As usual, distilling the value of a film into a short paragraph and ranking it against every other film ever released in the same genre is imperfect, subjective and quite frankly, irrational — but it sure is fun. So continuing our “TMA’s Greatest” series that began with our TMA’s 25 Greatest Sports Movies of All Time, we decided to make a list of the 25 best horror movies ever made. But before you proceed to the list and get bent out of shape because your favorite movie didn’t make the list, remember this: we specifically decided to make a list of the “greatest” as opposed to the “scariest” horror movies because scary doesn’t always indicate the quality of a film, and vice versa. Also, as thorough and meticulous as we were in constructing the list, there are bound to be omissions. Feel free to let us know what we missed. And finally, this list is intended to spark discussion and debate. Please, tell your friends, leave comments, and most of all, have fun!
25. The Ring (2002)
It’s become popular among fanboys and purists to claim that “Ringu,” the Japanese film upon which it is based, is better than Gore Verbinski’s remake starring Naomi Watts. No. As good as Hideo Nakata’s original is, Verbinksi’s version retains and improves all of its great elements and cuts most of the flaws. What’s most impressive is perhaps the film’s mild PG-13 rating. Verbinksi proved that mindless gore and over-the-top violence are unnecessary in the quest for horror. Mood, sound storytelling and carefully placed pertinent imagery are more than enough to get the job done.
24. Black Sunday (1960)
This list wouldn’t be complete without the work of Italian exploitation icon, Mario Bava. Some of his work has faded with time and he’s even been criticized by some as an overrated director, but one thing is certain, “Black Sunday” has withstood the test of time and remains one of the great horror films ever produced. The film takes a familiar storyline and maximizes its potential with breathtaking imagery and an eerie, unsettling tone. It may not scare in the same way that modern audiences have come to expect, but its unique hypnotic, atmospheric aura and its stunning visuals are what make “Black Sunday” special.
23. Dead Alive (1993)
Most casual movie fans have no idea that the beloved New Zealander behind the epic fantasy blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” films was actually quite well-known for some of the most absurd, schlockiest, funniest, goriest, cheesiest horror movies of all time. And his third feature, “Dead Alive,” is the culmination of it all. At once hysterically funny and nauseatingly disgusting, Jackson’s ridiculous and surprisingly intelligent send up of 1950s New Zealand culture ranks among the most enjoyable movie-watching experiences of all time.
22. The Haunting (1963)
Another early sixties horror classic makes the list in Robert Wise’s “The haunting.” This time period in American cinema was a hotbed for artful frights. What makes this black and white gem so special is not necessarily that it was the scariest movie ever released at the time (which it was), but that its approach to the genre was so effective and unique. The house, not some monstrous killer, became the central character and the film’s amorphous supernatural element lent itself to some interesting psychological commentary and some of the best scares ever put to film.
21. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Audiences are still polarized on this trend-bucking experimental film billed as real “found footage” of some students working on a documentary about a local ghost legend. The shaky cam made some people sick while others simply refused to buy into the concept. Their loss. The impact this creative little film had on the landscape of horror is undeniable. It tapped into the most primal of human fears — being utterly lost and at the mercy of something you do not know and do not understand. And the perfectly understated ending is one of the best of any horror film ever made. Dozens of copycats emerged but none could capture the magic of “Blair Witch.”
20. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Expensive special effects? Big name actors? Award-winning creature makeup? Who needs it? Herk Harvey’s classic creep-fest sure doesn’t. This super-mini budget 1962 horror flick does just fine without a Hollywood-sized checkbook, and it’s all the better for it. This strikingly original little film is one of the best products of America’s love affair with drive-in B-movies during the late fifties and early sixties. Horror movies are all about atmosphere, and it doesn’t get much better than the unbearably tense, unnerving creepiness of “Carnival of Souls.”
19. Nosferatu (1922)
Kids these days that equate horror with gallons of blood and brutalized coeds are missing the point. Any hack with a camera can do that. What sets F.W. Murnau’s creepy silent masterpiece apart is the storytelling. Silent films don’t have the luxury of dialogue which means if you don’t want people to fall asleep or lose interest you’re going to have tell a cohesive, compelling story using images alone. It’s not easy, but “Nosferatu,” an unauthorized retelling of Bram Stoker’s famed story “Dracula,” maximizes its strengths and has endured as one of the best vampire films ever made.
18. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel’s cult masterpiece of McCarthy-era paranoia stands the test of time as one of the most chilling depictions of destructive tribalism every put to film. Few viewers got the political message in 1956, and considering its expert manipulation of perception and very creepy imagery, it’s not hard to see why. Siegel’s brilliant direction lends “Body Snatcher” a unique balance of paranoia, politics, terror and fun. It’s every bit as good today as it was in 1956.
17. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Another unique film in that it is a significant improvement over its classic predecessor. James Whale’s sequel to the already beloved and influential “Frankenstein” (1931) accomplishes the unthinkable by upping the satire, sharpening the wit, improving the horror and maximizing the nuance and intrigue associated with the iconic character. It also doesn’t hurt to have the genius of Boris Karloff at your disposal. The master partnership of Karloff and Whale with the addition of Elsa Lanchester make this surreal romp a great watch even three quarters of century later.
16. 28 Days Later (2003)
Danny Boyle puts a stylish spin on the zombie apocalypse picture. Shot on beautiful digital video, “28 Days Later” is a multi-layered exploration of humanity in the information age, animal rights, Darwinian science, survival and the meaning of personal relationships. Boyle tempers the political content with a heap of gory action, great scares and an expertly executed sense of unavoidable terror and isolation. “28 Days Later” may be the best horror movie of the modern era.
15. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
What if the most terrifying evil of all wasn’t some hulking monster with giant fangs or some crazed serial killer? What if everyone around you, even the nicest most non-threatening folks you knew suddenly wanted nothing more than to rip your flesh apart and eat you alive? George Romero wondered this and decided to follow the concept to its logical conclusion. He ended up with a groundbreaking, socially conscious film that marked the birth of a brand new horror sub-genre and would seep into every crevice of society and change the course of horror movies forever.
14. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s unforgettable foray into the last place you thought you were safe — dreamland. This is the film that introduced us to Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a wise-cracking undead child murderer who with his grotesquely burnt face and crudely fashioned clawed glove forever stigmatized striped sweaters and fedoras. The concept was unique and terrifying, but like most great horror films “Nightmare” synthesized the underlying issues of its time into a fun, scary and intelligent reflection of the darkest corners of society.
13. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg isn’t the first guy people usually think of when talking about horror. In his prime most of his films were huge family friendly blockbusters that sought the widest audiences possible. And he certainly made some brilliant studio movies, but one of his best is his ode to old fashioned B-movie monster flicks — “Jaws.” By only showing glimpses of a 24 foot mechanical shark named Bruce a couple of times and laying an ominous two-note score under shots of dozens of water-treading adolescent legs, Spielberg successfully terrified a generation into staying out of the water.
12. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Our respects to fans of “Army of Darkness” and the original “Evil Dead,” both of which are great films, but the second installment in Sam Raimi’s wholly original trilogy of schlocky horror/comedy fun is the best of the bunch. This time Ash (Bruce Campbell) is back in the foreboding woods battling more over-the-top evil Sam Raimi creations. “Evil Dead 2” is the perfect combination of the outlandish comedy of the third film and the innovative camera techniques, sound design and thrillingly unique approach of the first.
11. The Fly (1986)
It’s not often that a remake bests the original, but director David Cronenberg isn’t known for reinforcing the status quo. His update of Kurt Neumann’s 1956 classic does just about everything right. It’s disgusting, intriguing, thoughtful, intelligent, creepy and — did I mention disgusting? Geena Davis is great (whatever happened to her? Isn’t she in MENSA?), but Jeff Goldblum turns in the best performance of his career as the titular fly. And with layers of subtext ranging from what it means to age, to the implications of the AIDS epidemic, “The Fly” is a masterful film from a master director.
10. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero practically invented the zombie movie with his brilliant landmark effort, the minimalist masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead,” in 1968. And then a decade later he perfected it with the bloody, claustrophobic, relentlessly terrifying sequel. Like any great work of art, “Dawn of the Dead” holds a mirror up to society and effectively and unapologetically rips into its absurdities. In this case the target is modern consumer culture.
9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
An evil, evil movie — pure and simple. Master director, Roman Polanski, brought his distinct visual flair and unique insight into human psychology to mutate one of life’s great events into an horrific, tormenting, hellish curse. With a murderers’ row of film luminaries working on the film including Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Maurice Evans and Ruth Gordon starring, and legendary huckster William Castle producing, it’s no wonder Polanski’s thrilling adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel is one of the great horror films of all time.
