To make the list, ideally a movie should have three things:
1. "Repulsiveness" - the quality that causes one to be, well, grossed out. This is the easiest to do cinematically - but the best movies do this with minimum (or no) gore, just the suggestion of such.
2. "Shock" - the surprise, or "gotcha" moment that causes one to jump out of their seat. Again not real hard to do, but when done properly, even when you know it's coming it still makes you jump.
3. "Terror" - the holy grail; when the concept conveyed causes one to actually be scared. Very difficult to conjure to veteran movie watchers; usually we see the ham-handed attempts in slasher flicks that fall flat, but when done well it's cinematic gold.
So, here we go, in no particular order:
1. JAWS - stands the test of time. That opening scene has all the qualities above and sets the tone for the whole flick. Great special effects, and the "monster" is a real animal which exists in all the earth's oceans - so extra bonus points there. It changed the beach-going habits of an entire generation and still resonates.
2. ALIEN - Space horror at it's best. Psychologically frightening - trapped in a spaceship with an unknown horror that incubates within living humans. You never get a good look at the alien until the end of the movie, and H.M. Geiger's vision does not disappoint.
3. JURASSIC PARK - If I had become a director this is the movie I would have made. Starts out like some kiddie Disney movie, with the crazy grandpa and his island of cloned vegetarian dinosaurs...until the whole thing falls apart and people start getting eaten. The scene where the T-rex shows up, with the kids in the jeep, is pure cinematic terror to me.
4. BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (Le Pacte de Loups). Is it a historical fiction? A horror flick? A martial arts movie? It crosses all the genres, contains great special effects, fight scenes, and a disturbing precedent. It's based the French tale of the beast of Gevaudan, and is visually a stunning flick.
5. CLOVERFIELD - While I got tired of the "point of view-fake-camcorder-blair-witch" style cinematography, the premise was great, the special effects stunning, and the monster itself truly monstrous (although, like many great monster flicks, you just get glimpses here and there). The best true "monster movie" of the last 10 years.
6. SIGNS - Lots of folks think this one is junk. I like it, very understated, but with some truly disturbing scenes. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, crop circles, mysterious sightings, and a horrible backstory all make for a memorable ride (in my opinion).
7. THE SHINING - Probably the best cinematic adaptation of a scary Stephen King story. Jack Nicholson is convincing as a writer slowly going insane; his visions are bizarre, and his son is just creepy.
8. PREDATOR - I love a good monster, and along with the alien from "Alien", the predator was one of the all-time best. What a premise-a creature that comes to earth on holiday to go hunting. With an all-80's action cast (Arnie, Jesse the Body, Apollo Creed) and special effects that stand the test of time, this is an action flick that crosses into the scary genre nicely. Unfortunately when the predator met the alien in a later movie, it wasn't all that good.
9. THE FLY (1986 version) - Heavy on the gross-out factor, it nonetheless hits on the terror and shock fronts as well. Jeff Goldblum is just creepy, and the special effects and makeup are bizarre.
10. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS - The worst monsters are people...who eat people, or make stuff out of their skin. Just plain bizarre, but great performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. The NVG scene at the end is scary no matter how many times I see it.
I didn't list any 80's horror (Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street), as they all just kind of blended together to me and I find them nearly unwatchable now. There are certainly many older flicks featuring the likes of Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing that rate, but never really hit on all cylinders. Likewise, movies like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars had some of the scariest creatures ever in them, but overall they weren't scary movies. Of course everyone has a favorite. What are yours? Leave me a comment.