When I was asked to put together a ranked list of the best horror movies of all time, I thought it would be a fun project. And then I collated about 150 titles, tried to whittle that list down, and nearly went insane at least three times. Then I had a few anxiety attacks after realizing how many people would call me a moron for leaving their favorite horror film off the list, passed out for two days, woke up, and finished writing.
After an initial effort which put the total at 50 movies, I'm bumping the number up to 75 total. Please don't pay excessive attention to the actual "rankings." I have a massive list I'm working from, and the new 25 represent a few glaring omissions I made, a few classics I gave another look, and a few newer films that simply deserve inclusion. And we'll probably be back next Halloween season to update the list to an even 100! The suggestion box is open!
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I wanted to include this one in the first update of this article (the top 50), but I just couldn't justify bumping another (better) horror movie. Nostalgia is great and all, but there's no way Friday the 13th is "better" than, say, Videodrome. Plus I actually like Friday the 13th Part 2 a little more. Regardless, this slasher classic (itself little more than a ripoff of Halloween) is still supremely creepy, provided you've ever spent time at overnight camp in New Jersey. Which I have. The shocking moments of gore, courtesy of Tom Savini, also hold up, although they don't seem quite so gruesome anymore, relatively speaking.
74. Saw (2004)
Scoff if you like (I can't hear you), but I consider this one a low-budget masterpiece, one that not only kick-started a ridiculously popular franchise, but still stands as a master class on how to wring a whole lot of scary fun out of very few resources. Much like Sam Raimi did with The Evil Dead, James Wan and Leigh Whannell threw everything they had (financial and otherwise) into a creepy horror concept that they knew would work -- and boy did it. Love the Saw series or hate it, there's no denying that it's a great lesson for aspiring filmmakers.
73. The Orphanage (2007)
Long before he graduated to Jurassic Park sequels, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona made a big splash with his directorial debut, a wonderfully classy, refined, and straight-up terrifying tale of a haunted, abandoned orphanage. What starts out as a very laid-back 1970s-style occult thriller slowly evolves into a legitimate horror story, thanks mainly to somewhat excellent actors -- but also because of some sudden, shocking jolts you simply won't see coming.
72. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
While this beloved cult relic from the 1980s has no official relation to George Romero's classic trilogy, it's safe to say that writer/director Dan O'Bannon drew a lot of inspiration from that series -- and then he just went punk rock, Mad Magazine-style insane, and the result is one of the most entertaining horror comedies you'll ever see. Not only is the flick frequently funny and horror-nerd-friendly, but it also delivers several amusing performances and some of the coolest zombie get-ups you'll ever see.
One of those endlessly controversial "arthouse horror" flicks that genre fans love to argue about, I am on team "YES" when it comes to this fascinating and unique period piece. It's about an ostracized family that slowly comes to realize something very dark and dangerous is waiting just outside their door. Is it an actual witch, or is it a clever metaphor for intolerance, alienation, and class struggle? I say it's both, and it's beautiful. Frankly, I wish director Robert Eggers would unleash a sequel or two.
70. The Babadook (2014)
There are lots of horror films that deal with children, either as aggressors or as potential victims, but very few have been able to capture both of those ideas simultaneously as well as Jennifer Kent's endlessly fascinating The Babadook. On the surface, it's the story of a book that certainly seems to be possessed by the soul of a horrible creature, but it's also about the bond between mother and child, the fear of losing your grip on reality, and the deep instinct to protect your family at any cost. Plus, yes, the titular creature is darkly wonderful, as is the creepy storybook in which he resides.
69. Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's debut novel cemented both men as forces to be reckoned within the department of scary stories, but it's the lead performance by Sissy Spacek -- and the monumental one from Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother! -- that vault this film from basic revenge story to legitimately tragic terror tale. If you've seen one horror film in which an awkward outcast takes revenge against their tormentors in brutal and horrific fashion, then you've seen the powerful influence that Carrie left on the horror genre.
68. The Innocents (1961) and The Others (2001)
It's sort of a cheat to include double features in lists like this one, but sometimes while trying to find a spot for a particular chiller, you nail a perfect pairing. The Innocents is about a haunted house that just might not be haunted at all, whereas The Others is about a haunted house that's haunted by, well, I'm not going to spoil it. Both films milk the creaky, old haunted house motif wonderfully well; both are laden with strong performances; and both manage to hit a wonderfully satisfying, bittersweet tone that's the hallmark of great Gothic fiction.
