When I set out to make it I realized really quickly that Hammer movies were going to be a problem. On the one hand, they were going to just dominate the list. And on the other hand, I wasn’t really sure which ones to include. See, Hammer movies are basically unfailingly good, in a way that I’ve never found with any other equally large sub-set of cinema. And, what’s more, they all feel very similar to me. I don’t really even think of them as individual movies, exactly, but as sort of one huge tapestry of related films with the same actors, settings, monsters, etc. Pulling them apart seems disingenuous, especially when they’re just going to then occupy something like half my list. So instead I made a list without including any Hammer movies, and then gave all of them an honorary spot. So this is actually 73 movies, plus every Hammer movie ever made.
I also stretched the boundaries of what constitutes “horror,” probably, including some stuff that I’m not even sure I would put under that banner. But I’ll let you judge for yourselves whether they should be included or not.
This is about as far from an objective list as it’s possible to get, and equally far from being ranked in any particular order. Basically, these are the first movies I thought of, and I’m sure I left out all sorts of great ones. (I noticed several I left out upon reading back over, but I didn’t let myself go back and make changes.) They comprise a pretty solid combo of things that I love right now and things that had a big impact on me at some earlier point in my evolution. (And sometimes both.) Anyway, here’s the list. It was fun to make, hopefully it’ll be fun to read.
The Thing – If these were in some kind of order by preference, this would be #1. Maybe the best horror movie ever made, for my money. Quiet and over-the-top all at once. Perfect monsters, perfect pacing, perfect music, perfect setting. Just perfect.
The Old Dark House (1932) – My favorite of the old Universal movies, even though it’s not as famous and doesn’t contain a single monster.
Tremors – The perfect homage to the big monster movies of the ’50s. Imminently quotable, and the graboids are some of the best monsters ever.
Brotherhood of the Wolf – Is it a horror movie? A martial arts movie? A costume drama? I don’t know, or care, it hits more of my obsessions than I can readily count.
The Changeling (1980) – I just discovered this one recently, but it’s rapidly become one of my favorite ghost movies. Great creepiness and a great lead.
The Haunting (1963) – Another of my favorite ghost movies. A masterpiece of suggestion. To see how to completely ruin a movie, watch this one followed by the terrible 1999 remake.
Aliens – For most folks Alien is the holy grail, but I saw this one first and it’s still my favorite.
I Sell the Dead – Glenn McQuaid’s great supernatural Resurrection Man comedy is one of my favorite movies of the last decade, hands down.
Evil Dead 2 – As Jesse said in his list, this one strikes the perfect blend of silliness between the first one and the third.
Return of the Living Dead – This and Evil Dead 2 were my favorite gory zombie-ish horror movies in high school. They’re both still great, and both as quotable as movies come. I always swore that if I ever started a punk band I was going to call it Send More Paramedics, but it seems that somebody beat me to it.
King Kong (1933) – The original and still the best. King Kong never really struck me as much of a horror movie, but whatever kind of movie it is, it’s one of the best ever made.
Matango – Mushroom people. Do I need to say any more than that?
The Devil’s Backbone – Guillermo del Toro is my favorite director, and so you can bet that he’s going to be on this list a few times. This is probably my favorite of his movies. I love the setting, and the mixture of Gothic and boy’s adventure tropes.
Cronos – Not as polished as del Toro’s later films, this one’s still a charmer, with immortal alchemists and bugs trapped in wind-up vampire machines.
Pan’s Labyrinth – The most famous of del Toro’s Spanish language films, and definitely the most aesthetically achieved. Great monsters in the service of a great story.
The Orphanage – A perfect Gothic ghost story.
Jacob’s Ladder – I re-watched this one recently and it doesn’t hold up quite as well, but the vibrating head monsters are amazing and are still one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen on film.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Probably my favorite William Castle movie, and a great film to watch for Halloween. Vincent Price is at his best, and the creaky, over-the-top spookiness of it is hard to beat.
House on Haunted Hill (1999) – The only movie on this list where the original and the remake both found a slot. Geoffrey Rush (doing his best Vincent Price) and Famke Janssen both own this movie. Bonus points for a cameo by Jeffrey Combs and for Jacob’s Ladder-style vibrating head monsters. “I’m Stephen Goddamn Price!”
