As a horror story writer, I do get this question put to me often. I’m no expert on what makes a great film, but as a fan and a reader of horror fiction, I do know what makes me jump or gets under my skin.
One of the common elements I find in horror films is the overuse of “Jump Scares” — objects suddenly thrown, animals (especially cats for some reason) leaping for no reason out of the shadows or people appearing out of the thin air behind the main character. “Jump Scares” as cheap and often detracting from the story in my opinion. They can be done right, of course, like in the movie, Alien, when Dallas cannot find the creature supposedly right on him. He climbs down two steps of his ladder and there it is!
Another abused element is gore, especially in most of Rob Zombie’s films (fan of his music, not his movies!). Gore has its place — can you imagine the scene where Danny Torrance from The Shining rides alone on his Big Wheel then turns into the hallway with the mutilated twin girls without any blood or bodies? Wouldn’t have the same chilling effect. Yet if you constantly throw gore in my face I’m either going to get sickened or bored with it.
When I watch a horror movie, I want to be fully immersed in the tension of the movie, on the edge of my seat as I react to the character actions, and holding my breath as I see something the hero/heroine doesn’t see in the background!
My list has some surprises, but being that I am a Stephen King fanatic, well…some films won’t surprise you. I didn’t list films that I consider horror/comedies — Shaun of the Dead and Dale and Tucker vs Evil being some of my ultimate favorites. I wanted to do a list of true, classic horror.
Listed in last place to best of the best:
15# Scream — A year after the murder of her mother, a teenage girl is terrorized by a new killer, who targets the girl and her friends by using horror films as part of a deadly game.
Not a completely great film, but I listed it due to its genre-expanding twists and the incredible performance by Drew Barrymore in the opening scene.
14# Don’t Breathe — Hoping to walk away with a massive fortune, a trio of thieves break into the house of a blind man who isn’t as helpless as he seems.
Very intense suspenseful film. Sad that this was based on an actual similar account where the homeowner lured teenage thieves and waited for them with loaded guns in the shadows of his basement. Burglary sucks but no one deserves death sentences for it.
13# The Eye — A blind girl gets a cornea transplant so that she would be able to see again. However, she got more than what she bargained for when she realized she could even see ghosts.
This isn’t the bland remake done with Jessica Alba. This is the original Chinese film. I can still feel the hair on my arms rise when I think about the ghost floating behind the woman in the elevator. *Shudder!
12# The Grudge — An American nurse living and working in Tokyo is exposed to a mysterious supernatural curse, one that locks a person in a powerful rage before claiming their life and spreading to another victim.
A film based in Tokyo and very well done! Superb acting and special effects that were unique (copied many times after!). Used sound as extra way to horrify the audience — the groaning little boy was awesome!
11# Autopsy of Jane Doe — A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while attempting to identify the body of a young woman, who was apparently harboring dark secrets.
A really creepy twist to a witch story. Freaky effects and intense up close and personal with a gray corpse makes for a great horror story. I rank this as one of Brian Cox’s best roles as the father.
10# Nightmare on Elm Street — The monstrous spirit of a slain janitor seeks revenge by invading the dreams of teenagers whose parents were responsible for his untimely death.
Another film that broke through the genre’s cliche barriers. Actually based on an urban legend from Japan, Wes Craven delivered an unforgettable villain!
9# Evil Dead (2013) — Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of a Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods.
Yes, I have to say it, but I like the remake better than the original. Bruce Campbell is one of my favorite B-actors! So funny!! Yet, even the producers and writers of the films said that the remake was what they wanted to do with the original but just didn’t have the budget for and it came out pretty campy. Both have their place but overall this one was truly terrorizing and a better film. Viewer warning…a lot of gore in this one!
8# Saw — Two strangers, who awaken in a room with no recollection of how they got there, soon discover they’re pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by a notorious serial killer.
Many people don’t like this film due to the torture aspects of it, but I have a spot in my top list for it due to the fact that one of the stars, Leigh Whannell, actually wrote the screenplay. Kind of inspiring when a writer gets such a great response from his own work…
7# Ghost Story — Two generations of men find themselves haunted by the presence of a spectral woman. When the son of one of the elderly men returns to his hometown after his brother’s mysterious death, they attempt to unravel her story.