You know how sometimes you have to build yourself up to try something scary like a roller coaster or a ridiculously spicy food? You'd start with a smaller carnival ride or mildly spicy sauce in order to prepare yourself for the really rough stuff. That's how one should approach this ferocious, thoroughly unpredictable, and borderline brilliant deconstruction of horror, torture, and violence: with caution. On its surface it's sort of a "home invasion" thriller, but the deeper you dig into this rabbit hole the freakier and more horrific the discoveries become. Don't say you haven't been warned.
66. Candyman (1992)
When it comes to Clive Barker movies, most people generally talk about Hellraiser. Or Nightbreed. Oooh, or Midnight Meat Train. Where was I? Oh yes. This is easily one of the finest adaptations of the man's work, partly because of fantastic performances from Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd -- and great choices from writer/director Bernard Rose -- but also because Candyman is a very well-made, audacious, and quietly disturbing thriller that goes to very challenging places. If you want a "fun" horror film, look elsewhere. This one deals with racism, slavery, and oppression in a way that's bold and unique.
65. Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale's tragic adaptation of the celebrated Mary Shelley novel was the gold standard for decades -- even if it did generate a sequel that turned out superior in nearly every regard -- and it's not hard to see why. The production design alone is the stuff of a mad nightmare, Boris Karloff provides an unlikely soul to the creature stitched together with spare parts, and the film is laden with iconic moments that still manage to pack a wallop nearly 90 years later.
64. Possession (1981)
Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani star as a married couple whose relationship is clearly falling apart. Sounds pretty simple, right? Wrong. This visceral gut-punch of a horror film pulled itself from obscurity to become an unlikely cult classic to horror fans over the world. It's worth seeing for the stunning lead performances alone, but it's also a horrific and fascinating metaphor for the ugly dissolution of a previously loving relationship. Yeah, it's pretty heavy.
You won't find all that many British horror films from this particular era, but there's no denying that this Ealing Studios classic is one of the most beloved (not to mention influential) anthology horror films ever made. Although probably best known for its truly creepy story involving a freaky doll (much like 1977's Trilogy of Terror!), there's enough eerie mood and ominous atmosphere here to fill three more anthologies.
62. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Much like Scream, this one plays more as a knowing parody of horror films -- but it's still packed to the rafters with jolts, kills, monsters, and full-bore horror insanity. If you've seen at least one horror flick in which a bunch of broad archetypes discover a secret horror while visiting an isolated cabin, you will almost certainly have a ball while this maniacal carnival ride of a movie unspools. Also like Scream, this movie makes one point crystal clear: If you're going to poke fun at something, make sure it's something you actually like.
61. Don't Look Now (1973)
This dry British indie starts out like a melodrama -- Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are trying to heal following the accidental death of their child -- but gradually transforms into a paranoia thriller that delves into the occult, the church, mental instability, and of course the ever-lingering specter of guilt. It's most assuredly an "arthouse horror" film, but it's one that's masterfully crafted and darkly memorable.
60. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Some will argue that this is not a horror film. I would argue that it most certainly is, at least in part, and that part is straight-up terrifying. Much credit is due to character actor extraordinaire Ted Levine for his harrowing portrayal of mass murderer Buffalo Bill, but let's talk straight for a second: Literally everyone who worked on this suspense/procedural/horror classic was working at the top of their game. This flick swept the top five Oscars! That's (almost) unprecedented!
My affection for this freaky, little mindfuck of a horror movie is well-documented (check out the DVD commentary!) and I'm pleased to note that this tale of a sexually transmitted demon stalker has lost none of its impact upon repeat viewings. This flick seems to be a "love it or hate it" sort of movie, which I appreciate. Please place me firmly in the "love it" aisle. Oh, and that score! I may play this one on Halloween night.
