Entertainment

30 great horror films

Chosen by The Star’s movie reviewers, listed alphabetically “Alien”

(1979): Though set in outer space, it wasn’t really sci-fi. Ridley Scott’s classic was basically a haunted house yarn with an elusive and seemingly unstoppable alien as the ghost that jumps out and yells “Boo!” The suspense is practically unbearable…also Sigourney Weaver’s first big role.

“An American Werewolf in London”

(1981): Another film that juxtaposes gore and humor, in this case in the first post-modern werewolf movie. The protagonists are young men who’ve seen the old "Wolf Man" from Universal and are hip to what’s happening, even if they want to deny it. Rick Baker’s werewolf transformation makeup effects were a watershed for his field and led directly to the Outstanding Achievement in Makeup Academy Award.

“The Birds”

(1963): Hitchcock’s gifts deployed in service of a fairly conventional horror story. It was the first nature-gone-mad movie and was followed by many inferior imitators (“Day of the Animals,” “The Deadly Bees,” “The Food of the Gods”). What could be scarier than something you see every single day and no longer even bother paying attention to suddenly threatening your life? “The Black Cat” (1934): Honeymooning couple take refuge on a mysterious island run by a Satanist (Boris Karloff at his creepiest). Bela Lugosi plays a good guy in this one…you won’t forget the final scene in which he mercilessly tortures Karloff while awaiting the explosion that will destroy them both.

“The Blair Witch Project”

(1999): Yeah, the shakycam made some viewers nauseous. But this story of college filmmakers who disappear in a haunted woods — it’s told through the footage they left behind — is genuinely unnerving.

“The Bride of Frankenstein”

(1935): Like “Godfather - Part II,” a sequel that improves in almost every way on its progenitor. James Whale’s sharply-drawn portraits — especially that of Dr. Praetorius — make for a film as darkly humorous as it is terrifying and wide open to interpretation.

“Curse of the Demon”

(1957): The producers of this occult thriller forced director Jacques Tourneur to include shots of the title creature, which destroys the story’s intended ambiguity. It’s still one of the creepiest and most intelligent horror films ever made, and the demon is pretty freaky, even if it shouldn’t really be there.

“Cat People”

(1942): Val Newton produced cheap horror movies that packed an incredible wallop because of what you don’t see. Here he and director Jacques Tourneur envision a race of women who turn into killer felines when they have sex. In the creepiest scene a young woman treads water in the dark to avoid an unseen panther — its screams are bloodcurdling — that circles the pool and leaves her bathrobe a shredded rag.

“Dawn of the Dead”

(2004): All respect to zombiemiester George Romero, but he’s not half the director Zack Snyder is. Snyder here remade Romero’s 1978 effort and improved it in every way…acting, action, blood and the helpless feeling that the world is rapidly going to hell. Great dialogue exchange: “Is everyone there dead?” “Well, dead-ish.”

“Dead Alive”

(1992): Before earning a gazillion dollars in Middle-earth, Peter Jackson made a good living with extremely shocking schlock. This take on zombies is stunningly gory and terribly funny. IMDB’s trivia section states that during the famous lawnmower massacre, fake blood was pumped at five gallons per second. That speaks for itself.

“Les Diaboliques”

(1955): This effort from French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is one of the great psychological thrillers, with Simone Signoret helping kill her best friend’s husband…and suffering the consequences.

“Don’t Look Now”

(1973): Mourning the drowning death of their young daughter, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie go to overcast Venice to restore an old church. But weird sightings and premonitions plague them (oh, yeah…they also have one of the movies’ steamiest sex scenes) and it all ends badly. Nicolas Roeg directs from a Daphne Du Maurier story…it’s a classic case of creating a terrifying mood without resorting to cheap effects.

“Event Horizon”

(1997): Sure, it’s a mash-up of ideas from other, better films. But “Event Horizon” achieves one modest goal: it’s scary as hell. Because it gives you glimpses of hell, or as one of the ship’s crew puts it, “...a dimension of pure chaos. Pure evil.” The film’s sensational production design and good performances from Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne give it a weight not seen in typical horror fare.

“Halloween”

(1978): Young director John Carpenter was Given $350,000 to make “The Babysitter Murders,” young director John Carpenter made a terrifying film that relied far more on what you thought you saw than on the bloody makeup effects that filled this masterpiece’s dozens of imitators — and increasingly inferior sequels. A primer for how to make great horror.

