Top Five Best Horror Films (or TV Shows)?

The big ‘jump scare’ in the best on the list.

Why a question mark on the headline? After all, aren’t Brad’s Top Five lists final and authoritative?

Well, not this one. Because I am not a horror fan. This may be an oversimplification — because there some films in this genre I do like — but in general, I feel like we have enough stress and disgust and shocks in real life. I feel the same way about scary rides at the fair. I’m not paying somebody good money to make me unhappy.

In some ways this is odd, I suppose, because when I was a kid — starting when I was 9 or 10 — I was a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. When I lived in Ecuador in the fifth and sixth grades, I had an hour ride on the bus either way. My friend Tony and I would sit in the back and tell each other the Poe stories we’d read, to while away the time.

Which reminds me. The creepiest of all Poe’s stories was “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I was very, very disappointed to see that Netflix was presenting a TV series with that title. The very straightforward story — the meat of the narrative takes place over a single evening, as I recall, although what goes before is creepy enough — lends itself in no way to a TV series. The only way you can do that is to hire some writers who are not Poe and have them cram a bunch of excess stuff into it. Worse, it appears to be one of those execrable “updates.” Enough said.

There are so many works in literature — such as my faves of recent years, O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series of novels — that call for that kind of treatment, that beg for it. The world would be such a better place if Hollywood would address that need. But no, it’s considered more profitable to ruin Poe.

You might say I’d change my mind if I watched it. That is possible, but extremely unlikely. And not worth wasting time on. I watch a lot of TV (and movies on TV), but I am selective, because I do have a life. If it looks extremely unlikely that I’ll like it, or learn anything from it, I spend the time instead on something that I’m pretty sure will be rewarding — there are enough things out there fitting that description to fill 100 lifetimes.

For that reason, I have never seen, for instance, “The Exorcist,” the anniversary of which is being so overcelebrated at the moment. I paid attention to the marketing at the time — the head-spinning, the floating above the bed, the especially gross vomiting — and moved on to other things.

So my body of experience producing this list is woefully inadequate. But I often find that I enjoy seeing what items y’all will name, and all of you are probably more knowledgeable about this than I am. So, to start a discussion, here goes:

  1. Psycho — You don’t get more classic than this, or more perfect. It might be Hitchcock’s best film, in addition to being the best horror film. Every touch is just right. Anthony Perkins is astounding, but of course the key scene is Janet Leigh naked in the shower. Doesn’t show much, but it’s pretty titillating for 1960. And it’s such a brilliant stroke to pull the viewers (the males anyway, especially the young ones) in with such a stunning woman in the altogether, and utterly shatter it with possibly the greatest “jump scare” in film history. By the way, I was inspired to write this post by a piece in the Post today assessing movies by the number of such “jump scares.” The writers seemed to think more is better. There are only three in this one — that I recall thinking back — and that’s just the right number: the shower scene, Martin Balsam climbing the stairs, and the final reveal about Norman’s mother. More than that would have ruined it.
  2. Dracula (1931) — Yep, I trend toward classics, and this, to me, is the very best of the great ones of the ’30s. It’s not about the blood, folks. It’s about the amazing creation and maintenance of a mood of dread and horror. Think of Dracula’s “brides” gliding across the room. That epitomizes what I’m talking about. That’s the essence.
  3. The Sixth Sense — This one would utterly fail that “jump scares” test I mentioned before. There’s really just one, at the end, and you build to it over the course of the film. And I’m not sure the intellectual realization of what’s been going on qualifies as such a “scare.” Probably not. Although at times it just feels like a Bruce Willis movie, only a bit darker, the kid who sees dead people keeps it in the horror genre throughout. Anyway, the director has been trying so hard for so long to be scary — even changing his middle name to “Night” when he was in college — that I feel like we should throw him a bone here.
  4. Alien — This was a great, ground-breaking sci-fi film, realistically depicting what extended life in space might conceivably be like, if it ever proves to be truly feasible. But in terms of plot, it was basically a haunted house story, and maybe the best ever. Also, it gave us Sigourney Weaver. Top that.
  5. The Walking Dead — This is why I added “TV shows,” parenthetically, to the headline. I felt obliged to include this as an illustration of when I was wrong for refusing to watch it for the longest time. I finally gave in and started, and was hooked — for six seasons. After watching the last episode of the sixth, I decided the writers had run out of ideas, and stopped. But there’s still a lot I love about it in those first seasons. Favorite character? Daryl Dixon, who adapted to post-apocalyptic life more smoothly than anyone. Least favorite character? Andrea, who never missed a chance to do the wrong thing and put her companions in danger. Finally, aside from this being a TV series, I debated most over including it because, is it really a horror movie? That whole genre seems a bit more like dystopian science fiction. But for awhile, I liked it. One reason why: Nobody says “zombie.” (I vaguely recall someone saying it and getting corrected once. Am I remembering that right?)

