1. The Exorcist directed by William Friedkin – Not only is this film the finest and most frightening horror film ever made; it was directed by a filmmaker who had directed only three previous films. William Friedkin had started his film career with a silly Sonny and Cher film called Good Times, followed by a somber adaptation of British playwright Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, and went on to change the face of cinema and catch Oscar gold with his next film, the fantastic police drama, The French Connection. No one could have imagined that a filmmaker, with a resume such as Friedkin’s, could pull off an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s frightening horror novel The Exorcist. Friedkin made it his follow up to The French Connection and, once again, changed the face of cinema. What he accomplishes in the film was groundbreaking for its time. The use of extreme gore and game changing make up coupled with the sheer terror that was presented on the screen shocked 1973 audiences to their core and, in some reported case, sent them running for the aisles and occasionally fainting. Friedkin created such a gruesome and terrifying atmosphere from the minute the film began and kept it going until the final frames. Never before had film goers witnessed such horrors. Scenes of a sweet young girl named Regan living a good life suddenly possessed by demons and watching her body and soul tortured before our eyes scared audiences around the globe. There are moments so grotesquely horrific that I am still amazed that they got past the censors. The ultra-famous head turning scene, the projectile vomiting, and the sequence where poor little Regan, fully possessed, defiles herself with a cross and then shoves her mother’s face in the messy aftermath are moments that will haunt our minds for eternity.
Friedkin would not seem the proper choice to direct such a film. What he did was to prove that he is a risk taking director that was/is willing to break all of the cinematic rules to deliver good scares and an amazing film. His film is one of true, bone chilling, horror. The creepiness one feels as the film plays out is genuine and lasting. Our eyes are wide throughout the film as we sit in frightened disbelief at the events we are witnessing. The rumor that the book and film were based on true events makes the terror even more real.
The Exorcist was film made by a director who never intended nor wanted to do films in the horror genre. When he accepted the chance to direct the film, he succeeded in changing the face of horror and cinema in general. A massive worldwide box office smash and one that is almost unanimously critically lauded, it is a film that is not only at the top of the list of great horror, but also one of the finest films, of any genre, ever made.
2. An American Werewolf in London directed by John Landis – One of the scariest, bloodiest, and most character driven horror films ever made is brought to us by the man who gave us such comedy classics as The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, and The Blues Brothers.
Director John Landis crafted a horror film somewhat molded on the classics as the film tells the tale of David, who is bitten by a werewolf during a vicious attack while backpacking on the English moors which claims the life of his friend Jack. The rest of the film concerns David being haunted by his friend Jack, who is there to warn him that he will become a werewolf at the first full moon.
The many comedic moments are the perfect antidote to the extreme terror that fills the screen throughout the film. Landis manages a perfect balance of edge of your seat moments, sheer terror, and dark comedy. The comedy is as funny as any of his previous films and when it comes to the moments of horror Landis works masterfully, occasionally reaching levels of tension on par with the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
The transformation scenes are film legend. Never before in cinema had such state of the art special effects been used so completely to transform man to beast. Landis employed the great Rick Baker and together they gave us cinema’s finest example of a werewolf transformation. It was because of the fine effects work on this film that the Academy Awards began to recognize achievements in make-up with Baker being the first recipient, for this film, of the award.
The director, helming his first horror film, gave us one of horror’s finest moments, one of the top werewolf films ever, and achieved what is still, in my opinion, the best example of a horror film with comedic elements. Landis was so successful in his effort that he parlayed it into a side career as a solid director of horror with the vampire film Innocent Blood and his two great Masters of Horror efforts Deer Woman and Family and the sadly under seen episode of the all but forgotten horror series Fear Itself, In Sickness and in Health. All of these were fine horror efforts sprinkled with humor and wit.
3. Alien directed by Ridley Scott – When it came time to bring this sci-fi/ horror tale to the screen, 20th Century Fox decided to go with a director of British television commercials who had only one film under his belt, an artfully directed tale set during the Napoleonic wars. An odd choice for a film that mixed two genres, both of which director Scott was unproven in.
Everyone knew Scott would dazzle with his unique visual style but could he bring the terror required for a horror story of a spaceship crew who encounter acid bleeding, face hugging, human impregnating aliens? The answer was an astounding yes. As did the previous directors mentioned in this article, Ridley Scott broke new ground with this film both visually and cinematically. Under Scott’s watchful director’s eye, the famous H.R. Geiger designed monster and Carlo Rambaldi’s realization of it won Oscars for best Special Effects. Scott revitalized the look of a space vessel and their crews by having them appear as worker bees wearing the workplace jumpsuits of the corporation that employs them. Most space films that followed, including today, employ that look. Where Scott’s first film, The Duelists was paced slowly and quietly, almost like an art film, Alien is infused with moments of real tension, eye popping effects, and scenes of gruesome, bloody, horror that made audiences leap from their seats.
