The Man Who Laughs
Director Paul Leni
We begin in the silent era with this macabre tragedy. One of the period’s most unnerving dramas, The Man Who Laughs follows a young man (Conrad Veidt) whose face is deliberately disfigured into a permanent smile in order to forever mock his father.
Paul Leni’s film is perhaps best known for Veidt’s haunting make-up, which would later inspire the creation of The Joker for the Batman comics.
Leni and Veidt both came to Hollywood from a background in shadowy German Expressionist horror. Unsettling and deeply vulnerable, Veidt’s performance foreshadows Boris Karloff’s famous turn as Frankenstein’s monster a few years later in James Whale’s classic Universal horror.
Also: The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein)
Director Abel Gance
1938 was a year filled with real-life horror but light on fictional horror. The genre’s influence certainly manifested in some unusual places, however, including Abel Gance’s surreal war film, J’accuse.
A remake of Gance’s earlier 1919 film of the same name, it follows a veteran from the First World War in his attempt to create an impregnable form of glass that can bring about peace.
Gance presents war with an eye for its horrific qualities and even has his protagonist commune with the spirits of the fallen, leading to a climax in which the dead march in protest at another oncoming war.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Director Charles Barton
For horror comedies to work, the scares need to come as thick and fast as the laughs. This is something that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein gets bang on.
Casting classic Universal horror actors in their original roles – Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman and Glenn Strange (who played the part in 1944’s House of Frankenstein) as Frankenstein’s monster – Charles Barton’s film actually has a stronger sense of authenticity than many of the other later Universal films.
Boasting plentiful pratfalls and some incredibly innovative special effects, it’s a fine blend of the two genres that set the template for such later examples as Carry On Screaming (1966) and Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Also: The Monkey’s Paw (Norman Lee)
Director Terence Fisher
Known as Horror of Dracula in the US, Terence Fisher’s reworking of the Bram Stoker novel kickstarted the Hammer horror vampire movie cycle.
Casting Christopher Lee as the blood-sucking count and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, Hammer’s Dracula moves beyond the creaky black-and-white of the Bela Lugosi version, revelling in garish, gory Technicolor and benefiting from a more propulsive script by Jimmy Sangster.
Fisher, Lee and Cushing would all be back for various sequels and revamps, but this first vamp would prove difficult to beat.
Also: The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher), The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.)
Director Roman Polanski
In a landmark year for horror, Rosemary’s Baby edges ahead of the competition for its effective, gothic rendering of New York City, its genuinely unnerving performances and one of the most subtle but eerie endings horror cinema has ever produced.
Based on Ira Levin’s hugely successful novel, the film follows Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) after they move into a new flat. After befriending their elderly, increasingly strange neighbours, Rosemary becomes pregnant and the couple’s fortunes see an uptick – though the pregnancy is not what it seems.
As with the bookending parts of Roman Polanski’s apartment trilogy (Repulsion, 1965; The Tenant, 1976), Rosemary’s Baby makes highly effective use of its enclosed spaces, creating a claustrophobic and stifling sense of horror.
Also: Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero), Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves)
Director Colin Eggleston
Long Weekend is an unusual chiller whose sense of evil never fully reveals itself. We join a couple on a weekend trip to an empty Australian coastline, seeing the strange events that unfold around them as their volatile relationship begins to break down.
Their disrespect for the environment seemingly curses their weekend. Unseen foes haunt the makeshift campsite, as the natural world appears to repel and torment the protagonists.
One of the earliest genre flicks to tackle the theme of humanity’s destruction of the environment, Long Weekend is a genuinely unique piece of Ozploitation that deserves to be better known.
Also: Halloween (John Carpenter), The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski)
Director William Lustig
Though it’s very much a pulp enterprise, the director toys brilliantly with the question of whether the murderer is actually part of the police force, making for an effective and tense film. By highlighting such ambiguity, Lustig also questions police violence and the abuse of power, though this is all set alongside some typically inventive slasher murders and an enjoyably wide-eyed performance from Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell.
Also: The Blob (Chuck Russell), Child’s Play (Tom Holland)
Director Hideo Nakata
Making the most of the grainy, analogue qualities in VHS static and technology, Hideo Nakata’s terrifying ghost story updates several tropes found in the Victorian ghost stories of M.R. James. Whether through possessed objects, an unsettled soul buried under the ground, or a curse that must be broken before an otherworldly force comes to enact revenge, Nakata’s J-horror milestone takes Jamesian scares to new levels of horror, adapting them for an era of ubiquitous technology and the new urban folklore that’s evolved naturally around it.
Also: Blade (Stephen Norrington), The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez)
Director Pascal Laugier
One of the most divisive French films of recent times, Martyrs is shocking in its unrelenting examination of pain and transcendence. It follows two young women, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui), as the former plots revenge against a group who tortured her for a year in an abandoned abattoir.
A vital film in the so called New French Extremity, it pushed the boundaries of on-screen violence, taking inspiration from both the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade and the wave of American ‘torture porn’ movies such as the Saw franchise.
Also: The Strangers (Bryan Bertino), Eden Lake (James Watkins)
Director Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s chilling supernatural tale sees the unravelling of a family through a series of disturbing and increasingly bizarre events that turn their lives upside down. Though playing heavily on many different ideas found in older supernatural cinema, Hereditary has a refreshingly inky palette, allowing for ghosts and fiends to slowly drift into our awareness rather than through more typical jump scares.
Marking a new, unnerving step away from the paranormal films that have dominated since Ringu, Hereditary possesses some of the spookiest visuals produced this side of the millennium.
Also: A Quiet Place (John Krasinski), Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)