There are some honorable mentions in my limited repertoire, such as “An American Werewolf In London.” And if I had insisted on keeping the list to movies, the best of the zombie apocalypse genre was “28 Days Later,” which of course starts the same as “The Walking Dead.” And the same as the last great music video, “Party Rock Anthem.”

Some lists included “Young Frankenstein.” That is a great pick for any list — the best Mel Brooks movie by far — and if I included it in the five above, it would probably top the list. I love it. But I’m gonna be pedantic here, and admit it’s not a horror movie. It’s a brilliant comedy that mocks horror movies. That suggests another sort of list, which would include “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” (Or should those two be on a sub-sub-list, “musical horror comedies?” It’s difficult to say.)

Anyway, ideas?

‘Alien’ gave us Sigourney Weaver. Top that.

22 thoughts on “Top Five Best Horror Films (or TV Shows)?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    After I posted this, I realized I hadn’t linked to the trailer of Rocky Horror, and in grabbing and adding one, I had a memory to when I first saw this trailer.

    Imagine having never heard of it (or the stage show), if you can. Then imagine you’re sitting in the old Studio Theater on the Highland Strip in Memphis in the mid-70s, if you’re old enough. It was a sort of “alternative” movie house, a lot less classy than The Nick. You have to recall this was a decade when you might find porn in a suburban multiplex, depending on the suburb. They showed all kinds of stuff. But they also had draft beer, like The Nick, which was of course a selling point in a college neighborhood.

    The place was just a block from our apartment. I forget what was showing, but no matter how “alternative” it was, this trailer seemed more so. “WTF?,” I thought — or would have if I’d been one of these prim, proper youngsters of the 21st century.

    And then I forgot about it. But over time, the legend spread, and the wish to experience it (of course, you don’t just “see” it — you participate) grew. Sometime in, I think, the early 80s, I got my chance under perfect circumstances: It was The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun‘s annual newsroom Halloween party, which was always quite a blowout, and we all looked forward to it and put some thought and effort into our costumes. The film was showing that night on the campus of Lambuth College, which no longer exists in that form. And by that time, everyone knew what to do (“Toast!”). We all went straight from the party locale to the theater at the appointed time, and showed those kids some real weirdness.

    Pop culture was a lot of fun in those days… Perhaps a bit irresponsible, but fun…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oops. This always happens with these lists…

    The Shining — I just turned on my TV for a few minutes before my Sunday afternoon nap, and there it was. Pure horror. And it gets in both Kubrick and Stephen King! But if I go put it on the list, I’ll have to do a bunch of editing. First, I’ll be bumping “The Walking Dead,” which means I have to go take TV shows out of the headline. Work, work, work, work, work, work work. Also, it means I’ll have NO zombie apocalypse content, unless I bump something else and add “28 Days Later.”

    Decisions, decisions…


    What about the Evil Dead franchise? Fresh and fun and original stuff. But frankly, I’ve never made it through either of the first two movies. But Army of Darkness — there’s something very list-worthy.

    But what list? Isn’t it more suited to the horror-comedy list I proposed at the end? I mean, really…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But maybe I should just leave the list as is.

      After all, I don’t think I’ve ever watched “The Shining” all the way through. I have a strong aversion to anything that could be described as “Man goes berserk and murders his family.” After watching for a few minutes, I got to thinking about that, and thinking again that I do not want to see such a thing.

      But over the years, I’ve seen this or that bit of it, and thought, “well, that’s brilliantly done.”

      So I thought I’d mention it. But I can’t say I LIKE it…

  3. bud

    Those are good. A few of my favorites:

    Some Black Mirror episodes
    Some Twilight Zone episodes
    Texas Chainsaw Massacre
    Midnight Mass

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Just thought of another likely one for that other category — the horror comedy list.

    That would be “Zombieland.” That was excellent. And looking it up, I realized something: It came out the year before “The Walking Dead,” but it’s almost like a reaction to the series, a deliberate attempt to have fun doing the exact opposite.

    The makers of Walking Dead, I read, were deliberately not using the word “zombie” because they were imagining a world in which no one knew anything about the imaginary creatures. They had no term for them, and they didn’t know such things as that you had to hit them in the head to kill them. There were no known tropes in that universe, and they had to figure it all out for themselves. Made the story fresher, and more interesting.

