There’s only one thing that horror movie fans love more than watching horror films: Putting them into loosely ordered “best-of” lists.
The problem with most of those lists is that they’re full of spoilers—not a big deal if you’re trying to validate your preformed opinions, but pretty important if you’re looking for something to watch. With that in mind, we set out to create a completely spoiler-free list of the top horror movies ever made.
Here’s our list. If you disagree with these selections, remember: You’re free to make your own list. That’s part of the fun, right?
50. The Conjuring
By 2013, the “haunted house” subgenre desperately needed a reboot. The Conjuring didn’t deliver one, exactly; it took cues from films like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist to create a finished product that was pretty by-the-numbers.
Fortunately, it managed to do just about everything perfectly, packing plenty of spine-tingling scenes into its near two–hour runtime. It’s the rare homage that rises above its source material, and for any modern horror fan, it’s just good enough to be considered essential.
How creepy was it? When The Conjuring was released, one theater chain in the Philippines refused to screen it, as some viewers had complained about “unusual circumstances.” When the film finally returned to the chain’s theaters, a priest was hired to provide “spiritual support and conduct a short blessing” for theatergoers who felt the presence of dark energies.
Best for: Fans of haunted houses who don’t really care about character development.
This 1985 cult classic has plenty of laughs, but the gross-out moments are horrifying enough to make this a worthy entry on this list. It gradually goes off the rails, starting with a simple story of a medical student and eventually ending with…well, lots of re-animated stuff. Look, that doesn’t qualify as a spoiler—sometimes the plot’s all in the title.
Initially, the film was intended as a straightforward recreation of the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name, but that premise fell apart as the production became more reliant on gory special effects. Per IMDB, the special effects department for Re-Animator used 25 gallons of fake blood. If you ask us, that seems a little light—this is one of the most ridiculously gory movies on this list.
Best for: Anyone who loves tongue-in-cheek horror with plenty of gratuitous gore.
As far as creature features go, Pumpkinhead isn’t innovative, and it certainly won’t make you think. The acting is mediocre, and the plot has plenty of holes.
Why, then, is it so much fun to watch? The stellar special effects certainly deserve some of the credit, as does the depth of the fantasy-inspired folk tale at the heart of the script. While many late-80s horror movies haven’t stood the test of time, Pumpkinhead is still a harrowing experience.
We’re just glad that the producers went with the name Pumpkinhead. Up until its production, the film was named Vengeance: The Demon, which is one of the worst movie titles we’ve ever heard. The creators decided to change the name while they were designing the monster; screenwriter Gary Gerani considered giving the creature a Jack-O-Lantern for a head, which led to the project’s official name.
Best for: Watching on a late night when you’re fairly sure that you’ve seen everything else on this list.
47. It Comes at Night
It Comes At Night is a post-apocalyptic family drama, and those three words should give you a fairly good idea of whether or not it’s up your alley. Critics lauded its brilliant direction and exceptional acting, but some audiences dislike the slow pace.
There’s not a ton of action, but it’s ultimately a disturbing survival horror film that ranks among the genre’s best. Unfortunately, it has an incredibly misleading trailer that portrays it as some sort of gory zombie flick; that might help to explain why theater audiences disliked It Comes At Night, despite its critical acclaim. In a survey from Cinemascore, audiences gave the film a “D” on an “A-F” scale. It’s much better than that, but be sure to know what you’re getting into before you decide to rent this one.
Best for: Anyone with a healthy (or not-so-healthy) fear of the unknown.
46. Under the Shadow
This Persian-language film was critically lauded, which usually means “boring” for mainstream horror fans. That’s not the case; there’s truly terrifying imagery here, and the twisting plot should keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the entire 84-minute runtime.
Under the Shadow is an allegory for women’s rights in Iran (though the film was actually shot in Jordan), and the allegory is clear from the first scene. With that said, you don’t have to have a political interest to enjoy Under the Shadow’s sublime ghost story. This is an excellent example of a horror movie with a purpose, but it doesn’t skimp out on the scares.
Director Babak Anvari told Den of Geek that the inspiration for Under the Shadow came from his childhood.
