These are films that I consider to be exceptional in every way, not simply "frightening." So I'm excluding all the cheap thrills and quirky oddities (Peter Jackson, Larry Cohen, Sam Raimi). I'm also excluding any that I haven't seen in several years, or that I haven't seen enough times; these are "tried and true" movies which haven't lost their bite, which partly explains why they're all over 20 years old.
But I might just have been an impressionable child.
I should mention that I'm not a fan of slasher films (Friday the 13th), "cool visuals but no logic" films (Japanese & Italian), or movies devoid of characterization (I'm talking to you, Rob Zombie).
In no particular order:
- Next of Kin: Not to be confused with a dozen other films with the same title, this is the one "unknown gem" in the list. A low-budget Australian production that excels in every way: memorable characters, over-the-top cinematography, a suspenseful first sixty minutes that explodes into total craziness by the end. I love this one; my VHS tape is on its last magnetic legs. No matter how many times I see it, the final half hour still gives me beauty-horror goosebumps..
- Return of the Living Dead: Manages to be both funny AND terrifying, a difficult line to tread. A claustrophobic film that is both a send up and an improvement on the original, with Dan O'Bannon's trademark quirkiness AND a great '80s soundtrack. Colourful, fun, gory, weird. For fans only: track down The Famous Workprint.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: As the supposed genesis of the "slasher film," TCM has a bad rap that it doesn't deserve. Like most of the other films in this list it is really a classy, lovingly-crafted, character-driven drama that completely loses its mind during the second half. Director Tobe Hooper may have brought us the first archetypal weapon-brandishing maniac, but he also brought us the menaced protagonist trapped in the clutches of an alien logic, with only one route of escape: running, running, running away. See the second film for sheer lost-marbles exuberance, and the fourth installment for a "new take" on the family dramatics.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street: Before an endless string of goofy sequels (and a theme song by The Fat Boys), Fred Krueger really WAS a horrific character. This is the least polished of all the movies on this list, suffering from cliche'd dialog and wooden characters, but Wes Craven broke new ground with the magical, nightmarish quality of it all...and I'm not just talking about the dream sequences, I'm also talking about Ronee Blakley's performance. And if you need more incentive to give it a reappraisal, how about these magic words: "Johnny Depp's first film."
- Videodrome: David Cronenberg at his cold, clinical, unrestrained best. This was before he discovered stuff like "human interaction" and "soft focus," giving us instead a world (aka "Toronto") where everybody is stiff, disconnected, menacing, and under-the-skin wrong. You can't trust anybody. You can't even RELATE to anybody. Debbie Harry helps. Howard Shore's analog synth soundtrack mixes perfectly with all the gloops and slops.
- Alien: Shiver. Traumatic body horror and a bunch of terrified, inarticulate, unattractive people fighting for their lives as though they REALLY MEANT IT. Veronica Cartwright seems to be literally coming unglued before our very eyes. Plus the high-tech grunge universe of Ridley Scott before everybody else started doing it, likewise the biomechanical Giger designs. This is the second time Dan O'Bannon has been involved with a movie in this list, though to be honest his original script did not show the promise that the movie finally achieved.
- Poltergeist: Take the idyllic "family" tone of Steven Spielberg and mix it with Tobe Hooper's merciless lunacy ("why can't we kill one of the kids?" you can imagine him saying), and you get a movie that is both sweet AND traumatizing. In terms of an accessible but scary movie, I think this is the best on the list. Imaginative script, horrifying visuals, and some of the best acting around, it's long overdue for a re-evaluation and a comeback.
- Dawn of the Dead: Once again we have a great combination: the visual craziness of Dario Argento and the restraining hand of George Romero. Probably the goriest on this list, but also the most pointed social satire. I like it because of its scope, it was very much an "epic horror" for its time, despite the obviously limited budget. But then, why should I talk it up? Everybody loves it already.
- The Thing (1982 Remake): The most outrageous special effects by that time, courtesy of crazy-man Rob Bottin. A premise that turns your bowels to pudding if you think about it too much. John Carpenter at his scariest, directing a tiny cast who were probably just as horrified by the visuals as the rest of us were. This movie still upsets me, which doesn't happen often. I can't handle the way Windows gets it.