Ridley Scott would go on to great success as one of our top filmmakers and, although he returned to the horror genre only once with 2001’s decent Hannibal, he left his mark on horror/sci-fi cinema with one of its scariest and most terrifyingly original films.
4. The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick – When film connoisseurs are asked to name the finest filmmakers, one name is almost always in the top 5 or ten, Stanley Kubrick. In many people’s opinions he has crafted, at least, 2 or 3 of cinema’s great films. Most would cite Dr. Strangelove…, Paths of Glory, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange as masterpieces of film. I am sure it was a shock to most when he was announced to bring Stephen King’s popular novel The Shining to the big screen. Here was one of cinema’s greatest task masters and artists taking his shot at a pure horror film.
The story was a tale of a family spending a brutal winter as caretakers of a haunted hotel and the father’s descent into madness. The book was one of King’s most beloved and frightening works and expectations were high for the movie version.
Kubrick gave the film a desolate, eerie, quality that worked perfectly. He used long, quiet, tracking shots down the long hallways of the empty hotel to give us the feeling of the family’s isolation. His use of the Steadicam, for which he and his cinematographer invented a new lower version to best follow Danny on his big wheel, is astounding. His version of the story is a slow burn with Jack Nicholson, giving one of the great and most exciting movie performances, playing the father slowly going mad or, perhaps, being possessed by the ghosts of the hotel. Kubrick coaxes brilliant performances out of Shelley Duvall, her career best, as the increasingly terrified wife and young Danny Lloyd as their haunted son. Kubrick was said to have practically terrorized Duvall during the shoot to get her to the level of fright he was looking for. Yet it was rumored he shielded young Lloyd from the truly horrific moments and was more fatherly and kind to him due to the actor being only 6 at the time.
The music Kubrick used for the haunting theme, an electronic version from Wendy Carlos of a piece by Hector Berlioze, immediately introduces us to the methodic horror we have in store and his choices of electronic art pieces for this film add brilliantly to the terror.
The filmmaker shows us terrifying scenes of the horrors inside the hotel; powerfully scary shots of dead twin girls talking with Danny, elevators overflowing with blood, axe murder aftermaths, ghostly goings on in the rooms. These are scenes that send shivers throughout our bodies.
At the time, the film received a mixed reception from critics and King himself was displeased with the finished film, but it has gone on to become one of the most respected horror films of our age. The great Martin Scorsese has said that he feels it to be one of the top 15 scariest horror films of all time.
A true master of his craft and maker of artful cinema, Kubrick branched out into the world of horror for only one film but gave us one of horror cinema’s and pop culture’s most frightening and beloved treasures.
5. Dracula directed by John Badham – Dracula had been filmed numerous times and played by a wide range of actors from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Jack Palance. For my money, Christopher Lee will always be my favorite Dracula. His portrayal was the most frightening and is the only actor who ever scared me in the role. That said, I believe the best film version of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel is John Badham’s 1979 masterpiece. His version is supremely gothic, atmospheric, sexy, and frightening. All of this coming from a man who had never before, and never since, directed a horror film.
Badham was certainly an interesting choice to helm such a huge horror production. Universal was looking to bring one of their classic monsters back to the screen for a new age and to do this they hired the man who directed the African American baseball film The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings followed by the mega smash disco drama Saturday Night Fever. In my opinion the gamble paid off.
The film is a gothic horror masterstroke and stands tall above all previous, and future, versions. The look of the film is superb with its muted, almost washed out tones. It is a look that is beautifully gothic.
The cast the director put together, which includes Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance, is superb and Badham coaxes brilliant performances from his actors, especially Frank Langella who plays the titular character without ever showing his fangs!
His choice to do the music was John Williams who gave the film a sweepingly haunting score. The director has said that Williams was his first and only choice to write the score even though the studio was unsure that the composer could write for horror. Again, the gamble paid off.
The film was a solid hit and received, for the most part, good reviews. John Badham would never direct another horror film but went on to make many action hits such as Blue Thunder and War Games. However, his contribution to the Dracula universe stands out above the rest as a truly scary and masterful film.