Filmmaker R. Shanea Williams' Favorite Horror Films (Updated, Expanded, and Remixed)

By R. Shanea Williams (@rshanea722)

Over the last few years I’ve completely immersed myself in horror films. Although I’ve always loved and enjoyed watching them, now that I have embraced this genre as a filmmaker, I’ve watched, re-watched, re-visited, studied, analyzed and experienced these films in a whole new way. I hate how horror is treated as the ugly stepchild of cinema because I feel horror is the most fascinating cinematic genre there is. It has a unique ability explore universal fears in the most imaginative ways. Hopefully perhaps this list will illustrate that for the non-believers.

I felt it was time to update and expand my favorite horror film list that I previously posted on this site. Many films remain on the list, though a few are removed, others added and the order almost completely rearranged (note: this list could shift again in another few years). I will note many of my favorites during that initial list were slightly skewed because I’d been working on my short film Paralysis and I was partial to the films that impacted and inspired me most up until that time. This go round, I really looked at the genre as a whole and carefully thought of all the films that have made a relentless impression on how I look at cinema. The films I return to over and over. The films that stay with me. This is by no way my attempt at “what are the best horror films ever”. There are a lot of excellent horror films that didn’t make the list because this is just a list of personal favorites. I’ll also say these are my favorite modern horror (post-1960) films. Classic horror films pre-1960 will be another post altogether.

25. The Howling (1981)

It is considered by many to be one of the best werewolf films ever made. (It really is!) The story centers around a TV news journalist who is traumatized after trying to help police catch a serial killer. To cope with her trauma, she goes to a secluded colony in the woods and well… you can guess the rest. Once at the retreat, Karen hears monstrous cries and heads to the woods seeking answers. What she discovers is terrifying. I must say the final scene stayed with me long after the credits rolled. It was such a perfect ending and I love the way it explores humanity’s battle with outer and inner monsters.

24. The Craft (1996)

I can literally describe why I love this film so much in two words: Rachel True. Because representation matters. Her portrayal of Rochelle meant everything to me when I saw this film as a teen; especially a teen who spent much of her early life in predominately white schools. I can talk endlessly about Rochelle. But beyond that, the film is just entertaining as hell. Faizura Balk was wildly wonderful as Nancy, leader of this misfit band of witches. Also there’s a great performance by Robin Tunney as the new girl in school with supernatural abilities looking to fit in. Neve Campbell is great as Bonnie who is ashamed of her scars. It’s an awesome story about friendship, power, revenge and the karmic consequences of believing in things you don’t quite understand.

23. The Invitation (2015)

It’s been two years since I've seen this for the first time and I still think about this film. That’s when you know a film has made a truly lasting impact. It’s a psychological horror film exploring grief. Will (Logan Marshall-Green), a father who has lost his son, brings his new girlfriend to a dinner party at his ex-wife’s home. Nothing about this dinner party feels right from the moment they arrive. It's wonderful seeing Emayatzy Corinealdi as the girlfriend, Kira of the protagonist played with full intensity by Marshall-Green. Additionally, it's rarely talked about how amazing Tammy Blanchard is. She totally delivers in an emotionally complex supporting role as Will’s ex-wife Eden. The suspense of this film is deftly crafted. The dread, the creeping paranoia, the strange behavior slowly builds to a really intense third act and an ending you will not forget.

22. Angel Heart (1987)

This is a neo-noir psychological horror that really gets under your skin. Mickey Rourke is Harry Angel, a private detective hired to investigate the disappearance of a man named Johnny Favorite. His investigation leads him to New Orleans where he becomes entangled in a string of brutal occult murders. Robert DeNiro gives an eerie memorable performance as Louis Cyphre. Also it co-stars Lisa Bonet playing the mysterious Epiphany Proudfoot. The film is a riveting thriller and filled with a sense of frightening uneasiness, it’s the kind of subtle horror that gets under your skin and stays there.

