Horror Poll Post-Mortem: The unbeatable 'Exorcist' and why 'Near Dark' stands alone
HitFix's Ultimate Horror Movie Poll, which highlights the 100 greatest horror films of all time as voted on by over 100 genre filmmakers and experts, not only showcased the enduring power of No. 1 finisher "The Exorcist," it also cemented the status of the '70s and '80s as a Golden Age of horror (films released during those decades took up nearly half of available slots).
The '70s and '80s, incidentally, saw the artistic rise and mainstream breakthroughs of both Wes Craven and David Cronenberg, horror icons who placed more films in the Top 100 than any other director (four titles each). Meanwhile, the list revealed one undeniably bleak statistic: only one movie in the Top 100 was directed by a woman.
For me, the most gratifying moment of our Ultimate Horror Poll came when compiling the data was finally over, and I could take a step back and fully appreciate, as a reader, what my colleague Emily Rome and I had painstakingly compiled over so many weeks. Doing so has allowed me the distance to see patterns and make observations that I didn't pick up on when I was in the thick of it -- some undeniable, some puzzling, and one even borderline infuriating. Here are a few insights I've gathered in the 48 hours since we first launched.
1. Only one film in the Top 100 was directed by a woman.
The topic of representation behind the camera has been a hot topic as of late (see: Matt Damon's now-notorious "Project Greenlight" moment), and the problem is depressingly prevalent in our Top 100, which features -- tellingly -- only a single film directed by a woman: Kathryn Bigelow's cult 1987 vampire-western "Near Dark." It's a shame, albeit not reflective of the survey participants themselves; rather, it speaks to an ongoing, systemic problem the continues to plague not only the horror genre but the film industry as a whole. Indeed, there are few great horror films directed by women because few women have ever been given the opportunity (or felt empowered) to make horror films in the first place.
Not that there aren't any rays of hope. Bubbling just under the Top 100 was Jennifer Kent's masterful 2014 horror film "The Babadook," which around the time of its release racked up an endorsement from none other than "The Exorcist" director William Friedkin (who happens to know a thing or two about horror).
2. I can't get over some of these omissions.
While the Top 100 certainly contains its share of welcome surprises -- Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder," Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" and Brad Anderson's "Session 9" are a few that immediately spring to mind -- it's hard as a fan to accept the absence of such stone-cold classics as Stuart Gordon's perfect '80s thrillogy ("Re-Animator" and "From Beyond" received a single mention each, while the underrated "Dolls" was absent completely), Bernard Rose's elegant, sophisticated 1992 Clive Barker adaptation "Candyman" (one mention) and Frank Darabont's unrepentantly dreary 2007 Stephen King chiller "The Mist" (zero mentions).
What I also found surprising was the sub-Top 100 placement of the 1925 silent classic "The Phantom of the Opera," which may have admittedly suffered in relation to such better-known Universal Horror classics as "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Mummy" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon." Still, its status as a formative Hollywood horror film makes its exclusion a tad puzzling. (Then again? I didn't vote for it either.) Ultimately, it may be a film more appreciated than it is beloved -- though it's worth noting that silent classics "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" both made the list.
Looking to more recent titles, while the Top 100 ranking of such films as "It Follows" (released just this year!) and the 2007 anthology flick "The Signal" weren't unwelcome -- unpredictability is the spice of these things -- I was surprised to see those titles make the cut when such well-regarded (and slightly more aged) from-the-past-decade flicks like Rob Zombie's Western-styled "House of 1000 Corpses" sequel "The Devil's Rejects" and Greg McLean's deeply disturbing Outback quasi-slasher "Wolf Creek" failed to rank (neither of those titles received a single mention on any list).
3. "The Exorcist" is unbeatable.
When the first round of lists started coming in, it appeared that "The Exorcist" and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (and even, briefly, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre") would finish in a dead heat for first place, but "The Exorcist" asserted its dominance pretty quickly thereafter. Look at these stats: out of 104 responses, "The Exorcist" was mentioned a total 67 times, thereby taking up real estate on a whopping 64% of individual lists. Number two finisher "The Shining," meanwhile, was mentioned a measly 48 times (46%) by comparison. Polls like these aren't an exact science by any measure -- the inevitable subjectivity of the responses makes determining a "definitive" list essentially impossible -- but it's hard not to think that "The Exorcist" would finish in first place no matter how many lists we received, or which particular cross-section of the horror community weighed in.
4. The '70s and '80s dominated, and no one was surprised.
On this week's horror poll-centric episode of "Fandemonium," our esteemed host Roth Cornet asked both myself and Emily why we thought the Top 10 was made up entirely of films released within a 22 year period (1960-1982, 1968-1982 if you discount "Psycho"), and we had two different answers that I think were both, in some sense, right. I stated that social upheavals of the time (and perhaps a brief window of greater artistic freedom) may have contributed to the era's plethora of great horror films; Emily chalked it up to the fact that the age range of participants we surveyed (the poll skewed slightly in favor of folks in their 30s and 40s) meant that films of that period would have made up the bulk of their formative moviegoing experiences. It might also be asserted that the grittier visual quality of the films from that era simply lends itself more to giving a person the heebie-jeebies than the more polished look of modern-day movies, but that's a difficult argument to back up aside from anecdotal reports.