58. Creepshow (1982)
Horror anthologies may not be a huge box office draw historically speaking, but the really good ones manage to maintain a strong shelf life, and that's certainly the case with this colorful collaboration between horror juggernauts Stephen King and George Romero. Every horror fan has their favorite segment -- I love "The Crate!!" -- but there really isn't a sour apple in the batch. The horror genre has plenty sub-divisions, and as far as old-school comic book-style "fun" horror goes, Creepshow is a masterpiece. Plus, it's so much fun to play the "omg it's..." game with this movie. I'll start you off with Ed Harris!
57. The Descent (2005)
We've all seen monster movies before, but when one comes along that messes with the formula and finds a way to make even the simplest of premises seem fresh, that's a horror film worthy of note. Director Neil Marshall drops five female friends into an uncharted cave and forces them to contend with not only feral humanoid monsters, but also horrific injuries, rampant claustrophobia, and the bitter sting of betrayal. The result is one of the most intense creature features of the 2000s.
56. Carnival of Souls (1962)
This low-budget black-and-white indie didn't make much noise when it was released onto the drive-in circuit in the early 1960s, but it's gone on to become one of the most celebrated horror films of the decade. It's a hallucinatory tale of a young woman who believes she's being stalked by a mysterious man -- or maybe she's simply losing her mind. Stick with it through the dry spots because act three is straight-up terrifying, provided you've been paying attention and have all the lights off.
There's a tendency to let great horror movies percolate for a few years before putting them on any sort of "all-time greatest" lists, but, oh well, Get Out is just that good. After all, how many horror films can you name that won Best Original Screenplay? Astute horror fans will notice all sorts of DNA floating through this tale of abduction and alienation (most notably The Stepford Wives), but first-time feature director Jordan Peele brings more than enough originality to the party -- partially because he's not afraid to bring up difficult questions related to racial inequality, but he's also damn insistent on delivering a smart, strange, unpredictable thriller that doesn't skimp on what horror fans want.
54. Phantasm (1978)
Don Coscarelli's cult classic starts out like a relatively normal horror story about a kid who suspects that strange things are afoot at the local mortuary -- and it promptly evolves into a super-bizarre compendium of "nightmare logic" horror sequences that just keep getting weirder. And yes, scarier. None of the sequels were able to replicate the wonderfully unique vibe of the original film, and it's a willfully weird horror classic that works especially well upon repeat viewings. Especially if you have friends and a mind-altering substance of some kind nearby.
53. Hellraiser (1985)
True, the 1980s were sometimes infamous for producing some really lame horror flicks, but there's lots of fantastic buried treasure to be found in this decade, and Clive Barker's directorial debut is most assuredly one piece of that treasure. Arguably one of the most gruesome stories ever told about lust and adultery, Hellraiser is also infamous for being the big-screen debut of "Pinhead," an ominous torture demon who turned out to be one of the most unlikely horror icons you could imagine. Bolstered by a freaky tone, numerous nasty dispatches, and a whole bunch of freaky mayhem, Hellraiser is far and away the class of the entire endless franchise... although Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 is pretty damn cool in its own right.
52. Scream (1996)
It's safe to say that the horror genre needed a real shot in the arm by the time the mid-'90s rolled around. (How many horror sequels can you go see, after all? Don't answer that.) Veteran scare lord Wes Craven had already reinvented the slasher film years earlier with the brilliant A Nightmare on Elm Street, and now he'd all but destroy the sub-genre with a knowing, winking, and consistently clever horror comedy smash entitled Scream. Not only is the film legitimately scary, but it's also unexpectedly funny, and of course it's a massive treat for anyone who has seen enough slasher flicks to know the "unwritten rules" by heart.
Forgive me for cheating again, but they both deserve inclusion, plus they actually make for a fantastic double feature of the two finest Dracula movies ever made. Based on the immortal novel by Bram Stoker, the 1931 adaptation features Bela Lugosi as the titular bloodsucker, and while Dracula is a bit starchy to modern eyes -- as any film made in the early '30s would be -- it still holds up as a monumentally creepy piece of classic Universal horror. It was probably the finest rendition of Dracula until 1958, because that's when the brilliant British horror nuts at Hammer cast the amazing Christopher Lee in the title role. Known as Horror of Dracula here in the U.S., this one's as colorful and campy as the original version is old-school creepy.