21. The Babadook (2014)

This is such a gripping story about the monstrous ways in which grief can destroy our lives if we deny it long enough. This grieving mother and her young son had one of the most complex relationships I’ve ever in a film. I was uneasy from the first minutes the film started. The theme is used so powerfully and so effectively that you become completely unraveled as the characters unravel. The monstrous Mr. Babadook symbolizes a lot of unspoken things but he’s never more chilling than the pain itself that haunts a family that hasn’t coped with their own terrifying reality.

20. Train To Busan (2016)

Confession: I’ve never been a big fan of the zombie sub-genre (aside from a few films). But I must say this film absolutely floored me. It’s a zombie flick that’s captivating in a way I really wasn’t prepared for. We become so attached to this father and daughter who have a strained relationship. We also become invested in a couple expecting a child, two elderly sisters, and two teens in love. All these interesting characters end up on a train in the midst of a zombie outbreak and I couldn’t turn away. It was riveting from start to finish. I’ve thought about this film for days after viewing it. It’s horrifying, heart-wrenching and haunting; basically everything I love about what this genre is capable of.

19. The Sixth Sense (1999)

M. Night Shyamalan crafted an enthralling supernatural horror-thriller. With strong performances from Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment and Toni Collette in a minor role, this film is emotionally compelling throughout. It’s also incredibly atmospheric—the pacing, the use of certain colors, the silence, the feeling of being chilled to the bone—it’s all packaged skillfully in this film. The final twist of the film is extraordinary and contributed enormously to the box office success of it. But for me, I simply enjoyed the exploration of how this young child copes with a supernatural ability and his bond with a psychiatrist who wants nothing more than to help him find a way to use this “gift” to help others—which eventually turns the entire film on its head.

18. Candyman (1992)

I go back and forth often between which I love more, the first Candyman film or the sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. In my previous post, I had Candyman 2 in my favorite films and it really is a strong sequel and just as good as the original. But after careful deliberation and a few more revisits, I’d have to definitely put the original film in personal favorites. It’s one of the greatest films about urban legends and approaches its subject matter with an intelligence and analysis that is often overlooked and underappreciated. Also you can’t discuss this film without mentioning Tony Todd’s unforgettable performance as the Candyman himself.

17. Halloween II (1981)

A terrific sequel that literally picks up where the first film left off. Michael Myers finds Laurie Strode at a hospital where she is recovering after his first failed murder attempt. Stylistically it honors the original but this sequel is far bloodier and more gruesome than the first film. Michael is an unstoppable force of evil as he stalks his favorite victim. I think it’s the second best film of the franchise (H20 being the third) and it often isn’t praised enough. Michael is the ultimate Boogeyman and this film perfectly exemplifies the vastness of his unrelenting evil.

16. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

Conceptually brilliant and truly a visionary piece of filmmaking when you think about when this film was made (pre-Scream). Fantasy meets reality when Freddy Krueger leaves the movies and starts to stalk the real life actors and director of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, particularly Heather Langenkamp who played Nancy in the films. Talk about a meta-film comment on filmmaking itself and what it means to create and commit to our craft only to be haunted by it in our real lives. This is the brilliance of Wes Craven as a creator, reinventing and reinvigorating his series with an unbelievably fresh take. Also gotta give credit to Heather for a totally fierce performance of a version of, well, herself trying to save her son who starts to have nightmares of Freddy. This is one of the most innovative films in the horror movie cannon. (Don’t @ me)

15. An American Werewolf In London (1981)

This is just a fantastic werewolf film. I really don’t need to say much more than that. Listen, it’s got scares, gore and even some comedy mixed in and it all blends seamlessly to give us a truly remarkable film in the horror genre and particularly the werewolf sub-genre. David’s werewolf transformation alone is one of the most riveting I’ve seen.