    “Zombieland” went the other way, deliberately rubbing your face in all the zombie apocalypse cliches, starting with the title…

  5. Barry

    After visiting the Stanley Hotel in Colorado several months ago, The Shining would be near the top for me. I know it wasn’t filmed there (just sort of based on it). Cool hotel though. Love the 40’s type music being played in the lobby.

    I wouldn’t want to stay there though because the reviews say the hotel isn’t all that nice in terms of accommodations.

    The first 2 The OMEN films- if nothing more than the topic, Gregory Peck, and that awfully great music.

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    On the other end of the spectrum, I got an email from Prime Video promising me “Scary season streaming.”

    They offered:

    • Pet Sematary: Bloodlines
    • The Nun II
    • Totally Killer
    • Peal Screaming
    • The Blackening
    • From
    • Walking Dead: Dead City

    Really? Give it up, people. You’re not scaring me…


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That’s one of the classics I’ve never seen, and… don’t plan to.

      Not only is the whole premise horrific to an excessive degree, but think about it. Sweet, lovely Mia Farrow married to Victor Franko?

      Of course, in real life she was married to Frank Sinatra, so…

      But wait! Earlier we made the connection between Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, so… was Maureen O’Sullivan ever in any horror films? She was Mia’s mom. Although — shockingly — Tarzan was not her father…

  7. clark surratt

    My five:

    — The Thing (from another world). It was corny, with a newspaperman the corniest. This 1950s film (James Arness as monster) scared me.
    — Rodan. Also corny, one of the first throwback monster films, but I just liked it.
    — Exorcist. Good acting by the priests.
    — Omen (1). Good acting by all.
    — Frankenstein — The Boris Karloff version,

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks, Clark!

      Your mention of “The Thing” reminds me that I keep debating with myself about another from the 50s — “Invasion of the Body Snatchers!” Pod people!

      Which leads to another idea: “The Blob.” It starred Steve McQueen in his first leading role, which should make it a shoo-in, but… I don’t remember it being very scary…

  8. Norm Ivey

    I’ll play, but by my own rules. I’m not a big fan of the jump scare or occult, so those types generally won’t make my list.

    You hint at the greatest problem with a Top Five Horror Film/TV list–there’s far too many subgenres involved. Here’s my list of Top 9 Movies I Always Watch at Halloween. The order is fluid.

    1. Halloween (the original): I saw this at the Geronimo Drive-In when it first came out. I was a senior in high school, and the entire experience is etched into my nostalgia. I saw Halloween II when it came out, but I just didn’t care about it. Never seen another installment in the franchise or any of the reboots.
    2. Young Frankenstein: This one isn’t always available on streaming, but I have the DVD and a cheap player that I pull out just so I can see it every year.
    3. Frankenweenie: This is a Tim Burton stop-motion film about a boy who resurrects his dog. The plot stands on its own, and the references to classic horror/monster films makes it sort of an American Pie work. They even throw in a couple of references to stop-motion TV specials.
    4. Little Shop of Horrors: Campy, Catchy, and Creepy.
    5. Psycho: I go way back with this one. On the shower wall of one of my first apartments, I scrawled “Norman Bates was here,” in Sharpie just for kicks and giggles. An absolute classic, and true horror because the deaths are so random.
    6. Rocky Horror Picture Show: I never saw this in a theater, and was probably in my 40s before I saw it for the first time. Just an absolute delight. I did see the sequel (Shock Treatment) in the theater, but it never caught on. Best part of that flick was the track “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen.”
    7. Goosebumps (the first movie starring Jack Black): Typical family fare, but Jack Black is so earnest in his portrayal of R.L. Stine that he makes the whole film rewatchable. (Side note: The Goosebumps series on Disney right now is pretty good, too.)
    8. Comedy of Terrors: Probably the most obscure item on my list, but it includes Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff all in one flick. Price is an undertaker creating his own clientele.
    9. House of Wax (1953 w Vincent Price): My future bride and I saw this (in 3D) during a 3D resurgence during the early eighties. Just terrific from start to finish. Before you Google her, try to figure out who the Joan of Arc actor is. She became well known in a later horror/comedy franchise.

