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.
See also: Barbara Stanwyck, Janet Leigh, and Edwige Fenech among cinema’s “Top Ten Scream Queens.”
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 – literally – biggest star 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.
Chicago Film Critics Association website.
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.
Well, I’ve realized this list isn’t current and am wondering if you will be updating with movies made within the past 4 years? I know there are so many horror films out there (love the foreign, tired of the Japanese for now) that I’d appreciate. Love me some horror….but then chances of watching 1 good one out of 20 seems to be common.
As mentioned in the article, the list of “100 scariest movies ever made” was compiled by the Chicago Film Critics Association in 2006. I don’t believe they’ve updated it since.
If we find an update, we’ll definitely post it on the blog.
There are some really great films listed here but none that are truly frightening to me. Of course I was born in 1951 and was fortunate to see so many scary flicks as a child in the 50’s & early 60’s. As an adult I just haven’t seen many that truly scare me. I did watch and purchase Boris Karloff’s Black Sabbath (trilogy). Now that scared me, especially the 1st episode about the woman who dressed dead people for a living.
Psychological terror gets me, not slasher “horror”. Anyway, I’m glad there are websites like yours that give me good information about what’s out there. I didn’t see REC and REC2 on this list. The 1st one especially freaked me. I will certainly check out some of the links here and look further into so many horror films you refer to. This is great!
Thanks again for being here!
Contrarily to some comments, I agree to putting Psycho on N° one – it still works, even on adults. But I do miss Eraserhead: After seeing a trailer when I was 20, I waited ten years to collect the courage to see it – and I did well do do so. For me, it’s still the most unquieting, disturbing and scary movie ever.
the first like 15 aren’t the least bit scary
I can see this being a (painfully cliche) top 100 horror films list, but saying it’s a list of the “scariest films” with so many horror-comedies and borderline thrillers is insane. Evil Dead 2? Fright Night? Deliverance? Even Jaws, though scary, is not consistent enough in maintaining a horrific tone to deserve a spot in the top 10 of such a list.
Jurrasic Park? Seriously?
The only thing scary about that film was the gradual decline in the quality of John Williams’ film music…
Neither Psycho or The Exorcist are even remotely scary. The Shinning has by far the creepiest atmosphere out of any movie. It should be number uno with ease.
The very fact that Shyamalan’s abysmal “Signs” made the cut, and Fulci’s “Gates Of Hell”or “Zombi”; “The Brood” or “The Sentinel” didn’t…. Well, all credibility goes right in the poop saloon, as far as I’m concerned.
I’d drop “Repulsion” and “The Shining,” both of which I found slow and overrated, and add the 1950s British movie “Night of the Demon” (aka “Curse of the Demon”) and the 1943 Danish movie “Day of Wrath.”
“Psycho” works best in a crowded theater. I saw a revival in a San Francisco theater and it worked beautifully.
How on earth did ‘Dawn of the Dead’ make the top 10? It was so boring I actually got a headache waiting for something interesting to happen.
Also Where is Pet Sematery,Amityville Horror and IT
where is candyman and hellraiser?
Remember guys, it’s a list of the scariest films, not the best horrors. That being said, PSYCHO CAN’T BE NUMBER ONE! Have you seen it? I’m sure it was scary for that era, but I watched it a few months ago and the only part that scared me was the end. The shower scene was excellent, but not at all horrific. My top 3 would be: Exorcist (though it was quite slow), Halloween and The Ring. I really haven’t seen a ton, just about 20 of these, but I haven’t seen any extremely scary films. I thought the Invasion was quite scary, but just some parts. The Silence of the Lambs was as scary as Harry Potter, not even! It was a fantastic film but doesn’t deserve to be in the top 15. One or two scenes were frightening in Alien, and Halloween was very good. It was quite freaky, but I left watching the Exorcist completely freaked out. One film which I found very scary when I was maybe 10 years old was the Forgotten. It wasn’t really a horror, but if they made it a spookier theme, it would have been so. I haven’t seen it since then so I can’t say whether it still frightens me.
Hahah LMAO, Shaun Of the Dead! C’mon! xDD
Are you Kidding? Shaun of the Dead on this list?
Painfully retarded. It seems like they just threw in a load of old horrors even though they are not scary at all by todays staderds. I agree, Psycho was pretty scary at times but definately didn’t deserve to be #1.
This list is a serious joke. Shaun Of The Dead, really. Great movie, but it’s a comedy. I don’t see any horror to it, that would qualify it as a scary movie. Some of these just don’t make sense. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Great movie and book, but nothing scary to it.
This list greatly amuses me. Evil Dead 2 at #25 and Evil Dead at #37, for instance. I have always considered the Bruce Campbell movies highly entertaining in the comedic sense rather than anything even closely resembling horror. The montage of several other movies that I would consider to be comedic is astounding, but perhaps none so much (in my opinion) as seeing Shaun of the Dead at #62, three ABOVE Salo. Salo is by far one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.