Monster Squad – One of the most formative movies of my childhood. A bunch of foul-mouthed, monster-obsessed kids run up against the Universal monsters (as redesigned by Stan Winston). Why I loved this is probably self-explanatory.
The Lost Boys – Another one from my youth, probably equally obvious. Likely responsible for no small part of my obsession with Keifer Sutherland.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007) – In spite of some missteps, one of the all-time great anthology horror films, and also maybe the most perfect movie about Halloween. Sam deserves to join the pantheon of horror movie greats.
Nightbreed – By no means Barker’s best, still my favorite for, again, probably obvious reasons. For every place where it falls flat, there’s always something else I love twice as much.
Lake Placid – Of all the stretches I undertake on this list, calling this a horror movie may be the stretchiest. That said, great giant killer animal fun watching wonderful actors do wonderful stuff. The movie that made me an Oliver Platt fan.
Deep Rising – While I was able to put Lake Placid on this list, Stephen Sommers’ 1999 remake of The Mummy apparently just wasn’t horror enough for me. So instead, here’s Sommers’ earlier monster effort, with lots of tentacles and added Treat Williams.
Jaws – And while we’re talking about aquatic beasties, it wouldn’t do not to mention the best of them. Jaws is a superb movie, and Quint is still one of the best characters in screen history.
Land of the Dead – Heresy, I know, but Land of the Dead is my favorite of Romero’s zombie movies. It’s just such a joy to see him doing what he does best, and effortlessly updating the genre that everyone else had been busily pounding into the ground.
The Mist – A movie that just keeps getting better with time. Not only a great monster film, but a huge improvement on the source material. Frank Darabont is amazing. (Plus, there’s nods to Hellboy in there, which endears it to me somewhat.)
Bubba Ho-Tep – The best movie about Elvis and JFK protecting their rest home from a mummy that you’re ever likely to see!
The Frighteners – The movie that introduced me to Peter Jackson, and to Jeffrey Combs. Full of excess, but also full of murderous ghosts, crazy FBI agents, decaying towns, and old insane asylums.
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat – I’m probably going to get in trouble for this one, but I found Sundown about as perfectly charming as a movie can be.
The Ring (2002) – Worlds better than the Japanese original, for my money.
Scream – While I may regret what it has wrought as much as anyone, the original Scream was a solid piece of work that caught me at just the right time of my horror-movie-fan life.
Creature from the Black Lagoon – Is it the best of the Universal monster movies? No. But the Creature is my favorite, and the suit is still one of the best monster effects in movie history.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – I’ve seen whole movies that weren’t as good as individual frames of this one.
The Last Man on Earth – Vincent Price stars in the best of all film versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.
The Body Snatcher (1945) – Resurrection Men again, this time in a more serious milieu and without so much of the supernatural. A brilliant, restrained movie and probably my favorite of the Val Lewton horror flicks.
I Walked with a Zombie – The movie that gives The Body Snatcher it’s run for favorite Val Lewton film. Quiet, restrained, and with a great theme song!
Mad Love (1935) – Stylish as hell. Peter Lorre does what he does best.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) – Underappreciated. Great sets. My favorite Bela Lugosi movie? Could be.
20 Million Miles to Earth – I’m a sucker for giant, sympathetic monsters (see King Kong above), and Ymir is probably my favorite Ray Harryhausen creation.
Event Horizon – This is one I haven’t revisited for awhile, but when I first saw it it left a big impression on me. Cosmic horror in the depths of space, and one of the coolest spaceships ever designed. Sam Neil being crazy. “Where we’re going, you don’t need eyes to see.”
Puppet Master – Another one I’ve not gone back to in years. Holding an honorary position to represent all of the terrible Full Moon Home Video movies that I watched as a kid, with all their diminutive, stop-motion monsters. Has a special place because it’s about an alchemist who makes killer puppets to fight Nazis (if I remember correctly).
Gremlins 2 – Joe Dante deconstructs his own movie and successfully kills a franchise. A beautiful, over-the-top batch of craziness full of awesome puppets and gloppy monsters.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – A wonderful paranoia movie, with one of the all-time great film endings.
