Time to bring the fear - from Nosferatu to The Shining, here's what the Guardian and Observer's critics have picked as the scariest films ever made
Horror crashes through boundaries and challenges the prohibitions of taste and thinkability in a way few other genres can match. Classics of the genre were produced in cinema's very earliest days – the vampire nightmare Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the world of German Expressionism.
Later, Universal Pictures had smash hits with iconic versions of Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein. Roger Corman's movies would demonstrate the sheer trashy power of horror, and Hitchcock tapped into this B-picture aesthetic with his own low-budget masterpiece, Psycho, which popularised the psychological horror film, taking the genre away from its supernatural roots – although William Friedkin's masterpiece, The Exorcist, took it right back there again.
Horror has potently mixed with other genres and Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street showed how horror can be a cash-cow franchise, a lesson demonstrated once again by the stomach-turning Saw series. Horror demonstrates the Guignol potential of cinema and the brutal way it can toy with the viewer.
10. Peeping Tom
The film has since been reappraised, but in 1960 – the same year Hitchcock released Psycho – it was greeted with distaste strong enough to derail Powell's career. The Observer's CA Lejeune wrote: "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom." It tells the story of Mark (Carl Boehm), an unassuming focus-puller at a film studio who spends his free time working on what he calls his "documentary". Chillingly, it entails filming women with a camera that has a spike concealed in the leg of the tripod, and a mirror in which the victims are forced to watch their own contorted faces as they are stabbed to death. Afterwards, Mark obsessively reviews the film. His voyeurism hinges on the need to see the fear on the women's faces as they realise they're about to die.
The film still shocks today, so it's easy to see why people were so deeply upset at the time. One of Mark's victims is played by Moira Shearer, the much-loved star of The Red Shoes. The upset was compounded by Powell's own presence in the film. It turns out that Mark's pathology is related to his dominating father, a psychologist who subjected his son to experiments in fear from an early age. In the home movies documenting these terrifying experiments, Powell himself plays the father, while the young Mark is played by Powell's nine-year-old son Columba.
The truly upsetting element in Peeping Tom is, of course, what it says about the cinema, in which we are all voyeurs. Not just the audience transfixed by images of other people's lives, but also the director who orchestrates the action from behind the camera. "All this filming isn't healthy," Mark is warned at one point, and Powell, contrary to the critics at the time, understood this very well. There is some irony in the fact that his critique of cinematic voyeurism is now regarded as a horror classic.
Apart from German actress Sybille Schmitz, who plays the vampire's chief victim, and French actor Maurice Schutz, who plays her father, the cast was non-professional. Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, who provided finance for the film, also took the leading role under the pseudonym Julian West. He plays a roving occult investigator called Allan Grey (David in some versions) who arrives at an old inn by the side of a river and explores a nearby castle where an evil doctor appears to be helping a vampire prey on the lord's two daughters – one of whom is bedridden, suffering from a strange sickness, while the other is being held captive. Grey reads a book on vampirism and acts as our surrogate in this curious realm of crooked staircases, off-kilter corridors and Freudian keys and doors, a world where men's shadows take on a life of their own and skeletal hands grasp bottles of poison.
Dreyer shrugs off conventional linear narrative and takes an experimental approach, plunging us into a waking nightmare that isn't so much black-and-white as it is misty grey. When cinematographer Rudolph Maté (who would later direct films such as the noir thriller DOA) showed Dreyer some frames made hazy by accidental exposure to light, the director had him place a layer of gauze in front of the lens to replicate the effect for the rest of the film.
Many of the images from this movie have passed into horror iconography: an old man standing by the river tolling a bell with a scythe over his shoulder; Grey's dream of being buried alive; the evil doctor suffocating in flour dropped from the mill above. It's hard to spot where nightmares end and reality begins. This really is a film that exemplifies the idea of dreaming with our eyes open.
8. Let the Right One In
The snow whirls, the nights draw in and a gloomy Swedish housing estate becomes a pocket murderess's hunting ground. Let the Right One In is based on a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson. Here is a vampire story born out of the shadows; a film of whispered secrets. But don't lean too close: it may well pull out your throat.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a bullied 12-year-old schoolboy who befriends Eli (Lina Leandersson), who is pale of skin and dark of eye and wise beyond her years ("I've been 12 for a very long time," she explains). Eli has recently moved into the estate with a man who may possibly be her father, or a paedophile (as he was in the novel), or a lover who has grown old while she remains young. She needs constant feeding and her blundering, alcoholic neighbours provide easy pickings.