14. The Lost Boys (1987)

There’s Kiefer Sutherland and the Two Coreys (Haim and Feldman), what more do you need to know about this film? Okay, I’ll say this: it remains a super watchable and timelessly entertaining vampire film because of its wickedly fun storytelling. Honestly, it’s a film that shouldn’t work but it does. By no way a perfect film, but dammit if I doesn’t make me giddy with each viewing. Probably because of my adoration for the Two Coreys but also because of that wonderfully wild Kiefer Sutherland in one his most memorable on screen roles as the vampire leader David.

13. A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

As much as I love Halloween and Michael Myers, I believe that A Nightmare on Elm Street had arguably the best franchise of the slasher genre. It has produced many solid sequels, which is usually an incredibly difficult feat. But this film is a prime example of a sequel adding and expanding upon the original film. Nancy returns as an intern therapist at a mental hospital helping young patients who have horrific dreams about Freddy Krueger. One of the things I love most about this film is the way it explores the science of sleep and dreams. I also absolutely loved Patricia Arquette’s character Kristen having a unique ability to bring other people into her dreams—it’s probably one of the most creative and fascinating character abilities in any film I’ve seen in the genre.

12. The Descent (2005)

I was drawn to this film instantly when I discovered it was about a group of women on an adventure in the Appalachians and they discover something horrifying beneath the surface of the earth. The final act of the film becomes a gruesomely bloody battle for survival and I was completely engrossed. These women are never written as victims. They are all bad-asses in their own right and their friendship is given the kind of complexity and realism that is rare in many films of any genre. This film is impressive, the camera work excellent and the feeling of claustrophobia is palpable. Let’s just say I won’t be spelunking anytime soon. (If ever.)

11. Carrie (1976)

The horrifying aspects of this film lie primarily in this atmospheric and riveting production directed by Brian DePalma and the courageous performance of Sissy Spacek. Carrie is the shy, bullied schoolgirl with telekinetic powers, being raised by a terrifying religious fanatic of a mother. All these elements are the ingredients for a fantastic horror film, which is what Carrie is. The impact of this film endures and the classic final act of the film remains as relentless upon repeated viewings as it does during the first viewing. Beyond that, the emotion is what does it for me. This film really gets to your core. You truly feel for Carrie and it’s gut-wrenching in every possible way.

10. Fright Night (1985)

Definitely one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated films of the horror genre. It’s a shame because it’s so entertaining and so much fun to watch. The film centers around high school student Charlie Brewster who believes his strange neighbor may be a vampire. He enlists the help of washed up horror actor and TV host Peter Vincent played by the great Roddy McDowell. The film is a classic that never gets old no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

9. Silence Of The Lambs (1991)

Hannibal Lecter. That name alone makes me lose my appetite. The human monster and all of his darkness just festers. Yet he’s intriguing. It’s his strange connection to FBI agent Clarice Starling that makes this film resonate so deeply, which is what made me such a huge fan of it. There is no denying the chemistry between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. What I found most captivating is the premise: it takes a monster to lead you to a monster. (Just don’t let that monster get into your head.)

8. Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense and one of my favorite directors. Anyone making a film with elements of suspense, terror and horror has studied Hitchcock on some level: especially if they want to do it right. Although in this day in age, many viewers would describe this film as a suspense thriller and probably not a horror film. You have to remember the time Psycho came out and what kind of movies were being made then to truly appreciate the genius of a film like this and why it actually is a horror film. It is inspired by a real life serial killer named Ed Gein (google that name sometime late at night). Hitchcock took risks that were inconceivable at the time, which ranks this as one of the most daring films ever made.

7. Rosemary's Baby (1968)

“Pregnancy horror” could be its own sub-genre really. This film is one of the greatest to ever tackle the subject matter. It’s a nerve-wracking psychological horror where we are drawn to Rosemary who may possibly be impregnated by Satan himself or, perhaps she is the victim of her own naiveté whenever in the presence of her overbearingly intrusive, weird neighbors. It’s a story ripe with tension and terror. As Rosemary’s fear grows, so does the viewer’s. I also love the way it layers its horror with real emotion, no matter what, we are with Rosemary on this fearful journey and are equally unsettled as she tries to figure what the hell is happening to her.

