First, a little about my definition of horror. I do not include crime films about torture or murder such as Psycho or Silence of the Lambs unless there is a supernatural element. Nor do I
include films about animal attacks, like Jaws, unless the animal is not behaving in a way they normally would in nature. My boundary with science fiction is more flexible. I include science fiction films which emphasize the horror.
So, with no further ado, here is my list. I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy some of these films over the Halloween season!
1. THE EXORCIST, 1973
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty
A desperate mother (Ellen Burstyn) turns to a disillusioned priest (playwright Jason Miller) to save her increasingly disturbed daughter (Linda Blair) after modern medicine and psychiatry prove useless.
Director William Freidkin elevated this film by addressing the subject matter with a deadly degree of seriousness (and budget). He was also aided by a literate scripts and excellent performances from all of the leads, particularly the determined Ellen Burstyn, the soulful Jason Miller and the no nonsense Max von Sydow. And Linda Blair…. As a filmmaker I don’t think I could ask a child to deliver such a performance.
Audiences of the time had never seen anything like it. It was a cultural sensation. People were fainting and running out of theaters screaming. I, of course, was too young to see the film during its initial release. I only saw lame, truncated versions on television until I finally saw a theatrical revival in the 1990s.
This film usually tops internet lists of the scariest horror films, but I was quite dismissive of it for many years. I felt it relied too heavily on shock effects. I was wrong. As time slowly takes more and more of my loved ones, this tale of a priest who loses his faith because of his inability to save his mother and a desperate woman willing to do anything to save her daughter resonates more deeply with me long after the effects lose their ability to shock.
The best horror film of all time? Yeah, probably.
2. THE SHINING, 1980
Based on the novel by Stephen King
The winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel falls prey to evil spirits inhabiting the place and tries to murder his wife and telepathic son.
Stanley Kubrick was one of the true masters of cinema. It shouldn’t be surprising that when he decided to make a horror movie, he would make one of the best ones ever. Yes, I know it veered away from the book. Yes, I know Stephen King didn’t like it. I don’t care. This is pure cinema. This is a genuinely creepy and scary film with great, albeit over the top performances, by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. This film is one of the few true masterpieces of the genre. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?
3. THE HAUNTING, 1963
Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson
A paranormal researcher invites two women, played by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, to help him investigate a haunted mansion. Tragedy ensues.
This is the granddaddy of ghost films. It is the definitive masterpiece of the genre. More importantly, in my opinion, it is also the most realistic. I grew up in a haunted house, and this film most accurately conveys what I experienced during the height of our haunting. Nights filled with noises and bangings and footsteps. Objects moving. A palpable feeling of utter malevolence and dread. But, in the sunlight the next morning, your rational mind can dismiss everything as only your imagination. Still, you knew you would be facing it again that night….
The Haunting captures the feeling of a true haunting, without all of the over-the-top bells and whistles filmmakers feel the need to include today in these stories.
4. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1935
Suggested by the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Goaded by an evil former instructor, Professor Pretorius, Henry Frankenstein makes a mate for his monster in this magnificent sequel to the 1931 version of Frankenstein.
There have been thousands of horror movies since the birth of cinema. Many vie for the title of the best. This film, directed with style by James Whale, gets my vote as the best horror film of all time. However, it is lower on this list because, as the credits proclaim, it is more suggested than based on the original work.
Despite its age, this film has lost none of its ability to entertain. It is a vast improvement over the original, if only for the delicious sense of humor, which infuses the entire film. If the original was a dour cautionary tale about dangers of playing God, this film, through the character of Dr. Pretorius, seems to revel in its blasphemies. As Dr. Pretorius, Ernest Thesiger gives one of the most memorable performances in the annals of horror cinema. However, as was the case with the original, this film belongs ultimately belongs to Boris Karloff as the monster. The decision to let the monster speak, though apparently opposed by both Karloff and Whale, was brilliant. The tortured humanity of the monster simply pours out of him. It is a great performance, whose brilliance is further underscored by the fact that none of the actors who followed Karloff into the role were able to make you care about the monster. Before long, the monster would be little more than a prop. There is so much to praise about this film, from the atmospheric sets, the cinematography, the makeup (Elsa Lancaster’s Bride also became an immediate cinematic icon) and stalwart work of the supporting actors. This is James Whale’s masterpiece. My only complaint is the totally unnecessary introduction with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. It takes a great film to overcome such a boring, stilted opening sequence. Fortunately, this is a great film.
5. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1956
Based on the story by Jack Finney
A country doctor returns home from a medical conference to find his office filled with people who think their loved ones are no longer their loved ones. He soon begins to fear that people are being duplicated by an alien force.
This is the first of four screen adaptations of the story by Jack Finney. Three of the versions are excellent. The fourth one sucked. This version is perhaps the best because it was the most universal. One of the most brilliant things about the film is that it spoke equally to completely contradictory audiences. People on the right side of the political spectrum viewed the alien takeover in the context of the Red Menace. People on the left side of the political spectrum viewed the film as an anti-McCarthyism statement. It offered something for everyone. However, regardless of your political viewpoint, this remains a brilliant, suspenseful film — even with the toned-down, more hopeful ending tacked on at the last minute.
6. THE INNOCENT, 1961
Based on the novel by Henry James
A prim and proper governess, Deborah Kerr, at a sprawling country manor home begins to think her charges, one boy and one girl, are becoming possessed by the spirits of two licentious former servants who died mysteriously.