“Basically, it was just tapping into childhood memories,” he said. “I was born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and by the time the war ended, I was more or less the same age as the child in the film, so a lot of the things that inspired the story are chats I had with my parents and stories I heard from relatives and family friends, and obviously I took inspiration from them. Even the characters in the film are sort of inspired by people I’ve met in my life when I was growing up in Iran.”
Best for: Ghost story fans who don’t mind subtitles (and anyone with an interest in Iranian social politics, although that certainly isn’t necessary to enjoy the scares).
David Lynch’s first major film is a groundbreaking work of surrealism, but we almost didn’t include it on this list.
It’s certainly not a traditional horror film in any sense; it’s shot entirely in black and white, the dialogue seems almost random, and there’s no clear plot. Go in with an open mind, and you’ll leave horrified. Just don’t try to dig too deeply into the strange imagery—this is pure surrealism, designed to make you feel like you’re in a waking nightmare.
Lynch says that a sentence from the Bible helped him complete Eraserhead, although in typical Lynchian fashion, he says that he’ll never reveal what the actual sentence was.
“Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn’t know what it meant,” Lynch wrote in his book, Catching the Big Fish. “I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn’t know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle.
“So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled the vision for me, 100 percent.”
Best for: Arthouse horror fans who aren’t immediately put off by the phrase “arthouse horror.”
44. Ginger Snaps
Two sisters encounter a werewolf. Predictably, there’s a bite; then things get fun.
This Canadian film brilliantly uses lycanthropy (which means “werewolf stuff,” if you’re not big on your occult terminology) as a metaphor for puberty. The movie has real heart, and you’ll actually care about the fate of the characters, which makes the brutally violent scenes even more terrifying.
Part of the reason that the film works is the chemistry between its two stars, Keri Allan and Emily Perkins.
“The two of us go back a long way,” Allan said of her relationship with her co-star in an interview with Sci-Fi Online. “We went to the same private school, same elementary school, the same pre-school, and we were born in the same hospital.”
That’s one way to build chemistry. Allan went on to describe Perkins as her “bonded sister,” and the earnestness of their relationship certainly comes through on screen.
Best for: Fans of werewolves looking for something different (or anyone who thinks that puberty is its own horror story).
43. Fright Night (1985)
It’s difficult to make a movie that’s both funny and scary. This cult classic accomplishes that feat thanks to a charismatic cast and fantastic practical effects; it’s one of the most underrated horror films of the ’80s, and also one of the most rewatchable movies on this list.
Director Tom Holland told TV Store Online that the plot of the film was inspired by the Aesop fairy tale The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
“I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland said. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole boy-who-cried-wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone.”
Fright Night was remade in 2011, and that version is worth a watch, too, but the 1985 original is the true classic.
Best for: Fans of vampires—the real ones, not the sparkly ones.
42. The Sixth Sense
If you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense, watch it right now without researching it. You only get one chance to experience M. Night Shyamalan’s one decent film (okay, Unbreakable was alright, but it was hardly a masterpiece).
It was a breakout role for Haley Joel Osment, and it’s one of the best Bruce Willis movies outside of Die Hard. What more do you need?
The film might not have worked if Osment hadn’t landed the part, but after his audition, Shyamalan was impressed by the boy’s work ethic (Osment read the entire screenplay twice before auditioning). Shyamalan was particularly impressed by the fact that Osment wore a tie, and the director reportedly told his casting director that he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to make The Sixth Sense if Osment didn’t get the part.
Best for: Fans of psychological horror movies with a supernatural element (and Bruce Willis).
Filmmakers sometimes use the whole “found footage” gimmick as a way to get around technical limitations. Don’t have a great camera? No special effects budget? Grab your mom’s camcorder and make a found footage flick!
Creep is different. It follows a filmmaker who takes an odd job to make ends meet, and the plot simply wouldn’t work with a different structure. The story quickly takes focus, and as the creepy details start to add up, the film becomes one of the most disturbing—and, at times, hilarious—modern horror flicks.
According to actor Mark Duplass (who played the “creep” referenced in the movie’s title), the idea for the film came from a conversation he’d had with his co-star/director Patrick Brice.
