All horror fans have a list. Even non-fans should remember one or two films that gave them a chill, and most people I know who avoid scary movies altogether have accidentally seen one film—or part of one—that stuck with them.
I’ve been watching horror since I can remember TV at all, beginning with the countless Hammer Film Productions, and several times, I’ve answered the question, “What are your favorite scary movies?” (I’ve never been asked this question by a creepy stranger on the phone, much to my disappointment.) When I’ve tried to answer, I’ve always been careful, making and revising lists, looking up plot lines to jar my memory, and even rewatching a few candidates to make comparisons, trying to include what I considered the very best movies—best stories, scripts, atmosphere, acting, directing, whatever.
But I never actually answered the question: What are my FAVORITE scary movies? The ones I remember most vividly, some since childhood, were the ones that charged my imagination and made me want to watch them again and again. I love finding victims who haven’t seen them before and initiating them.
Yeah. THOSE movies.
So here’s the list, my Top 13 as I recall them, without actually watching any of them again or researching them beyond checking dates. In order, leading up to my most favorite, which hasn’t changed since I first saw it at age twelve, they are:
13. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Some people argue that this film doesn’t fit neatly into the horror genre, but really, where else does it fit? And the transformation of a human into a bloodlusting werewolf was most impressive, without CG. It’s funny in places, horrifying in others, with wonderful interaction between the werewolf and the ghost of his first victim, his best friend. Plus, the cute Dr. Pepper guy!
12. Stir of Echoes (1999)
They sort of had me at Kevin Bacon, but this creepy film drew me in with its haunting atmosphere, turning an ordinary suburban street into a weird mini-world. The hypnotism scene nearly put me under, and I love watching people get obsessed, turning their lives upside down to figure out some mystery that will not let go of them. It almost makes me wish it would happen to me. Almost.
11. The House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Yes, the original is a classic and was ground-breaking upon its release, but it’s too silly to watch over and over. The remake has its funny moments, interspersed with wonderfully scary scenes. The setting has been given an imaginative makeover, and the characters are modernized nicely. I love Chris Kattan as morbid comic relief playing off some very creepy death scenes. Look for a cameo by James Martsers.
10. House of Wax (1953 and 2005)
This is a cheat, because I’m including both the original and the remake, two very different films. Of course, the first starred Vincent Price and was ambient and menacing, both psychologically and atmospherically. The remake has little to do, story-wise, with the original, but I still loved it, because the wax museum has morphed into an entire town filled with dead people preserved in wax, with a few living psychos about. One entire house is even made of wax. I adore haunted and abandoned towns, and this one is truly original. And Paris Hilton dies so well.
9. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
I know, I know. It’s one of the most ridiculed horror films of all time. But I liked it. I’m skilled at suspending disbelief—what fun is life otherwise?—and I loved the idea of this town where everyone has a Blair Witch story, even if it’s third-hand. (Again with the haunted towns.) It has some slow parts, but some fine freakiness, too. And I live and breathe freakiness. I also loved the ending, which so many people hated.
8. Halloween (1978)
Well, of course. This film came out a couple of years after I decided, at a weirdly young age, that trick-or-treating was far less fun than haunting my own front yard and wigging people out. My mom bought the best candy anyway and always had a lot left over. But this film takes me back to the heart of suburbia Halloween in the 70s. I love watching it, even though I’ve memorized it almost to the point where I could perform it in a one-woman show, playing all the parts.
7. The Other (1972)
This is about twin boys—one somewhat innocent and the other somewhat not—and their peculiar isolated life as it escalates into the horrible. There are twists, which I won’t reveal, but this is one of the earliest films that inspired some of my own work, and I remember some scenes as if they happened to me rather than to characters in a movie.
6. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Most people I know had never heard of this film before they met me. Most people I’ve forced to watch it with me have been unimpressed. But the setting—a small farmhouse in a small New England town—and the quiet eeriness get me every time. Is Jessica crazy? Should she still be in the nuthouse, or is everyone really out to get her? And what a title.
5. The Skeleton Key (2005)
The most mainstream film on my list, cast with actors who were actually stars before they appeared in it, this movie is great in so many ways: New Orleans, an isolated plantation house, a mysterious door in the attic, and plenty of What-the-hell-is-going-on? that resolves perfectly. Looking at Peter Sarsgaard and listening to him speak with a soft southern lilt doesn’t suck, either.
4. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
What don’t I like about this film? Nothing. It picked up the Halloween movie torch and is still carrying it, in my opinion. It’s set in yet another odd town where Halloween is celebrated with more verve than average. Every kind of haunt comes together in a brilliant montage story with the best Halloween cinematography ever, as far as I’m aware.
3. Phantasm (1979)
This was a very close contender for second place, because the weird factor is so high, and I heart weird. It’s also a big influence on my own work, with strange local characters guarding crazy secrets, a cemetery and mortuary with lives of their own, and who can forget the Tall Man? Some slips into sci-fi don’t even irk me, because they’re so damned bizarre.
2. Prince of Darkness (1987)
What nudged this film into second place over Phantasm is simply the fear factor: the premise of this movie scares me. I won’t give it away, because anyone who hasn’t seen it should. It’s got death and monsters, some ick, and a lot of mystery and frights. But it’s also smart and thought- provoking. If the notion that there really could be a devil or a god or something much worse unsettles you, you must see this film.
1. The Changeling (1980)
Well if you know me, you’re not surprised. I’ve only been pushing this film for nearly thirty-five years. Immediately after I watched it, I went to my friend’s house to spend the night, and I scared the bejesus out of her and her sister, telling them the story from beginning to end. This film will likely remain on the top of my list forever. A solid ghost story, it was genuinely scary the first time I saw it, and the setting is the best haunted house I can recall. George C. Scott is the perfect haunted man— in mourning and yet brave, inquisitive, reasonable, kind, and strong…it is a treat to watch him come nearly unglued and yet refuse to give up.
I still get chills remembering some scenes from The Changeling, and it has the only instance ever of a single whispered word making me shiver with delighted fright from neck to toes, gasping, “OH MY GOD.” Watch it, watch it, watch it.
Oh, and one honorable mention: That Friday the 13th that had Crispin Glover in it, because of Crispin Glover’s performance, even the dancing.
So. They are not necessarily the best. But I’ll watch them again and again with anyone who asks.
How about you? Are the horror films you consider the best the same ones you love most? Is there a wild divergence? Do we have any in common?
Got any popcorn?