Top 10 Coolest Criterion Horror Films

by Eric Melin on October 25, 2011

in Top 10s

Three years ago, Tony Sams was Scene-Stealers’ first outside contributor of Top 10 lists when he authored an excellent list of the Top 10 Voyeuristic Films. Now he’s back for more just in time for Halloween. Looking for something different to rent this year? Try one of these. Here’s Tony:

The Criterion Collection started releasing films (on Laserdisc) into the North American home video market in 1984. Since then, Criterion has single handily pioneered the way we view films at home by offering titles that include the correct aspect ratio (letterboxing), audio commentary tracks, deleted scenes and “special edition” director’s cuts. Typically recognized for their high-brow art cinema releases, Criterion has been known to drop a few sleazy and schlocky gems from time-to-time. I love horror films, but they’re like the Rodney Dangerfield of cinema … which makes it so great that a company like Criterion has respected such a wide variety of movies from the genre.

Honorable mentions: Silence of the Lambs, Sisters, Peeping Tom, Dead Ringers, Onibaba, The Blob, Eyes without a Face, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Diabolique, The Night of the Hunter … Please add your own list of favorites in the comments; I’d love to hear them.

fiend without a face 195810. Fiend Without a Face (1958)

“Fiend Without a Face” is a hodge-podge of camp filmmaking; a British film set in Canada, released by MGM, and based on a story that appeared in an American pulp magazine. The plot is basically a checklist of b-movie tropes: monsters that kill you (while devouring your brain and spinal cord), a scientist experimenting with telekinesis, crazed locals with hare-brained theories about the recent string of mysterious deaths, a suspicious Air Force major… and so on. Even if most of the dialogue is terrible and the characters are one-note, your patience is rewarded in the final act. With its effective camerawork and gross effects, you have one of the goriest finales in 1950’s b-cinema. As film critic Michael Atkinson wrote, “never underestimate the holy-shit impact of being surprised by a flying cerebrum smashing suddenly through a windowpane and beaming hungrily for someone’s throat.” “Fiend” is often noted as one of the first links between sci-fi and horror, paving the way for future films such as Ridley Scott’s “Alien”; in fact the monsters of “Fiend” bear a striking resemblance to the face-hugging aliens in Scott’s film.

Most-Dangerous-Game 19329. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

When I was 12, my dad made me go hunting. I hated it. I didn’t want to sit there all day waiting to shoot and kill some defenseless animal that had done me absolutely no harm. I remember thinking to myself; what would it feel like to be stalked and killed by the prey that you’re hunting? Later, after I saw “Surviving the Game” starring Gary Busey and Ice-T, I naively thought, wow someone else has already thought of this, and went so far as to make a movie about it. Little did I know, that goofy 90s action film was based on a 1924 short story that adapted into the movie “The Most Dangerous Game.” As the film opens, big-game hunter Bob (played by Joel McCrea) mentions “the world is divided into two kinds of people, the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I’m a hunter. And nothing can ever change that.” After the tables turn on Bob during the lead up to the tense climax, his views on who is the hunter and who is the hunted change drastically: “Now I know how the animals feel!”

corriders-of-blood-19588. Corridors of Blood (1958)

Set in London during the 1840’s, Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff) is attempting to develop a pain free surgical anesthetic. After an embarrassing experiment in front of his colleagues, Dr. Bolton (struggling with his own chemical addiction) gets involved with a group of criminals lead by Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee). For a 50’s b-movie, the acting in “Corridors of Blood” is top notch. Karloff wisely underplays the addict role, opting for a more subtle performance as opposed to that of a hysterical junkie. Christopher Lee, holding his own with Karloff in a mostly silent role, exudes menace. “Corridors of Blood” was released by Criterion as a part of the amazing “Monsters and Madmen” 4-disc box set, and both the film and box set are definitely worth checking out.

vampyr-19327. Vampyr (1932)

A man wanders into an empty French village, where he is assaulted by a series of nightmarish visions: dancing shadows, a creepy hooded figure carrying a scythe, a woman with bite marks on her neck … Is this a dream sequence? The entire film plays out like an avant-garde fever dream, where you are completely unsettled and wondering if you are actually seeing what you are seeing. “Vampyr” was an early talkie, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s first sound film, and it was produced under very complicated circumstances. Its original negative and soundtracks were lost, and it was recut numerous times over the years by various distributors. The Criterion Collection release, based on the restoration of the German version (the film was also released with French and English soundtracks) by Martin Koerber, is consider by many to be the authoritative edition of the film.

jigoku 19606. Jigoku (1960)

“The discovery of Nobuo Nakagawa’s “Jigoku” some years ago by Western critics and horror movie fans was a bombshell, and it forced a paradigm shift of sorts onto the worldview of gorehounds and splatter-film aficionados. This is no stodgy 1960s Japanese ghost film but a full-blooded gore movie. Fans over here had long been led to believe that Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman’s 1963 “Blood Feast” was the first true gore movie. But that clearly was no longer the case—“Jigoku” beat “Blood Feast” not only in terms of release date but also through the ferocity and bloodiness of its visuals.” – Film critic Marc Walkow

flesh for frankenstein 19735. Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) / Blood for Dracula (1974)