Probably not many people remember this sleeper hit, but it is still a great thrill and an epic tale of hidden guilt and revenge.
Another inspiring horror story that was written by one of its stars, John Krasinski (from The Office fame). He created such an elaborate and unique story that already clone-like films, The Bird Box and The Silence have tried to jump on the bandwagon. A sequel is in the works and I am very excited to see it!
5# Jaws — When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach community, it’s up to a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer to hunt the beast down.
If you haven’t heard of this film or seen it, then I say “welcome to America!” as you must’ve just come here! LOL. All kidding aside, award-winning acting from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. It has aged well and yet to be outdone by any recent shark-themed movies. (Although I will say that The Shallows was pretty damn good too for a modern twist.)
4# Alien — After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as a distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious lifeform, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.
While this is a sci-fi film it has such a horror foundation that it is essential to the list of great horror films. Plus Sigourney Weaver turned in a surprise breakthrough performance which she will always be remembered for.
3# IT — In the summer of 1989, a group of bullied kids band together to destroy a shape-shifting monster, which disguises itself as a clown and preys on the children of Derry, their small Maine town.
This was one of my all-time favorite books by Stephen King, but other than Tim Curry’s amazing performance as Pennywise in the television mini-series, it had not been done well up to this point. Liked this version, but would have been phenomenal had Tim Curry been the clown. Still a great rendition of King’s book.
2# The Thing — A research team in Antarctica is hunted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims.
Seeing this film was like walking in a haunted house for two hours. Gruesome effects to bring out the best scares in this classic and a twist almost at every turn. Even its ending is still controversial and debated about who was what. And this was by far to me the best performance of Kurt Russel’s career.
1# The Shining — A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.
An epic film filled with iconic scenes like an elevator filled with blood to an ax thrusting threw a door inches from someone’s face. Truly a great terrifying film. Stephen King didn’t like this version and while I understand his reasons, it is still a jaw-dropping film with incredible performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. The upcoming sequel, Doctor Sleep, should be a great look back to the film and I’m excited that they got Ewan McGregor in the lead role as Danny Torrance!
Brightburn — What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister? (Aka. An Evil Superman)
The Ring — A journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape which seems to cause the death of anyone one week to the day after they view it. (Dorky story idea but really well told.)
Hereditary — After the family matriarch passes away, a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences, and begin to unravel dark secrets. (Some pretty original traumatic scenes. Bit of a slow-burner though…)
Mama — A young couple take in their two nieces only to suspect that a supernatural spirit named Mama has latched itself to their family. (The ending on this one killed it for me. Up to then, it was a great film!)
Pet Sematary — After tragedy strikes, a grieving father discovers an ancient burial ground behind his home with the power to raise the dead. (Recently gave you my opinion on this one! Click here for that blog review of the recent two film versions).
Silent Hill — A woman, Rose, goes in search for her adopted daughter within the confines of a strange, desolate town called Silent Hill. (Great atmospheric horror film. What an incredible setting using a mining town that has been abandoned due to still burning fires below them? Fog and ash drifting down…creatures leaping out from the smoke. Perfect fun!)
Movies I want to check out in the near future:
Us –– A family’s serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them.
Bone Tomahawk — In the dying days of the old west, an elderly sheriff and his posse set out to rescue their town’s doctor from cannibalistic cave dwellers.
Crawl — A young woman, while attempting to save her father during a Category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.
Are there better films than some of what I listed? Maybe. Sure probably. But it’s just my humble opinion and these were films that I remembered long after I had seen them. Some of the films just had one or two elements that I didn’t like that precluded them as well. So, what I’m saying is, no nasty comments about what an idiot I am for forgetting such-an-such film. I have my list, you can make yours! ha
NOW you have insight into what a horror story writer looks for when watching movies and reading books…and what we want to recapture in our own works!