The Last Man on Earth (1964)
You might’ve thought about how you’d survive the apocalypse, but have you ever stopped to consider whether it’s actually worth doing? In The Last Man On Earth, Vincent Price is the only survivor of a mysterious plague that’s turned the rest of humanity into walking corpses, hungry for his blood. Every day, he tools up and goes out to kill the bloodsuckers; every night, they surround his house and try to kill him. It’s a dismal way to live, and a depressingly eerie film. It’s based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend – so skip the Will Smith adaptation and watch this instead.
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
Part melodramatic family drama, part psychological horror, A Tale Of Two Sisters is all scary all the time. When a pair of sisters return from a mental hospital, having been traumatised by their mother’s death, they find their new stepmother difficult to adjust to. The nightly visitations from a blood-dripping ghost don’t help, either. But as always in these kinds of films, nothing is what it seems – you might need a second viewing to get your head round the ending.
Night of the Hunter (1955)
Robert Mitchum might have claimed not to be interested in movies or acting, but he’s great in this. As Harry Powell, a bizarrely religious conman, he’s terrifying, whether he’s preaching about the evils of fornication or chasing the children of his latest victim across the country in an attempt to steal a stash of money he knows they’re hiding. The use of light and shadow in this movie is just stunning; the first time Powell arrives at the Harper house is a particular highlight. Robert Mitchum’s singing voice isn’t half bad, either.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Peeping Tom was so controversial when it was released that it effectively ended director Michael Powell’s career. It’s violent, voyeuristic, and since it tells a story from the villain’s point of view; it’s entirely unsavoury. And it’s wonderful. It looks great, it has an amazingly twisted (and tragic) plot, and Carl Boehm is brilliant as Mark, the awkward, mild-mannered psychopath who feels compelled to murder as a result of his father’s deranged experiments. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way – but if I told you how he killed his victims, that might be.)
Happily, 1960’s other movie about a disturbed serial killer was less of a career-killer. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is wonderful, sodden with guilt and tension right from the opening scene. It’s a shame that so many of its twists are so well-known now, because watching this without knowing what was going to happen must have been brilliant. It’s still great – beautiful to watch, genuinely tense and frequently unnerving – but it has lost some of its shock value over the years. (Also, the bit at the end where the psychiatrist explains everything in great detail is utterly superfluous.) Anthony Perkins’ final twitchy, smirky scene is seriously creepy though.
City Of The Dead / Horror Hotel (1960)
Getting the timing of a holiday wrong can have disastrous consequences, as City Of The Dead illustrates. Nan Barlow is a history student who, under the tutelage of Christopher Lee’s Professor Driscoll, becomes fascinated with the history of witchcraft, and decides to visit the site of a famous witch trial… but she arrives in town on Candlemas Eve, probably the most important date in the witches’ calendar. Um, oops.
City Of The Dead is often compared to Psycho, and there are enough similarities between the films that you could assume it was a cheap rip-off – but though the campy US retitling supports that assumption, this was actually made before Hitchcock’s motel-based chiller. It’s definitely creepy enough to be worth watching on its own merits.
Village Of The Damned (1960)
For no apparent reason, one day every living being in the English village of Midwich falls unconscious. For hours, no one can get near Midwich without passing out. When they wake up, every woman in the village finds herself mysteriously pregnant. Obviously, their children aren’t normal, and something has to be done about them… Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, Village Of The Damned is more of a sci-fi movie than a horror movie – but it’s super creepy nonetheless.
Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon toned things down a bit for this creepy fairy tale, but not much. When a group of awful human beings are forced to spend the night in the home of a couple of ancient toymakers, they soon get their comeuppance at the hands of – well, the title gives that away, doesn’t it? You’ll never look at Toys R Us in the same way again.
The Woman In Black (1989)
When a reclusive old lady dies in an isolated house out in the marshes, a young lawyer is sent to sort out her estate. But there’s something weird about her house, and the townspeople aren’t keen on helping sort things out, either. The TV version of this movie is far, far creepier than the Daniel Radcliffe version; there’s one moment in particular that will etch itself on your brain and continue to creep you out for years after you see it…
The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)
Beautifully shot with a great score, The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a dreamy, unsettling film where nothing is ever as it seems. The wonderfully named Mimsy Farmer plays Sylvia, a scientist haunted by melancholy and hallucinations. She’s never quite recovered from her mother’s suicide, and when she goes to a party where talk turns to witchcraft and human sacrifice, her sanity starts to unravel. But are her problems really all in her head, or is there something else going on? The film doesn’t reveal its secrets until the very end, when all that creepiness pays off spectacularly.
May was always a weird child, and unfortunately she’s grown into a weird adult, too. Unable to form any meaningful relationships with the people around her – not even a class of blind children she thinks might be kinder to her than the people who can see how strange and awkward she is – May decides she’ll need to take this “making a friend” business into her own hands. Dark and twisted and incredibly gory, May is as sad and sweet as it is creepy. A lot of that is attributable to Angela Bettis, whose performance is adorably unnerving.
