween’, is a masterclass in mounting dread and cinematic technique, one relying more on atmosphere and suspense than jump-frights and gore. ‘Halloween’ gave the world two enduring icons: Shatner-faced “Shape”, Michael Meyers, and future “scream queen”, Jamie Lee Curtis – two masterstrokes of cinema history for the price of one. Mesmerically framed, breathlessly suspenseful, and with a truly creepy soundtrack, ‘Halloween’ is oft imitated, never bettered.
The Shining (1980)
With the golden age of American horror cinema coming to an end, legendary director Stanley Kubrick delivered his one and only statement on the genre, his ‘adaptation’ of Stephen King’s bestseller… and made a film by which all other horror is measured against. This is a mighty film, one of the few horror epics – a riddle that refuses to explain itself, a gothic symphony of unforgettable, nightmarish images that sear into the memory, and possibly Jack Nicholson’s finest (and most outlandish) performance. The saga of Jack Torrence and his family, and the dizzying maze of the Overlook Hotel, are part of our cultural fabric, and still fascinate audiences to this day. This is horror cinema at its purest, its most artistic and its most thunderous.
The Fly (1986)
No one expected much from David Cronenberg’s remake of the silly 50’s B-movie ‘The Fly’, the story of a scientist accidentally fusing his DNA with that of a common housefly. All the more shocking when Cronenberg delivered this masterpiece, a graphic and devastating opera of the bizarre and the unfathomable. In his hands, the exploits of Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle become a parable for the dangers of playing God, a modern ‘Frankenstein’, unexpectedly moving and genuinely horrifying as we witness his transformation into a hideous monster through the eyes of Geena Davis’ Veronica. At its heart, ‘The Fly’ is a tragic love story – one told through blood and pain, and some of the most upsetting creature and make-up effects ever committed to the screen.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
That’s right: this film features on the same list as classics like ‘Psycho’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Like other films we’ve nominated, it’s spawned a franchise that gives cheap thrills at the expense of actual horror, but Oren Peli’s low-budget found-footage original is one of the most innovative and intelligent horror films in a very long time. Preying on our anticipation of what may or may not happen (through its ingenious use of a static camera), the film builds towards the kind of chaos only nightmares can concoct. At a time where horror films try to show us everything, this film shows us nothing, leaving much to our imaginations. Ignore the shoddy sequels and the pop culture roasting it’s received, and prepare for some of the most upsetting (and disturbing) horror-film images in years…