I thought it apropos to post my personal top 10 horror films of all-time as my last Halloween related post. I should clarify that this isn’t a list of what I feel are the best horror films ever made. Simply put, these are movies that for one reason or another, they put a serious scare in me. What people find scary can be a very unique and personal blend of themes and imagery. While in my teens, I did enjoy the typical slasher horror films like Halloween, Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street, but the psycho-killer themes never really frightened me. And while I went through a stage where I was really into Japanese horror films like Gin gwai, Ringu, Hausu, Ju-on and Tetsuo, these movies gave me some startling jump-out-of-my-seat moments, but really didn’t haunt my dreams like the following films did.
Now, I will be the first to admit that a couple of these films may not have been critical darlings or even particularly well made movies. But for a variety of reasons, they stayed with me long after the closing credits. Personally, its movies with paranormal, occult or religious themes that gets my pulse and imagination hopping. Without further adieu, I present my top 10 horror films of all-time.
10. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari – 1920
Before the advent of VHS and Beta videos in the late 70s, people were stuck with watching what was available on television. Unless of course you had a Dad like mine who invested in a Super 8 video camera to capture all the sights and sounds of our family Christmas or trips to Boblo Island. And with the camera came the Super 8 projector. We often borrowed from our local library Little Rascals and Three Stooges films, and then on one fateful evening, my Dad took out The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Looking back, I’m not sure if it had more to do with the grainy black and white nightmarish images, or the loud chugging sound of the Super 8 projector as the accompanying soundtrack, but this movie scared the pants off of me. In my own defence, I was probably only 7 years old at the time, and even Sir Graves Ghastly used to frighten the crap out of me. But I learned very quickly that scary films can plant psychological seeds that can quickly blossom into sleepless nights.
9. Nosferatu – 1922
Sticking with vintage silent horror films, Nosferatu was another gem that I had access to at a way too early age. I think I saw this F. W. Murnau classic for the first time at around age 9. The footage of Nosferatu rising up out of his coffin on the ship was forever burned in my memory. Truly nightmarish images. In my mind, no one has ever captured the horrific and creepy, blood thirsty Count like Max Schreck (watch from 2000 the excellent Shadow of the Vampire for a modern take on the making of Nosferatu).
8. Eraserhead – 1977
No horror film list would be complete without this “movie” from the brilliantly twisted mind of David Lynch. I don’t really consider this film to be scary in the traditional sense, but definitely disturbing and unsettling to watch. To me, this film is like putting a nightmare on celluloid. Super bizarre scenes and performances and an off-beat soundtrack like nails on a chalkboard. I couldn’t get this film out of my mind for weeks after seeing it for the first time. Truly creepy.
7. Don’t Look Now – 1973
Here’s another “wrong place at the wrong time” film from my childhood. When I was around 10, I stayed up late watching this movie one night when my parents were out. Overall, not the scariest movie ever made, but I have to confess that I saw the image of that creepy dwarf (I guess I should say creepy little person) in the red coat in my dreams every night for a month. I used to dream that I was talking to my Mom and then she would all of a sudden transform into the little dwarf (not to be confused with an equally terrifying dream from my childhood where my Mom had a moustache). She would have her same voice, but look like the dwarf – what’s the matter Chris…what’s the matter Chris…OK, enough of that – I’m gonna have flash-backs.
6. Carnival of Souls – 1962
Another childhood nightmare gem. Saw this movie when I was around 12 – actually, I think I saw it on Sir Graves Ghastly! Damn you! Like Eraserhead, this movie just seems odd with strange performances and dialogue. There’s something about low budget black and white films that give that documentary feeling and hence, seems more realistic. The recurring dream and scene near the end where the legendary Candace Hilligoss is running through the abandoned pavilion really creeped me out. The sped up film speed makes it even more nightmare-like. Another great thing about this film, it was one of the first movies I saw that had a strong twist at the end – way before films like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club and The Usual Suspects, the ending of Carnival of Souls came as a big surprise. I won’t spoil it for you here – so nuff said.
5. Night of the Living Dead – 1968
What could be scarier than being hunted by blood-thirsty zombies hell-bent on devouring your flesh? Not much! This Halloween classic from George A. Romero was my first exposure to zombie apocalypse-type movies. And like the other low-budget black and white films mentioned, Night of the Living Dead has that creepy documentary feel to it. You can almost put yourself in that farm house waiting for the zombies to knock down the door or crash through the windows. This film and the Cha Cha Heston classic The Omega Man spawned for me a long run of “last-person-on-earth-being-hunted-by-things-that-want-to-eat-me” type nightmares. My dreams would never be the same.
4. Race with the Devil – 1975
I know, I know…WTF! Here’s yet another example of a film that may not have been a great film (wouldn’t be too surprised if no one even heard of it) – but it falls into the same category as the zombie films, except the zombies are devil worshippers. The scene that really creeped me out and upset me the most (bear in mind, I was around 11 when I saw it) – was when the people being hunted were at the trailer park and all the campers there were so friendly and everyone was smiling. Yes, they were smiling because they were so looking forward to sacrificing their guests to Satan! This movie taught me not to trust anyone, especially the smiling people at the Ponderosa campground we used to frequent when I was a child. Films like this are very educational for children.
3. Prince of Darkness – 1987
I always loved John Carpenter movies growing up. The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing and the list goes on. But his one film that really freaked me out the most was Prince of Darkness. Of course, the church and religious themes were part of it, but more specifically – that transmission from the future with the choppy voice-over warning and grainy footage of a demon or Beelzebub himself walking out of the church haunted my dreams. Pure John Carpenter genius – the “found video clip” angle long before Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Awesome.
2. The Exorcist – 1973
Not much needs to be said about this entry at number 2. It has all the ingredients I need for a sleepless night. Demonic possession, exorcism, shocking scenes and a haunting soundtrack. Although this is only one scene of many, the one where the door slams and you hear frantic footsteps running down the hall and then Linda Blair comes scampering down the stairs in that reverse crab-walk had me trembling. I still second guess myself when I see that it is showing on television – should I or shouldn’t I watch it. A film not for the faint of heart.
1. The Amityville Horror – 1979
No film in history had such a profound effect on my childhood like this movie. I was 12 at the time, and me and my 14 year old brother and two cousins somehow got into a matinee showing of this “based on a true story” film. I remember my brother asking me over and over during the movie, are you okay…are you okay…knowing all too well that this type of stuff usually scared the heck out of me. But no, I soldiered on to try and look brave and watched the entire movie. Without a word of a lie, I did not sleep for 3 days (other than dosing off in my grade school classroom). My eldest brother was in his late 20s at the time and living at home. When he would come home late at night and make his way slowly up the creaking stairs to his room, I would hold my breathe and pray that my bedroom door wouldn’t slowly open and the barrel of a blood splattered shotgun rise into view. I really should have received therapy for that traumatic movie-going experience, but I was finally able to move on after a couple months of restless nights. The moral of the story is, parents – make sure you know what your kids are watching! Happy Halloween and for now, back to the cage.