Yet it would be too easy to file Let the Right One In as a tale of a hunter and her prey, or of light and dark, good and evil. Most of its inhabitants are victims of one stripe or another. They are the marginalised and the dispossessed, living their lives below the parapet and sustaining themselves with blood and alcohol. And while these people may, at times, be able to help each other, and even love each other, the transaction comes with a terrible price. Eli helps Oskar confront the bullies and so Oskar helps Eli when she is left abandoned in her decaying apartment. But the film's finale does not quite offer the happy resolution we've been wishing for. We are left wondering just where these characters go from here.
On its release in 2008, Let the Right One In (which has since been subjected to an American remake) found itself billed as the antidote to the Twilight pictures, a movie that brought a little mystery and magic back to the hoary old bloodsucker yarn. Perhaps it gave it some red meat as well. The Twilight kids would presumably never be caught scaling the walls of a hospital to feast on a patient, or snuffling spilt blood from a dirty stone floor, as Eli does. Alfredson's heroine is sensitive and sympathetic. But we are never allowed to forget that she is also a stone-cold killer; the embodiment of the old adage about the snake that winds up biting the cowboy who gives it shelter: "Because I'm a snake, stupid. It's what I do."
Earlier this year, the horror author Stephen King bemoaned the way in which the vampire genre has recently been hijacked by "lovelorn southern gentlemen and … boy-toys with big, dewy eyes". I'm guessing he has yet to see Let the Right One In. Alfredson's film is by turns tender and terrifying, funny and sad. And yes, OK, it is also a romance, albeit of the richest, strangest, most provocative kind.
Think of it as a boy-meets-girl love story in which the girl may not be a girl at all, and where the boy knows this – and doesn't care.
7. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
Sex and death, those two great mainstays of the horror genre, have rarely been as poetically evoked as in FW Murnau's silent masterpiece. If Nosferatu wasn't quite the first vampire movie, it was the first adaptation of Dracula, albeit an unofficial one; Bram Stoker's estate sued the producers and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed.
Fortunately for the history of cinema it was an order that could not be enforced in Germany. The film follows the story of Dracula closely, though names have been changed. The Dracula character, Graf Orlok, was played by Max Schreck as a hideous walking corpse with a bald head, pointy teeth and long fingernails; Jonathan Harker becomes Thomas Hutter, Mina Harker is Ellen, Renfield is Knock and Van Helsing becomes Professor Bulwer.
As Hutter travels to Carpathia to meet Orlok for the first time, his crossing of the boundary between the real world and the nightmare one is marked by the famous inter-title, so beloved of André Breton and the surrealists: "And when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him." After glimpsing Hutter's portrait of Ellen, Orlok makes his way, with a stash of earth-filled coffins, from Varna on the Black Sea to Bremen (called Wisborg in the film) in north Germany – an epic voyage by sea, and the sort of vast geographical distance that has been diminished by subsequent Dracula films as the globe has been shrunk by air travel and telecommunications.
Many of what would become conventions of vampire pictures were established here – the vampire's thirst for blood, the power of sunlight to destroy the creature and vampirism as a metaphor for sexuality, contagion and xenophobia.
Despite Orlok's hideousness, the Mina character sacrifices herself to him with an erotic abandon notably absent from her relations with her human husband, and the vampire is unable to tear himself away from her neck before sunrise. Orlok, like so many monsters before and since, is finally undone by his all-too-human desire.
6. The Exorcist
One of the few examples of a prestige horror film, it was something of a surprise when director William Friedkin – red hot after winning an Oscar for The French Connection – chose to adapt William Peter Blatty's smash-hit novel of demonic possession for his next film.
The major studio horror boom of the 30s was long over; it was simply fodder for drive-ins and grindhouses. Friedkin, though, managed to attract heavy-duty actors like Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow for his cast. The film had already been rejected by several directors – some unhappy with the subject matter, others unwilling to make a film that hinged around the performance of a young girl as the possession victim – but Friedkin has always been fearless. Friedkin in command made this a major film from major talents given a major release by a major studio.
Tales abound of the director's unorthodox approach, from his randomly firing a gun to scare his actors, to physically slapping them to elicit reactions, and even his refrigerating the set to get them uncomfortable and to get their breath visible as vapour. Whatever possessed him certainly worked: there's a bleak mood that pervades almost every frame. Like any great horror film it was almost a rite of passage to see it. What also made The Exorcist so different to usual horror was that it placed the horror smack dab in the home, in the family, in an innocent child (played by Linda Blair who never really seemed to escape from this film's shadow). One other person key to the film's success is legendary makeup artist Dick Smith. Smith (assisted by a very young and talented protege, Rick Baker) not only created the subtle (at first) possession prosthetics for Blair but also convincingly aged von Sydow's Father Merrin (the actor was barely into his 40s at the time). The film went on to be the biggest grossing of all time, until Jaws knocked it off the top spot a year or so later.
5. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick's hotly awaited adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling ghost story was considered a letdown on its release, particularly by the novel's fans, who were outraged by changes to the plot (Kubrick kills off a character who survived in the book) and disappointed that, owing to the limitations of the special effects of the era, the hedge animals that came to life in the original story were replaced by a maze. But the film has gained in stature over the years; its tracking shots of Danny riding his tricycle along the hotel's corridors made it among the first productions to exploit the potential of the Steadicam, while many set-pieces and lines of dialogue ("Redrum", the spooky twins, "Heeeere's Johnny!") are now so well known they're been parodied countless times by other films or TV shows. And the discordant, modernist soundtrack (Penderecki, Ligeti, Bartók) has few equals.
Jack Nicholson, in the first of his great over-the-top performances of the 80s, doesn't just chew the scenery – he swallows it whole. His character, Jack Torrance, is a would-be writer who gets a caretaking job in the Overlook, an isolated Colorado hotel with an unpleasant history. His sarcastic resentment of his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son (Danny Lloyd) propel his inexorable slide back into alcoholism, which transforms that resentment into a murderous rage, arguably even more terrifying than the rivers of blood, the "crazy lady" in room 237 or Lloyd the phantom barman.
The Shining is also notorious for holding the record for the number of takes of a single scene (127 for Wendy swinging a baseball bat, or 148 of hotel chef Dick Hallorann explaining "the shining", depending on sources) and for the director's bullying of Duvall, which can be glimpsed in the "making of" directed by his daughter, Vivian – a fascinating complement to her father's movie.
4. The Wicker Man
Robin Hardy's slow-burning chiller, from a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer (author of Sleuth, and brother of Peter), was once hailed by the magazine Cinefantastique as "the Citizen Kane of horror movies".
It was originally released as a supporting feature to Don't Look Now, but had a troubled distribution history, which delayed its elevation to cult status until the 1980s. Ailing production company British Lion was bought by EMI midway through shooting, and Hardy was obliged to make cuts (but resisted demands by studio executives that he change the ending); a further 13 minutes were cut for the American release. It wasn't until nearly 30 years later that a restored version became available on DVD. (In 2006 Neil LaBute wrote and directed a risible remake, transposed to a matriarchal community on an island off the coast of America's Pacific north-west region and starring Nicolas Cage.)
Christopher Lee, who was proud of his performance as Lord Summerisle, never lost faith in the film's quality and reportedly even offered to pay for critics' cinema seats. Edward Woodward (up until that point best known for the TV series Callan) plays Sergeant Howie, an uptight Calvinist policeman who travels to Summerisle, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, to investigate reports of a local girl's disappearance. Once there, he finds his solid Christian beliefs confronted by a community dabbling in all manner of dubious pagan practices (including sun worship, fertility rituals and Britt Ekland, or her body double, dancing naked), and begins to suspect the islanders of knowing more about what happened to the missing girl than they're letting on.
The Wicker Man is influential not just on subsequent horror cinema, but on the thriller genre in general in the way it sets an artfully composed series of traps for its unwitting protagonist, expertly wrong-footing both him and the audience until the devastating ending, set to the world's most disturbing rendition of the folksong Summer is Icumen In, which makes it clear that Sergeant Howie was correct in assuming there was an island-wide conspiracy – but horribly wrong about its precise nature.
3. Don't Look Now
Nicolas Roeg's trademark non-linear approach to narrative is put to unnerving use in this haunting adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's short story about a couple, John and Laura Baxter (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who relocate to Venice in an attempt to come to terms with the accidental death of their young daughter. And that's just the start of a film that establishes such a mood of doomy anticipation that no one who watches it can ever again negotiate the narrow, labyrinthine streets of La Serenissima without wondering if they'll catch a glimpse of a small figure in a red raincoat flitting over a shadowy bridge.
Right from the opening sequence it's established that John, an art restorer, possesses the gift of clairvoyance – but, as shown time and again, he fails to act on or even recognise it – with tragic consequences. Images of water, the colour red and broken glass repeatedly intersect in a kaleidoscope of ominous foreshadowing. The presence of a serial killer at work in Venice doesn't so much turn the film into a psycho-thriller as contribute to the backdrop of watery gloom.
Don't Look Now was well received by critics and achieved a certain amount of notoriety thanks to rumours that the (for then) unusually explicit scene of lovemaking between John and Laura wasn't faked. Typically, Roeg intercut the act itself with footage of the couple getting dressed for dinner.
Pino Donaggio, who would go on to score some of Brian De Palma's most successful movies, made his film debut with the poignant soundtrack, and the movie's final shocking reveal is one of the most famous since that of Psycho.
