Best Horror Movies of All Time?

It's that time of year when the lists come out. And if you're thinking that I am referring to Christmas lists, you may be on the wrong blog. Nope, the lists I am talking about set the stage for the Halloween season and provide content for the moviefest. I am talking about the lists of the best scary movies ... and there are a lot of them.


Notice I said "scary" movies and not "horror" movies. That is because as far as I know, "scary" isn't a genre but "horror" is. And if there's one thing I've learned it's that one person's horror is another person's mystery - or SciFi - or action - or drama. And if there's another thing I've learned it is that pretty much everyone is a critic when it comes to slotting movies into the genre gray areas. Does anybody know who is in charge of deciding a movie's genre? Or is that the director's call? I mean, If I am making a horror film it would sort of be a disaster to submit the content to some governing body who decides the film is a romance or something. Which, by the way, is how the 1932 classic film, The Mummy, is classified. That would sort of mess up the marketing to my target audience, wouldn't it? In my inaugural blog post last year, I talked about the rules of the scary movie and the Halloween moviefest. You can revisit that post now or keep reading.


This year's featured list is courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes. My brother sent me the link knowing full well my OCD wouldn't let it go unnoticed. Unfortunately, my self-diagnosed and intermittent ADD prevented me from just reading through the editorial and making a brief comment. I kept skipping ahead (like you're doing now) to see if I agreed with the #1 selection, looking for my favorites, wondering how many of these movies I had seen, was there a disproportionate number of artsy films, were some directors favored, were there films that just didn't qualify under my rules of horror, ...? You know, all the questions you are all asking right now. Then I realized... 75 is a big number. Lots of movies, lots of data, lots of questions. So I did what any good engineer would do. I made a spreadsheet.  

First, some perspective. This is NOT a "best horror movies" list; rather this is a list of best reviewed horror movies by Rotten Tomatoes critics - not viewers. And this is how it was built. Rotten Tomatoes took their 75 top critic's scores (from 87% to 100%) and then created a weighted score to account for the variation. If you really want to geek out on the method used for adjusting the score, you can study Bayes' Rule for calculating conditional probability. Suffice to say there is some science behind the adjusted scores. And if we take as a given that this is an acceptable method for adjusting scores for movies that span nearly 100 years (and who am I to argue?), then we are satisfied that a movie with a higher critic's score may find itself lower on the totem pole as a consequence of this adjustment. 

The highest rated film on the list is Get Out, a comedy-horror released earlier this year. The lowest rated movie is Stanley Kubrik's version of The Shining. My first reaction was that I considered it odd that a brand new horror film came in on top. But I haven't seen Get Out yet so I am not qualified to judge. In fact, I have seen only 27 of the 75 films on the list.

As the movie release dates marched forward in time, so did my viewership. Unless you are a film geek or classic horror aficionado, I'll bet yours do, too. I played with this a little bit using my birth date as a marker. Of the 25 movies on the list that were released before I was born; I have seen four of them, a solid 16%. I have seen almost half of the 50 movies made after I was born. In other words 15% of my viewership is represented by 33% of the films while 85% of my viewership is represented in the other 67% of the list. I'm pretty sure the critics took all of this into consideration when rating these movies. But seriously, it would be interesting to see what the data would say about fans who are 10-20-30 years younger than me. I played a little bit with regression analysis and correlation but decided by that time, it was getting out of hand and I'd already thought way too much about this. If this kind of analysis turns your nerd crank, it would be fun to see what you learn given your own markers.

I plotted the critic's actual scores against the adjusted scores, the latter used to determine each film's ranking. I found one error. Movie #12 (Rosemary's Baby) has a lower adjusted score than movie #13 (The Babadook). No biggie, I liked them both and consider them worthy. The movie that took the biggest hit with the adjustment was film #43 - The Loved Ones. This movie received a critic's score of 98 but found itself 32 places behind the #1 film which earned a critic's score of 99. Ouch. I haven't even heard of The Loved Ones, have you? The movie that benefited the most from the adjustment was was #34, 10 Cloverfield Lane. This film had a critic's score of 90 while the #62 film (Nina Forever) had a critic's score of 96. Coincidentally the same #62 film had the smallest adjustment of all movies. Judging purely from the film's poster and description, I would say that Nina Forever is horror disguised as porn, or porn disguised as horror. Not an unpopular theme in this genre but not my favorite. I haven't seen it and it isn't on my to-do list, so take that for what it's worth.


I found the histogram sort of a hoot. I looked at the films in 10-year buckets from 1920 to 2017. The 70s were big for horror films, but not quite as big as the current decade which is a few years shy of a full period. Six movies on this list were released in 2016 alone. Were more movies actually made between 2010 and 2017 (probably) or were more movies just on the list? Or can we just conclude that half of the movies in the top ten were released prior to 1940 while almost all of the movies in the bottom ten were released after 1970? 


Aren't statistics fun?


I looked for bias towards directors and actors and didn't find anything terribly interesting. There were 8 repeat directors in 18 films, which means 75 movies had 65 unique directors. Only two directors were responsible for three films: Sam Raimi of Evil Dead fame and James Whale who directed the classic Frankenstein. Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, and a few others I had to look up rounded out the repeat offenders. See? Not terribly interesting. And zero useful data looking at the actors. I did, however, sense something of a bias towards classics in the number of films on the list - 35% of the films are listed as classics, and not necessarily because they were released prior to 1974. A number of films from the 1930s into the 1970s are not listed as classics. I stopped at 1974 because Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most recent "classic". I did not sense a real bias on the ranking though; six of the 26 classics are in the top ten while four are in the bottom ten. 20% of the films on the list are what I call "artsy" films, those classified as special interest or art house and international. Two of the 15 artsy films are in the top ten while three are in the bottom ten, including the film that came in last.

Enough with the spreadsheet already!

So do I agree with the list? Well, I definitely do not think these are the 75 best horror movies and certainly they are not my 75 favorites - probably not yours either. Nosferatu, the famously overrated silent vampire movie, is right up near the top where it seems all critics think it should be while The Shining, a favorite among horror fans, is ranked dead last. But hey, at least The Shining made the list. Some really great horror films are conspicuously absent; The Exorcist, The Omen, Poltergeist, or my current vote for the scariest movie ever: The Conjuring. And no sign of the Insidious series, which I am a fan of, or the Friday the 13th films, which I am not a fan of. After seven sequels and a remake, couldn't we safely say that Jason has a place? If Jaws is a horror film then where is Cujo? And what about the 1990 TV Series that spawned perhaps the most anticipated horror remake this year: It? Let's just say that few if any lists are identical (another statistic I am not going to chase) and my top 75 won't be your top 75  - or anybody else's top 75. So by definition, I'm pretty sure nobody agrees with the list.

But remember, these are the not the "best," just the "top rated." And that information is, I think, a little bit dangerous. How many times do you decide to see a movie - or rather NOT see a movie - based on a critic's review?

So this season, choose movies that appeal to your own scary rules. Enjoy the gratuitous scares, the re-told plots, the cliched endings, the remakes, the originals ... all of it. Because the only thing that matters is what you think. Was it worth your time, would you watch it again, and does it go on this year's moviefest list?

Preseason is upon us folks. Time to make your own lists.