Although I would have a hard time choosing just one, if I absolutely had to, I would select George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the greatest horror movie ever made. It was shot by young film students in Pittsburgh for just north of $100,000 and, despite shocked reviews from revulsed critics, it earned many, many times that. On one level, it established the zombie genre that thrives today, including throngs of slow-moving zombies (much scarier than fast-moving ones). On another level, it provided a microcosm of social unrest prevalent in the country at the time, with an African-American character (Duane Jones) taking charge of the survivors trapped inside the house.
Romero always said that the character, Ben, was not written as black, and that Jones simply gave the best audition, but casting him was an act of courage, and it raised the film to another level. Karl Hardman plays Ben’s chief rival, the pent-up aggressive Harry Cooper, and Judith O’Dea plays the blonde Barbra, who starts the film by visiting a graveyard with her brother and eventually turning nearly catatonic with fear. (Her brother does a pretty good Boris Karloff in an early scene: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”) Even after all this time, the movie still effectively balances canny character development among the humans inside, and a menacing, encroaching horror outside. Sadly, because of an error, the film was never legally copyrighted and is now available free in many places, although pay services Fandor and Shudder offer clean, sharp transfers.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (TubiTV)
Technically it’s part of the Universal Horror cycle, but Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) came well after the heyday of those creepy, expressionistic European-inspired monsters like Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. It turned up at a time when pale sequels were the norm, but, despite its flat, low-budget look, it still has some rather brilliant psychological insights and some very effective moments. Like other sci-fi movies of the 1950s—specifically I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—this one takes its superficial idea and wraps up genuine human fears inside.
An expedition into the Amazon leads a group of scientists to discover a “Gill Man.” (Ben Chapman wore the suit on land and Ricou Browning did the underwater footage.) While the men fight over whether to kill it or study it, the creature falls in love with the expedition’s only female, the beautiful Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). The monster’s plight evoked that of young teenage boys, awkward and half-formed, and living in a repressed society, unsure of what to do or how to act or how to speak to girls; the intended audience ate it up, and the film was enough of a success to inspire two sequels. One of these, Revenge of the Creature (1955), featured the acting debut of a young pup named Clint Eastwood.
Blood and Black Lace (Fandor)
In the 1960s, Mario Bava was the master of horror in the world (Alfred Hitchcock notwithstanding). This Italian-born filmmaker started as a cinematographer and turned director in 1960, and while stories and dialogue were never his strong suit, he more than made up for it with vivid atmosphere and low-budget inventiveness; indeed, he pioneered several aspects of the horror genre that are still used to this day. He was probably best known for the way he evoked fear and darkness out of astoundingly bold and varied colors; red may have been a favorite, but he did not shy away from yellow, green, or blue. Out of all his films, Blood and Black Lace (1964) arguably best showcases this use of color, and also has arguably the most cohesive plot.
The story takes place in the fashion world, where many beautiful models run around, trying on lovely clothes. The models are hardly as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside; things like theft, drugs, abortions, and blackmail are common. A killer with a blank mask begins attacking and taking out the models, one by one. Everyone looks guilty, so it’s not easy to guess the bad guy’s identity. With grisly precision, Bava pays special attention to the tense anticipation leading up to the deaths, using deep shadows and creepy mannequins to emphasize the terror. Many agree that this movie was one of the first of the “slasher” genre. In addition to horror hounds, both Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have cited Bava as an influence on their work, though he’s still not as well known as he should be.
Although its technology may be a tad outdated, this film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is perhaps the most flat-out terrifying movie I’ve seen in the 21st century. In Kurosawa’s world, terrible things happen everywhere at once, and yet the filmmaker manages to represent all of it with just a few key characters and scenarios. In Pulse (2001)—also known as Kairo—a woman goes to the home of a colleague to find out why he has been missing work and to retrieve an important disc. She speaks to him, turns to his desk, turns back, and he’s suddenly dead. On the disc is an image of his computer desktop, telescoped into infinity.
Later, another man tries to connect his computer to the internet for the first time, and is immediately taken to a website that asks, “Do you want to see a ghost?” Before long, people begin seeing things, suddenly disappearing, and sealing their doors with red tape to block out the malevolent forces. Kurosawa forgoes dumb jump scares and roots his horror in things that can exist—or hide—in a single frame; he’s a master of space and rhythm. He’s not interested in drawing a concrete conclusion to the terror, but would rather leave us with questions about connections between humans and/or computers. Kurosawa’s frequent leading man Koji Yakusho appears in a small role here. Beware the 2006 American remake with Kristen Bell (it replaces all of Kurosawa’s mastery with cheap tricks).
Based on the true cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the first The Conjuring (2013) was a little too excited in declaring that that story was the most frightening case of their career, perhaps not realizing that these two were tailor-made for a whole series of ghost-hunting movies. So The Conjuring 2 (2016) back-pedals a bit, saying that this story is pretty darn scary too. But after that, we’re off to the races. This story takes place just after the Warrens’ involvement in the famous Amityville case. Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) has become spooked by foreboding visions, and wishes to quit. But a case in Endfield, England turns up, wherein a young girl, Janet (Madison Wolfe), seems to be channeling the ghost of an old man, and the Warrens can’t turn down a request for help.
The catch here is that the Warrens must prove that the possession is paranormal and not man-made, but that proof seems elusive; there’s doubt around every corner. Director James Wan has firmly established himself as one of today’s premier horror directors, with an unerring sense of where to place his camera, and how to establish a spooky space. He does allow this one to drag on a little long (134 minutes is a lot to ask), but even scenes like Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) playing and singing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” seem to belong right where they need to be. Frances O’Connor plays the mother of the possessed girl, and Simon McBurney and Franka Potente co-star. Here’s hoping we see more of the Warrens in Halloweens to come.