“We are obsessed with odd human behavior and strange human beings,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “We’re big people-watchers, and we started talking about how much we loved My Dinner with Andre, and strange human dynamics, and then we started talking about making films which were a two-hander together. We were led to this concept of a Craigslist adventure gone awry.”
Rather than writing the film, they decided to go to a cabin and improvise the plot. They brought a rough cut of the film to producer Jason Blum, best known for his work on Paranormal Activity and Get Out; Blum helped them turn it into what he calls a “found footage movie that doesn’t suck.” That’s a pretty apt description.
Best for: Anyone who wants to see what an honest-to-goodness great “found-footage” film looks like.
40. The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly is one of Jeff Goldblum’s best performances, and it’s a touchpoint for the body-horror subgenre. Without giving too much away, it involves a fly.
Jokes aside, The Fly has tremendous special effects, but it really works because Goldblum portrays an earnest, likable protagonist. When everything starts going wrong, it’s easy to empathize with him, which makes the inevitable horror of the experiment-gone-wrong even more distressing.
The “monster’s” makeup reportedly took over five hours to apply, and per the film’s credits, special effects legend Chris Walas is responsible for the fly’s design. At an early screening of The Fly, audiences applauded loudly when Walas’ name appeared onscreen, prompting producer Stuart Cornfeld to predict that Walas would earn an Oscar for his work. Walas later picked up the 1987 Best Makeup Oscar.
Best for: Body-horror aficionados. It’s Cronenberg at his peak, and it’s every bit as disturbing as it was when it was released more than 30 years ago.
39. The Omen (1976)
What’s creepier than a weird little kid named Damien? Not much, as it turns out. The Omen didn’t really break new ground, and it’s lost some of its power over the years, but it still has some of the most haunting scenes ever put to film.
It’s helped by magnificent performances by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, who play a couple desperately seeking answers for their adopted son’s strange behavior. No, The Omen isn’t high art, but it’s creepy as hell.
That also holds true for the film’s troubled production. During filming, screenwriter David Seltzer and executive producer Mace Neufeld both boarded planes that were struck by lightning—yes, separate planes (neither were hurt). Grimmer was the fate of special effects artist John Richardson; a passenger in his car perished in an automobile accident after the film was completed. Prior to the accident, Richardson reportedly recalled seeing a road sign to a nearby Dutch town that read “Ommen: 6:66 km.”
Best for: Anyone who gets the jeebies when little kids start acting strangely.
Borrowing from other “creepy kid” films like The Omen, Hereditary’s first act depicts a family dealing with the death of a grandmother. It focuses on a young girl whose bizarre habits contribute to the sinister atmosphere.
Then the movie veers into unpredictable territory. It’s ambitious, cruel, and visually disturbing—certainly not for the faint of heart—with every revelation carrying serious weight. This is a groundbreaking debut for director Ari Aster, and it’s the kind of film that leaves you absolutely shaken, simply because it doesn’t offer simple answers.
“It preys on the fears that don’t really have a remedy,” Aster told Variety. “What do you do with a fear of death? What do you do with the suspicion that you don’t really know the people you’re closest to? What do you do with fear of abandonment? The fear of somebody close to you changing? The film is really feeding on those fears.”
Best for: Anyone with a strong stomach who wants something more ambitious than a typical demon-ghost thriller.
37. The House of the Devil
The House of the Devil is a love letter to ’70s horror, but while it draws from earlier films, it’s certainly not a tired retread. It’s a slow burn, and director Ti West effectively builds a sense of dread without focusing on jump scares and gore.
Excellent performances by Jocelin Donahue and Tom Noonan make the slower scenes tolerable, and when the film finally picks up the pace, it’s both terrifying and captivating.
If you dig classic horror, you’ll appreciate the retro look, courtesy of the setting and West’s use of 16mm film. The director also added a title card to the beginning of the film indicating that it was based on “true events” to try to put the audience in the mindset of a ’70s theatergoer.
