Here is the list of 200 Greatest Horror films. Horror is one of the most primal types of film. Perhaps some of the first stories humans ever told were of the horror genre, warning of the beasts and monsters that lurked outside at night. Now special effects and other narrative techniques work to bring tales of modern monsters to billions across the globe. This list of 200 greatest horror films is a guide for both a film neophyte wanting to see the best of the best and a film expert looking for a masterpiece she may have overlooked.
Each curated list at FilmsRanked.com takes into account genre acclaim, prestige, popularity, and awards. They can serve as an introduction to a genre while also challenging film buffs who are looking to round out their knowledge.
Like many parents of young children, I’ve spent a lot of this time of quarantine watching Disney +. A lot of time.
There are a lot of questions to puzzle over in the Frozen franchise. Was Anna included in Elsa’s seclusion or not? She sings as though she’s never been outside the castle, and yet she has a horse and seems to know her way around the kingdom. Why would she be included? And who enforced that rule after her parents’ deaths? For that matter, Elsa’s delayed coronation implies a period of regency, yet no one in Frozenor Frozen II appears to have played that role. There are no advisers or ministers to manage the kingdom while Elsa and Anna go off on their adventures — the royal siblings appoint outsiders Prince Hans of the Southern Isles and Grandpa Troll to watch over Arendelle.
But the biggest mystery in the world of Arendelle is the economy.
The Duke of Wesleton calls Arendelle his “most mysterious trade partner.” What is so mysterious? What goods does Wesleton trade with Arendelle? What are the “riches” Wesleton plans to exploit?
Arendelle is based on the nation of Norway in the early 19th Century. The Disney Wiki uses information from the short sequel Frozen Fever to narrow the setting down to an exact month:
The time period for Frozen is set in July 1839. In the upper left-hand corner of the geographical map shown in Frozen Fever, it is suggested by a set of Roman numerals that the year in which Anna turned nineteen was 1840. (MDCCCXL is the exact numeral order.)
During the last decades of the eighteenth century the Norwegian economy bloomed along with a first era of liberalism. Foreign trade of fish and timber had already been important for the Norwegian economy for centuries, and now the merchant fleet was growing rapidly. Bergen, located at the west coast, was the major city, with a Hanseatic office and one of the Nordic countries’ largest ports for domestic and foreign trade.
When Norway gained its independence from Denmark in 1814, after a tight union covering 417 years, it was a typical egalitarian country with a high degree of self-supply from agriculture, fisheries and hunting.
Norway’s economy didn’t really take off until 1842, just after the events of Frozen. This was due to trade liberalization and the decision by farmers to switch from arable land to livestock production. Exports of timber, fish, and ships also skyrocketed.
But real-world Norwegian economic history isn’t reflected in what we see in the film.
When Wesleton sees Prince Hans handing out blankets, he angrily confronts him saying:
“Are we just expected to sit here and freeze while you give away all of Arendelle’s tradeable goods?”
From the get-go, ice is established as an important industry. And for good reason. As our main man Frederic Tudor showed us around the turn of the 19th century, ice can be quite a valuable commodity. Before the establishment of the ice trade, it was only an item for the aristocracy. But harvesting and storing it in a large quantity allows for the preservation of foods throughout the year without an over reliance on salt, which also in-turn reduces dependency on expensive spices that were used to balance a meal’s flavor-profile.
As strange as it seems, Frozen very much presents ice as the center of Arendelle’s economy.
This presents a disturbing possibility. King Agnarr sequesters his daughter Elsa and tells her not to use her powers. He says this is because he wants to protect his other daughter, Anna. This rationale never really makes sense to most viewers. And why erase Anna’s memory as well? That hardly seems necessary.
But these actions *do* make sense if King Agnarr is trying to protect his country’s economy.
Imagine you’re Prime Minister of Kuwait. Your economy is heavily dependent on exporting oil. Then one day, a girl is born who starts running around, creating oil out of thin air. And not just a little bit of oil — she can generate enough oil to fill a palace ballroom in less than a minute.
