Scariest movies ever made: The top 100 horror films according to the Chicago Film Critics
I tend to ignore lists featuring the Top 100 Movies (or Top 10 Movies or Top 20 Movies, etc.), no matter the category or criteria, because these lists are almost invariably compiled by people who know little about films beyond mainstream Hollywood stuff released in the last decade or two. But the Chicago Film Critics Association's list of the 100 Scariest Movies Ever Made, which came out in October 2006, does include several oldies – e.g., James Whale's Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein – in addition to, gasp, a handful of non-American horror films such as Dario Argento's Suspiria, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, and F.W. Murnau's brilliant Dracula rip-off Nosferatu. (Check out the full list of the Chicago Film Critics' top 100 horror movies of all time.)
Needless to say, you'll find a number of oddities on the list. For instance, the sleeper box office blockbuster The Blair Witch Project is in, but Benjamin Christensen's classic silent Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is not. The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Shaun of the Dead are all in, but not the 1945 British horror classic Dead of Night. On the other hand, it's refreshing – though perhaps that's not quite the right word – to find Pier Paolo Pasolini's anti-fascist manifesto Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom listed as one of the scariest movies ever made. Indeed it is.
Unscary 'scariest movies'
Curiously, even though I have trouble watching scary films – no matter how stupid or absurd – several titles found on the Chicago Film Critics' Scariest Movies list left me utterly unimpressed. Examples include Alfred Hitchcock's widely revered Psycho, which happens to be the top film on the list; Rob Reiner's Misery, less a horror movie than a (not very suspenseful) suspense thriller; William Friedkin's The Exorcist, despite all the avocado vomit and Mercedes McCambridge's demon voice; and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, which has aliens killing off a few billion humans just so Mel Gibson can have his faith in God restored.
Just as curiously, a number of movies – whether great, bad, or mediocre – that gave me nightmares for days (or weeks) are absent from the list. These include:
- John Landis' An American Werewolf in London.
- Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone.
- John Carpenter's The Fog.
- Lewis Allen's The Uninvited.
- Michael Mann's The Keep.
- Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.
- William Conrad's Two on a Guillotine.
- Sergio Martino's The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh / Blade of the Ripper.
- Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon / Curse of the Demon.
- David Lynch's psychohorror drama Mulholland Dr.
Surprising 'scariest movies' omissions
Other surprises – because they're nowhere to be found on the Scariest Movies list despite their hair-raising reputation – include:
- Erle C. Kenton's Island of Lost Souls, featuring Charles Laughton as a mad doctor and Richard Arlen as a prospective experiment.
- Robert Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue, toplining Bela Lugosi as a mad doctor and a pre-King Kong girl-crazy gorilla.
- Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, starring Bette Davis as a mad former child star, and the follow-up Aldrich-Davis collaboration, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, in which Davis only thinks she's mad.
- James Whale's eerie horror-comedy The Old Dark House, in which about half the cast is either mad or acts as if they were.
- The Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise 2005 horror-sci-fier War of the Worlds and Byron Haskin's 1953 original.
- Tony Scott's stylish vampire thriller The Hunger, with bloodsuckers Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and heart-stealer Susan Sarandon.
- Robin Hardy's well-regarded The Wicker Man, which mixes hippies and horror.
- Showman William Castle's House on Haunted Hill, with Vincent Price.
- And perhaps the most egregious omission of all, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong, featuring Hollywood's biggest star (in terms of size) and its top screaming queen, Fay Wray. (Peter Jackson's bloated 2005 remake, starring Naomi Watts, was deservedly left out of the list.)
No Lon Chaney or Japanese monster movies
Also inexplicably missing from the Chicago Film Critics' list of scariest movies ever made is Lon Chaney, whose star vehicles at Universal and MGM include both well-known classics and forgotten gems of the horror – or at least the creepy – genre, among them The Phantom of the Opera and The Unknown, in which he cuts off his arms in order to win the heart of a very young Joan Crawford (don't ask).
Also, you won't find any neo-horror Japanese films – e.g., Hideo Nakata's Ring, Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on: The Grudge – on the Chicago Film Critics' list even though they've found a large audience worldwide. In fact, Onibaba is the only Japanese horror film included on the list; in other words, no Godzilla. (Of course, it could always be that Lon Chaney, and Japanese neo-horror and monster movies haven't been made available in Chicago. Having said that, Lon Chaney Jr. movies seem to be obtainable, as The Wolf Man is in.)
Wes Craven is scariest director; only one film directed by a woman
Wrapping this up, it's worth noting that four of the Chicago Film Critics' top 100 scariest movies are made-for-television productions: Dan Curtis' Bram Stoker's Dracula and Trilogy of Terror, Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot, and John Llewellyn Moxey's The Night Stalker.
With four titles, drector Wes Craven has the most films on the list. They are: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Last House on the Left, and Scream 2. Craven is followed by George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Martin) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Salem's Lot).
With three “scariest movies” each, Boris Karloff, Tom Conway, and Jeff Goldblum are the actors with the most titles on the list. Karloff has Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy; Conway has Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and I Walked with a Zombie; and Goldblum has The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Jurassic Park. (Note: Don Siegel's original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is on the list, but Kurt Neumann's original The Fly, in which Patricia Owens screams her head off, is not.)
And finally, only one film among the Chicago Film Critics' top 100 scariest movies of all time has a woman director. That's Near Dark (1987), directed by eventual Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker).
Follow-up post: Full list of the Chicago Film Critics Association's Top 100 Horror Movies Ever Made, including their directors and key cast members.
Image of Janet Leigh, John Gavin, and Vera Miles in one of the “scariest movies ever made,” Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: Paramount Pictures.
Image of Boris Karloff and Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House: Universal Pictures.
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street: New Line Cinema.