As I mentioned in my horror poll introduction, the '70s and '80s finished neck and neck in the survey, with the former decade logging 21 titles in the Top 100 and the latter 23. In other words, those two decades alone accounted for nearly half of the films on the list (not to mention 70% of the Top 10). I don't think anyone with even a casual interest in horror would be surprised by this, but still, it's worth noting just how dominant they were in the rankings.
5. The '90s are, as ever, an unheralded decade.
Only one film from the oft-dismissed decade finished in the Top 20 ("The Blair Witch Project"), and only 10 finished in the Top 100 -- not terrible, but far less than the Oughts (15 titles), which were widely seen as ushering in a horror renaissance after the relative dead zone of the Gen X "coming-of-age" era.
So were the '90s really a weak decade for horror, or are they unfairly discounted? From where I'm standing, it's a mixture of both. While there's really no reasonable way to challenge the sheer number of great horror films that came out of the '60s, '70s and '80s, it still would have been nice to see Bernard Rose's aforementioned 1992 bogeyman tale "Candyman" or Wes Craven's postmodern Freddy Krueger sequel "New Nightmare" make an appearance somewhere (alas, the latter was shut out altogether). Still, while there were a lot of very good horror films that came out during the '90s, there were astonishingly few great ones, and I think that's the essential difference.
6. Arguably the most surprising ranking on the list: "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors" at No. 50.
An '80s slasher sequel in the Top 50? I never would have believed it if you'd told me at the beginning of this process, but it happened. The Freddy threequel, which is generally seen as one of the best of the series (if not the best, depending on who you talk to), received votes from such folks as "Juno" and "Jennifer's Body" screenwriter Diablo Cody, "The Cabin in the Woods" director Drew Goddard and "Sinister" scribe C. Robert Cargill, which makes me wonder: just what did I miss about this thing the first time around? Maybe time for a re-watch.
7. Wes Craven and David Cronenberg were tied for most films in the Top 100, with four titles each.
William Friedkin may have dominated all comers with a single film; and John Carpenter may have been the only director with more than one movie to place in the Top 10 ("Halloween" and "The Thing"). But if you're talking about sheer number of titles in the Top 100, Craven and Cronenberg were the clear winners here. Both directors finished with four films each: Craven with "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (No. 11), "Scream" (No. 49), "The People Under the Stairs" (No. 81) and "The Hills Have Eyes" (No. 93); Cronenberg with "The Fly," (No. 25) "The Brood," (No. 34), "Videodrome" (No. 69) and "Dead Ringers" (No. 70). It's a nice tribute to both, but especially to the late, great Craven, whose prolific, re-inventive work in the genre was all but peerless.
8. Italian horror didn't get much love.
Indeed, only Dario Argento's surrealistic 1977 classic "Suspiria" and Ruggero Deodato's found-footage groundbreaker "Cannibal Holocaust" made the Top 100 (Nos. 13 and 68, respectively), while the former director was the only Italian filmmaker to have multiple titles mentioned across all lists ("Phenomena," "Tenebre" and "Opera" each received a single vote). No less an icon than Mario Bava astonishingly received but a single mention -- and not for his better-known black-and-white classic "Black Sunday," but rather the 1966 Gothic giallo "Kill Baby, Kill." Gore-meister Lucio Fulci, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found, despite helming such well-known splatter classics as "The Beyond," "Zombi 2" and "City of the Living Dead."
9. "Let the Right One In" stands head and shoulders above its '00s counterparts.
Consider this: Tomas Alfredson's icily haunting 2008 vampire film (an adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist) finished way up at No. 19, receiving votes from such bold-faced names as Scott Derrickson, Peter Straub, Jennifer Lynch, Joe Hill and -- yes -- even Lindqvist himself. You can hardly blame the latter for casting a ballot for his own film, which in only seven years has grown in esteem to rival that of titles released decades earlier. You have to go all the way down to No. 36 (Gore Verbinski's "The Ring") before coming across another film released in the 21st century.
10. The individual Top 10 lists are where it's at.
Who voted for "Psycho II" but not "Psycho"? "Ju-on" director Takashi Shimizu, that's who. Obscure 1953 sci-fi flick "The Twonky"? None other than "Phantasm" visionary Don Coscarelli. And who, pray tell, put the 1988 comedy "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" at No. 1? Not hard to figure. While it's certainly fun to scroll through the Top 100, I would argue that a deep dive into the individual Top 10s is even more interesting and revealing, particularly when it comes to parsing the specific influences of the filmmakers who voted (though I probably could have guessed that "The Human Centipede" director Tom Six would put the occasionally-scatological, scathingly-bleak social satire "Salo" at No. 1).
11. There is no coming up with a "definitive" list of the Top 100 horror movies.
With the exception of perhaps the Top 30 or 40, there's a sense that almost any of the films on our list could have been replaced by other titles had we received responses from a slightly different pool. The exercise of naming the 10 greatest horror films -- despite the consensus that the word "greatest" implies -- is a highly subjective one, and while "The Exorcist" is, I think, unbeatable for the No. 1 slot at this point, I'd be very interested to see what the list would have looked like had we received answers from an entirely different set of people. While our list is as close to a "definitive" one as you're likely to find at this point, there a lot of great, worthy horror titles that finished out of the running this time around. Failing to rank on our list in no way diminishes them.