Your 10 Favorite Horror Directors’ Favorite Horror Movies

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Trying to find the perfect scary movie to watch can be a real fright. If you’re struggling to find just the right movie to scare yourself silly this Halloween, why not take a recommendation from your favorite horror director? From cult classics to childhood favorites to, in one case, a music video, we’ve compiled a list of the films that frighten the masters of horror. Read on for insight into the twisted minds of your favorite horror directors, along with some terrific horror movie recommendations.

1. JOHN CARPENTER ON NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Just in time for Halloween, John Carpenter provided Fader with a list of eight of his favorite scary movies. The first film on his list was George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter, the legendary director behind movies including Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and, of course, Halloween (1978), praised Romero’s impact on the last half-century of zombie movies.

The fact that a loved one can be turned into a zombie. It’s just tremendous,” Carpenter told Fader. “I mean, look at the movies that have ripped it off! Look at [The] Walking Dead. I mean come on.”

2. EDUARDO SÁNCHEZ ON THE EXORCIST (1973)

Eduardo Sánchez was the co-director of one of the most innovative, infamous, and absolutely terrifying found footage films of all time: The Blair Witch Project (1999). But the movie that scared his socks off as a child was The Exorcist.

“I was raised Catholic, and I was taught that everything was real,” Sánchez tells Mental Floss. “Satan was real, God was real, there was this fight between good and evil happening on Earth. And then The Exorcist came along. My parents didn't take me to the theater to see it, but when it came out on TV, we all sat around the family TV to watch it—almost like it was a documentary. It was almost like, 'This is what can happen.' At that age, it felt totally real to me, and it just scared the crap out of me. To this day, it still scares me, even though I don't believe the same things I did as a kid."

3. WES CRAVEN ON DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

For nearly four decades, Wes Craven pushed the boundaries of the horror genre, directing everything from exploitation horror movies like The Last House on the Left (1972) and the classic slasher movie A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) to the horror satire Scream (1996). In 2010, Craven shared 10 of his favorite horror movies with The Daily Beast. Writing about Nicolas Roeg’s horror classic Don’t Look Now, Craven explained, “This was one of the movies that just completely enthralled me and scared me at the same time, where I was watching a film that was a pretty moving work of art as well.” The film, based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, follows a bereaved couple who, on a trip to Venice, begin seeing an apparition they believe may be their deceased daughter. Craven was particularly struck by Roeg’s ability to build fear without relying on blood and gore, explaining, “The sense that the child is either a ghost or is torturing them with her presence by disappearing was a wonderful example (not that I followed it) of being able to scare without showing blood.”

4. ANDRÉ ØVREDAL ON POLTERGEIST (1982)

Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal is best known for the tongue-in-cheek monster flick Trollhunter (2010). Most recently, he directed The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), a stripped-down supernatural thriller set entirely in a small-town morgue over the course of a single night. Øvredal tells Mental Floss he chose Poltergeist as his favorite horror movie “for its sense of awe, wonder, and humanity in the midst of horror.”

“It revels in the ideas of the movie, it has a philosophy on its own subjects, not just trying to milk the opportunities for a scare,” Øvredal explains. “It’s also extremely close to the characters. You get to know and care for them, so you quickly fear for them. I think the filmmaking is really clever, visually stimulating, and tells the story with a surprising amount of humor, that only adds to the horror and sense of reality.”

5. TOBE HOOPER ON THE HAUNTING (1963)

Tobe Hooper’s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is a masterpiece of chaos and gore shot on a shoestring budget. But the late director's favorite horror film is something quite different: an understated haunted house film from Academy Award-winning director Robert Wise, based on Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Haunting of Hill House.”

“It was the first horror movie that floored me,” Hooper told Filmmaker Magazine in 2000. “I really felt what the characters were going through. There is one scene where some of the characters have locked themselves in a room in the house and there are strange sounds and the walls start moving. My imagination ran wild, and it left an indelible impression on me.”

6. PATRICK BRICE ON JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

In his 2014 directorial debut Creep, Patrick Brice built a chilling thriller using just a few key elements: a remote vacation home, a creepy wolf mask, and a supremely unsettling performance by Mark Duplass. The low-budget found footage film was such a surprise hit, Brice directed a sequel, Creep 2, which was released on streaming platforms this month. For his favorite horror movie, Brice chose Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne's hallucinatory film about the visions of a traumatized Vietnam veteran.

“For its ability to be formally experimental, relentlessly terrifying, and downright touching all at the same time, I really think Jacob’s Ladder is one of the undervalued gems of horror,” Brice tells Mental Floss. “There are moments in the film that use practical and in-camera effects to pull off scares that are beyond comprehension. I remember having to rewind certain moments asking myself how Adrian Lyne was able to pull them off, and it's his only horror movie!"

7. DANIEL MYRICK ON JACOB’S LADDER

Patrick Brice wasn’t the only director we spoke with who was enthralled by Jacob’s Ladder. The Blair Witch Project co-director Daniel Myrick also chose to recommend Adrian Lyne’s classic horror classic.

“It’s really hard to designate one film as my ‘favorite,’ but certainly Jacob’s Ladder ranks up there for me,” Myrick tells Mental Floss. “This is more of a psychological thriller than actual ‘horror,' but those are always the scariest in my opinion. The way Adrian Lyne played with your senses on every level was masterful and to this day, one of the greatest endings ever.”

8. GEORGE ROMERO ON PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

In a 2010 interview, legendary horror director George Romero told TIME he wasn’t a fan of modern horror—with one exception. “ I don't like the new trends in horror,” he explained. “All this torture stuff seems really mean-spirited. People have forgotten how to laugh, and I don't see anybody who's using it as allegory.” But Romero, who directed classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Creepshow (1982), professed his respect for Pan’s Labyrinth, a surreal and often terrifying dark fantasy film set shortly after the Spanish Civil War. “The guy I love right now is Guillermo del Toro,” Romero told TIME. “I’d love to make a film like Pan's Labyrinth.”

9. BABAK ANVARI ON THRILLER (1983)

Babak Anvari’s directorial debut Under the Shadow (2016) tells the story of a mother and daughter facing the horrors of war and haunted by something supernatural in 1980s Tehran. But the work of horror that has haunted him since childhood isn't a film at all, but a music video by the King of Pop.

“I have too many favorite horror films,” Babak tells Mental Floss. “But, the film that scared me most as a child, almost traumatized me, was actually not a film but a long music video: Michael Jackson’s Thriller directed by John Landis. I accidentally watched it too youngI think my older brother showed it to me first—and I got really freaked out. I used to be even scared of the tape that it was recorded on. I couldn’t be around it even during daytime. I kept thinking that zombies would crawl out of the tape to eat me alive.”

10. MICHAEL DOUGHERTY ON HALLOWEEN (1978)

Michael Dougherty’s first feature was the 2007 anthology film Trick ‘r Treat, so it’s fitting that his favorite horror movie is Halloween. “It’s very simple, in that it sort of defined the slasher genre, but it did so in a very elegant way,” Dougherty tells Mental Floss. “It’s beautifully made, and it’s beautifully shot. I remember as a kid, it was the first time I felt suspense—like genuine bone-chilling suspense.”

But Dougherty doesn't think you should stop at just one horror movie. “Halloween is a great time not to just revisit your one favorite horror film, but [to] watch just a whole slew of them,” he explains. “It’s a good opportunity to go back and revisit all your favorites or to introduce yourself to classics you might not have seen before: Halloween, The Exorcist, The Omen (1976), Poltergeist, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966). These are the things that make for a really good Halloween season.”

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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