50. Ravenous (1999)
The audacious and twisted flick combines horror, Westerns, and action into some sort of willfully bizarre and bizarrely enjoyable genre concoction. You've never seen a movie quite like it. Guy Pearce plays a disgraced soldier who has been remanded to an isolated outpost, only to discover that there's some amount of cannibalism afoot at Fort Spencer -- and that's not even the worst of it. Suffice to say that this movie isn't exactly for all tastes. (Sorry.)
49. The Blob (1958) / The Blob (1988)
As a little kid I was obsessed with the original version of The Blob. As a teenager I was highly amused by the decidedly nastier remake. And now as a crabby adult I'm wondering when the next rendition will ooze into view. There's not a whole lot to the tale of a giant glob of goo that lands in a small town and begins devouring everyone, but there's something so damn fascinating about the monster itself that it kinda begs for (yet another) remake.
48. Black Christmas (1974)
The origins of the "slasher flick" can be traced back to Italy, but it was this Canadian import that helped the sub-genre find its footing in North America. Four years before Michael Myers began his Halloween night rampage, this holiday-themed tale of a stalker roaming a sorority house struck a solid chord with the midnight movie crowd -- and it still holds up surprisingly well today. One cannot say the same for the 2006 remake.
No list of horror classics would be complete without something from Vincent Price, and this twisted 1953 chiller about a psycho who hides his murderous habits inside of life-sized human figures is one of his most enjoyably creepy. Not only did this one give me countless nightmares as a kid but it features an enjoyably freaky finale. Plus the remake isn't half bad.
46. Wait Until Dark (1967)
A young blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) is terrorized by three (rather distinctly nefarious) criminals who believe she knows where a valuable drug stash is hidden. Sounds like a pretty simple premise, but this late-'60s thriller nailed the "home invasion" premise decades before it became so popular, thanks in large part to director From Russia With Love director Terence Young, Ms. Hepburn's excellent performance, and villains like Richard Crenna and a young, freaky Alan Arkin.
45. Frailty (2001)
The movie world lost a true great when Bill Paxton suddenly passed away in early 2017, and while he'll be remembered as a legend among character actors, he also directed (and stars in) this this dark, fascinating, and wonderfully twisted occult thriller. The surface plot is about two young boys, one murderous father, and a countless number of "demons" who look just like humans. Beyond the twists and scares, however, Frailty also boasts a remarkable screenplay that works on a variety of Twilight Zone-y levels. (Don't show it to your super-religious relatives.)
44. Asylum (1972)
Hammer, the 83-year-old genre-driven production company, gets most of the love when it comes to British horror cinema of years past, though Amicus Productions deserves a fair parcel of praise for its own creepy, gothic tales. Amicus produced no fewer than seven separate anthology horror films between 1965 and 1974, and while Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror might be the most popular of these "grab bag" productions, my personal favorite is 1972's Asylum, which not only features four freaky terror tales, but also a twisted wrap-around story that you simply have to see. It's pretty insane, but then the movie is about an asylum.
This one wasn't exactly well-received when it first hit theaters (go check out Roger Ebert's scathing review), but has proven to be quite the fan favorite in the intervening decades. Take out the nihilism and mercilessly brutal violence and you'd have a thriller that Hitchcock could have appreciated: It's little more than a cat (Rutger Hauer) and mouse (C. Thomas Howell) thriller that takes place on countless desert highways in the middle of nowhere, but it's that nasty edge that keeps the viewer on their toes.
42. Black Sunday (1960)
The first (and probably the best) horror film from master Mario Bava works as both an homage to the Universal monster classics and an early harbinger of the graphic violence that would eventually become a large part of Italian horror cinema. Black Sunday follows a resurrected witch as she wreaks all sorts of havoc on the heirs of the people who killer her. Thanks in large part to some lovely black-and-white cinematography, it's probably the best killer witch flick of all time.
41. May (2002)
Don't feel bad for not supporting this one in theaters. Lionsgate pretty much dumped and buried this off-kilter little masterpiece and has more or less ignored its existence ever since. That's too bad because Lucky McKee's modernized, gender-switched take on the Frankenstein template is nothing short of brilliant. From Angela Bettis's fractured, fascinating lead performance to the shocking violence and the weirdly, gruesomely bittersweet finale, this is the sort of horror films that young horror buffs will "discover" 15 years from now. I hope.