“A huge tonal part of the film is realism, and almost a real-time element,” West told Filmmaker Magazine. “So when it says ‘based on true events,’ the cultural event was happening in this time period, and a lot of the film is portrayed in a very realistic, mundane way, so it helped accent that. It really worked like a primer for the film: It put you in a different state of mind.”
The film, however, isn’t based on true events. Be sure to tell yourself that (repeatedly) after the credits roll.
Best for: Viewers who enjoy realistic plots and who can appreciate a good throwback slasher.
36. Return of the Living Dead
When you picture zombies, you probably picture a horde of the undead screaming for “braaaiiins.” You’ve got Return of the Living Dead to thank for that image. It was the first film to feature zombies seeking brains, and it deserves its cult classic status for that reason alone.
However, this horror comedy is notable for other reasons. It’s one of the first films with “smart” zombies, it’s extraordinarily well written, and upon its release, it was hailed by film critics as a minor triumph. Even Roger Ebert approved.
And while nobody would call Return of the Living Dead realistic, the “braaaiiins” part was real—sort of. On the film’s DVD commentary track, director/writer Dan O’Bannon revealed that some of the zombie extras eat real calf brains on screen. O’Bannon says he paid them extra for performing the gross task, and to show them that it was safe, he ate some of the brains himself. Hey, if you’re going to direct a masterpiece, you can’t ask someone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.
Today, it’s overshadowed by flashier zombie flicks, but Return of the Living Dead has a certain charm that makes it one of the best horror films of its era.
Best for: New zombie-movie fans who’ve already seen Night of the Living Dead and other genre classics.
35. It (2017)
The most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel, 2017’s It is a coming-of-age movie with malevolent clowns. Really, what more do you need?
It’s much better than the 1990 miniseries (also available on Amazon) thanks to better acting, better special effects, and a much more tolerable runtime. It’s currently the most commercially successful R-rated horror movie of all time, and it’s one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever released (which is somewhat faint praise, given that films like Dreamcatcher exist).
Prior to the movie’s release, a prankster tied red balloons to sewer grates around the town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, prompting widespread media coverage (you’ll get the prank if you’ve seen the movie—or the trailer, for that matter).
Public officials responded to the prankster on social media.
“We give points for creativity,” the Lititz Police Department’s post read. “However, we want the local prankster to know that we were completely terrified as we removed these balloons from the grates and we respectfully request they do not do that again.”
Best for: Coulrophobics (that’s people with a fear of clowns, in case you’re not up on your Latin prefixes).
34. Poltergeist (1982)
The only PG-rated film on this list, Poltergeist was produced by Steven Spielberg, and it might be the ultimate haunted house flick. Craig T. Nelson stars as a hapless father who discovers that his home might be haunted (spoiler alert: It is).
While it’s not excessively violent, the imagery is probably too powerful for younger children, even today, which might be a testament to the film’s staying power.
Of course, some of the film’s special effects couldn’t really be recreated today. In one notable sequence, one of the protagonists comes face-to-face with human skeletons. As it turns out, those skeletons were real.
You have to understand that this sequence took probably four or five days to shoot,” actor JoBeth Williams said in a TV Land interview. “So I was in mud and goop all day every day for like four or five days with skeletons all around me [as I was] screaming.”
“In my innocence and naiveté, I assumed that these were not real skeletons. I assumed that they were prop skeletons made out of plastic or rubber. I found out—as did the whole crew—that they were using real skeletons because it’s far too expensive to make fake skeletons out of rubber. And I think everybody got real creeped out by the idea of that.”
Best for: People looking for the closest thing to a family-friendly horror flick on this list. Again, though, it’s inappropriate for younger children.
Clive Barker’s nightmarish tale of a mysterious puzzle box launched a massive number of sequels (with diminishing returns) and introduced Pinhead, one of the most instantly recognizable characters in horror. It doesn’t quite hold up; when released in 1987, it seemed excessively violent and demented, but it’s almost tame by modern standards.
Still, the original Hellraiser draws its horror from its human characters, not its demons, and it remains pretty effective. It might not have worked if Barker hadn’t gone to great lengths to ensure that the film was properly cast.
“I’m not just taking the 12 most beautiful youths in California and murdering them,” Barker said in a 1987 interview with The Washington Post. “I’ve got real actors, real performers—and then I’m murdering them.”
