A bloodthirsty bunch of fans

A new list of the Top 50 horror movies shows that audiences are hooked on gore. Geoffrey MacNab prefers psychological chillers that haunt the memory
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The Independent Culture

There are some eerie gaps in HMV's list of the 50 scariest films of all time. The oldest film in the poll is shockmeister William Castle's 1959 B-movie, The House On Haunted Hill. This leaves a vast, uncharted reserve of classic horror fare. There is no sign of FW Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Terror, with its utterly chilling performance from Max Schreck as the emaciated Count Orlock, the spiritual forefather of every screen vampire. Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) is another title that surely should have featured. Seventy years after it was made, Browning's long-banned yarn about misshapen circus folk remains as unsettling as ever. It is still a film to haunt the nightmares of anyone who sees it.

One can understand the omission of the Universal horror cycle (Boris Karloff with a bolt through his neck, Bela Lugosi in cape and fangs, Lon Chaney Jr as a cuddly Wolf Man) on the grounds that the old Frankenstein and Dracula films don't seem frightening today. Perhaps HMV's respondents also felt unthreatened by Val Lewton's great films at RKO: The Cat People, The Body Snatcher, I Walked With A Zombie.

"Yes, there will be blood," runs the tagline for Saw II, the horror movie currently scaring off all rivals at the US box-office. This is a sentiment that HMV's list heartily endorses. The gore factor is all too high. Forget about psychological horror. Movies that prey on audiences' sensibilities by the art of suggestion don't even get a look-in. The list doesn't acknowledge that some spectators may be more disgusted than frightened by Leatherface wielding his meat hooks in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (No 6) but still shudder in genuine terror simply at the sight of a face in the window in Jack Clayton's The Innocents (overlooked entirely, as were Alejandro Amenabar's The Others and Robert Wise's The Haunting).

Horror, HMV's chart suggests, remains largely boys' only fare. You have to scroll down to number 46, Pet Sematary, to find a film made by a woman, Mary Lambert. Still, many of the films (notably Alien with Sigourney Weaver) feature strong female leads.

Inevitably, the poll is tilted in favour of recent films that still linger in audiences' memories. The list contains more titles from the 2000s (13 in all) than from any other decade. They don't just come from Hollywood; there has been a steady stream of often terrifying Asian fare in recent years ( The Grudge features, as does Dark Water). Horror is also the most accessible genre for film-makers. As The Blair Witch Project, at No 12, attested most famously, you don't need a huge budget to fill spectators with dread.

The Exorcist and The Shining surely warrant their places at the top of the poll if only because they transcend genre. Both are superbly crafted pieces of film-making in which as much attention is paid to plot, character and pacing as to shock tactics. The images of Linda Blair doing her spider walk or of Jack Nicholson dementedly grinning ("Wendy, I'm home!") as he brandishes his axe may be the ones that spring most immediately to mind, but neither film is simply a freak show.

William Friedkin's background was in documentary. He immersed himself in the worlds he portrayed. The grey, often wet night-time Georgetown of The Exorcist is shown with a forensic eye for detail. Take out the devil and the movie could still stand up as a family drama. There are immensely moving performances from Ellen Burstyn as the mother fretting over her adolescent daughter, Jason Miller as the young priest uncertain of his faith and Max von Sydow as the solemn, long-suffering Father Merrin, confronting the forces of evil with just a nip of brandy to help him.

Kubrick likewise was obsessed with minutiae. Nothing about that old hotel where the writer (Nicholson) takes his family for the winter was too small to escape his attention. The response to The Shining was ambivalent on its first release in 1981. Many critics considered it hermetic and difficult. In the DVD era, though, it has long since been acknowledged as a classic.

Whether some of the more recent titles on the list deserve the same accolade is open to question. At least British directors are represented in healthy numbers. For many years, the UK horror picture looked in danger of extinction, but it has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence of late. The presence in the Top 50 of such titles as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Christopher Smith's Creep underline the fact that, at long last, the Brits have recaptured the knack of scaring audiences. What's more, they can also make them laugh. Shaun Of The Dead is surely the only title that might even feature in a poll of comedies.

THE CRITIC'S CHOICE: GEOFFREY MACNAB

1. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
2. Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)
3. Nosferatu (F W Murnau, 1922)
4. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974, below)
6. The Black Cat (Albert S Rogell, 1941)
7. The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001)
8. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980, right)
9. The Bride Of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
10. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
11. Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)
12. Dawn of The Dead (George A Romero, 1978)
13. The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1967)
14. The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
15. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
16. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
17. The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
18. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)
19. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
20. The Silence Of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1990)

THE POPULAR CHOICE: HMV'S 50 GREATEST HORROR FILMS OF ALL TIME

1. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
3. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
4. The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
5. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
8. Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2003)
9. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
10. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976)
11. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
12. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
13. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1982)
14. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1990)
15. Ringu (The Ring) (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
16. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
17. Saw (James Wan, 2004)
18. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)
19. The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2004)
20. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
21. Friday the 13th (Sean S Cunningham, 1980)
22. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
23. The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)
24. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
25. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
26. Seven (David Fincher, 1995)
27. 28 Days Later... (Danny Boyle, 2002)
28. Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968)
29. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
30. Dawn of the Dead (George A Romero, 1978)
31. Jeepers Creepers (Victor Salva, 2001)
32. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1979)
33. The Entity (Sidney J Furie, 1981)
34. Event Horizon (Paul W S Anderson, 1997)
35. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
36. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
37. House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959)
38. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
39. Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt, 2003)
40. Creep (Christopher Smith, 2004)
41. The Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan, 1999)
42. Thirteen Ghosts (Steve Beck, 2001)
43. Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)
44. Darkness Falls (Jonathan Liebesman, 2003)
45. The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977)
46. Pet Semetary (Mary Lambert, 1989)
47. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1976)
48. What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)
49. The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)
50. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

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