Horror is an interesting genre, in that all you need is a dollar and a dream and you might go far, which is convenient considering that arguably less is more. Just look at the discourse around showing the shark in Jaws, for example. They couldn’t afford to fix their broken shark so they worked around it, and since then there’s been plenty of debate on how little a horror film should show of its monster.
Can’t afford multiple locations? Who needs them! There are countless examples of horror from indie to big budget Hollywood that have a single location for a setting. Can’t afford special effects? In black and white no one will be able to tell that the fake blood is just chocolate syrup.
An effective horror movie doesn’t have to have a low budget to inspire creativity, but it does push it into existence, forcing creators to innovate with what they’ve got. Horror can be expensive, it can show you the shark if it needs to, but it also has to be smart enough to know when not to. Much like the wise words of Kenny Rogers, horror needs to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and definitely when to run.
This also means that horror is filled with imitation, both from films that are directly inspired by specific images and atmospheres as well as franchises that have diluted their own content sequel after lesser sequel. That’s why this list of my top ten horror movies doesn’t necessarily focus on the films that did it first, but rather the films that unsettled me, that unnerved, and that did things differently.
This is also by no means a list exhaustively researched from all horror films (I still haven’t seen The Exorcist (1973), for one), nor is it a list exclusively of the best (a list of only the best would likely be mostly John Carpenter films, a fact that he already knows and is disinterested in because top ten lists don’t pay him money). This is just a few horror movies that I’ve loved and consider important, in no particular order.
A long time ago, in the distant year of 1991, America Online (the DOS based version) was released. Since then the internet has progressed through leaps and bounds, connecting everybody to everyone in ways that are both amazing and terrifying, wonderful and frightful at the same time. Pulse (2001) came out during the later days of the 56K modem and the early days of the DSL and the T1 line, and its focus wasn’t about the ways that the internet connected people together, but the ways it isolated people.
If there’s anything that the last few years have taught us, it’s that working from home is comfortable, but by spending more time virtually with others, you’re spending more time physically alone. That is the danger the ghosts of this movie threaten its victims, not necessarily with death, but with absolute loneliness, a feeling of being isolated from people for too long.
On one end there’s the idea that you shouldn’t show the monster, on the other end there’s the idea that you should. The Thing proposes a third idea: what if you showed the monster at every chance you could, but never really defined what it was? What if the monster was a bizarre creation of flesh and teeth, always changing, always mutating? And, somehow, what if it could be next to you, right beside you, and you wouldn’t even know?
The Thing (1982) blends its fantastic practical effects with tension so well that modern filmmakers, at least anyone who is trying to tell a story where people aren’t who they seem to be (here’s looking at you, Secret Invasion (2023)). This also should be shown to anyone considering making a monster movie, and thinking about using digital effects for their monsters, as opposed to practical effects (looking at you, Universal Pictures, for the crime of replacing the practical effects of The Thing (2011) with digital effects).
The Cabin in the Woods
Remember what I said about not necessarily favoring the movies that did it first? By the time this movie came out there had been plenty of horror films centered around cabins in the woods, and there have been plenty since. The genre itself has become cliché, its elements stereotypes of a structure that’s been worn drastically thin over time. The Cabin in the Woods (2011) is a meta film, a deconstruction of the stereotypes and its parts that also happens to be a lot of fun in the process, ending in a monster mash that is disgustingly hilarious.
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Cloverfield franchise is a strange phenomenon in a time when big budget franchises have embraced serialized formats, choosing instead to tell disconnected stories that are vaguely related. Cloverfield (2008) was a found footage film that was like a theme park ride through a monster movie, whereas Ten Cloverfield Lane (2016) is a more traditionally presented film with a story that happens to take place in the same universe.
Having the film connected to Cloverfield is an odd choice, considering that the main plot deals with three people hiding in a bunker from monsters that might possibly be roaming the surface. The movie doesn’t show you these monsters, emphasizing the idea that maybe, just maybe, there are no monsters out there. It’s a mystery that feels at odds with its tenuous connection to Cloverfield, but the film is so well made, and John Goodman’s performance is simply so good that there’s still plenty of tension to go around.
Before Peter Jackson would turn New Zealand into a tourist location for JRR Tolkien fans, but after he made low budget films that blended horror, comedy, and gore, there was The Frighteners (1996). The premise of the film is remarkably clever: it’s about a con man who goes around and makes people believe that their homes are haunted, and that he can remove the ghosts that have suddenly taken residence. The trick is that the ghosts work with him to sell the con. What follows is a spooky thriller, a constant chase that doesn’t stop until the dead are put to rest.