8. Halloween (1978)
Fittingly, still a Halloween favorite to this day, John Carpenter’s masterpiece of faceless horror is the pinnacle of boogieman terror. Its introduction into the world spawned legions of imitators and profoundly impacted not only the horror genre but the shape of cinema and popular culture on the whole. Far from a mindless slasher flick, John Carpenter’s precise and calculated direction elevates the material to the level of true art. Aside from its noted influence and impact as a landmark in the industry, this movie works on visceral level — tapping into the deepest of human insecurities. This is one for the ages.
7. Alien (1979)
Few directors had as much creativity and disciplined control of their craft as Ridley Scott in his heyday. And “Alien,” only his second feature film, holds the rare distinction of being simultaneously among the greatest sci-fi and horror movies of all time. This slasher flick set in space is the premier demonstration of audience control. Scott plays his viewers like a piano, building unbearable tension and wisely choosing to limit the exposure of the grotesque killer extraterrestrial to maximize the effect of its blood-letting appearances.
6. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Although some would probably categorize this Jonathan Demme flick as a psychological crime thriller, there’s no denying the sheer terror, creepiness and sense of impending doom its many horror elements evoke. Armed with a formidable triumvirate of world-class talent (Demme, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster), “Lambs” delves inside the minds and explores the motivations behind a brilliant cannibal, a plucky FBI rookie and a twisted serial killer, and flawlessly performs a delicate ballet of cutting psychological terror, human insecurity and a pinch of good old fashioned horror movie gore.
5. Psycho (1960)
Hailed not only as a great horror movie, but as a major landmark in visual storytelling. The red herring found great favor in Hitchcock’s directing quiver and wowed movie-goers like never before in this brilliant exercise in audience manipulation and misdirection. Packed with the expert craftsmanship that only Hitchcock could deliver and some of the most iconic scenes ever put to film, including the infamous shower scene and the chilling twist ending, horror was never the same after “Psycho” — and that’s a good thing.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Remarkably gory for its time, the influence of Tobe Hooper’s innovative and uncompromising indie slash-fest can still be felt decades after its release. Although the film is completely fictional (with some elements of real life serial killer Ed Gein thrown in), Hooper and company had a stroke of genius by billing it as the true story of a group of teens massacred on a road trip in rural Texas by a family cannibals, which added a sense of real terror to the experience. And the primary antagonist, Leatherface, a mentally retarded serial killer who wears a mask made of human skin, remains the preeminent slasher villain, setting the precedent for the hordes of hulking, unstoppable power tool-wielding killers that followed.
3. The Exorcist (1973)
Based on William Peter Blatty’s supposedly true story of the demonic possession of a young child, “The Exorcist” insidiously exploits and subverts deep-seeded religious fears to the max. As far as we know, “The Exorcist” is the only film to be nominated for Best Picture that features an adolescent violating herself with a cross, spewing green pea soup and deviously laughing while her head spins. But what’s so great about the movie is that it’s really not about demonic possession at all. It’s called “The Exorcist” for a reason. The real conflict is actually raging inside of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the young priest and first-time exorcist. The end product is a surprisingly mature meditation on guilt, faith, masculinity and the loss of a loved one.
2. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s magnum opus. This sci-fi tinged horror remake follows a crew of rough-and-tumble scientists stationed at an Antarctic base pitted against a devious shape-shifting alien. “The Thing,” unlike most traditional horror films with clearly defined villains, leaves our small crew at the mercy of an evil that could be anywhere, anyone, or anything — even the dog. It is a masterpiece of mood, tone and tension that also boasts some of the best practical monster effects in film. They’re so good, in fact, that they’re still more believable than most of Hollywood’s high tech CGI effects used today.
1. The Shining (1980)
We realize this isn’t really fair. Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest artists, of any medium, of the 20th century. His credits include perhaps the greatest comedy ever made (“Dr. Strangelove”) the greatest science fiction movie of all time (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) and one of the most subversive, insightful social commentaries ever made (“A Clockwork Orange”). So it’s only natural that this titan would eventually make it around to horror. And when he finally did in 1980 adapting Steven King’s chilling book about a small family left alone in a haunted hotel in the secluded mountains of Colorado, the result was nothing less than terrifying, atmospheric, haunting brilliance. Combine one of Jack Nicholson’s most demanding and iconic performances with the sure hand and unmatched craftsmanship of a master director and you’ve got the greatest horror film ever made.