Mr. Soares (if you’re still reading comments 4 years after this article was published), if you haven’t seen several of the films in the top 10, why are you even commenting on the list? Also, simply saying you were “utterly unimpressed” by Psycho is like dismissing Shakespeare as a hack or the Beatles as overrated. You may have your reasons, but without explanation it casts serious doubt on your judgment. As for the people who bitch about lists, you need to relax. They’re just for fun, don’t take life so seriously. Having said that, where the hell is Alice, Sweet Alice?!
This list reminds me of those Rolling Stone top albums of all time, etc. lists. They have mentioned some great classics that were groundbreaking for their time and some (Psycho, the Innocents) still manage to be pretty frightening. But c’mon there is no way to accurately pit films like The Bride of Frankenstein against The Ring. This is a great way of giving all the great horror movies their due credit (obviously we’re missing a few- The Grudge, Jacob’s Ladder, Dementia 13, The Haunting (1962 version is actually *very* creepy)), and is a useful way to find new movies, but it is impossible to expect people to agree on what is scary, and pretty hard to be tasteful and accurate.
yeah, it’s almost criminal that jacob’s ladder and the changeling weren’t on this list.. i would have also added polanski’s “the tenant”, and flaws aside, the recent french film “inside” as well, but that’s just personal opinion. overall a good list.. i was especially happy they included let’s scare jessica to death and god told me to- those are often overlooked, and great horror films
It might be best to view lists like these as something other than a rating system. Instead, look upon them as a means of finding new movies to enjoy. Though I own a copy of many of the films on this list, there were also several that I had never heard of.
Right now I am downloading Wait Until Dark, and I may check out 10 Rillington Place also.
I agree with a lot of your comments too. Some titles clearly do not belong (Shaun of the Dead), some should be rated more highly (Session 9), and some just deserve inclusion (Jacob’s Ladder).
Furthermore, remember that critics’ lists are collaborative as well as representative, so there is pressure to give equal respect to titles of different eras. How else could the original Nosferatu be rated higher than Cronenberg’s The Fly?
All in all, I think this list is pretty decent. It definitely beats that list they play on TV every Halloween! Who were the posers who came up with that?
Gotta say man, this is pretty inaccurate. I mean Shaun of the dead is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. I have seen youtube videos that have much more a scare to offer. Exorcism of Emily Rose, 86?! Honestly makes you wonder who the hell these film critics are.
This list needs proper rethinking.
Best Horror Movies = Early 70s to Mid-80s
How comes the Grudge isn’t there, and I even hate modern day slashers and CGIs, but that was a stylish Japanese chilling horror film? Oh yeah let me guess, Triology Of Terror with its 7 inch tall Voodoo doll and Open water(a rip off jaws) is scarier, hehehe. Creature From The Black Lagoon was excellent for its time, but thanks alot Chicago times for putting a 50s Sci-fi on your top 100 Horror movies, hehehe.
Finally I’m glad to be able to respond to the Chicago times critic list, let me just say that some of the usual mainstream crap shouldn’t be there. I said this many times on many websites. Jaws isn’t horror, it’s a boring animal/adventure movie and it’s rated PG, not R. Alien is number 4 and it’s by default a Sci-fi, and I didn’t like it at all, Jurrassic Park is also an animal/adventure. Silence Of The Lambs is crime/thriller, but just curious, they put The Howling and The Wolfman, what about An American Werewolf In London? That one had a sick transformation, what about the underrated The Changeling with George C.Scott? In The Mouth Of Madness, The Mothman Prophcyies? Oh yeah, why put those when you can just put the same crap, jaws, alien and Silence Of The Lambs. Let me know how you feel and tell Roger Ebert to stick it. Stick to your lighthearted comedy Chicago times.
“When a stranger calls (50)” is placed above “Salo (58)”? You gotta be kidding.
And where are “Saw” and “Hostel”?
So “Jurassic Park” is scarier then “Salo”? Sounds reasonable. Big saurians are way more horrible then fascists who force you to eat shit and afterwards torture you to death in front of your friends. Of course the Gillman from the Black Lagoon beats them both.
“Play Misty for Me” scared me more than any other movie I’ve seen. Nothing spectacular, just quiet, building tension in a California town. I think it may have been the first contemporary movie Clint Eastwood did; it certainly was the first one in which he was stalked.
Lists as a “means of measuring film history” are indeed useless (just take a look at the AFI lists), but I bet that Sight & Sound will come up with another such list in 2012.
As I said in my previous post, those lists are good selling tools. That’s why publications create them — including the Alternative Film Guide. (I do, however, explain that my lists — and my reviews — are, like everybody else’s, highly subjective and definitely NOT written in stone.)
Now, I do enjoy reading lists — depending on who is doing them, of course. I look at those lists not to discover the Greatest Movies of All Time, but to find out what particular individuals or group(s) of individuals find special.
And before I forget…
I’ve never seen a good print of “The Old Dark House.” What’s available on video or on cable is a high-contrasty print.
