I've chosen these in terms of personal preference rather than the impact they had on the genre, and my main criteria was that they scared me when I first saw them and they still scare me now. I'm not saying these are the five best horror films ever made, just that they're my favourites.
I present them here in no particular order other than the order they came to mind.
Never has there been such a powerful combination of personal and spiritual horror.
I first saw William Friedkin’s masterpiece when I was 12 years old – much too young to view such intense material – and it genuinely traumatised me, to the extent that even now I can’t watch the film alone. Sound and visuals, flashing, subliminal images, and committed performances from a perfect cast, all combine to make this a gruelling experience.
Viewed now, with the advantage of distance, it comes across like Martin Scorsese doing horror. Quite frankly, it’s brilliant.
The Blair Witch Project
I watched this in the cinema with my jaw wide, my eyes bulging. The final scenes left me staggered, and led to a long period of weird, terrifying dreams featuring people standing facing the wall in the corner of my room. The found footage trope is one that I still love, but it’s never again reached the high standards set here.
I struggle to understand why people don’t like this film, or why they call it boring. It’s one of the most sustained pieces of cinematic dread that I can ever remembering seeing. I value films that honestly scare me, and this one did just that. It still does.
Todd Browning’s controversial film caused a sir in its day, and still does now. Even in these liberated times (or maybe especially in these liberated times?) his use of real-life circus freaks in major roles is incredibly disturbing.
The film treads the line between exploitation and integrity, and often crosses it, but the raw power of what we see is undeniable.
The opening scene is a masterclass in the art of unsettling an audience: a summer’s day, people singing and playing in a field…and when the camera close sin on those frolicking, we experience emotions that veer between shock, dread and pity. Most of the rest of the film holds us in that same emotional state.
I really thought I’d seen it all. And then I saw Martyrs. Pascal Laugier’s film is often dismissed as “torture porn”, but it’s so much more than that.
Again, elements of spiritual and personal horror are integrated perfectly, to produce a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. I saw this film “blind” – I had no ides what it was about. So when the second act veered into something completely different from the opening scenes, and then the third act dropped on me like a bomb, I knew I’d seen something special.
The word “masterpiece” is bandied around too often these days, but I believe it applies here. This film made me feel things I’d never felt before, and I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing.
I Walked with a Zombie
Most people class Cat People as the highlight of Val Lewton’s brief reign as the cinematic master of “quiet horror”, but for me it’s always been this one. An inspired retelling of Jane Eyre as a West Indies-set horror film, I Walked with a Zombie manages to be literate, elegiac, and terrifying.
Jaques Tournier’s direction is subtle and evocative, the performances are pitch-perfect, but the mood is the real star here. There’s a sense of menace captured in every frame; by the end of the film, you’re wrapped up in a mist of inevitable dread. I treasure this film. It’s the kind of thing they don’t make any more, but I wish they did.