The film marked a turning point for Barker, who had survived on food stamps five years prior to its production. Hellraiser completely recouped its costs of production three days after its release and established its director as a major name in horror.
Best for: Anyone who doesn’t mind a film with absolutely despicable characters.
32. Dawn of the Dead (1979)
The sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead arguably has better ideas. It’s one of director George Romero’s better movies, and it manages to provide a subtle critique of consumerism while still showing zombies ripping people apart.
While its predecessor invented the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead broke the basic rules and set the stage for other zombie movies with braaaiiins.
“When I read the script, the word ‘zombie’ was only in it once,” special effects artist Tom Savini said of the film. “I think George was on to something there. These aren’t zombies; they’re dead persons. I figure they’ve been dead for about three days at the most, and I want them to look that way.”
To that end, Savini used a great deal of gray makeup—a decision he later regretted, since many of the zombies looked blue on film. Even so, Dawn of the Dead holds up, and the practical effects are top notch.
Best for: Zombie fans who’ve already watched Night of the Living Dead and don’t mind ghouls in cheesy blue makeup.
31. The Babadook
A widowed mother and her troubled son deal with a malevolent supernatural entity. We know, we know—you’ve heard that story before, right?
The Babadook is a love-it-or-hate-it thriller that has some profound things to say about the difficulties of parenthood, but fortunately, it’s also packed with great scares and disturbing moments. The villain’s particularly frightening, but if you’re looking forward to a sequel, pump your brakes; director Jennifer Kent says that’s not happening.
“The good news is, I had the foresight to make sure that my producer and I owned the rights to any sequels,” she said in an interview with IGN. “The reason for that is I will never allow any sequel to be made because it’s not that kind of film. I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.”
Best for: Viewers who can appreciate a slow-burn horror movie with (purposely) frustrating characters.
Directed by John Carpenter and based on a story by Stephen King, Christine looks like the perfect horror movie on paper…until you realize that it’s about a crazed, love-sick car that starts attacking people.
Okay, it’s not exactly The Shining, but Christine is dumb enough to work. It features a stellar soundtrack, performed by Carpenter, and some surprisingly good practical effects.
We might never have seen Christine if Carpenter’s previous film, The Thing, wasn’t such an enormous flop. He’s characterized the former film as the only film he ever did “because [it was a] job,” noting that all of his other films are “personal projects.” Even so, he told The A.V. Club that he loved making the movie, even if he had some issues with the way it was promoted.
“I remember looking at the Christine poster on Hollywood Boulevard,” Carpenter said. “I remember how awful I felt, because the poster repeated my name too many times. It was like eight times. I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. I seem like an idiot.’ I started staking pseudonyms rather than have my name everywhere. One time or two times is fine. But that’s enough. Stop.”
Best for: People who saw the cover and thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty attractive car.”
29. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Donald Sutherland stars in this remake of a 1956 alien invasion movie. It’s better than the original in just about every way, and far more frightening for modern viewers. The paranoia and mystery surrounding the alien menace makes this more than just a great science fiction movie; it’s a classic horror film and a clear influence on later sci-fi horror works like The Thing.
Plus, Donald Sutherland’s in it. Did we mention that?
Sound designer Ben Burtt deserves some of the credit for the film’s creepy atmosphere. To create the sounds of the alien pods, he drew inspiration from an extremely personal source.
“We went to listen to a sonogram of the child, my daughter Alice, who’s now grown up and has her own child,” Burtt told indieLondon. “It was this great, throbbing sound, and at that time I was looking for the sound of an alien pod germinating and it sounded exactly like the alien pod germinating, so I thought why not? But it did work, because it was a heartbeat and it was something from the womb and it was about these alien characters coming alive and being born, so there was probably some connection there that worked emotionally since we all were in the womb at one time.”
Best for: Reliving your alien abduction nightmares.
28. Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th helped to launch a whole sub-genre of rip-off slasher flicks. Because it established a really successful formula—masked maniac gradually picks off a group of oblivious teens—it’s not quite as powerful as it was when it was released. Still, anyone who calls themselves a horror fan has to see the original at least once.