40. The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Most of Guillermo del Toro's films could be described as "horror stories" in one way or another -- the man is a genius at creating monsters who are lonely, misunderstood, and sometimes terrifying -- but for the man's most effective chills, you must seek out this brilliant film about an isolated boys school that's forced to contend with the horrors of war. It's not as well-known as del Toro's "bigger" films (like Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak) but it may be his most personal, insightful, and (for my money) consistently creepy.
39. Session 9 (2001)
Lots of horror films have used the abandoned asylum as a setting for their creepy shenanigans, but none have nailed the malevolent nature of these locations like Brad Anderson (The Machinist) did in Session 9. It's a simple story about a crew of asbestos removal technicians who find temporary work in a very horrific, haunted, crumbling edifice -- and gradually come to realize that they're not alone. Only it's not just a standard ghost story.
38. Near Dark (1987)
Long before she delivered Oscar-level movies like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow directed what turned out to be one of the best vampire movies ever made. She had a great screenplay by Eric Red (The Hitcher); a trio of actors who worked on Aliens together; and a good deal of sense, style, and attitude. The result is a darkly amusing, completely engaging, and undeniably creepy tale of a vampire clan that finally comes up against a victim who fights back. For my money it still holds up as one of the very best horror films of the 1980s.
37. Peeping Tom (1960)
This controversial British shocker helped end the career of the brilliant Michael Powell (co-director of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) and was more or less pilloried upon its release. But champions like Martin Scorsese turned the film into an undisputed cult classic, as well as a progenitor of voyeuristic horror films like Man Bites Dog, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and some of the more compelling "found footage" horror flicks of the past few years. In many ways Peeping Tom feels like an early version of the "unhinged misfit strikes back" premise, yet it also works as a weirdly prescient indictment of mass media culture.
36. The Birds (1963)
The Birds is the great-granddaddy of "nature runs amok" horror films, and Hitchcock's only "true" horror film other than Psycho. The movie tells the simple story of a seaside town that finds itself under siege by birds of all sorts. There's no rhyme or reason behind the attack; just a random, shocking, organized assault from a species generally known for minding its own business. Bonus: The special effects still hold up!
35. Audition (1999)
We've all heard the phrase "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," but few horror films encapsulate that (occasionally true) adage like Takashi Miike's effortlessly disturbing tale about a fake producer, a young woman, and the horrible secrets they keep from one another. This is a textbook example of a "slow burn" horror film, but the tension remains so palpable -- and the payoff so intense -- that Audition still stands as one of this wildly prolific director's very best films.
34. Videodrome (1983)
You could spend one awesomely disconcerting weekend picking through David Cronenberg's early horror films (such as Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Scanners) but this disturbingly prescient sci-fi mind-bender from the early '80s is one of the man's true classics. James Woods, typecast, plays a sleazebag who stumbles across a horrific TV channel that not only desensitizes its viewers to shocking violence; it actually makes you part of the broadcast.
33. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
How do you follow up one of the most powerful, influential, and socially relevant horror films of all time? By creating something equally as impressive. Zombie master George A. Romero could have taken the easy way out and staged another siege just like the one in Night of the Living Dead, but it's safe to say that he expanded his horizons in a huge way; it's still a siege movie, but this time the tiny cabin is a giant shopping mall. Oh, and the kills are a whole lot gorier this time around.
32. The Omen (1976)
Horror films about the occult were all the rage in the mid- to late-1970s. And while Richard Donner's The Omen wasn't the first one to hit theaters, it was one of the most entertaining. David Seltzer's crafty screenplay doles out dark mysteries and sudden shocks at a generous clip, but it's the cast, the score, and that ass-kick of an ending that elevates the story of creepy young Damien beyond most of its devil-related ilk.
31. Let The Right One In (2008)
The timing was perfect for this grimly brilliant Swedish import: vampires were getting more than a little anemic (sorry) and long in the tooth (sorry again), but this fascinating adaptation of John Lindqvist's celebrated novel popped up and reminded us that vampire movies could still draw blood (very, very sorry). It's a simple story of a bullied young boy and an old vampire trapped in a teenager's body -- but it manages to branch off in a variety of unexpected directions. And hey, the American remake (Let Me In) is pretty solid in its own right.
