2. House on Haunted Hill (1959). Vincent Price is a rich tycoon who invites people to a splendid little party in a haunted house to celebrate his wife’s birthday, and offers them each $10,000 if they survive the night. This was the first horror film I ever owned on VHS, and I watched it all the time. It’s got everything—ghosts, deception, murder, a vat of acid, a skeleton, blood dripping from the ceiling … It’s pure 50s cheesy-horror cinema, a William Castle classic that is as self-aware and clever as it is creepy. I just wish I could’ve seen it with the in-theater gags and effects. There’s technically superior films on this list, of course, but this one is near and dear to me. I watch it every year, and love sharing it with people for the first time. It never disappoints. And, like Night of the Living Dead, it’s in the public domain. Enjoy!
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968). Once upon a time, zombies were interesting. And they were made interesting because of a nobody filmmaker named George Romero working outside of Pittsburgh, who decided to revamp a minor horror movie trope (the zombie) into a vehicle for community and Cold War terror. Radiation (or something) causes the dead to start walking again, and, despite how slow and stupid they are, we just can’t seem to work together long enough to survive wave after wave of our re-animated neighbors coming to devour our flesh. Talk about an allegory for the American political system. Once Duane Jones (a black man) was cast as Ben, Romero didn’t re-write the dialogue or how the other characters responded to him—but Jones did modify the lines for his own performance. He elevated the speech of a “simple” (initially white) trucker to be clearer and without some of the more cartoonish affectations. Suddenly, an average Joe working man (who happens to be black) could be the responsible, strong, and intelligent lead in a 1960s film. What could be more politically subversive than that?
4. Halloween (1978). A re-telling of classic urban legends, made classic itself. It re-invented the modern slasher, established tropes and techniques that are still used today, and remains an incredibly enjoyable, simple-yet-scary film. Almost too simple, I suppose, for people who mistake horror for jump scares. And that’s too bad. Donald Pleasance is sublime as the apocalyptic Dr. Loomis, and Jamie Lee Curtis is both vulnerable and capable. Sometimes, the best movies are the ones that do one thing (in this case, create a sense of impending doom), and do that one thing flawlessly. What makes The Shape so terrifying is that we don’t really understand who or what he is, beyond a few paranoid, rambling declarations of doom from Dr. Loomis. That makes him very frightening—he’s a ghostly figure that simply shows up in your life, unbidden and uninvited. Rob Zombie’s recent remake isn’t bad, but it undercuts the mystique around The Shape by giving him an extensive (and occasionally sympathetic) backstory, and trades the suspense of the original for bloody violence.
5. From Beyond (1986). The follow-up to Re-Animator exceeds it in nearly every way. A bizarre, occult-science-gone-wrong plot, truly gruesome and frightening monsters, cosmic horror implications, Ken Foree as the only guy making rational decisions, Jeffrey Combs eating brains, Barbara Crampton as the lead, and psychedelic lighting and sound design. Stomach-churning, grisly, slime-soaked fun for viewers who like a liberal dose of occult science fiction with their splatter-horror creature features.
6. Phantasm (1979). Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man stalks Morningside Cemetery, stealing bodies, murdering people with flying silver orbs, and breaking down the walls between dreams and reality. Nothing is as it seems; everything feels purposefully disjointed, illusory … phantasmagorical. This movie is pure whacky, unapologetic, spooky fun. It’s the closest thing on this list to riding a rickety, slightly-dangerous carnival spookhouse ride (alongside its sequel, of course). An underappreciated weird-horror classic, made all the more charming by its faults and bizarre design choices.
7. The Thing (1982). John Carpenter is the best horror film director—and one of the best American auteurs, period—of the 20th century. The Thing may very well be his finest work. The special effects have never—never, I say!—been surpassed, the alien creature is terrifying, the tension unrelenting. Watching this movie is actually a stressful experience, but no matter how paranoid, how defenseless, how scared you feel—you can’t stop watching. Wilford Brimley turns in the best performance of his illustrious, oatmeal-fueled career. If you’ve got a PS2 gathering dust somewhere, check out the video game sequel. It’s a heck of a lot better than the 2011 remake/prequel.
8. City of the Living Dead (1980). This is not a film for the faint of heart. It begins with a priest hanging himself in the haunted city of Dunwich, and only gets bleaker from there. Calling this a zombie movie—or simply a gross-out film—does its story and concept a disservice. Like Fulci’s other masterwork The Beyond, it’s a series of horrific set pieces filled with menacing, supernatural forces that have invaded our world and cannot be stopped. Its shock value is elevated by its soundtrack (the music by Fabio Frizzi is surreal; the zombie growling is terrifying) and cinematography, turning Dunwich into a surreal hell-on-earth that infects your imagination. Italian horror cinema doesn’t get any better than this. And in case you were wondering—yes, those are real maggots.