In this unauthorised take on Dracula, the evil Count is depicted not as a tragic or romantic anti-hero, but as a horrifying embodiment of the plague – complete with an entourage of rats. Max Schreck makes a brilliantly weird-looking vampire, all teeth, ears and fingernails; his shadow is especially unnerving. Although the ending as presented seems a little abrupt, it’s conceptually horrifying – as is the fact that, due to a copyright claim filed by Bram Stoker’s estate, all but one copy of this movie was destroyed back in the 1920s.
In a spooky old inn, Allan Grey is visited in the night by an old man who leaves him a gift-wrapped book, with instructions to open it only on the occasion of the man’s death. Which turns out to be soon. The book explains that the town is plagued by vampires – and, helpfully, gives instructions on how to kill them. Vampyr is an early sound film, so while there is some sound and a little dialogue, most of the silent film conventions are still in place. It has a fairly straightforward, Dracula-esque story, but the plot’s not the point. It’s a deliberately strange film, full of disembodied dancing shadows and weird dream sequences; there’s something almost otherworldly about it.
Bela Lugosi is the definitive Dracula. With his eerie eyes and wonderful accent, he’s brilliantly threatening as the charming Count, but despite his iconic performance here, he’s not the creepiest thing about this film. Nope, that honor goes to Dwight Frye’s portrayal of Renfield, the lunatic spider-eater under Dracula’s control. He’s amazing, all awkward body language and hysterical laughter. Lugosi’s oddly cadenced speech has been emulated and parodied a zillion times, which takes away some of its power; Frye’s performance, on the other hand, is just downright disturbing.
White Zombie (1932)
A year after Dracula, Bela Lugosi starred as Murder Legendre, an evil voodoo master, in one of the first ever zombie movies. The zombies here aren’t flesh-eating ghouls but obedient slaves, working tirelessly in Legendre’s mill. Even when one of them tumbles into a grinder, work doesn’t stop. When the plantation owner goes to Legendre for help winning the heart of the girl he loves, he’s handed a dose of the zombie potion – and now the only way to break Legendre’s spell over the innocent girl is to kill him. Lugosi is suitably menacing, and the drone-like zombies are properly eerie.
The Cursed Medallion/The Night Child (1975)
For a few years, in 1970s Italy, Nicoletta Elmi was the go-to creepy kid. She pops up in Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood and Baron Blood, and in Dario Argento’s Deep Red, among others, but she’s never more creepy than she is in The Cursed Medallion. Here, she plays Emily, the daughter of an art historian who’s making a documentary on demons in paintings. She’s given a medallion but, as the title suggests, it’s cursed, and she ends up possessed by the spirit of a murderess. It’s atmospheric, lovingly photographed and, of course, Elmi is awesome in the lead role.
The Descent (2005)
A group of friends go off on a spelunking holiday, but get more than they bargained for when it turns out that the caves they’re exploring are dangerous in more ways than one. There’s enough time spent on character development that you really feel it when the group starts to get thinned out; there’s some incredibly painful-looking gore; and there are some amazingly freaky monsters. Watch it in a darkened room to make the most of its wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The shine might’ve come off this movie because the Paranormal Activity franchise has become Lionsgate’s new one-every-Halloween cash cow, but there’s something deliciously creepy about this movie. Rewatching it now, even knowing when all the scares are coming, it’s still chilling. In a neat twist on the traditional haunted house story, Paranormal Activity’s entity haunts a person, not a house – so its victim can’t just pack up and move. The found footage conceit is used to great effect, making you stare intently at grainy nighttime footage of an empty room, straining your ears for distant footsteps, before making you jump out of your skin with a loud bang. (Pro tip: the movie has three different endings, so if you think you’re bored of it, try one of the others.)
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
So much of the effectiveness of a horror movie comes down to its sound design. A well-placed creak, groan, echo, or jangle can make the difference between something completely normal and something terrifying. New scary noises don’t come along very often, but Ju-on: The Grudge managed to come up with something unlike any other scary noise you’ve heard before. Its ghost makes a weird rattling, burping groan as she approaches; it’s kind of like a death rattle, kind of like a throttled scream, and it’s creepier than anything you’ve ever heard before. The film is relentless, light on plot and heavy on jump scares, but it’s that noise that’ll stay with you.
Julia’s Eyes (2010)
Julia and her twin sister, Sara, both suffer from the same degenerative disease – one that causes them to go blind. When Sara undergoes experimental surgery and subsequently kills herself, Julia suspects foul play – and, indeed, something weird seems to be going on, with whisperings about an invisible man lurking in the shadows. But as Julia gets closer to the truth, her own eyesight suffers more and more…The film restricts our vision almost as much as Julia’s; it’s almost unbearably claustrophobic, and ultimately heartbreaking.
The Eye (2002)
Another film about eyes and the horrors of going blind, The Eye follows Mun, a classical violinist from Hong Kong, as she undergoes an eye transplant. Although the transplant seems to be successful – Mun can see again – something isn’t right, because now she can see dead people. And most of them are terrifying. The ending is vaguely preposterous, but the rest of the film is creepy enough that it’s forgivable.
Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s unofficial sequel to Dawn Of The Dead features perhaps the creepiest zombies ever committed to film. When a boat turns up in New York harbour with only a zombie on board, investigative reporter Peter West sets out to find out where the boat came from and what’s going on. He ends up on the island of Matool, where the dead are returning to life to eat the flesh of the living… and they’re really, really gross. Zombie Flesh Eaters was initially classified as a video nasty in the UK, and it’s not difficult to see why. Its atmosphere elevates it above your average exploitation movie, though; there’s something really melancholy about it.
When a local news crew decided to tag along with the fire brigade for an evening, they probably didn’t realise they’d end up fighting from their lives in a zombie-infested tower block. Co-written and co-directed by Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero (yup, him again), [REC] is a decent enough zombie movie, until the final reel, when it reveals an even more terrifying ace up its sleeve.
Let Me In (2010)
Although remakes are usually terrible, Matt Reeves’ take on this unusual vampire story was both respectful of and different from the original and, for my money, it’s creepier. Lonely tween Owen doesn’t have any friends until the equally strange Abby moves in next door. They embark on an odd friendship/proto-romance, but Abby has a secret: she’s a vampire. The use of a candy jingle is, against all odds, really eerie, and by paring the story down to its most essential elements (and getting rid of that daft cat scene) Let Me In makes for a scarier watch than Let The Right One In.
Carnival Of Souls (1962)
After a traumatic accident, weird things start happening to Mary. A strange man seems to be stalking her, though no one else can see him, and she feels irresistibly drawn to an abandoned pavilion out in the middle of nowhere. Once upon a time, the pavilion housed a carnival, but now it’s just an empty building… or is it? There’s nothing surprising about the plot of this movie to a modern audience – you’ll have the whole film worked out within about five minutes – but it is gloriously creepy. The climactic scenes at the carnival are pure nightmare fuel.
The Shining (1980)
Probably the most effective of all the Stephen King adaptations, The Shining plonks Jack Nicholson down in the middle of a creepy hotel and lets him do his thing. Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a struggling writer who gets a winter job as caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, where the isolation and/or ghosts send him out of his mind. There are so many creepy images in this film: the twin girls who just want to play, the woman in room 237, the lift full of blood, and, oh, lots more.
The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (1920)
Appropriately, watching The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari feels like slipping into a nightmare. Caligari’s cabinet holds Cesare, the sleepwalker – a catatonic oracle able to answer questions of life and death with eerie accuracy. Is Caligari a hypnotist, a murderer, or both? It’s a strange story, made stranger with a twist ending, and rendered impossibly creepy by the Expressionist production design. The weird, distorted hand-painted sets give the film a crude, unreal beauty and, if anything, the passage of time has increased the film’s creepiness, because it’s so utterly unlike modern films.
The Exorcist (1973)
An obvious choice, but The Exorcist is genuinely scary. It’s deceptively simple: the filming style is realistic, the locations are ordinary-looking and, by comparison to more modern horror movies, there aren’t many elaborate effects or stunts. But the film makes every scary moment count. It’s atmosphere is oppressive, claustrophobic – there’s an ever-present sense of dread throughout. It ought to feel more dated than it does, but even now, the demonic makeup and scratchy voice of the possessed Regan gives me goosebumps.
The Omen (1976)
Damien is probably the ultimate creepy child. Adopted by the Thorns when their own newborn dies, it doesn’t take long for his dark side to emerge: Damien is the Antichrist.
There are so many iconic moments in this film, so many things that have shaped both the horror genre and our culture’s idea of evil; something about this film really struck a chord, and even now it’s pretty effective. Every death scene in this movie is memorable, but the suicide of Damien’s nanny at his birthday party particularly stands out.
Originally shown on UK TV at Halloween, Ghostwatch scared a whole generation shitless. It’s presented as a live broadcast, starring familiar BBC faces: Michael Parkinson plays host, while Sarah Green and Craig Charles report from the scene as a normal family recount their experiences with the terrifying ghost they’ve dubbed “Pipes”. The shadowy figure of a man is glimpsed several times throughout the show, some appearances more obvious than others, and as viewers call in to share their own stories, things get weirder and weirder…Okay, this isn’t technically a film, but it is so amazingly creepy and brilliant that it couldn’t be left off the list.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man is a wonderful mishmash of genres: it’s got humour, horror, singing and sex. It frequently teeters on the edge of absurdity. But at heart, it’s deeply creepy. When devout Christian Sgt Howie visits the isolated community of Summerisle, he thinks he’s investigating the abduction of a little girl – and the villagers certainly do seem to be acting suspiciously. But as his investigation continues, it becomes clear that something entirely different is going on. Howie runs headlong to his doom, and its final scene is downright spine-chilling.
Suspiria is Dario Argento’s finest hour. It’s eyeball-meltingly beautiful to look at, all unnatural neon lighting and ridiculously lavish set design; the music is cacophonous, a never-ending wall of sound that doesn’t let up; and the plot is, well, it’s functional enough.