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[Editor’s Note: The below piece was originally published on October 23, 2018. It has been expanded from the 100 greatest horror movies of all time to the 110 greatest as of August 21, 2020.]
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Why does it feel like horror movies are always undervalued? One thing’s for certain: In this age of geekery reigning supreme, critics and academics no longer dismiss the genre as disreputable with the kneejerk regularity some once did. But even now there’s talk of “elevated horror,” of artier explorations of dread and terror — Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” being two very recent examples — that are clearly distinguished from, well, non-elevated horror. The idea being that they engage your brain more than just showing brains being splattered against the wall.
How can films that fire your adrenal glands, send shivers down your spine, raise goosebumps, and quicken breath — that inspire such an intense physical reaction — also be cerebral experiences? We forget all the time that, as Anna Karina’s Pierrot Le Fou character Marianne Renoir says, “There can be ideas in feelings.”
What scares people says a lot about them — as the recent debate about what it means if a viewer finds certain elements of “Get Out” scary or funny revealed very clearly. “Get Out” showed the similarity between horror and comedy, the two genres most often expected to provoke an immediate, visceral reaction. Maybe the aversion some viewers have to both genres is a fear of losing control: of laughing so hard you snort or having to turn away in fright, of embarrassing yourself. A lot of people simply don’t want to lose control, no matter what. What’s funny is that horror, like comedy, is a genre in which each filmmaker has to assert his or her utmost control over the material, has to perfectly calibrate the storytelling, so that we can lose it. Extreme control so that the audience can lose control.
The IndieWire staff put together this list of the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All-Time to celebrate these intensely primal, personal films. Our writers and editors suggested over 150 titles and then voted on a list of finalists to determine the ultimate ranking. We hope it’s a list that captures the wide range and diversity of the genre, from underseen Laird Cregar vehicles to a Russian chiller based on a Nikolai Gogol story, from J-Horror to the Mexican gem “Alucarda.” Brace yourself for these movies: losing control will never be so much fun.
110. “Dracula” (Tod Browning, 1931)
The first thing you notice is his stillness. The chilling effect of Bela Lugosi’s performance as the undead Transylvanian count lies in his uncanny ability to stare into the camera… and into you. The opening 15 minutes is all that’s set in this courtly vampire’s home country, but director Tod Browning delivers a masterpiece of mood. One that’s pretty accurate, too: When Bram Stoker published “Dracula” in 1897, Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary — hence, all the peasants you see say their prayers in Hungarian, and of course Lugosi himself, 48 when he donned the cape and fangs onscreen, was Hungarian. He was only 6’1″ but he somehow seems much taller. His eyes sharply lit by a spotlight from cinematographer Karl Freund, Lugosi looks striking, even handsome. His protracted delivery set the stage for countless horror films to come (and even more parodies): “I do not drink… wine.” “We will leave tomorrow… even-ing.” But in context it also suits a character for whom English is far from a first language, and lends itself to a story about twee English folk fearing this exotic foreigner with his strange appetites. Most of Browning’s chills come from simple shot-reverse-shot edits, all powered by Lugosi’s unwavering gaze. He commands the camera. So much so, you think he’ll command you next. –CB
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109. “Hereditary” (Ari Aster, 2018)
A masterfully crafted meditation on inherited trauma, inescapable legacies (the kind that tend to fester in the attic darkness like heirlooms you’re too afraid to look for let alone throw away), and the guilt that so many parents feel about bringing a child into this sick, sad world, Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” douses an intergenerational drama in unleaded nightmare fuel until a single spark is enough to make an entire family self-immolate. Toni Collette gives a career-best performance as the fraying Annie Graham, a Utah artist whose mother’s death ignites a chain reaction of tragedies that unfold with almost genetic predetermination; her preteen daughter’s decapitation, a transgressive jolt in a film that’s full of unforgettable scares, is just the first sign of an unstoppable curse.