Tearing a page out of the Roger Corman playbook, Paul Morrissey’s two “horror” films were made back-to-back by the same cast and crew, using primarily the same sets. This is likely why the two films share many of the same themes. Pinning those themes down is another story. Are the films a satire about elitist hypocrisy? Parodies on material and sexual excesses? Comments on the gore/trash films of the drive-in era? All in all it doesn’t really matter; both films are intriguing pieces of cinema that reward the “academic” art-house world while at the same time playing to the gore/horror junkies with ample amounts of viscera and boobs.

equinox 19704. Equinox (1970)

A group of teenagers head into the woods where they stumble upon an ancient book that contains the secrets of a strange world that coexists with reality. After investigating the book, the teenagers are attacked by several incarnations of evil. Sound familiar? Well, I’m not talking about the “The Evil Dead,” but rather a student film that was shot for around $6,500 by future nine-time Academy Award winner Dennis Muren. “Equinox” is an awesomely fun, shoestring budget, Harryhausen-style monster flick. Grab some popcorn, turn off your brain and enjoy.

haxan-19223. Häxan (1922) / Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968)

“Häxan” is, essentially, a film about how a deep belief in superstitions could lead to the type hysteria surrounding the witch-hunts, or post WWII McCarthyism. Banned outside of Sweden for decades due to its graphic depictions of nudity and torture, “Häxan” (pronounced “hek-sen,” meaning witches) was conceived as a documentary. The film, however, contains several dramatized vignettes – combining fiction, speculation, fact and hallucinatory imagery in a way that has rarely been matched. Re-released as “Witchcraft Through the Ages” in 1968, this shortened 76-minute version of “Häxan” is narrated by William S. Burroughs and contains a jazz soundtrack featuring (Frank Zappa) violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

japanese-house-1977-obayashi2. House (1977)

“How to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 movie “House”? A psychedelic ghost tale? A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story? An episode of “Scooby Doo” as directed by Dario Argento? Any of the above will do for this hallucinatory head trip about a schoolgirl who travels with six classmates to her ailing aunt’s creaky country home, only to come face to face with evil spirits, bloodthirsty pianos, and a demonic housecat. Too absurd to be genuinely terrifying, yet too nightmarish to be merely comic, “House” seems like it was beamed to Earth from another planet. Or perhaps the mind of a child: the director fashioned the script after the eccentric musings of his 11-year-old daughter, then employed all the tricks in his analog arsenal (mattes, animation, and collage) to make them a visually astonishing, raucous reality.” – Janus Films

carnival-of-souls-19621. Carnival of Souls (1962)

“Carnival of Souls” is an odd, obscure horror film … Like a lost episode from “Twilight Zone,” it places the supernatural right in the middle of everyday life and surrounds it with ordinary people.” – Roger Ebert

In 1962, filmmaker Herk Harvey set out to make his first (and only) feature film; a low-budget drive-in feature with “the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau.” Like George Romero and Robert Altman, Harvey started out by directing industrial shorts and educational documentaries. Accustomed to working on a tight budget and schedule, “Carnival of Souls” was shot in three weeks (mostly in Lawrence, KS) for a modest $30, 000. Initially doomed to the drive-in market when originally released, “Carnival” was quickly forgotten. The film, however, had a strong art-house revival in the late 80s due to the re-release of an expanded cut.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Will October 21, 2010 at 8:15 am

No “Eyes Without A Face”! That movie is by far the best horror film in the entire Criterion Collection!


2 Kenny October 22, 2010 at 12:30 am

Great idea for a list!


3 ChrisKnudsen October 22, 2010 at 10:24 am

No Honeymoon Killers? Not a typical horror film but its death scenes are some of the most horrifying ever put on film. Props for Carnival of Souls being #1 and House being #2 (even though it is not scary at all and one of the funniest films ever made) and not having the vastly overrated Onibaba on the list but boo to the camp Equinox being there for it is one of the worst films in the collection and should only be in one of those budget 50 horror film packs that are 5 dollars.


4 Eric Melin October 27, 2010 at 11:30 am

I LOVED “Onibaba,” Chris. What’s overrated about it?
And, I am sooo excited to see this “House” movie now. It looks insane. T
his is a great list for those who are sick of the same Halloween crap each year–great job, Tony!
will – Maybe he left out “Eyes” cuz it was already #1 on this list I made awhile ago:


5 Tony Sams October 27, 2010 at 1:14 pm

“Top” ten may be a bit misleading, honestly I prefer some of my honorable mentions more, but those films have been talked about to death… (either here on this site or elsewhere) As Eric said… “Looking for something different to rent this year? Try one of these.”

The CC edition of “House” came out on DVD and Blu Ray yesterday, GO GET IT! It screened for one week in July at the Tivoli in KC.

Speaking of the Tivoli, if you live in the Lawrence/Kansas City area, they are hosting Nosferatu and Vampyr Sat. Oct. 30th.

Happy Halloween kiddos!


6 Rhonda Scherff October 27, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Great review Tony! I can’t wait to check out Haxan and House, I haven’t seen either. Thanks for the tips to make my Halloween weekend complete!


7 Blake October 27, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Peeping Tom is the greatest! It is Psycho before Psycho, and has an equally respected director!

Oh, and Onibaba is awesome, Eric you’re totally right. Bah to Knudsen.

Does Ugetsu count? It has ghosts… but is otherwise basically a Kurosawa movie I guess.

I won’t comment on the actual list though Tony… I’ve only seen Carnival of Souls and Vampyr… I did read The Most Dangerous game though.


8 jack duhamel December 22, 2010 at 12:53 pm

good list

- Jack Duhamel


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