2. Rosemary's Baby
Roman Polanski's first Hollywood feature was an adaptation of Ira Levin's bestseller, and its success launched a trend for devil-baby, evil-kiddie and satanic pregnancy movies that extended well into the 70s. The novel was first recognised as potential film material at proof stage by low-budget horror entrepreneur William Castle, who ended up as the producer and had a fleeting cameo in the film as a man smoking a cigar outside a phone booth.
According to a (probably spurious) film-making legend, Polanski, having never before adapted a novel, didn't realise he was allowed to make changes, with the result that his screenplay is remarkably faithful to Levin's book.
Mia Farrow, best known for her role in the TV soap opera Peyton Place and as the wife of Frank Sinatra (who served her with divorce papers during the shoot) played Rosemary Woodhouse, a nice Catholic girl who with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, moves into an apartment in The Bramford, an old New York block with a sinister history. (The exteriors were filmed outside the Dakota building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where John Lennon would later be shot dead.) Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer play Minnie and Roman Castavet, the nosy neighbours from hell – and that's even before we find out they're satanists. Gordon won a best supporting actress Oscar, the only Academy Award for a horror movie until 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.
The film works on multiple levels – as a supernatural thriller (though explicit paranormal elements are limited to a hallucinatory dream sequence and the final shot of the baby's eyes), as a psychological thriller about a paranoid pregnant woman who imagines herself at the centre of a conspiracy, and as the last word in marital betrayal, since the most despicable villain here is surely Guy, who allows his wife to be raped by the devil in exchange for an acting role.
Polanski's achievement is in immersing us so completely in Rosemary's point of view that we share her doubts, confusion and suspicions as she becomes increasingly cut off from former friends and begins to believe her husband is in cahoots with the Castavets in a diabolical plan to harm her baby. This is horror rooted not in misty Carpathian castles, but in recognisable modern life, with the satanists depicted not as outlandish fiends but the sort of everyday folk you might encounter on any urban street.
Author Robert Bloch, on whose novel Joseph Stefano's screenplay was based, described Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as embodying "the fear of the boy next door". The terror, for Bloch, lay in the fact that the killer "could be the person sitting next to you". Bloch had been inspired to write his potboiler (copies of which Hitchcock reportedly bought up to keep the end a surprise) by news reports about Ed Gein, the seemingly ordinary Wisconsin loner who was revealed to be a murderer and necrophile. Dubbed "the Wisconsin ghoul", Gein made ornaments and clothing from the skin of the dead and inspired a legacy of fictionalised screen shockers, ranging from the trashy Deranged to the epochal Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. But it was Anthony Perkins's maternally obsessed misfit in Psycho who most perfectly distilled the modern fear of the monster who looks just like you. "My name is Norman Bates," sang British synth combo Landscape in 1981, "I'm just a normal guy …" proving that Perkins's creation still had pop cachet two decades after his first appearance.
Dispute still rages as to the provenance and power of Psycho's notorious shower sequence, which has become perhaps the most iconic murder scene in the history of cinema. Designer Saul Bass's preparatory storyboards so closely detail every moment of the sequence that some have suggested he should share directorial credit with Hitchcock. Others argue that it is Bernard Herrmann's stabbing score, with its screeching atonal strings, which packs the real punch.
But it was the maestro's flair for carnivalesque showmanship that made Psycho headline news – from the unforgettably camp trailer in which Hitchcock led audiences around the "scene of the crime" before throwing back the shower curtain to reveal a screaming Vera Miles, to his much-publicised ruling that no one be allowed to enter the theatre once a performance of Psycho had begun. "Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes or ventilating shafts will be met by force," announced a cardboard lobby cut-out of Hitchcock, pointing sternly at his watch. "The entire objective of this extraordinary policy, of course, is to help you enjoy Psycho more."
Its edgy exploitation aesthetic and taboo-breaking "toilet flush" shot (even more controversial than the shower scene) have meant Psycho forged a template for the money-spinning slasher franchises that still thrive – or fester? – today. It directly inspired Halloween (which starred Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis) and Friday the 13th (in which the murderous mother-son relationship is sneakily reversed), and spawned a string of sequels including a TV movie that brought Bates's legacy into the direct-to-video age.
Groaning artworks followed too, from Gus Van Sant's allegedly post-modern colour-copy remake, to Douglas Gordon's puzzlingly feted installation 24 Hour Psycho, which simply slowed the appropriated film to a snail's pace. Hitchcock would never have been so pompous; he made Psycho fast and cheap (it cost a mere $807,000) to entertain a mainstream audience, using his regular TV crew and shooting in black-and-white to give the production a vérité news-footage feel. Many viewers still insist that the blood running down the plughole after Marion's murder is bright red, but it is the power of their imaginations that makes the brown chocolate syrup seem so. After half a century of terror, Psycho is still ensuring that no one feels safe in the shower.