The Book of Horror author Matt Glasby takes a look at cinema’s scariest films, decade-by-decade.
This year I set myself a Herculean task: to gather together the most frightening movies of all time for The Book of Horror, an in-depth, illustrated guide to the scariest films ever made. Having survived the process with my sanity just about intact, I set myself an even harder task for Halloween: to name the scariest films of each decade since the Second World War. These are the—admittedly contentious—results…
Being brutal, a lot of horror films of this vintage just don’t do the job anymore, but this pacey portmanteau from Britain’s Ealing Studios really gets under the skin. Yes, the cut-glass accents are from another era, and yes, a couple of the stories are duffers, but the most famous, The Ventriloquist’s Dummy by Alberto Cavalcanti, is creepy as hell. Michael Redgrave plays Maxwell Frere, a showman whose doll, Hugo Fitch, begins creaking to life of its own accord.
You might not have heard of Nakagawa Nobu’s spooky revenge tale, but it was a clear inspiration on Ringu and Ju-On, so it’s worth seeking out. In medieval Japan, scheming samurai Lemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi) gets more than he bargains for when he and his servant murder his wife and her masseur. Soon, he’s seeing her disfigured ghost everywhere, including floating on the ceiling above him.
Robert Wise’s terrifying take on Shirley Jackson’s classic novel—also the source of Mike Flanagan’s recent Netflix series—uses every cinematic trick in the book to unnerve viewers. Except, that is, showing an actual ghost. Eleanor (Julie Harris) is part of a group exploring evil manse-with-a-past Hill House. But it doesn’t just want to scare her, it wants to consume her.
Tobe Hooper’s much-banned breakthrough may look like the work of amateurs—chiefly because it was—but its feral power remains undimmed. It follows Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and pals through the Lone Star State’s sun-parched backwaters where they meet the skin-wearing Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his clan of demented cannibals. Lasting viewer trauma ensues.
It’s miraculous that a film about sexual assault by poltergeist should be handled this sensitively, especially by an exploitation director like Sydney J Furie (Iron Eagle, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). But the purportedly true story of Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is shocking for all the right reasons. Hershey is excellent in a demanding role, and the attacks are genuinely terrifying, soundtracked by Charles Bernstein’s PTSD-inducing score.
Not only did it break box office records and popularise the found-footage subgenre, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ debut scarred the pants off audiences everywhere, even the ones who knew it wasn’t real. Shot in the verité style of raw documentary footage, it details what happens when film students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard get lost in the woods. What does happen? Well, nothing much, but the film’s artful lack of artifice truly chills the blood.
This Spanish infection horror from Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza begins ordinarily enough, with TV presenter Angela Vidal (Maneula Velasco) and her cameraman following a team of firefighters into a locked-down Barcelona apartment block. But when the residents start biting back, things get more and more intense, until our heroes find themselves trapped in the penthouse with nowhere to run. The green-hued night-vision sequence that follows will have you hyperventilating in fear.
There’s something deeply sinister in the fabric of Ari Aster’s masterpiece, a profound sadness combined with the sense of an evil plan coalescing around characters who are helpless to stop it. Toni Collette gives a career-best performance as artist Annie Graham, the matriarch of a family destroyed by grief, and Alex Wolf is just as good as her son, Peter, a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. If the first decapitation doesn’t break you, the second one will…
Yes, we know the decade’s just begun so it’s ridiculous to start making lists, but these ingenious British efforts are the most frightening of the year so far. Vlogger sees Scottish writer/director/editor/star Graham Hughes documenting a haunting in his flat; while Rob Savage’s Host tracks a Zoom séance gone very wrong indeed. Both feature serious how-the-hell-did-they-do-that? scares.