If you let her, she’ll give free oil to everyone. Prices will plummet. Your nation’s businesses will collapse, and unemployment will skyrocket. People like Kristoff will starve to death. Within months, your subjects will be brandishing pitchforks at the palace door.
So you lock her up.
One day, when she’s older and can understand, you’ll let her use her power. An inexhaustible supply of oil can bring your nation great riches, as long as it’s properly managed.
In the meantime, you’ll go on a secret voyage to learn more about exactly how the girl got her powers. Obviously, no one else can be trusted with this knowledge — you and your spouse will have to go yourselves.
World War I’s impact on modern art and philosophy are well documented. The Victorian Age took human progress for granted. The Enlightenment idea that rationality would continuously improve and perfect civilization ruled. That view of the world died, along with 16 million people. The universe seemed broken, and death reigned.
This feeling found expression in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, Otto Dix’s art, in Dada and Surrealism – and in political movements that often turned destructive.
Poole’s treatment of three films in particular stand out:
The first is Abel Gance’s J’accuse. Shooting began in August 1918, and the film is most memorable for its scene in which the war dead rise to march on French civilians who have forgotten their sacrifice. Although these characters are not zombies in the sense we think of them now, their manner and visual presentation have been adapted by horror filmmakers working in the zombie genre. Poole points out that the cemetery in George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead is decorated with war ribbons.
The dead are treated differently in horror made during and after the war than in horror before the war. Edgar Allen Poe wrote of corrupted souls and demonic forces. The zombies who dominate contemporary horror have no souls.
Victorian Era spirituality sentimentalized the dead, with highly ornate mourning rituals. These disappeared virtually overnight when the war broke out – and entire culture changing the way it saw death. Now, people were surrounded by bodies and parts of bodies that were clearly not alive. The mutilated soldiers and civilians seemed to make a mockery of the idea that humans were anything other than animated sacks of flesh.
The soulless nature of these zombies was used by Romero to create an allegory of capitalism. I read the wights in HBO’s Game of Thrones as sharing a theme with Gance’s soldiers — the dead return to haunt those who live at their expense.
The scene in J’Accuse is rendered even more horrifying when you learn that Gance used real soldiers on leave to play these parts. 80% of them were killed within a few weeks.
Nosferatu, the 1922 German Expressionist classic, has its roots deep in the Great War. Producer Albin Grau, the driving force behind the film, was an occultist who served in the German Army during the war. It was there a Serbian farmer told him the story of how his father was a vampire, inspiring Grau to create a vampire story of his own.
Director F. W. Muranu experienced horrific trauma during the war. He was drafted and after surviving the Battle of Verdun, Murnau served in the new German Air Force where he was shot down several times and became a prisoner of war. His lover, the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, was killed in vicious melee combat on the Eastern Front.
Nosferatu was largely based on Braum Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, but it departs from the source material in several ways. Poole emphasizes the way Nosferatu links the vampire with a plague destroying Europe – seeing both as an analog for the war.
Grau encouraged this interpretation, telling critics and audiences the film had to be seen in the light of the war. Grau called the war “a cosmic vampire” that had come “drinking the blood of millions.”
Poole also examines the horrifying scene in which the body of Count Orlok is found in its coffin:
“The vision of a corpse existing at some unthinkable intersection of life and death proved compellingly terrifying for this generation… What had the war revealed about the human body and the ancient concept of the soul? People had witnessed too much death and mutilation. Loved ones had not died peacefully in their bed after some encouragingly precious final words. Rather, they had been torn apart, their bodies never found, or they walked about in the trancelike state of shell shock, often scarred, burned, sickened or blind. Nosferatu evoked this terror for a country that had seen more than its share of corpses.”
Nosferatu had, and continues to have, enormous influence over horror art even outside the world of film. Poole writes that groups of surrealist artists would host Rocky Horror-like screenings of Nosferatu, in which they’d shout of the words of the intertitles on screen.
There was a sense that traditional means of expression and thought cannot cope with the mass death of the war. Poole’s book spends time with surrealism and Dada, with Sigmund Freud, Otto Dix, Franz Kafka, H. P. Lovecraft and T. S. Eliot.
