There are 13 basic genres of film: Action/Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Fantasy, Foreign, Horror, Kids, Musical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Sci-Fi, War and Western. Almost every film can be broken down into one of those categories. You could even cull it further down and just do Action, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Foreign, Horror, Kids and Musical and fit all films into one of those 8. When AFI recently did their genre lists they did 10 genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Western, Romantic Comedy (Comedy), Courtroom Drama (Drama), Animation (Kids), Epics (a lot of War films), Gangster (Crime), and Sports (some Action films). They had already done an entire list of Musicals. They had already messed up the concept by using several sub-genres (Sports, Courtroom Drama, Romantic Comedy, etc.) instead of the actual full genre. And they don’t deal with Foreign films. But that still leaves an entire basic genre out in the dark: Horror, of course.
Because Horror films are often thought of as the latest pathetic slasher sequel designed to make quick money (they are amazingly profitable), their long and treasured legacy in film history is overlooked. But they have been around since the early days of film and include some of the great films in history. I will rectify AFI’s mistake before moving on to other genres. My list is 25 because the Golden Age of Horror films was the Universal films of the 20’s and 30’s and a good number of those ended up between 10 and 20 on my list. I also have included a few foreign films on this list. They are part of this grand tradition after all, and really, if you’re a silent film, does it matter what was the language of origin?
A quick note: my originally ranked 1, 2 and 4 films I decided not to include. I categorize A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting and Taxi Driver as Urban Horror films, because like Dead Ringers and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, they are psychological in bent and focused less towards action (like Crime films) and more towards horror. But they are not included here.
#25 – Freaks (Tod Browning) – 1932
One of the more disturbing films in history. Often found in a Cult section in a video store if it is found at all.
#24 – The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock) – 1963
A genuinely terrifying film. A friend in college put scenes of this to the Beatles song “Blackbird.” It was
truly disturbing, yet hilarious.
#23 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel) – 1956
If you believe this was a parable about Communism, then you’re simply wrong. The screenwriter (Daniel Mainwaring) was blacklisted. It’s a parable about McCarthyism. Get your facts straight. It was #9 on the AFI list for Sci-Fi.
#22 – Carrie (Brian De Palma) – 1976
A perfect example of a great film made from a bad book (a post coming next week). It was Stephen King’s first novel and it showed.
#21 – Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg) – 1973
What other film can combine some of the most terrifying horror scenes, the most disturbing thing that can happen to a person (death of a young child), with some of the most amazing sex scenes?
#20 – Dracula (Tod Browning) – 1931
The original classic still has such magnificent mood and atmosphere. Horror novels translate quite well to screen. Most of the GAoH came from strong novels.
#19 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley) – 1923
A perfect example of how to change a novel to suit the mood of the film you want. Chaney still remains the best Quasimodo.
#18 – The Invisible Man (James Whale) – 1933
Whale is the only director to make the list three times. In spite of making almost twenty films, he is still primarily remembered for these three.
#17 – Ringu (Hideo Nakata) – 1998
The American remake tried to frighten you with abrupt noises and characters jumping out. The original Japanese film is one of the most terrifying things put on screen.
#16 – The Shining (Stanley Kubrick) – 1980
People forget how frightening this film is because of how much a part of popular culture it has become. The best Simpsons episode ever is a parody of it (“That’s funny. Usually the blood gets out on the second floor.”) Jack’s maniacal grin as he bashes in the door with an axe has been ridiculed many times. And the trailer below shows how anything can be made to look funny. But it is a brilliant film. And it deserves to be appreciated for how good it is.
#15 – Frankenstein (James Whale) – 1931
AFI considered this and Invisible Man to be Sci-Fi (and neither made their top 10), but it is a classic from the GAoH. The sets were so brilliant that Mel Brooks simply pulled them out of storage and re-used them for Young Frankenstein.
#14 – The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan) – 1999
Ah, the importance of not knowing. I saw this opening day and didn’t know it had a surprise ending. It was one of the few times I was genuinely surprised in a theater. It pains me to re-watch this now that Shyamalan’s talent has utterly deserted him.
#13 – The Others (Alejandro Amenabar) – 2001
Slasher films don’t bother me. Monsters are fine. But psychological Horror films really mess with my head. I had to leave this film part way through for a few minutes because I was so unnerved by it. I love Moulin Rouge, but this is what Nicole Kidman should have been nominated for in 2001.
#12 – The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian) – 1925
Someday I may do my retroactive Oscars for every year and Lon Chaney can get his due for the incredible makeup jobs he did.
#11 – The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale) – 1935
One of the greatest sequels ever made. Whale understood the importance of blending humor in with his horror.
#10 – Repulsion (Roman Polanski) – 1965
Polanski, who in his childhood endured brutal horrors in Poland, has been as masterful a director of Horror films as anyone else in film history.
#9 – King Kong (Ernest Schoedsack) – 1933
This was actually on the AFI list for Fantasy, but I consider this and all Monster movies (Godzilla, etc) as Horror films. Channel 9 in L.A. used to have a Monster Movie Marathon every Thanksgiving. I never missed it. Especially because King Kong vs Godzilla remains one of my favorite films to watch.
#8 – Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski) – 1968
Polanski understood what today’s directors do not – the horror you imagine is far worse than what you see. If this were made today it would be a makeup extravaganza. Instead, Polanski made a masterful film of psychological suspense.
#7 – Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer) – 1932
Like Polanski, Dreyer does far more with mood and atmosphere than with the kind of effects laden vampire crap that modern directors use.
#6 – Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock) – 1960
Anyone today knows what’s coming, but the music is so eerie and the mood so perfect, it’s still frightening.
#5 – The Exorcist (William Friedkin) – 1973
When we were in Georgetown for my sister’s wedding, I made Veronica stop so I could get a picture on the famous steps.
#4 – Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) – 1922
How ironic that the best version of Dracula would be the unauthorized one that changed the name. Easily the best vampire film ever made.
#3 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine) – 1919
Between 1919 and 1933, German cinema was the best in the world.
#2 – Jaws (Steven Spielberg) – 1975
Technical difficulties forced Spielberg to wait until late in the movie to actual show the shark. This ended up working perfectly, as the suspense built up until that famous moment when Roy Scheider finally sees the shark up close.
#1 – King Kong (Peter Jackson) – 2005
The visual effects were amazing, and the ape was finally kept in the same perspective the whole film. But what makes this so brilliant is the epic story, especially the romance. The scene where Naomi Watts realizes Kong is essentially an alpha male and calms him with her Chaplin routine is perfect.
endnote: It’s ironic that my #1 film is a remake. Unlike other top lists of genres, almost every film on this list has been re-made or had a crappy sequel (or numerous crappy sequels). The re-make of King Kong and Bride of Frankenstein remain the high-water marks for re-doing a film. Other good examples are Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness and the 1978 re-make of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.