Those guys should make the restored LoC version available on DVD.
And no, I don’t recall sensing a gay subtext between Karloff and the Old Dark wacko. I gotta watch that movie again…
I haven’t seen several of the films in their top-ten list. But I’d say that the less popular a film is — even though we’re talking about film critics who should know their classics — the less likely it’ll be for that film to make it to any top-100 list — let alone a top-ten list.
Unfortunately, a list filled with relatively obscure titles (i.e., anything made outside of Hollywood, released before 1985, and that hasn’t become a major “classic” of some kind) will not get the sort of media attention accorded to lists consisting of more popular fare.
And, needless to say, such lists are almost invariably self-promotional tools.
Diabolique is far scarier than Rosemary’s Baby, or 4 or 5 of the otther Top 10.
I think most lists are pretty silly these days. I just don’t understand the concept of actually sitting down and coming up with 10, 50, or even 100 items on a “Best Of” or “Greatest of All Time” list. I never get the need people have to place things in such dogmatic hierarchial contexts. How do you prove “better”? How do you prove “bad” or “good”? You can’t, simply because film appreciation is such an incredibly subjective thing. One person’s “junk” is a meaningful journey for someone else. We might have our personal opinions as to what we like or don’t like, but that hardly etches it in stone. Ask 100 people what the “10 Greatest Romantic Films” are, and guarenteed you’ll get different responses depending upon the person and they’re experiences in life. In a more casual setting, lists can be fun among friends to seeing what other people enjoy. But as a means of measuring film history, they’re pretty useless.
**** Warning: Spoilers Below*******
Yes, “The Old Dark House” is terrific. People attending Cinesation kept repeating Thesiger’s line “Have a potato” for the rest of the weekend. There’s a really interesting relationship between Karloff’s character as the mute manservant and the insane brother Saul which the family has kept hidden in the attic. When Saul is killed in the end, Karloff is seen very tenderly holding Saul as he’s dying and Karloff is clearly very bereaved by his death. It had a certain gay subtext for me. If I remember correctly, I think Karloff was particularly watchful over Saul, and was the one who was mainly in charge of his care. You get a sense that perhaps there was a deep love and intimacy that existed between the two men. Again, just my personal take on that.
I don’t know that I was necessarily “frightend” watching “The Old Dark House” but it has a very palpable and stirring atmosphere due largely to the superlative cinematography of Arthur Edeson and the perverse performances from several of the actors. The print shown at Cinesation was taken from a stunning 35mm LOC print. The film was as clear and smooth as glass on the big screen and breathtaking to behold.
Yeah, those top 10, 50, 100 whatever lists are pretty dumb all right. I agree that Chicago’s was not so bad at all. In this matter of stupid lists, no one can beat AFI.
It’s funny you mention “The Old Dark House.” Some of it is hysterically funny — and intentionally so.
But then the film takes a turn toward the macabre, and it had me on the edge of my seat until the (lighter) finale. There are precious few horror movies from the 1930s that actually put the fear of godawfulness in me — but “The Old Dark House” is one of them.
So, perhaps we should call it a Horredy?
Curiously, “The Old Dark House” is nowhere to be found in the Chicago critics’ top 94 (!) list of scariest movies.
Maybe it’s one of the missing last six titles…
Well, there are definitely comedic touches. Una O’ Connor was a big hit with the audience as well as Ernest Thesiger’s highly flamboyant performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s comrade in his experiments (Thesiger was also a big hit earlier that day with his performance in Whale’s “The Old Dark House”)But, while I don’t consider the film a “horror” film in the traditional sense, I also wouldn’t classify it as a comedy. So, I think that’s why you’re description of it puzzled me. Again, merely a personal thing though.
I gotta admit that I saw “Bride of Frankenstein” many years ago. I remember finding some of it humorous. I definitely remember that it wasn’t at all a “scary movie.”
I do have the DVD here. I need to check it out again. (I can’t think of any big-screen showings of “Bride” in the Los Angeles area in the near future.)
“Bride Of Frankenstein” a comedy? Hmm, I don’t get that one. Although it certainly does have elements of comedy in it. I just saw this film on the big screen at Cinesation( And had seen it before on the lovely DVD release). It’s actually quite a touching film because it speaks to elements of lonliness, societal ostracism, and to the desire for all living beings to be loved and accepted. Take the “horror” element out of the film and it’s a fascinating look at man’s inhumanity to one another, and their inability to see past external superficialities. My mother mentioned being very moved after watching it.
Of course that’s just my personal take. I haven’t really read a great deal about James Whale(Haven’t gotten around to the biography yet), but I find that aspect of the film quite interesting considering Whale was a gay director.
So no, I can’t say I find “Bride Of Frankenstein” a “horror” film per se. But something much more significant. I’m a big Karloff fan, and despite the fact that his face is obscured by the heavy makeup, it’s one of his finest performances. Coupled with James Whale’s excellent direction and his moody, surreal cinematic touch, seeing it on the big screen was an entirely different and emotional experience.