Michael Clawson's Top 10 Horror Films

The-Thing-PosterTop 10 Horror Films


by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume


  1. The Thing — There’s an uneasy minimalism to John Carpenter’s The Thing. All that white nothingness stretching from one horizon to the other. It’s as if the universe was still booting up after the dawn of man, and Antarctica is the load screen. Something primal and terrifying hides within those white folds of snow, a fact that is confirmed in the opening moments as a stray dog wanders into an American research camp and introduces an alien, shape-shifting parasite to a group of very macho scientists. Like so many other horror movies, the men are free to run, but to where? They’re trapped inside their own nightmare as man after man is assimilated by the alien super-thing. The movie is marked by its intensity, in both its high-voltage special effects scenes and in its more jarring moments of stillness, like when a testy MacReady (Kurt Russell) must poke at blood samples with a red-hot wire to determine who’s human and who’s thing. Between the abstract musical score, a colorful cast of characters, tendon-snapping violence of the highest order, and the note-perfect ending, The Thing is one humdinger of a horror movie.

  2. Alien — Horror and science fiction are perfectly linked — they’re both examinations of the unknown. Where one ends in death and gore, the other ends in discovery and technological fulfillment (or perhaps failure). Ridley Scott’s Alien is a marriage of the two, in more ways than one. It takes the wonder and awe of space and the terror of slimy evisceration and couples them in blasphemous splendor against the backdrop of a blue-collar workplace accident. The 1979 film is beautifully paced (the alien finally turns up halfway through the movie), claustrophobic as a straightjacket, and gloriously filmed using optical effects, miniatures, children posing as adults, goo and splatter, and sets that have altered space movies forever. There are just so many great scenes: warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) learning her corporate monetary value from supercomputer MOTHER, the pinging proximity alert of ventilation-duct prey Dallas, that damned yellow cat (on a spaceship!) and, of course, John Hurt’s famous dinnertime snafu, which made an entire audience realize this: “In space no one can hear you scream, but in a movie theater everyone hears you vomiting in your popcorn bucket.”

  3. Rosemary’s Baby — Want to make my skin crawl? Just show me old people and Satanists. By the time Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby presents us the seed of its creation — as geriatrics giddily exclaim “Hail Satan!” — we’ve already come to realize what’s happened, that a demonic presence has impregnated a hip young woman with the infant Antichrist. It’s intense stuff, but never as intense as the senior citizens who lurk around the mother’s apartment. The more they come over, with their smart-ass advice and evil aromatherapy, the tighter the noose gets around the Mia Farrow-starring horror picture. It’s an unsettling and claustrophobic movie, one that hardly passes a horror film today, but one that earned its stripes through its terrifying propositions.

  4. Evil Dead — Modern horror is less about story and more about one-upmanship. While this aspect of the genre can stymie the creation of story-driven works, it can also produce some noteworthy gems such as Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake of Sam Raimi’s cult-classic Evil Dead. While the original film has its charms, and low -budget quirks, I never quite understood the fanboy geekery that is thrown all over it, which is why I was so surprised when the remake stormed out of the gate with the vigor and intensity of a movie with a singular purpose: to one-up its namesake and predecessor. The remake took what we knew of the original film — skin-covered book, demonic cabin, tree rape, ultra violence — and cubed it. It’s not a perfect movie, and I was never quite sure if laughing was appropriate, but the updated Evil Dead is exactly what a horror movie should be, which is a thrill ride of stupid proportions. With needles in eyes, nails in shins, carvinging knifes in arms and an ocean of blood in the sky, this thrill ride outdid itself.

  5. The Descent — Claustrophobia has never been visualized so accurately as it was in The Descent, Neil Marshall’s closing vice of a cave thriller. But what’s great about it is how suspenseful it all is even before the monsters — in this case, primal cave trolls who see with their ears — turn up to reign terror on our female spelunkers. Another interesting feature: the biggest threat isn’t the mutated creatures, but the characters’ best friends.

  6. Texas Chainsaw Massacre — Modern horror films look for too much purpose in their stories. Grave sites are disturbed, curses are unknowingly released, ghosts are summoned, and with each scenario comes countless more rules. A chant will calm the spirits, a church will keep demons at bay, garlic will ward off vampires. These attributes work great for convoluted plots, but they don’t speak to the natural pulse of evil: nihilism. Because sometimes bad people just do bad things. And this is one of the many terrifying parts of Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre — its villains weren’t bound by any rules. They simply hacked through anything that managed to wander on their property, which is exactly what happens to the victims of Tobe Hooper’s horror classic. Of course, Leatherface is a recognizable here, but I think the most chilling scene is the dinner table sequence toward the end that is almost too much to stomach.

  7. The Shining — It’s a horror classic for a reason, and still to this day it’s largely a mystery. Just two years ago a whole movie, Room 237, was made to try and dissect Stanley Kubrick film’s secrets. It didn’t present one; it presented four hypotheses. As the Torrance family settles in for a long winter at a deserted ski lodge, we settle in for a labyrinthine riddle that might suggest “dull boy” Jack is madman, a spirit from another life, a ghost, or the resort itself manifested as a human man meant to kill his own family. And everyone remembers where they were when they saw that elevator open and the flood of blood splash out. It’s a defining moment of the horror genre.

  8. Let the Right One In — Original vampire movies are hard to come by, but this Swedish film did wonders when it was released in 2008, and then followed up later with a dopey American remake. The Swedish original was about a boy being drawn to his mysterious new neighbor, who has a creepy old man that does the devil’s bidding during late hours. It takes some time to catch up to this cerebral thriller, but the rewards are more than worth it.

  9. Poltergeist — Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is a bag full of great ideas. Child-munching TVs, elastic doors, squeaky-voiced spiritual advisors, clown toys, maggot meat, worm steak … no idea is too silly in this very-serious horror film that doesn’t get a lot of credit for its inventive mechanics.

  10. Dead Alive — Peter Jackson’s dopey zombie gorefest is just beautiful mayhem. And proof that horror should be funny, too. It features a man with a handheld lawnmower as he shoves it at people to make raspberry jam. That’s all there is to it.