We watch movies in order to experience a roller-coaster ride of emotional responses. Horror movies aim to evoke fear, whose family of tertiary emotions consist of shock, alarm, mortification, panic, hysteria, horror, terror and fright. Whether or not a horror movie is good or bad is subjective. This short article explores those movies which are commonly regarded as the top horror movies; the movies that – for one reason or another – most potently engaged our fears.
Originally a book by Robert Bloch, later adapted for the screen by Joseph Stefano, and famously directed by the late, great Alfred Hitchcock, this is the seminal slasher movie that shocked America and set the fear-formula for many future horror movies. We have a serial killer who dresses in drag to imitate his Mother; we have a beautiful heroine who, shockingly, dies a third of the way in; we see a bloody bathroom scene that was all the more jarring for earlier audiences, who were unused to seeing toilets on cinema screens. But none of this captures what really terrifies us about Psycho, for psycho is an exploration into madness, a place where – God forbid – anyone of us might one day journey.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
A group of people hold up in a farmhouse and must fight off the hungry advances of an approaching zombie army. Written by John A Russo and George A Romero, and directed by Romero in 1968, this is the original zombie flick that even today ranks as one of the top horror movies ever put on film. What makes it so scary? Honestly, I think it’s the simplicity. We have a lonely farmhouse besieged by the undead and no explanation as to why the dead are rising, other than the haunting line “when there is no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth”. We have zombies obsessed with one thing: eating the living; and the living obsessed with one goal: avoiding becoming a zombie-dinner! Even the film stock is simple: grainy black and white. At times, perhaps when the camera jolts and the sound crackles, as we watch brain dead zombies tear apart and chew on their freshly dead neighbors, we get the distinct impression of documentary filmmaking. Simplicity can be terrifying.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The movie that proves sequels can surpass their originals. Boris Karloff reprises the role that made him famous, that of The Monster and, likewise, James Whale returns to direct another sinister masterpiece. The primary theme in both Frankenstein movies is man should not play God because there will be horrible consequences; indeed, even The Monster is aware that his existence is an abomination. What makes Bride better than Frankenstein? I’d say both Whale and Karloff use their experience of the original to enhance their performances.
In Halloween we see a deranged murderer escape a mental asylum and return to his home town where he slays the local teenagers. The movie opens with a scene from the point-of-view of Michael, a young boy who proceeds to massacre his sister with a kitchen knife. This sets a shocking and unpredictable tone for the rest of the movie. Yet again simplicity in horror proves to be the terrifying ingredient, easily making this one of the top horror movies ever made. Michael is a simple, yet efficient killing machine, much like the shark in Jaws. What we find so chilling about him is his God-like ability to remain alive, but – as they say – you cannot kill the bogeyman!
The Exorcist (1973)
The best word to describe The Exorcist? Shocking. A girl who becomes possessed by an evil entity and her mother enlists the help of two priests to save her. Watching this movie you get the distinct impression that what you see is real. Audiences are compelled to believe both the Devil and his demons exist. But what truly shocks are the taboos: a weak, alcoholic priest; intense use of blasphemy; a young girl who urinates, curses, blasphemes and implores a priest to sexually gratify her. The Exorcist leaves you with a persistent uneasy feeling, wherein you find yourself believing more so in the devil, a creature whose evil is definitely unquantifiable.
There are many more top horror movies but you’ll find the five listed above to be those commonly regarded as the scariest.
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