Candyman – Usually gets overshadowed by Hellraiser, but for my money this one captures the numinosity of Barker’s work better than any other film adaptation.
Audition – One of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. I rented it blind, which is the best way to see it.
The Haunted Palace – Vincent Price in the first-ever film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. ‘Nuff said.
Comedy of Terrors – Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, in a slapstick farce about an undertaker who takes it into his own hands to increase his business.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes – Official representative of the Vincent Price school of themed murder movies. Aesthetically fascinating, and the dynamic between Phibes and Vulnavia is worth the price of admission alone. Even if those weren’t the case, the unicorn impaling would guarantee it a place on this list.
The Pit and the Pendulum – I’d be remiss not to choose one of the Price/Corman Poe adaptations. Pit and the Pendulum may or may not be the best of those, but it holds a special place in my heart, maybe because it was the first one I saw.
Tower of London – One more Vincent Price movie, and then I’ll stop. Classy black-and-white cinematography, and Price playing maybe his most put-upon character ever.
An American Werewolf in London – “Beware the moon.”
Werewolf of London – Werewolf adventure botanists!
The Descent – It would’ve been better if the cave monsters had been Hollow Earth people who worshipped ancient Lovecraftian gods, but I’ll take what I can get.
Pitch Black – Vin Diesel in his best role fighting hammer-headed alien monsters in space.
The Exorcist – A classic. I got to see this one in its theatrical re-release at midnight on Halloween. Good times.
The Fly – One of the best–and grossest–tragic love stories ever filmed.
Final Destination 2 – The only reason to watch the Final Destination movies is to the see the Rube Goldberg-esque way in which the characters get killed. And all the best kills are in this installment, which opens with a truly incredible car crash sequence.
Dracula (1979) – Frank Langhella and Sir Laurence Olivier class up my favorite screen version of Dracula.
Dracula (1931) (Spanish Version) – My second favorite version of Dracula. Definitely worth watching alongside the English-language version with Bela Lugosi. This one lacks the iconic performances from that one, but it’s clearer, sexier, and narratively more satisfying.
Son of Frankenstein – Unpopularly, this is probably my favorite of the Frankenstein sequels. If nothing else, you can’t beat that cast.
House of Frankenstein – I had to have one of the Universal monster rally movies in here, and this one takes the cake thanks to Boris Karloff’s Dr. Niemann and the circus that’s carrying around Dracula’s skeleton.
The Eye (2002) – Genuinely creepy and with an ending that completely blows up what has been, up ’til then, a very small, personal movie.
Cemetery Man – A screwed-up favorite from my days of loving wonky zombie-fighting black-comedies. Rupert Everett is the perfect Dylan Dog, even when he’s not actually being Dylan Dog. Probably responsible for my obsession with monster fighting cemetery caretakers.
Bride of Re-Animator – Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West is just inspired. This is the one I saw first, so it’s the one that sticks in my head.
Dawn of the Dead (2004) – Dawn is the only one of Romero’s zombie opuses that I’ve not yet seen (I know, I know), but I was surprised by how much I liked Zack Snyder’s remake.
House of Wax (2005) – Speaking of surprising remakes of classics that I’ve never seen, House of Wax may bear little or no resemblance to the Vincent Price original, and it’s certainly the only killer redneck movie you’re going to find on this list, but I liked it because of the cringe-inducing quality of the violence, and because the protagonists went out there and protagged.
Ginger Snaps – One of the great werewolf movies, in spite of some special effects limitations.
Creepshow – I love anthology films, and those EC comics-style transitions would’ve won me over even if the rest of the movie were garbage. (It’s not.)
Nosferatu (1922) – Imagine if this had been what all our cinematic vampire mythology was based on?
Hellraiser – Just because I said I liked Candyman better, doesn’t mean that Hellraiser isn’t still great.
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn – Problems aplenty, but there’s also some great moments and some great music and it’s fun to see a young George Clooney killing gloppy vampires. One of the sequels has Ambrose Bierce as a protagonist.
Hammer Horror films – Just all of them.