This is also, without a doubt, the Michael J. Fox movie I’ve always wished for a sequel to, but alas, if you tracked every wish I’ve ever made all you’ll find is a road map of pain.
Silence of the Lambs
There isn’t much to be said about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It’s beautifully shot, impeccably directed, and a wonderfully acted film that spends more time delving into the depths of its characters than in its violence, but when it allows itself to take a dip into horror it goes all in. There’s always a balance to be had between story and thrills, character development and action, and this movie nails it, all propelled by the relationship between Starling and Lector.
This is also a movie that’s inspired me in regard to my own writing, with my own depictions of violence. It should be unflinching, horrific in nature, and shocking to the characters involved (not just there to shock the audience), but most important to that violence is that you need to care about the characters subjected to it. If I didn’t care about Clarice, then when the killer opened up his door to her there would be no real suspense to her presence there. The tension would be non-existant, and it’s with accomplished storytelling and character development that Silence of the Lambs (1991) gets to enjoy its moments of violence.
Wes Craven has always had a meta approach to horror movies (See the police officers in his film The Last House on the Left (1972), for example), but Scream was the epitome of his meta examination of the slasher film. Characters were hyperaware of their roles within the horror movie while the horror bled into the streets around them, and it worked. It felt less like you were watching a movie in which people were being hunted by the imposing will of the plot, waiting for the moment that the writer would decide that their unfeeling killing machine would strike, and more like a group of young adults being stalked by a deranged psychopath.
It’s a movie that’s both fun and thrilling, tense and hilarious at the same time, sometimes literally. Scream (1996) revels in both establishing conventions and breaking conventions, and it has a fantastic time doing it.
In essence Alien (1979) is a slasher film in space. Instead of Michael Myers, now you’ve got a giant monster crawling through the ducts. Instead of teens eagerly discovering themselves in a summer camp, the cast here is a group of space truckers answering a distress call. What really sets Alien apart is two-fold: the first is the bizarre look of the monster, as furnished by artist HR Giger. The second is the mystery of the alien: it’s entrance onto the scene is a harsh dinnertime surprise, and its metamorphosis distracts from any focus on wondering who’s going to be next, as much as wondering if any of the crew even has a chance to survive.
Subsequent movies would shift the genre and try to chase after what made the first one special to begin with, often layering on unnecessary details, lessons on flute playing, basketball, and in a turn for one of the best sequels of all time there was even action to be had, steering the theme away from horror just a bit. This first film presented a different take on the cosmos, with a vertical slice that showcased a hidden monster found in the depths of space.
The Mist (2007) is a movie that’s often more remembered for its ending than for the rest of the film, and while its gut punch of a finale was shocking, the rest of the movie is an amazing film on its own rights. It’s an exploration of the effects of trauma that also happens to have monsters. What are these monsters? Where did they come from? The monsters themselves are probably the movie’s weakest aspect, ranging from flying bugs to tentacles to giant spiders. Some of the body horror on display uses excellent practical effects, but the digital effects weren’t exactly impressive then.
The movie provides a bare bones explanation of what these monsters are and where they came from, but it doesn’t need more than that because the centerpiece is a small group of people trapped in a building while the world ends around them. It’s about how they respond to trauma, to the point that even the most horrific deeds can seem sensible under the right circumstances.
Horror movies often have its victims trapped in a set of circumstances, a chain of events that they cannot escape and are barely aware of. Their lives have forever changed, usually for the worse, and there’s little that a character in a horror movie can do about it. Annihilation (2018) features a small group of women entering a strange phenomenon. They weren’t the first to go in, but once inside they’ll find that the monster is all around them, inside them, in the air they breathe and in their very cells, changing them into something else. This brings along two things: the first is body horror, especially when they find video footage of the previous group. The second is a question that’s more philosophical, asking if the person that walked out of the phenomenon is still the same person that walked in.
Who are you? Who are you reading this top ten list? What is your name? Is that how you identify yourself, identify your eyes, your arms, your legs, your body? Your organs, your lungs, your heart, your liver? Your cells? Imagine that your name is Theseus. If you took your arm and replaced it with a new arm, would you still be Theseus? If you took your face, and replaced it with a different face, would you still be Theseus? If you took every aging and dying cell off of your body and replaced it with identical cells, would you still be you?
Annihilation also had the best bear scene since Condemned 2: Bloodshot (2008), but that was just a bonus.