30. Poltergeist (1982)
When you combine the masterfully light touch of Steven Spielberg and horror auteur Tobe Hooper's confidence, the result can be something very cool indeed. This early-'80s haunted-house classic still manages to scare the pants off of people today. Chalk it up to a great cast, a subtly intelligent screenplay, and the inclusion of actual heart, humor, and humanity. Not to mention at least a half-dozen well-crafted set pieces that still pack a lot of enjoyable jolts.
29. Re-Animator (1985)
Many filmmakers have tried to translate H.P. Lovecraft's unique brand of literary horror for the big screen. Very few have succeeded. Until Stuart Gordon showed up, that is. Although he'd go on to produce several Lovecraft adaptations (including From Beyond and Dagon), Mr. Gordon is best known (and rightfully so) for his masterful rendition of "Herbert West: Reanimator." This admirably gruesome tale details the exploits of a medical student who believes he can cheat death. But death doesn't enjoy being cheated. The movie is half Grand Guignol, half blood-splattered comedy, and completely cool.
28. Ringu (1998)
Remember the Japanese horror craze of the 2000s? Which Hollywood adopted with The Ring and The Grudge? Hideo Nakata's Ringu remains fresh and cleverly terrifying. This is the one about the cursed VHS tape that kills anyone who plays it, and while this international horror hit inspired a surprisingly solid American remake, it still stands as one of Japan's most deviously entertaining cinematic exports.
27. Inside (2007)
"French new-wave" horror titles are essential to the genre's legacy. Inside beats out High Tension and Martyrs in a photo finish. Part of what makes this ferocious home-invasion thriller so powerful is that our protagonist is a very sensitive and very pregnant woman A shockingly intense cat-and-mouse game keeps the audience squirming. Where it goes... well, not recommended for small children or women in their final trimester.
26. [REC] 2 (2009)
The first [REC] exploded onto the horror scene in 2007 and instantly found fans all over the globe -- and then we got a sequel that was, somehow, even better. All you need to know is that an apartment building gets quarantined after a horrific virus starts turning people into ravenous monsters. You can follow the double feature with the third and fourth chapters at a later date (they're only so-so) but you simply cannot go wrong with a [REC] & [REC] 2 double feature.
25. Freaks (1932)
Tod Browning's controversial revenge thriller is a horror film that could never be made, remade, or even replicated these days without all sorts of people getting really angry. But the movie earns a place in horror history for employing actual circus "freaks" as its ensemble cast. It's a brutal, bitter, and cold-hearted piece of genre cinema, and one that any new horror fan should experience at least once.
24. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Yes, we needed to include a second film by Guillermo del Toro -- he just gets the genre. On the surface, Pan's Labyrinth's about a young girl who escapes to a dark fantasy world after the horrors of war invade her normal one. Beneath, the film opens itself to a wide array of darkly compelling interpretations. Plus del Toro's imaginative creatures and lush photography make it so damn beautiful to look at.
23. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
By this point, you either love or hate The Blair Witch Project. I'm still on team "love," and here's why: A group of clever young filmmakers rolled the dice on a style of filmmaking that very few people had dabbled in, crafted their own freaky mythology, delivered a powerful collection of scares, and became a viral sensation well before anyone used the phrase "viral sensation." Some see an aimless collection of footage about three naive filmmakers who get lost in the woods; others see a masterfully suspenseful minimalist thriller that delivers a unique set of scares.
22. Se7en (1995)
Se7en is a very dark detective story, and an underappreciated highlight of the horror genre. The tone, the attitude, and the visual palette of David Fincher's noir simply screams "horror story" to me. Before you argue, think about the crime scenes, the eternal rainstorms, and the mercilessly intense third act, and then tell me that Se7en isn't, in some large way, a horror film. And a really amazing one, too.
21. Godzilla (1954)
Don't let the endless array of slapsticky sequels fool you; the original Japanese version of Godzilla is a dead-sober metaphor for the horrors of warfare in the atomic age -- something that the American version (and those aforementioned sequels) seems to have overlooked. Godzilla, a skyscraper-tall monster who breathes atomic rays and stomps over measly humans, is actually scary in this film. Go figure.