    My nominee for the best Poe story: Never Bet the Devil Your Head.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks, Norm! So much to respond to…

      1. I’ve never seen Halloween, but movie experiences when you were “a senior in high school” can be pretty vivid. Here’s mine: A bunch of us — maybe a dozen, including Burl, I think — went out to see Woody Allen’s then-new “Bananas.” Trouble was, it was in a double feature, and the other film was “Gold Diggers of 1933” which I think was being shown for ironic purposes. Anyway, we got there too early and had to watch Gold Diggers first. One guy in our group was stoned to an extreme degree (actually, some said that, which to us meant cannabis, but I don’t think that explained his behavior… must have been something else). Anyway, he laughed like a hyena all the way through “Gold Diggers,” while we were sitting there bored. Then he was perfectly silent through “Bananas,” probably the funniest film I had ever seen at that point in my life. He didn’t get it at all.

      3. You lost me at “Tim Burton.” I find his visual sense off-putting and monotonous.

      4. Saw it again recently for the first time since it came out, and was amazed by how good it was. Particularly enjoyed the musical numbers (not just “Be a Dentist,” but ones like “Skid Row“). And I’m not a big fan of musicals, normally. I loved the three chicks dressed sort of like the Supremes.

      6. Glad you liked it, but sorry you never got to EXPERIENCE it in a theater full of maniacs.

      8. That last line, “Price is an undertaker creating his own clientele,” grabbed me. My great-grandfather was an undertaker, and very sensitive about it. My mother said he went to visit a friend in the hospital, and the wiseacre patient joked, “What are you doing here, drumming up business?” He never visited anyone in the hospital again…

      And I must find that Poe story…

  9. Brad Warthen Post author

    Last night I was talking to my daughter, and she mentioned Halloween movies, which caused me to mention this post, to which she responded, “Like ‘Shaun of the Dead’?”

    HOW could I have forgotten that? The classic! The first and best film in the Cornetto trilogy!

    So I think my Top Five Horror Comedies list is complete now:

    1. Young Frankenstein
    2. Shaun of the Dead
    3. Little Shop of Horrors
    4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
    5. Army of Darkness

    Yeah, I know it’s lame to call it a Top Five when I could only think of five, but hey, this whole post was written with a built-in weakness — I haven’t seen enough horror movies to build a serious list.

    That said, I’m pretty sure “Young Frankenstein” is the best of the sub-genre…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Dang. I changed the order after building that list, and it messed up the coding on the indentation.

      Oh, well. They’re in the right order now, and the links still work. I checked…

  10. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, speaking of Halloween, you know how I’m always getting those fund-raising appeals from Sherrod Brown, sometimes with celebs? Well, check out this one for Adam Schiff:

    Adam Schiff for Senate


    Jamie Lee Curtis

    Take a deep breath with me, folks:



    Yes, it’s Halloween.

    And as a so-called “scream queen” — a label I embraced, not chose, mind you — I just had to reach out, because my friend Adam Schiff’s October fundraising deadline is coming up at midnight tonight.

    You know, when you’re home in the dark…

    …Watching a scary movie…

    …someone else is watching you.


    Hah, I’m just messing with you.

     Or am I? ‍♀️‍♀️

    Adam’s campaign team is watching how many donations come in before midnight, and right now, they tell me he is a bit short of this month’s goal. They want to see YOUR name on their donation list before midnight.

    So they brought me in. Jamie Lee Curtis. On Halloween. Some might even call that a scare tactic.

    But the truth is, if Adam falls short of this month’s fundraising goal, Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans will be ready to pounce to block him from making it to the U.S. Senate.

    So I’m personally asking you to contribute — $3, $10, or any amount before midnight — to keep our worst nightmare from coming true.


    If you’ve saved your payment information with ActBlue Express, your donation will go through immediately:




    As a lifelong Californian, this election couldn’t be more important to me. But the implications are so much greater — they’re about the future of our country, our democracy, and our planet.

    So I hope you’ll chip in if you’re able. Because if you don’t…you may not like what happens next. 

    Thanks for reading. Happy Halloween.

    — Jamie Lee Curtis

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Personally, I liked her better in “Trading Places.” That was her big break role that allowed her to escape her “scream queen” rep…

      And no, it’s not just because that one scene when she takes off her top.

      I like EVERYTHING about “Trading Places.” After all, it taught me all about markets…

      Y’all understand about pork bellies now, right? That look Billy Ray Valentine gives the camera when they explain what bacon is. It’s stuff like that that makes the movie.

      By the way, anybody watching “Annika,” the second season of which is now on PBS?

      She does that a LOT, and it really works. She doesn’t only occasionally break the fourth wall, she keeps up an ongoing soliloquy toward the viewer. Like, she can share it with us, even if those other people won’t listen…

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