This is a beautifully shot and literately scripted version of the oft filmed novella A Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Deborah Kerr gives a great performance as the sexually repressed governess who slowly becomes unhinged. But are there really ghosts? Or are they simply manifestations of her own repressed mind? You be the judge.
A new take on the book is currently playing on Netflix under the title The Haunting of Bly Manor.
7. ROSEMARY’S BABY, 1968
Based on the novel by Ira Levin
A young couple moves into an expensive apartment building and become befriended by elderly neighbors. The wife Rosemary, played by a wide-eyed Mia Farrow, discovers that their neighbors are occultists and fears they have designs on her unborn child.
This film serves as a trial run for many of the themes of 70’s cinema. It was this film, followed later by The Exorcist, that really put Satanism on the map in horror. The film also provided a foretaste of the paranoia endemic to the cinema of the next decade. This is a serious film, like The Innocents and The Haunting, made for adults, by a filmmaker with a degree of gravitas.
Of course, the director of this film, Roman Polanski, gives me pause. Even before the #MeToo movement, I was already semi-boycotting his work. (I generally avoided the films he made after the rape charges.) But is it fair to boycott a film simply because of the director? A studio film is the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Should their work be invalidated because of the behavior of one person? No doubt Roman Polanski receives residuals for his work. I certainly wouldn’t want to reward him by buying the Blu Ray of this film. But is it fair to deprive Mia Farrow of her residuals by doing so?
8. IT, 2017
Based on the novel by Stephen King
A group of teens battle a shape-shifting creature, taking the form of a clown, which appears every generation to feed on the inhabitants of a small town in Maine.
Let’s face it: Most Stephen King adaptations suck. Sometimes it is because events that you can buy on paper seem absurd when dramatized, i.e., Maximum Overdrive. But that’s not the main problem. I think the main problem is that the producers who buy the rights to the books don’t see the need to spend the money needed to make a good film. They are confident that King name alone will put butts in the seats. Fortunately, the producers of this film wanted to make a good film. And they did. Genuinely scary and compelling. Sadly, the part two wasn’t as strong.
9. DRACULA, 1931
Based on the novel by Bram Stoker
Bela Lugosi forever captures the role of a certain undead Transylvanian count who takes a trip to London in the first legitimate version of the classic Bram Stoker novel.
Despite many attempts by many talented film makers, I believe this version, directed by Tod Browning, remains my favorite take on the often-filmed novel. But why? Is it simply nostalgia? Granted, I do fondly remember staying up late as a child watching this film on Ghost Host theater and finding myself suitably frightened. However, if I were the same age today, would I find the film as effective? Would a steady diet of more modern and explicit horror films made me too jaded to enjoy the more subtle charms of this film? I hope not, but I could see how it might. The film is slow, and its slowness is further emphasized by the absence of an under score. It is stagey, being as it was more influenced by the play than the novel itself. Also, the story plays itself out too quickly. Van Helsing manages to figure everything out and dispatch the count in about two seconds. There simply isn’t much suspense – and even less gore or violence. Yet it remains the champ. Why? The main reason is Lugosi himself. He gives the performance of a lifetime. He truly inhabits the role and is genuinely creepy. The rest of the cast, particularly Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Dwight Frye as Renfield, support him admirably. However, when I watch the old Universal horror films nowadays, I find myself really enjoying the atmospheric sets and lighting. Yes, there is still much to love about Dracula today.
But I believe the definitive version of the novel has yet to be produced.
10. SALEM’S LOT, 2004
Based on the novel by Stephen King
A writer returns to home to investigate a haunted house that terrorized him as a child only to face a plague of vampires.
I am a big Stephen King fan. Pet Sematary is my favorite of his novels. This film is based on my second favorite one. I like it when King establishes an entire town and then systematically kills everyone off. That’s what he does here. I also enjoyed the 1979 version directed by Tobe Hooper and featuring an oily and sinister performance by James Mason, but this version benefits from a better script and higher production values.
Books by Sean Paul Murphy
Rick Bakos never had a chance at happiness. After enduring the tragic death of his father in a car accident, Rick grew up to helplessly watch both his older brother Lenny and his mother Agnes succumb to madness and suicide. Nor were they the first members of his family to kill themselves. Suicide has steadily stalked the Bakos family since they first arrived in Baltimore from Bohemia at the turn of the 20th Century.
Turning to genealogy to better understand his self-destructive family, Rick works as a volunteer for the website RestingPlace. After photographing the grave of Betty Kostek for the webpage, Rick finds himself drawn into a maelstrom of horror. Each night he finds himself inexorably drawn closer to self-destruction.
Rick’s only ally is a fellow volunteer named Teri Poskocil. She, too, has fallen under the suicidal spell of the late Betty Kostek. The couple soon discovers their pairing wasn’t a coincidence. Their great-grandparents were next door neighbors on Chapel Street nearly a century earlier. So were Betty’s grandparents.
Together Rick and Teri must solve the mystery of Chapel Street before they find death at their own hands.
A story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined. The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God is Sean’s inspirational, coming-of-age tale of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined in his life. It is a poignant and insightful meditation on surviving in the gray area between God’s sovereignty and our individual free will.
Sean Paul Murphy, a writing instructor at Towson University, has written fourteen feature films including Hidden Secrets, Sarah’s Choice, The Encounter and the Revelation Road trilogy. He is a 2012 winner of the $50,000 Kairos Prize for Screenwriting. A series of short crimes films he wrote for the FBI won a combined six Emmys on the Pentagon Channel.