Aster’s debut feature so beautifully melts family strife into Satanic horror that it enflamed a lot of needless chatter about the semantics of its genre, but the only “elevated horror” worth talking about is Collette hiding in the shadows along the top of the frame like a demonic spider. If movie theaters ever truly go extinct, it’s that kind of moment — each member of the audience spotting it at their own speed with an uncontrollable gasp — that will haunt us for letting them die. –DE
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108. “The Strangers” (Bryan Bertino, 2008)
Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut is one of the smaller-scaled films on this list, but its simplicity is also its greatest virtue. The premise is so unnerving because — unlike a zombie apocalypse or a Texas chainsaw massacre — it could happen to anyone, anywhere. And in “The Strangers” it does. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman play a very ordinary couple whose very ordinary relationship drama is interrupted by a knock at the door; three masked villains, empowered by nothing but some knives and their sadistic desires, have dropped by to ruin their night. The wicked games they play are carried out with vivid rage and raw brutality, but this is the rare horror movie that only gets scarier with its final reveal. Why did these maniacs target this particular couple, and what neighborhood will they be in tomorrow? The answers to those questions continue to keep us awake at night. –DE
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107. “Häxan” (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
This four-part essay film was the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, and it shows. Well, at least in parts. Some of the reenactments of medieval times and historical accusations of witchcraft are lavish in their scope and texture… other segments, including much of the beginning, feel like a 1920s version of a Ken Burns doc, with the camera trained on drawings and lithographs to represent a history of witchcraft and how these supernatural occurrences can be explained through modern medicine and psychology. Sometimes a wooden pointer, presumably attached to director Benjamin Christensen’s hand, protrudes into the frame to draw your eye to a particular detail of the drawing in question. Alas, the Ken Burns zoom was still not technically possible. (To suggest the film that follows is, at least to some degree, a work of scholarship, Christensen appears in close-up in the opening credits, an effect which comes across more like Tommy Wiseau’s poster for “The Room” than anything professorial.) There’s plenty here to satisfy the ghoulish, however, and for cinephiles the film is particularly striking for the way it makes horror iconography from centuries past connect to the frights we’ve received from the movies: a few tweaks to the demon in the image above and you have the creature in “Sputnik.” –CB
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106. “Shutter Island” (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Even the heaviest Martin Scorsese movies are infinitely rewatchable — there’s just a centrifugal pull to the focus and kineticism of his filmmaking, as anyone who’s spent the last 25 years being sucked into random parts of “Casino” on HBO could tell — but “Shutter Island” is one of the few that feels like it shapeshifts before your eyes during repeat viewings. A briny Dennis Lehane adaptation that masquerades as a dark and stormy crime thriller in order to disguise the psychological horror that’s churning below the surface, Scorsese’s pulpfest has been largely overshadowed by a twist ending that relies on the “Spellbound”-level brain science of the story’s post-war setting (spoiler alert: Leonardo DiCaprio, feverish with conviction, isn’t the “duly appointed federal marshal” he claims to be). It’s a rug pull for the ages, one that so crudely peels back the movie’s central mystery that you might feel a bit cheated by its contrivances. Dare to revisit the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane, however, and it becomes a different thing altogether. So too does the film itself — what once seemed like a puzzle with an easy solution blurs into a tragedy with no escape. On a list full of indelible ghost stories, few characters are more painfully haunted than DiCaprio’s “Teddy,” a man who’s been trapped in a prison of his own trauma for so long, he can no longer bear to live with himself. It’s hard to imagine a fate much scarier than that. –DE
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105. “The Night of the Hunter” (Charles Laughton, 1955)
What if you can’t trust the people who’re supposed to protect you? If you’re a kid, there’s nothing scarier than if the protectors in question are your parents. Young John and Pearl’s father (Peter Graves) is a bank robber and murderer who hid the $10,000 he stole in a location only his kids know. His deranged cellmate, a serial killer (Robert Mitchum) who poses as a preacher to marry women, take their money, and then kill them, learns that these tykes know where the loot is. Upon release, he moves to their town, courts their weak-willed mother (Shelley Winters), and starts menacing his new stepchildren. What follows becomes a chase thriller more than an actual horror movie — in a list of just great films, “Night of the Hunter” might appear at a loftier ranking than just 105 — but it does capture a unique strand of kid horror. You know kid horror. It’s the fear you felt when you saw the Huntsman prepare to plunge a dagger into Snow White’s heart, and then (at least in the Disney version) her expressionistic flight through the woods. It’s the chill that ran down your spine when it dawned on you what happened to Bambi’s mother. Once the chase is under way, director Charles Laughton deploys fairy-tale-like imagery: the kids, on a raft, pass a bullfrog in closeup. There’s a sense of clarity and wonder to these images (photographed by “Magnificent Ambersons” DP Stanley Cortez) like we’re in a Disney animated film come to life… with all the sense of dread that entails. Then Mitchum can be heard in the distance singing “Leanin'” and you know death is near. Chilling. –CB