Out of this milieu of frightening death and confusion came some of the most enduring and recognizable characters of the 20th Century — the Universal Monsters.
I think Poole overstates his case a bit in this chapter. He writes that James Whale’s Frankenstein monster is a “mound of corpses” that represent the dead from the war. I don’t see any evidence that Frankenstein or the rest of the Universal cycle was inspired directly by the Great War. But it certainly is true they were inspired by films inspired by the great war. In the same way, the look of the White Walkers in Game of Thrones wasn’t inspired directly by Great War soldiers, but rather come from a tradition of zombie portrayal and conception that has roots in the Gance’s J’accuse.
And Frankenstein certainly took its look directly from the German Expressionist horror that arose in the wake of the war. Whale screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari repeatedly while making Frankenstein, and the design of Castle Frankenstein and the doctor’s laboratory were heavily influenced by Nosferatu.
Poole’s Wasteland has plenty to offer beyond these three films. I found his treatment of Salvador Dalí ‘s vicious racism and support of fascism enlightening. He also relates how Bela Lugosi served in the Austria-Hungary elite ski corps during the war and once buried himself under a large pile of corpses to hide from Russian troops. He was later discharged for war neurosis — fascinating background for the man who would embody the idea of the undead.
The book offers innumerable intriguing ideas and backgrounds like these. It’s a fascinating take on the war and some of the overlooked ways its legacy sticks with us today.
The form of Woman in the Dunes is horror, but its soul is a family tragedy. A middle-aged man finds himself trapped in an ever-collapsing home. His wife adores him, and he may love her too, but they cannot help but fight. His heart, even in the blissful moments of home life, is set on escape. He wanted to do something more — be something more — but he seems doomed to be the husband and father that everyone else seems to believe he wants to be.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and August Wilson’s Fences fit in here. While the men on their stages struggle against the invisible forces of responsibility and inadequacy, Kobo Abe renders his story’s antagonist physically. The sand pit.
No matter what Niki Junpei does, he cannot escape the sand. The more he struggles upwards, the quicker he is pushed downwards. His persistence, his hard work, lead him nowhere.
And yet, Junpei seems to achieve a sense of peace with his situation. Perhaps the material nature of his enemy provides an exit in a way that Willy Lowman’s and Troy’s enemies cannot.
I love horror films with a slow, patient build. Audition is the best at this I’ve ever seen. It follows the same basic pattern as Hitchcock’s The Birds. The first 90 minutes of a film with a 115-minute running time plays like an elegiac romance. Aoyama is a lonely widower. His son and best friend both urge him to remarry. Both the setup and the melancholy reminded me more than a bit of Ozu’sLate Spring. We don’t approve of Aoyama’s plan to hold an “audition” for a fake movie in order to find a bride. Or the way he falls for Asami so quickly. But he seems so lonely that we forgive him.
We also overlook the misogynist winks he gives his son when he brings home a pretty girl. These would be a tip off in any other film. But we like Aoyama, and director Takashi Miike has set such a dull mood that we allow these gestures to pass.
But we can’t overlook whatever is in the bag at the audition winner’s home. Miike leaves a few clues about what is to come — just as Hitchcock added in a few small bird attacks to whet our appetite while the main horror is still on slow boil.
These two paths — Aoyama’s quiet misogyny and the hints of Asami’s violence — converge for the final 20 minutes of the film. No spoilers here. But be warned that this is an awful date movie.
The most direct comparison to David Lynch’s Eraserhead is some of the early work of Luis Buñuel. Both are surrealist, gothic artists, consciously informed by Freud. Lynch is clearly working out his own anxieties over fatherhood and carefully crafts images and sounds that can convey his horror.
But Eraserhead also has similarities to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 horror film Vampyr. Both films rely on mood motifs rather than suspense or shock. Either of the two are appropriate to leave on in the background at a Halloween party. (Althrough Vampyr is the choice if you’re not sure your guests will appreciate Lynch’s sense of style.)
But Vampyr‘s plot is foggy an unimportant. The dialogue functions to either add mood or to jump quickly to Dreyer’s next set-piece. Although Eraserhead is more surrealistic than Vampyr, and its narrative often interrupted, its story is still essential.