20. The Haunting (1963)
There's a good reason that this Robert Wise thriller is frequently mentioned among the finest examples of haunted-house cinema: because it is one. Based on a short story by Shirley Jackson, it's about four poor souls who start digging into a terrible old house, and it may just be the template for every traditional haunted-house movie you've ever seen. (After The Haunting, feel free to check out The Innocents and The House on Haunted Hill. Regarding the 1999 remake of The Haunting, let us say nothing at all.)
19. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Long before Freddy Krueger became the slasher version of Gallagher, he was presented as one of the most ominous horror villains of all time. I don't like a whole lot of the sequels (OK, Dream Warriors is pretty good), but there's no denying that the original Nightmare on Elm Street still holds up as a remarkably scary movie. The late, great Wes Craven knew when a scary story should be light... and when it needed to fall into darkness. Elm Street is mostly the latter -- and that's part of why it works so damn well.
18. Suspiria (1977)
If you're a giallo newbie and you're looking for a starting point into the world of wildly violent Italian horror films, seek out Dario Argento's disconcertingly beautiful Suspiria. It's about a young lady who arrives at a fancy dance academy, only to realize that people are dropping dead all over the place. OK, the plot sounds like a standard American slasher flick, but "standard American slasher flicks" stole most of their tricks from the Italians. And you simply haven't lived until you've savored the aural splendor of a Goblin score.
17. The Wicker Man (1973)
A police officer visits a bizarre, isolated island community while looking for a missing girl, only to (slowly) realize that there's some super-creepy old-school witchcraft afoot. The Wicker Man is one of those "slow-burn" horror stories, and yes, the truly goofy Nicolas Cage remake spoiled some of the surprises, but this Christopher Lee-led mystery is a truly disturbing horror classic for those who settle in and pay close attention.
16. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Although generally listed in the science-fiction section, Philip Kaufman's adaptation of the classic Jack Finney story easily qualifies as one of the most effective horror films of the late 20th century. The 1956 Don Siegel version is a bona fide classic in its own right, but this version tucks all sorts of creepy little details into virtually every scene, all but oozes an uneasy sense of paranoia, and is subtly and consistently distressing, These factors, in addition to a fantastic ensemble cast, earn this remake a spot on this list. Not to mention that freaky final shot.
15. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Whereas most "horror comedies" are basically comedies with a clear injection of horror imagery, this John Landis masterpiece combines both genres into a movie that is sincerely funny and legitimately terrifying. In some ways it's your standard "man becomes werewolf, kills people, feels awful about it" format. In others, it's a wonderfully unique and surprising piece of genre cinema. It simply never gets old.
14. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King may not be a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, but movie fans sure do seem to be. This tale of a family stuck in a snowbound hotel all alone features some of the most terrifying sequences ever, but it's probably Jack Nicholson's gloriously unhinged performance that movie buffs remember the most. Well, Nicholson and those freaky twin girls. And that hedge maze. And that bleeding elevator. And that woman in the shower.
13. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
This one bored me to tears when I saw it as a kid, and there's a good reason for that: Rosemary's Baby is made for grown-ups. Not only is Roman Polanski's movie another one of those "drama!" horror films that makes you wait patiently for the scary stuff, but it also deals with decidedly adult themes like fear of commitment, fear of impending parenthood, and, of course, fear of freaky-ass neighbors who may or may not be members of an evil satanic cult.
12. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Some of the Universal Monster classics feel a bit underwhelming these days (sorry, Dracula) but such is not the case with James Whale's wonderful one-two punch of ill-fated resurrection, which still holds up as a thing of dark, twisted beauty. The original Frankenstein is awash in effectively tragic moments, and the sequel seems to take great delight in moments of weird humor. Some (like me, for example) would argue that Bride is the superior film, but you certainly need to watch them both to get the best result. Preferably in the same night.
11. The Evil Dead (1981)/Evil Dead II (1987)
While many would argue that the sequel (which is also sort of a remake at the same time) is vastly superior to the much scrappier original film, it seemed wrong to include one without the other. Evil Dead is a brilliant micro-budget masterpiece about a group of poor saps who awaken a bunch of demons. The sequel is pretty much the same thing, only with a slightly bigger budget and a dark, twisted sense of humor. There's no choosing between the two. (Also feel free to finish off the trilogy with 1992's Army of Darkness.)
