On September 8th, 1979, Stephen King appeared on the weekly radio show “Probabilities,” hosted by Richard Wolinsky and Lawrence Davidson at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California. He was asked to name the greatest horror movies of all time, and I found his answers enlightening and interesting. Here’s the exchange.
Q: What do you think is the greatest horror movie of all time?
Stephen King: Let me give you about five names. I think that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of them. And I think Night of the Living Dead is one of them. And Freaks by Todd Browning is probably one of them. The Cat People by Val Lewton. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And I’m leaving some out. Psycho, Frenzy, Dementia 13, which was Francis Ford Coppola’s first picture.
Q: What about Alien?
Stephen King: I think Alien’s very good, but I don’t think it’s one of the best of all time. It might be, with the cut 11 minutes restored. The Haunting, yeah. That’s another one.
I had never seen a couple of these movies, and several of them are now in my Netflix DVD queue. An interesting side note: nobody even had a VCR at the time Mr. King gave this interview. Now, it’s discs and streaming.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Agreed. It’s a terribly scary movie, even if the story is thin and the characters thinner. Director Tobe Hooper would later direct Poltergeist, as well as adaptations of King’s The Mangler and Salem’s Lot.
Night of the Living Dead is clearly an all-time classic. Reviewers in the new millennium could argue it is perhaps the most influential horror movie ever given the glut of zombie fare. George Romero single-handedly invented a genre.
Freaks is a movie I’ve seen mentioned by many others as a classic. It’s a 62-minute movie from 1932 starring actual circus sideshow performers.
Cat People is a 1942 film debut by former RKO Producer Val Lewton. I had only seen the bad 1982 remake starring Nastassja Kinski, so the 1942 version is now on my list.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I have not seen the original version from 1956 in many years, so I’m gonna rewatch it soon. The 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum is one of my all-time favorites. No matter how many times I watch it, I still get creeped out when the “snatched” start pointing and howling.
Psycho. No greatest horror movies of all time list would be complete without it. Not the greatest story in the world, but Hitchcock + Janet Leigh + Anthony Perkins = greatness.
Frenzy. Hitchcock’s second to last feature film before he died. A serial killer rapes women and murders them with neckties. I have not seen this one.
Dementia 13 is available to watch on YouTube. Dementia 13 is a Roger Corman film, and the maintsream directorial debut of Francis Ford Coppola. Shot in 1963 in a castle in Ireland on a budget of $42,000, it has a visual aesthetic that makes it look decades older. The story is frustratingly vague and convoluted, but Coppola’s inventive visuals are on full display. In 2012, Open Culture billed it as “The Film That Took Francis Ford Coppola From Schlockster to Auteur.”
The Haunting, from 1963, directed by Robert Wise, has been mentioned as one of the all-time great horror movies many times despite a somewhat incoherent plot. Three people join a paranormal investigator at his home, determined to get to the bottom of the mysterious happenings at Hill House. The fact that it’s rated “G” is a symbol of how times have changed.
Alien (the only movie mentioned in the interview about which I would disagree with King’s take), was still in theaters at the time Mr. King gave this interview, and I would personally put it in my all-time top ten today. It launched a franchise and spawned several remakes (much like Living Dead and Bodysnatchers), introduced Ridley Scott to mainstream movie audiences, and has had a substantive impact on the genre, arguably on par with Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
More than thirty-five years have passed since the interview that spawned this post. It would be interesting to know how Mr. King would update his list today, if at all. Where do movies like Nightmare on Elm Street or The Sixth Sense fit on this list? What about Evil Dead, Hellraiser, or Jaws? And let’s not forget Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining, which has been consistently ranked in the top five or ten of all time. What are your picks for the all-time greatest horror movies?