The Arts & Faith Top 25 Horror Films
What can our fears tell us?
This list of big-screen nightmares may seem strange, but consider how horror movies raise and address vital questions about human nature, addiction, spiritual forces, death, the afterlife, and the wages of sin. If these subjects were irrelevant to our lives, horror movies would not frighten us so much. Produced in 2011 by the Arts & Faith online community, this list spans 90 years of cinema, from 1920’s The Cabinet of Caligari to 2010’s Let Me In.
The Top 25 Horror Films is sponsored by Image, a literary and arts quarterly founded in 1989 to demonstrate the vitality and diversity of well-made art and writing that engage seriously with the historic faiths of the West in our time. Now one of the leading literary magazines published in the English language, it is read all over the world—and it forms the nexus of a warm and lively community. Explore Image here.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Robert Wiene
In the guise of a carnival barker, Dr. Caligari lures the people of Holstenwall into his tent for a glimpse of Cesare, a somnambulist who has been asleep for the past 23 years. Caligari invites the crowd to ask Cesare a question, for the somnambulist “knows every secret. He knows the past and sees the future.” The tension builds in director Robert Wiene’s silent masterpiece as the town investigates a rash of mysterious murders. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s fantastically off-kilter sets and backgrounds, practically characters themselves, serve to illustrate the escalating panic as the film builds to a shattering, indelible conclusion.
2. Vampyr (1932), Carl Theodor Dreyer
A quiet little nightmare funneling images and shadows through dream logic, Dreyer’s creepy classic centers on a young man convinced of his inexorable and untimely demise: being buried alive. A creaky hotel plays host to vampire activity and creates an eerie atmosphere, where shadows dance backwards and the grim reaper waits by a mysterious river. Dreyer dips into post-expressionist surrealism in his first sound feature, the first sound horror film in cinema history.
3. The Exorcist (1973), William Friedkin
The indispensable link between the Catholic-inflected piety of Golden Age Hollywood and the world of latter-day horror, The Exorcist reflected deep unease in uncharted cultural waters. Loss of faith, casual dabbling in the occult, divorce and the therapeutic culture are all indicted in the growing nightmare of a bubbly, increasingly troubled girl whose single mother promises, “You just take your pills and you'll be fine, really,” as if science and medicine were the answer to everything.
—Steven D. Greydanus
4. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), F.W. Murnau
An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, F.W. Murnau's Expressionist masterpiece imbues the figure of the vampire with dread and fascination, transcending nearly all later interpretations. Largely avoiding Christian iconography, Nosferatu contributed the deadly power of sunlight to vampire lore. Thanks in part to Max Schrek's unclassifiable performance, Nosferatu’s vampire resists Freudian and behavioral interpretations (vampirism as sex, as id, as veneral disease), remaining simply, unsettlingly itself.
—Steven D. Greydanus
5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Rouben Mamoulian
G.K. Chesterton wrote that Robert Louis Stevenson's story of Jekyll and Hyde was for us “a gargoyle of the greatest spiritual edification.” An exploration of a man using science to control his own fallen nature by giving it a conscience-free outlet, this film also illustrates man’s struggle with his own darker side as not merely a personal matter, but one that will inevitably result in hurting even those he most loves. Of all the different film versions of this story, Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation best preserves Stevenson's Christian themes, provoking and disturbing the viewer with one of the best Gothic allegories ever designed on film.
6. Let Me In (2010), Matt Reeves/Let the Right One In (2008), Tomas Alfredson
It didn’t take long for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s film Let the Right One In to earn a reputation as one of the greatest vampire movies ever crafted. Matt Reeves remade it almost immediately as Let Me In, which recreates the look and feel of the original, includes some intriguing variations, and adapts the story for an American context to remarkable effect. Both films frighten us by making us care for two lonely children—one a vampire, one a target for schoolyard bullies—even though we know that one is a killing machine and the other is a monster in the making.
7. Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock
Near the opening of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Marion Crane steals money from her employer and goes on the run. At a small motel off the beaten path, her guilt catches up with her, as does something considerably more threatening. Psycho deals with histories of wrongdoing and failure to achieve absolution, but this is no talky drama; few thrillers are as precisely constructed or as strikingly executed, thanks to the talents of Hitchcock and his remarkable collaborators, including Bernard Herrmann, whose tense, string-filled score is the perfect accompaniment for a nightmare.
8. Night of the Living Dead (1968), George A. Romero
Seven people board themselves up in a deserted farmhouse, and struggle as much with each other as they do with the horde of deceased that have risen and begun feeding on the flesh of the living. George A. Romero’s chilling film broke new ground in several ways: violence depicted on screen, an African American hero, and a certain nihilism never before seen, which to this day still retains the power to scare. As a metaphor of the Vietnam War and the growing political and racial unrest in 60s America, Night of the Living Dead steadily builds up an unease about the threat from the outside--and the growing menace within.
9. The Fly (1986), David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s remake is a terrifying tragedy in the best possible way. A young, brilliant scientist makes a life-altering miscalculation and is unable to undo the damage. As his body deteriorates, he considers increasingly horrifying choices in attempts to save himself. Despite the repulsive transformation, his girlfriend’s compassion invokes sympathy for the monster. The film culminates in a tragic and heartbreaking finale that manages to underscore the painful decisions and extremes we face in life when dealing with disease.
10. Frankenstein (1931), James Whale
A masterpiece that transcends the boundaries of time, Frankenstein was described by author Mary Shelley as “a moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” The horror of a scientist's creation, or rather re-creation, raises all sorts of ethical questions still addressed today: science and biology, faith and religion, and the quest for immortality—the original lie of the serpent. The minimal, musicless soundtrack adds an urgency to the Monster's brutal reign of terror. And closer inspection might reveal that the monstrosities are not limited to one reanimated corpse.
11. Peeping Tom (1960), Michael Powell
Voyeurism lies at the heart of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a taut horror thriller about a disturbed young cameraman who murders women and films them as they die. Powell brings a craftsman’s eye to the film, which he sets in mostly tight, claustrophobic spaces. Terrifying, thought-provoking, and even moving, Peeping Tom forces us to to confront our own dark desires as viewers.
12. The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick
In The Shining, a father, a mother, and a son spend the winter as caretakers of a remote, isolated hotel, only to find themselves lost in a nightmare of psychic horror. Stanley Kubrick’s film makes the most of atmosphere; the fictional Overlook Hotel makes as much of an impression as any of the individuals who haunt its labyrinthine corridors where past and present meet in acts of violence. In The Shining, evil is a terrifying force, one that reaches from a history of human transgression and malice into the heart of the nuclear family.
14. The Thing (1982), John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s gruesome adaptation of John W. Campbell's novella Who Goes There? concerns an Antarctic research station invaded by an alien organism, which could possibly replicate all life on earth in three years. Before attempting to destroy the creature, the ten-man research team must first confront their growing paranoia that one or more of them may already have been assimilated. Making the film intensely claustrophobic, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston's special effects were among some of the most stunning and graphic of the time, and still hold up in the age of CGI.
15. I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Jacques Tourneur
One of several well-regarded collaborations between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, I Walked With a Zombie follows a nurse as she moves to the Caribbean to care for a plantation owner's strangely afflicted wife. Tourneur uses shadows and detached narration to create an indelible mood, and quietly emphasizes the guilt that seems to hover over the island and its inhabitants. It’s a beautifully made film, sad and tragic, and one that leaves much open to interpretation.
16. The Haunting (1963), Robert Wise
Although they are both based on the same Shirley Jackson novel about a group of people investigating the supernatural in an eerie old mansion, don’t mistake Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) for the 1999 Jan De Bont film, The Haunting. Where De Bont piles on the special effects to comic proportions, Wise builds suspense slowly, establishing the characters, including Hill House itself, to construct an overwhelming experience.
17. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale
Director James Whale’s sequel deepens the philosophy as well as the terror established in Frankenstein (1931). When the monster learns language and compassion from a kindly blind man, its need for companionship is also awakened, leading the monster to confront its creator. Boris Karloff and many of the original cast return in this sprawling and epic second installment, which makes liberal use of religious imagery.
18. Freaks (1932), Tod Browning
The romantic entanglements of circus performers and the darkness of the human heart drive this bizarre film. While the mere thought of working with a cast of real-life sideshow performers appalled many moviegoers, director Tod Browning further shocked audiences by giving the freaks common human desires and emotions. This approach pushes Freaks to uncomfortably horrific heights, as it becomes harder to separate a normal person from “one of us,” as the freaks identify themselves in the film’s iconic banquet scene.
19. Alien (1979), Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction nightmare still terrifies audiences even though its sequels have lacked its chillingly intelligent design. The aliens, attacking from without and within, frighten us with the prospect that we might be carrying the cosmos’ most destructive force within us. Worse, the corporation that sends humans into danger shows us the greatest horror of all—the prospect of a cosmos where perfection is defined by appetite, strength, and survival rather than conscience.
20. Eraserhead (1976), David Lynch
It took over five years and the tapping of every resource for David Lynch to fund his first feature-length film. The results of this painstaking process are obvious; the film is resonant in its visual renderings. Set in the decay of a post-industrial wasteland, Eraserhead delves into the heart of human trauma: unfulfilled sexual desire, fornication, abandonment, the chaos of fatherhood, the alienation of modernity, fate, and the destructive nature of sin. It’s a quiet, surrealist journey into one of Lynch’s mad, living paintings, and the brush strokes are fully neurotic.
21.Don’t Look Now (1974), Nicolas Roeg
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now tells the story of a couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who are forced to reckon with past family tragedy when they meet a strange couple of women who claim to be able to communicate with their deceased daughter. Edited and shot in a way that suggests an elliptical sense of historical causality, Don’t Look Now insinuates that things are connected, but we may lack the intuition and perspective to discern the order until it’s too late.
22. Dracula (1931), Tod Browning
The Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi earliest faithful-to-the-book rendition of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel still remains one of the most iconic vampire films today. Lugosi brings a power and presence to his role as the most famous monster in literature, representative of the devil as described in I Peter 5:8. It’s no more a coincidence that crucifixes & light are his weaknesses any more than it is that Van Helsing sounds veritably Screwtapian with his declaration that “the strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.”
23. The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jonathan Demme
One of the cinema’s greatest villains, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins in his best-known performance) fascinates us because his ghoulish atrocities coincide quite unconflictedly with qualities that we associate with civilized, well-adjusted existence. A brilliant psychiatrist and a vastly urbane, sophisticated, cultured man, Lecter is a shocking reminder to a therapeutic culture that beyond all psychobabble about “behavior modification” and the like, there remains the sheer reality of good and evil. The doctor is in: God help us all.
—Steven D. Greydanus
24. The Curse of the Demon (1957), Jacques Tourneur
Jacques Tourneur’s The Curse of the Demon follows skeptical psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) as he travels to England to debunk a Satanic cult led by the affable Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). But, as it’s mentioned in the film, “[The devil] is most dangerous when he's pleasant,” evil here really is banal, hiding behind normality. Curse of the Demon is beautifully shot and ambiguously eerie — an atmosphere that’s sadly only broken by the inclusion of a tacky monster at the producer’s request.
25. Onibaba (1964), Kaneto Shindo
Adapted from a Buddhist morality tale, Onibaba – literally translated “demon woman” – never shocks, but rather haunts with the baleful atmosphere of its natural landscape. In fourteenth century feudal Japan, the peasant wife and mother of a soldier have taken to slaying lost samurai for their valuables in order to survive. When a friend of the soldier arrives to report that the husband/son has been killed, what follows is a kind of escalating ethereal nightmare. Though the film borders the supernatural, the primary evil here emanates from unchecked human appetite and instinct.
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