Lynch’s early scenes – especially the one in which our protagonist Henry Spencer awkwardly meets his girlfriend’s parents – connect us to the character. We’ve all felt the social anxiety he feels. This grounds the film and instructs us how to anchor Henry’s subjective experiences to our own.
Henry’s story also invites us to place the horrific images into a specific context – heightening the effect. The child (and the creatures like it) are disgusting enough to look at. But the story’s focus on reproduction adds a grotesque sexual element to their shape and movement that would not be there otherwise.
Some of the more enjoyable reads on Eraserhead include Nathan Lee’s piece in The Village Voice and Lloyd Rose’s 1984 review of the film in The Atlantic.
Do we see ghosts… or don’t we? That’s the question asked early on in most supernatural horror films. The medium is uniquely suited for this sort of game. In literature we usually feel cheated if the author describes something that later turns out to just be a vision. In theater, the signifiers usually draw too clear a line that tell us which characters see what.
Of course, skilled writers in literature and the theater can get around these problems, as Henry James did in The Turn of the Screw and William Archibald did in his stage adaptation. But the film version of the play takes advantage of editing grammar. When we see a shot of a character’s face, we often assume the next shot is of what the character is looking at. It’s subjective point-of-view. But it’s just as often that we see the camera acting as a third person, “over the shoulder” point-of-view.
The Innocents and ghost stories like it love to play the game of confusing the audience as to which perspective is being used. Is there really a figure through the window? Is there really an eerie melody being hummed across the water? It makes us doubt our own sanity, and our ability to navigate reality.
Usually, this tension is resolved by the end of the film, when the ghosts or demons interact in our world in ways that leave undeniable evidence of their existence. Our protagonist or her friends are murdered or the house gets sucked into a netherwordly wormhole.
But The Innocents refuses to give us an answer. Henry James’s story gives us the fear of the unknown – critics have argued for a century over what ‘really’ happened. This uncertainty is what makes The Innocents truly terrifying.
A bunch of aristocrats get together for a dinner party, and find they cannot leave the room. There’s nothing stopping them, and they certainly put forth an effort, but, — they just can’t. They quickly descend into savagery and a Lord of the Flies existence. This is nothing new, especially not for Buñuel, but the utter lack of explanation of their entrapment is what really sets The Exterminating Angel apart.
I prefer absurd horror. Naturalism and magical realism take all the fun out of it. I don’t want to take out the DVD and know that if I simply avoid this particular campsite or houses built on ancient Indian burial grounds, I’ll be safe. I don’t want to know about the troubled childhood of the ghost or the serial killer. The true horrors are in the unknown, and more so, in the unknowable.
1997’s Cube is a clear descendent of Exterminating Angel. (Vicenzo Natali’s cited Angel when talking about his upcoming project) A group of people wake up inside a giant colored cube. They’re able to use math and science to devise an escape plan, but we never really learn why they’re there in the first place, or who/what created the cube.
La cabina is a short 1972 Spanish film along the same lines – a man enters a phone booth and is trapped. Why would the company do such a thing? (view it here; film starts at 9:25 after commentary)
Neither of these match M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening in terms of irrational horror. (No, I wasn’t the only one who liked it) The film takes human arrogance head on. There are lots of theories bandied about, but no one really has any idea why what happened happened. Wahlberg and Co. dash around the countryside, randomly running back and forth against an invisible wind, with no real idea of whether the wind was real or not, ala Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
And The Happening‘s end parallels The Exterminating Angel pretty well.
Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness comes to mind, but the end is too cheery.
Hitchcock’s The Birds, released just a year after The Exterminating Angel, is my personal favorite horror film, for obvious reasons.
There’s no reason at all for the bird attacks, and that they don’t begin until we’re already well into the movie is genius. Unlike his other work, there’s no criminal scheme or psychological reason behind the horror. There’s no consistent pattern, except that they seem to be getting worse. The attacks don’t seem to be caused by anything natural, and most characters seem to understand that asking “why” is pretty pointless.