Per Mental Floss, it was inspired by another film on this list, John Carpenter’s Halloween. Director Sean Cunningham actually produced a trailer for Friday the 13th before the movie had secured financing in an effort to drum up interest; the gamble worked.
“Everybody wanted this film,” he said. That might not have been the case if the slasher had gone by its original title: Long Night at Camp Blood. Eek.
Best for: Terrifying kids who are headed off to summer camp, particularly if they’re headed out to Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in New Jersey—the real-life camp where the movie was filmed. Yes, it’s still in use today.
“In 1979, there was also a small film shot there,” the camp’s website reads. “You might have heard of it.”
Unfortunately, the camp isn’t open to the public, since “horror films don’t really fit well with the program of a Boy Scout camp.” Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco occasionally offers tours via a ticket lottery.
27. Sleepaway Camp
For most of its runtime, this 1983 film provides fairly standard camp horror—literally, since it takes place at a summer camp—but with tremendously disturbing special effects that elevate it over other ’80s slashers.
By today’s standards, it has some problematic themes, but viewers who can forgive its missteps will enjoy a surprisingly tight mystery with several unforgettable moments. Writer/director Robert Hiltzik told Den of Geek that he decided to film the movie in a camp he’d attended, reasoning that he could produce the movie on a fairly tight budget.
“The cast, the crew—we were family for the five weeks we were shooting,” he said. “It was a different kind of family because you had very young kids there and I didn’t have a lot of parents around, which surprised me a lot.”
“The parents would basically allow me to care for their kids because they left. It’s not like they were on the sidelines, you know, like a little league game where you have the little league parents. They pretty much gave me their kids and didn’t interfere. We were all in it together and we were in one location so for five weeks it was a terrific experience.”
Best for: Fans of ’80s horror movies who think they’ve seen everything else on this list.
26. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s masterpiece introduced Freddy Krueger, a demon who stalks his victims in their dreams. In the first film, Krueger is a brooding, menacing figure of pure evil—not a goofy ghoul making corny puns (we’re looking at you, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4).
This also stars a young Johnny Depp in his first role. Depp later parodied his own heartthrob status in a brief cameo in the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street movie, but by that time, Freddy Krueger wasn’t very scary anymore.
Craven was reportedly inspired to make the film after reading about South Asian refugees who reported severe nightmares after settling in the United States. A number of those refugees died suddenly in their sleep, prompting an investigation from the CDC. Contemporary medical reports referred to the strange phenomena as “nightmare death syndrome,” reasoning that the deaths resulted from the “terror induced by a nightmare.”
Best for: Horror fans who have somehow missed the original.
25. An American Werewolf in London
Two friends go backpacking in Northern England when they hear a strange wolf in the distance. Then…well, read the title of the movie.
Directed by John Landis, this has legitimately terrifying horror scenes and legitimately funny comedy, along with a few disturbing concepts and some of the best special practical effects ever put to film.
On the film’s DVD, Landis says that he came up with the basic concept for An American Werewolf in London while working on the 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes. He found a group of locals performing rituals on a corpse so that he wouldn’t “rise from the grave,” and realized that the concept disturbed him; he decided to write a movie about a man going through the same type of experience.
Best for: Fans of horror comedy. If you skip this film, at least watch the werewolf transformation scene.
24. The Ring
Naomi Watts stars as a journalist investigating a strange VHS tape. According to an urban legend, the tape causes the death of the viewer—and no, it’s not Carrot Top’s Chairman of the Board.
Look, The Ring has a tremendous plot, and the concept behind the tape is enough to make you swear off VHS forever (if you hadn’t already), but we’d like to point out a horrifying fact: We actually included a link to the Carrot Top movie in the previous paragraph. Don’t click it—some cursed videos can’t be unwatched.
The Ring is based on the Japanese film Ringu, which is based on a novel of the same name.
“I think it’s inevitable that I get bashed a bit by those who loved the [original Japanese film],” director Gore Verbinski said of The Ring. “There is a proprietary aspect to films that obtain a cult status. As a fan, you want to own it. There is a lot of pride and it’s what makes the whole phenomenon unique.”
