10 Best horror films of the last 10 decades

James Oliver

We offer you a selection of some of the very best horror films, drawing one title from every decade. So check that no masked lunatic is hiding in the cupboard, turn the lights off and settle down. And if you draw the curtains really tight, the trick or treaters will think there's nobody home. 

 1920s: Häxan

Ghoulish subjects had been popular in cinema from the start, just as they had been on stage but it wasn't until the 1920s that the horror movie as we would know it today was born, with things like Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera and—most of all—Häxan.

Made in Sweden at outrageous cost, it's a documentary about witchcraft past and (then) present, conjuring demons with elaborate, not to mention pioneering, special effects. The results are creepy as hell (if you'll excuse the pun), re-imaging the nightmares of earlier centuries, then showing how they persist even in an age of science.

 

1930s: The Black Cat

Back in the great depression, horror movies meant two names: Boris Karloff (who'd starred in Frankenstein) and Bela Lugosi, who scared the pants off America as Dracula. But their first team up in The Black Cat was something of a disappointment to contemporary audiences.

These days, though, the film is appreciated for all the reasons it was originally shunned. It's such an odd film, set not in a creaking old castle but in an art nouveau house; a morbid atmosphere permeates throughout and there are suggestions of diabolical transgressions. You can see why it bombed first time out but it's worn much better than more successful fare.

 

1940s: I Walked With A Zombie 

The true horror films of the 1940s, of course, were the newsreels, but even as the world raged, monster movies did surprisingly strong business.

The best were produced by a quietly subversive chap called Val Lewton; his paymasters at the studio would give him a lurid title they thought would shift tickets, then he'd go off and make a film more subtle and imaginative than anyone expected, as I Walked With A Zombie shows; Lewton based it on Jane Eyre, of all things, although he threw in a spot of voodoo for form's sake. It's as much fairy tale as horror, a dream about death utterly unlike anything else being made in Hollywood at that time or this.

 

1950s: Night of the Demon

Val Lewton only produced I Walked With A Zombie; it was directed by his friend Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur subsequently graduated to bigger things but made a glorious return to horror with this British classic.

It's about a professor played by Dana Andrews who crosses swords with a self-styled satanist called Julian Karswell. The prof thinks Karswell is a great big humbug; Karswell replies by putting a curse upon his rival, and the man of reason soon discovers scepticism is no defence when there's a hell-hound on your tail.

It's the film Kate Bush sampled for The Hounds of Love (“It's in the trees... it's coming!”) but that's a poor reason to seek it out: it deserves your attention because it's one of the best horror films ever made in this country.

 

1960s: Eyes Without a Face 

There's a musical connection to this film too—peroxide'd pop-punk Billy Idol wrote a song of the same name, apparently inspired by George Franju's film.

Which is odd because you don't really associate Billy Idol with weird, ever-so-slightly surreal horror movies, which is what this is. Although in outline it's a mad scientist movie—brilliant surgeon Dr. Génessier is trying to repair the damaged face of his daughter Christiane and kidnaps beautiful women to experiment on—it's far more dream-like than it sounds, with lingering shots of the masked Christiane lost in the corridors of home. Horror can be a crude genre but Franju's eye made it poetic.

 

1970s: Blood on Satan's Claw 

First things first; ignore the title, because this film is very far from being the piece of trash that might suggest. It's a subtle, unnerving film that very nearly tips into "art".

Like its near contemporary The Wicker Man, it locates terror in a bucolic paradise, in this case, a 17th-century village where the youth are getting possessed by something diabolical. Their elders are determined to extirpate this menace but do so in ways that make them seem very nearly as bad as the evil they're fighting.

But while The Wicker Man is (rightfully) lauded, Blood on Satan's Claw languishes in relative obscurity. Those who love it often wonder why, until they remember the title it was saddled with.

 

1980s: Day of the Dead

The Eighties were not the most fertile period for horror, dominated as they were by ever more derivative slasher flicks and repetitive franchises. Yawn.

Day of the Dead is a rare full-fat horror from those semi-skimmed times. It's got nothing to do with Mexican religious festivals; rather, it's the third of George Romero's zombie movies that began with Night of the Living Dead and continued in Dawn of the Dead. This time, embattled survivors of the apocalypse are trapped in a nuclear bunker, vastly outnumbered by the ravening dead outside. What's more, the zombies are starting to show signs they're becoming sentient...

It's as full of gore as fans might hope, lovingly supplied by make-up maestro Tom Savini, but it's fiercely, frighteningly intelligent too. It also features the best death in movie history as a hair-trigger general is bisected by zombies who want to feast on his innards: “Choke on 'em,” he tells them. “Choke on 'em!”

 

1990s: Braindead

Lionel faces a room full of icky zombie-creatures.

Lionel has a lawnmower. The lawnmower goes “BRU-U-UM”.

“BRU-U-UM,  BRU-U-UM,  BRU-U-UM” goes the lawnmower.

“Splat, splat, splat” go the zombie-creatures as the lawnmower's blades do their work.

Soon Lionel has got rid of all the zombie-creatures. “Clever Lionel, ha ha ha!” say those audience members who haven't passed out or left the cinema in disgust.

(Somehow, the Academy passed up the opportunity to honour the director of this gore-tastic horror-comedy from New Zealand. They waited until he made The Lord of the Rings trilogy instead.)

 

2000s: Wolf Creek 

Horror since the Millennium has been a thoroughly visceral thing, putting audiences and characters alike through the ringer. Things like Saw, Hostel and (especially) Green Room all have their champions but Wolf Creek has a good claim to be the most intense film of the century to date, a movie quite capable of inducing PTSD in those who see it.

It's set in the Australian outback, where three backpackers find themselves stranded in the back of beyond; that's where they have the misfortune to meet the utterly unhinged Mick Taylor. What follows brings to mind the tagline used on posters for The Evil Dead: "The ultimate experience in gruelling terror". Only The Evil Dead had its tongue in its cheek. Wolf Creek emphatically does not.

 

2010s: Kill List 

We mentioned Green Room above; it's one of the best films of this decade. It Follows and Get Out are pretty good too, while It has scared up huge returns at the box office. Whatever their merits, though, all are fighting for second place. The best horror movie of this decade thus far is the low-budget British film Kill List.

To say too much is to risk robbing it of its power (seriously—don't even read the back of the DVD case). Suffice to say it concerns a troubled man who's hired to perform a job of work. This he performs without problem or difficulty. No! I'm lying! It all goes horribly wrong! And then things get even worse!

Do enjoy Halloween. And don't have nightmares.

 

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