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104. “The Mist” (Frank Darabont, 2007)
There are two kinds of Stephen King adaptations: The ones that disgrace their source material, and the ones that elevate the author’s novels and short stories to stunning new heights. Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” much like Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” is unmistakably one of the latter. The action is confined to the sterile confines of a Maine supermarket, where local shoppers find themselves trying to make sense of the thick fog that has enveloped their town (and survive the nightmare-ready monsters that live inside the impenetrable haze, some of the most terrifying movie creatures this side of “The Thing”). As the tension grows between Thomas Jane’s decent-hearted painter and Marcia Gay Harden’s lunatic doomsayer, the film curdles into a uniquely harrowing portrait of hope, and — in the unforgettable final scene that King himself sees as an improve on his novella — the horror of losing it. With our own future growing foggier by the day, those anguished last minutes somehow manage to hit even harder. –DE
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103. “The Phantom Carriage” (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
The most profound horror movies aren’t just about death, but about wasted life. David Holm (Sjöström) has led about as worthless a life as you can imagine. Putting his love of the bottle before all else, he pushed away his wife and children, he led his brother into alcoholism also (resulting in his brother becoming a murderer), and he almost deliberately infects a Salvation Army worker with tuberculosis. He’s a dirtbag. On New Year’s Eve, he chooses to ring in midnight in a church cemetery with two fellow hobos, when he gets word that the dying Salvation Army girl wants to see him before drawing her final breath. He refuses. The other two hobos are so appalled one smashes a bottle over his head, killing him. You know this movie has an extra degree of realism because it’s one of the few films to accurately suggest how damaging being smashed in the noggin with a bottle would be! That realism makes the supernatural elements that follow all the more tangible: Death’s Coachman comes to collect David, not just to spirit him off to Hell, but for David to take up his job. Whosoever dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve has to drive Death’s coach for a year before passing to the beyond. What follows is some combination of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Seventh Seal” (on which “The Phantom Carriage” was clearly a huge influence) and powerful enough that you can see why Sjöström quickly became an MGM contract director. –CB
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102. “Safe” (Todd Haynes, 1995)
Set in an arid stretch of California at the height of the AIDS epidemic that it never mentions by name, Todd Haynes’ oblique and beguiling “Safe” continues to resonate through the horrors of our public-health crises. Julianne Moore gives an all-in, body-and-soul performance as Carol White, an unremarkable homemaker trying to go through life without taking up too much space. Her voice is meek and muted, every utterance a struggle not to consume too much oxygen; her small world is at once both airless and toxic. And then she gets sick with an “environmental illness” that eludes diagnosis — in the wake of a violent anaphylactic attack at a dry-cleaning facility, Carol is hospitalized in a new age desert community where people with similar conditions hide out from a supposedly contaminated civilization. For them, isolation is both the answer to their problem and the problem itself. What is the cause of Carol’s illness? Could she be allergic to the 20th century, itself?
The scariest thing about Haynes’ film is how insidiously it cocoons Carol away from those questions, and us along with her. Watching Carol’s life get torn apart by an invisible, malevolent force is oddly soothing, as the movie maintains a constant, cool temperature while an off-kilter hum similar to an air conditioner or white-noise machine invites you to sink trancelike into the slow-boiling horror of it all. But the movie’s dead calm finds terror in the corners of silence, until the promise of safety becomes a sinister trap unto itself. –Ryan Lattanzio
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101. “Eraserhead” (David Lynch, 1977)
David Lynch may never have completely captured the “where are they? are they even on this planet?” dislocating terror of “Eraserhead” until “Part 8” of “Twin Peaks: The Return” 40 years later. “Eraserhead” is pure immersion: in some strange world a lonely schlub (Jack Nance) suddenly finds himself taking care of a weird, phallic, alien baby creature. Baby Yoda this ain’t (thank God). A metaphor for the sheer horror of parenthood follows: this baby just does nothing but lay there and demand constant care and attention without producing any apparent return on investment. Something’s gonna break — maybe the world itself? Nance’s coiffed hero (his follicular achievement is the reason for the title) starts hallucinating more and more terrors: the baby all grown up and in a business suit, that he’s in a strange theater in which a cutesy vaudeville singer performs while giant-sized sperm cells fall around her. Things aren’t going to end well. But until that apocalyptic climax, you’re in for a sensual immersion of sonic textures the likes of which the cinema has barely given us since. —CB
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