“I believe that even if [Ringu director Hideo Nakata] directed this film himself, there would be those who feel that it is the ‘Hollywood version.’ The first one is always going to be the original and criticism from those fans is inevitable …. I hope that after the initial wave, even the hard-core fans will find the film compelling.”
Best for: People who get seriously creeped out when browsing the supernatural section of Snopes.com.
23. The Blair Witch Project
This is really where the dubious “found footage” genre took off, and for that, we’re not sure whether we should’ve ranked The Blair Witch Project higher or lower, but here it is.
It completely changed how movies are filmed and marketed, but if the film sucked, that wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. The Blair Witch Project is well done with mysterious lore, decent acting, and a slow, meticulous plot that’s light on effects but big on scares.
“I grew up around the woods and swamps of Florida,” co-director Daniel Myrick told The Guardian. “For a long time, I had this idea of seeing a stick figure hanging from a tree and it creeped the hell out of me. Ed Sánchez, a friend from university who ended up co-directing, helped me work this into a 35-page treatment about three students who go missing after heading out into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about a legendary witch.”
“The idea was that this film was put together later, using the footage they shot. In the late 90s, with digital coming into its own, it was only a matter of time before someone made this kind of first-person movie.”
The creators went all out to preserve the illusion that the story was real. Prior to the film’s release, its actors’ IMDB pages listed them as deceased, and actor Joshua Leonard claims that his parents started to receive condolence calls.
“There are people who still don’t believe it’s fiction,” Leonard said. “I sometimes think [film studio] Artisan would have been happier if we had actually been dead.”
Best for: Viewers who want a subtle psychological horror film that was, at one point, unlike anything else.
22. The Evil Dead
Directed by Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead shouldn’t have worked. It was a low-budget film with an insanely over-the-top script and more gore than you can shake a boomstick at, and actor Bruce Campbell’s hammy acting puts the film squarely in the “camp” category. After a positive review from Stephen King, however, The Evil Dead took off, launching a huge media franchise (along with Campbell’s impressive career as a B-movie actor).
According to Campbell’s book If Chins Could Kill, the film’s production was troubled, since nobody on set really knew how to make a movie. The crew even got lost in the woods while trying to find the cabin, and several crew members were injured during filming. Raimi would often come up with ideas for scenes on the spot, which led to some of the film’s more ridiculous sequences.
But while The Evil Dead is ridiculous to the point of absurdity, it’s also a ton of fun. Raimi’s inventive with the scares, and when the plot fails to make sense, the over-the-top practical effects save the day.
Best for: Fans of ridiculous ’80s horror movies who don’t mind tons of violence and occult symbolism.
21. Evil Dead 2
The sequel to The Evil Dead wasn’t as demented, but it embraced the ridiculousness of its plot. Bruce Campbell hams it up, using his excellent skills as a physical actor to deliver a truly memorable performance. Today, he’s rightfully treated as horror-flick royalty, and The Evil Dead 2 shows why.
“Evil Dead 2 is my personal favorite,” Campbell told Digital Spy in 2013. “I know that Dino De Laurentiis, our producer on the second one, he didn’t like the idea that there was about half an hour of just one guy alone in a cabin. He was really nervous about that, but to me, it’s my favorite part of the movie.”
“I’m just glad that we were able to pull off a lot of weird stuff. We moved into a different territory, there’s more humor in that one. Evil Dead II is actually much closer to our collective sensibilities; me, Sam and producer Rob Tapert.”
Best for: Anyone who watched the first Evil Dead film without turning off the TV in disgust. The third film, Army of Darkness, is also worth a watch, although it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the first two cult classics.
Both underrated and ahead of its time, Candyman is a chilling supernatural slasher that actually tackles tough themes. It’s a mystery film at heart, with a tight script based on horror maestro Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden. The Philip Glass soundtrack is the (candy) icing on the (candy) cake.
When the movie was released, it was controversial, as it features a black antagonist. Some critics felt that the character played into racist stereotypes; however, the film was well received by black audiences.