6. The Orphanage (2007)

Nothing I love more than a creepy, supernatural horror flick. When done well, ghost stories will have you “shooketh”. There’s something innately terrifying about the unknown. The best ghost stories play on this fear of what we don’t understand and what can’t be explained. The Orphanage is one of those ghost stories. It’s not only emotionally compelling but it’s profoundly eerie. This film is centered on a woman who discovers horrific secrets about the childhood orphanage she once lived in. If I say anything more about the plot, I’ll give away too much. The film is bone-chilling with genuinely scary moments but it’s also tremendously heartbreaking.

5. Alien (1979)

With ominous atmosphere, spine-tingling tension, and dope-ass special effects, this is a brilliant science-fiction horror film. I mean, what an awesome concept, turning the “haunted-house” movie on its head and making it a “haunted” spaceship with a lurking, unfathomable beast in the midst. The art design is impressive. The terrifying alien, Xenomorph is now a cinematic and pop culture icon in itself. Oh and Sigourney Weaver is in it, yeah… this film is a beast.

4. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

One of the greatest films of the slasher genre ever made. It’s simply a remarkable film and a masterpiece in its own right, thanks to horror master Wes Craven. As I’ve said before in another piece I’ve written about horror monsters, there’s something so horrifying about a monster—Freddy Krueger—that can only kill you in your sleep. Freddy is truly the stuff made of nightmares. Also much credit goes to final girl Nancy Thompson who never once played victim to the terrible events occurring. She always wanted to get to the truth of what was happening to her friends and confront the horror head-on. I must say over the years, I’ve only grown to love and appreciate this film more and more.

3. Scream (1996)

We should all be thanking the horror movie gods Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson for this film that re-energized what had been called a “dying” genre. Does anyone remember how bad things had become for horror before this film was made? Scream’s impact continues to resonate. I was in high school when this film was released so it holds a special place for me. It was so smart, so funny, and so self-aware. It was a horror film reflection of a generation of kids who grew up on 80’s horror and knew all the “rules” of how to survive. Despite its pitch-black humor, it had its share of well-earned scares (and screams). As far as final girls go, Neve Campbell’s Sydney Prescott has earned her rightful place among the greats like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode and Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson. Scream is a film that’s cemented in 90’s pop culture as well as my horror-movie heart forever.

2. The Shining (1980)

Those two little girls standing in the hallway have forever marked my conscience. Director Stanley Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing. For me, a film like The Shining is perfect in its eternal ability to unsettle. Even after numerous viewings of this film, I’m still shaken by it. It still gives me goose-bumps. It still feels dark, surreal, and deeply disturbing watching Jack Nicholson’s psychological deterioration. The cinematography alone is masterful and visually arresting. After seeing this I realized, you don’t necessary need the gore to scare audiences. You can torment them psychologically and still make it impossible for them to turn away.

1. Halloween (1978)

This is my all-time favorite horror film. Michael Myers, in my opinion, is the scariest monster of the genre. In the words of Dr. Loomis, Michael is “purely and simply evil.” Plus he is the only slasher to ever give me actual nightmares – so that’s something. John Carpenter’s skillful directing and the compelling story put this heads above many slasher flicks and set the tone for those to come after it. I always felt the most unnerving moment in the film was when Michael knifes a teenage boy, pins him to the wall and stares at him, vacuously. And then, just very slightly, he tilts his head. That moment literally curdles my blood. Then throw in Jamie Lee Curtis as our final girl and Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis and you truly have a deliciously dark slasher masterpiece on your hands.

Honorable Mentions

Halloween: H20 (1998)
The House of the Devil (2009)
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)
Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Scream 2 (1997)
Christine (1983)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
Poltergeist (1982)
The Skeleton Key (2005)
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Cujo (1983)

R. Shanea Williams is a filmmaker, writer, script consultant and proud nerd, who resides in Queens, New York. She loves movies, music, and long romantic walks to the refrigerator. Follow her on Twitter (@rshanea722)

Popular Posts