“The Haunting”

(1963): The greatest haunted house movie of all time, based on the greatest haunted house book of all time (Shirley Jackson’s

The Haunting of Hill House

). The use of sound alone is enough to make this a terrifying film, but director Robert Wise (who, like Tourneur, learned from legendary RKO producer Val Lewton) includes psychological depth and plenty of visual style..

“The Hills Have Eyes”

(1977): Perfect American family (look for KC girl Dee Wallace) vacationing in an RV are stranded in the desert, where a family of mutants picks them off one by one. We much prefer this Wes Craven original to the recent remake.

“Hostel”

(2005 ): Eli Roth’s supremely sadistic yarn is set in an impoverished Eastern European burg that lures American college students with the promise of cheap booze and easy sex, then sells them to rich men to be tortured and killed. Reprehensible? Yes. Effective? Very.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

(1956): Director Don Siegel’s delicious descent into paranoia is about a small town where people begin changing. In fact, they’re being replaced by look-alike aliens hatched from seed pods from outer space. Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter are great as lovers on the run.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

(1978): Philip Kaufman’s remake is a worthy successor to the ’56 original. This one’s set in San Francisco, where Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams discover that everyone they know has become an emotionless drone.

“The Island of Lost Souls”

(1932): The first film version of the H.G. Wells story remains the best, with Charles Laughton as the mad scientist whose torturous experiments turn jungle animals into men and women. A seriously disturbing movie that gets under your skin.

“Jacob’s Ladder”

(1990): A movie as wide open to interpretation as any here, it terrifies because very little information is given to audiences outside of what the protagonist (Tim Robbins) knows. What he knows is that horribly deformed demonic figures are appearing and that people he goes to for help are either in league with them or end up dead. Or it’s all in his head. Maybe.

“Near Dark”

(1987): Take a quintessentially American genre — the Western — and mix it with the vampire, a creature from European myth.Here Katheryn Bigelow deconstructs both and slams them together in a bloody cocktail rich in symbolism and gore, but leavened with surprisingly sharp humor.

“Psycho”

(1960): Hitchcock’s terror masterpiece has lost some of its power to overfamiliarity. But in its day it so traumatized moviegoers that some refused to take showers.

“Nosferatu”

(1922): The first vampire movie ever is still the scariest, thanks to Max Shrek’s terrifying appearance as the undead Count Orlock.

“Session 9”

(2001): Set at the long-abandoned Danvers asylum near Boston, this is an almost unbearably tense film. Given the overall lack of violence or even a clear supernatural element, that’s a remarkable accomplishment. Director Brad Anderson just knows how to exploit our imaginations, which can conjure a lot out of the Danvers’ shadows.

“The Silence of the Lambs”

(1991): Ignore all subsequent Hannibal the Cannibal titles and concentrate on the original. Anthony Hopkins more than earned his Oscar, giving us in murderous genius Hannibal Lecter one of the scariest characters ever to grace the screen. All that and Jodie Foster, too.

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”

(1974): Pot-smoking teens fall prey to a family of murderous yokels and the horrifying Leatherface, a hulking, chainsaw-wielding freak who wears a mask sewn together from the skins of his victims. Tobe Hooper’s low-budget hit ushered in a new era of torture porn.

“Them!”

(1954): Warner Bros.’ low budget classic (it had originally been slated for color and 3-D) is a beautiful metaphor for the uncertainty all Americans felt at the dawn of the Atomic Age. Who knew what secrets lay within atoms....and what might spring forth when Man foolishly split them? And it began the giant bug film. (See also “Tarantula,” “The Deadly Mantis,” “Empire of the Ants”).

“The Thing”

(1982): A terrific piece of isolationist horror where anyone could be the Thing and escape is impossible. Rob Bottin was 22 when he supervised the makeup effects, which are unbelievable. And seeing Wilford Brimley go nuts is a treat you won’t see except maybe in Quaker Oats outtakes.

“The Wicker Man”

(1973): For most of its running time, Robin Hardy’s cult classic is just a cerebral mystery about the clash between repressed Christianity and sunny paganism. But, wow, that ending...if you don’t know, don’t let anyone tell you. Just let it unfold — and avoid the wretched 2006 remake.

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