10. Alien (1979)
The Idea of being trapped in a spaceship with a ravenous creature from another planet is terrifying enough. Ridley Scott's Alien ups the ante by allowing its freakishly unsettling antagonist to change forms throughout the film. At any given moment, we don't know where the monster is hiding, and we also don't know what it will look like. Plus the massive spaceship starts to feel a lot like a haunted house that the crew cannot escape, not to mention that there's a robot spy on board -- just to raise the tension a little bit. There's a lot of scary stuff going on in Alien, and we haven't even touched on the creature's disturbingly sexual assaults.
9. Jaws (1975)
Some argue Jaws is not a horror film. I say any movie that made millions of people afraid to go swimming qualifies. It's also a big-time crowd-pleasing adventure movie, but come on. We're all scared of sharks, and Spielberg's foray into blockbusters really taps into that fear on a gut level. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw's pushed-to-the-edge dynamic also makes it a whole lot of fun. And of course there's John Williams' primally unsettling musical score.
8. Nosferatu (1922)
Although not approved by Bram Stoker's estate (which ended up suing and bankrupting the film's production company), this unofficial adaptation of Dracula still holds up as one of the earliest, eeriest examples of vampire cinema. Much of the credit goes to the memorably creepy-looking Max Schreck, who played the titular creature, but director F.W. Murnau deserves high praise for crafting a horror film that's still pretty damn scary after more than nine decades.
7. The Fly (1986)
The 1958 original holds a firm place in horror cinema history, but for my money very few "studio" horror films come close to the deeply upsetting brilliance of David Cronenberg's 1986 remake. Sure, it's about a guy who swaps a little DNA with a housefly and finds himself transforming into an inhuman monster -- but it's also a powerful metaphor for humanity's fear of disease and a tragic love story at the same time.
6. The Thing (1982)
Isolation, alienation, and suspicion are the themes at play in John Carpenter's wonderfully creepy rendition of John Campbell's Who Goes There? Packed with great performances and even better monster effects, it's about a creature who can replicate any living creature, which spells seriously bad news for the guys manning an isolated weather station in the middle of a frozen wasteland.
5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
You don't come across too many horror films that create their very own subgenre, but that's pretty much what George A. Romero's original Night of the Living Dead pulled off. The word "zombie" was around long before 1968 but that was the film that introduced legions of re-animated corpses who wander around in large groups and devour any living human they can get their hands on. The original film remains one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and the sequel is pretty much the Casablanca of zombie cinema.
4. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter set the bar high by naming his slasher Halloween. Luckily, it's a film that millions of people want to revisit each and every October. This simple yet aggressively suspenseful tale of a plucky babysitter and a masked murderer has been ripped off and remade more times than one can count, but very few films come close to approaching its devious yet classy style of scariness. The ambiguity of resident boogeyman Michael Myers is part of what makes the original Halloween so damn creepy, and it's Carpenter's nerve-jangling musical score that amplifies the suspense to almost unbearable levels.
3. Psycho (1960)
Most of Alfred Hitchcock's films could be described as suspenseful, but it wasn't until this 1960 classic that the legendary filmmaker began dabbling in full-bore horror. Anthony Perkins' amazing performance as "mama's boy" Norman Bates is only one of this brilliant thriller's big assets, and that nasty jolt of an ending still packs a punch even if you already know what's coming.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
The original, unquestionable, undisputed great grandpappy of "possession" horror, and one hell of a brutally good time, William Friedkin's The Exorcist is not just one of the scariest films ever made: it's also one of the most well-constructed horror movies of all time. The story of demon-inhabited Regan, her distraught mother, and the two priests working their religious mojo to save her life holds up to repeat viewings -- partially because the horrific set pieces still hold up resoundingly well, and also because the actors create realistic, believable characters who are worthy of our empathy.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
There are lots of scary movies out there, and then there are movies that drop you head-first into an actual nightmare. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens with a gruesome sight, slows down just a bit for some mildly creepy set-up, then dumps five clueless kids into a cannibalistic nightmare that simply doesn't let up until the final credits. For my money, it's one of the purest examples of horror cinema. The movie still creeps me out to this day.
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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, Nerdist, and many others. Generally speaking, he really hates ranking films but this one seemed like a fun idea. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.