“I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the producers were so worried, and what they said to me when they’d read the script was ‘Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just good fun,'” recalled director Bernard Rose to The Chicago Tribune. “Their argument was ‘Why shouldn’t a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn’t a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lector? If you’re saying that they can’t be, it’s really perverse. This is a horror movie.”
Best for: Slasher fans who like a little bit of nuance to their on-screen butchery.
Creepshow is an anthology film, meaning it contains several horror stories, rather than one overarching plot.
By nature, anthology horror movies are pretty hit-and-miss. That’s not the case here; writer Stephen King worked with legendary director George Romero (of Night of the Living Dead fame) to bring several of King’s best short stories to the screen. The result: Decent special effects, great writing, and (intentional) B-movie production create the cinematic equivalent of a trashy carnival ride. This isn’t high art, but it’s everything that’s great about horror.
“The appeal [of Creepshow] was that I grew up with EC Comics,” Romero told SciFiNow in 2009. “In the days before the Comics Code, when I was just a kid, there was this whole series that EC released—Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror and all of that stuff – and I loved it all. Sure, they were horror stories but they were also morality tales.”
“So when we did Creepshow, which Stephen King modeled after these great old comic books, the bottom line was that the bad guys always got their comeuppance, but he also peppered the script with some social commentary. It was a dream project.”
Best for: Viewers who want a popcorn movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
By 1996, slasher films had plateaued in a big way. To audiences, nothing was particularly shocking about characters like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers; they behaved in predictable ways, slicing through the same basic cast of idiotic teenagers in every single film.
Scream reinvented slashers by acknowledging the formula. It’s a meta-commentary on slashers, but it’s also a really, really good one.
Still, it was similar enough to other slashers that director Wes Craven was initially uninterested in it. He eventually changed his mind after learning that Drew Barrymore was involved; he reasoned that her star power could help to make it a success.
Craven also included a dig at some of his contemporaries in the first scene; Barrymore’s character remarks about the poor quality of the sequels to Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven, of course, directed the first film, but sold the rights to the sequels.
Best for: Viewers looking for something a little smarter than a by-the-numbers slasher. The first Scream sequel is also worth a watch.
17. The Cabin in the Woods
This film is a tribute to the horror genre as a whole, but it’s also a fine example of a modern thriller with well-formed ideas. The plot should keep audiences guessing, and while there’s plenty of writer Joss Whedon’s humor, it’s a horror film at its heart.
Cabin in the Woods sets its town wonderfully in its first scene, where a jump scare title card comes right after an apparently innocuous line.
“We played a lot with choices for that, trying to decide what line was the funniest for the title smash,” director Drew Goddard told Slash Film. “There was one where Richard Jenkins says ‘I’m going to pick up some power drills’ and Bradley [Whitford] responds to him as the title hits. There’s another version where Richard is playing with his coffee and says ‘I’m having coffee issues,’ and it went there. We played with where the title would smash in. I loved it; that sets the tone immediately. It’s not just funny, it tells the audience exactly what kind of movie it is.”
Best for: Horror fans looking for a clever take on the genre. Be prepared to watch it a few times; the numerous allusions to other horror films are half the fun.
16. Get Out
Jordan Peele is one of the funniest men alive, and it just so happens that he also made the greatest thriller this side of Hitchcock. Peele’s directorial debut is a haunting, nuanced take on American race relations that also packs some serious scares. Even arthouse critics loved it, but don’t let that scare you off.
“I love making horror, and I call these projects ‘social thrillers,’ Peele told Esquire. “I actually have my next four projects in mind. Any horror that works for me has, one some level, a social connotation. In some way, they represent a very real, grounded horror. Even if it’s not directly clear, like Get Out, horror movies are also great when there’s a vague allegory.”
Best for: Fans who can appreciate a perfectly directed horror movie that works on multiple levels. If you can’t stand films with social commentary, however, you’ll probably want to skip this one (also, you might not actually like movies).
15. The Witch
Wouldst thou like to live…deliciously?
This “New England folktale” chronicles the downfall of a Puritan family homesteading in the 17th-century American wilderness. The attention to historical detail is insane. The language is straight out of a Jonathan Edwards sermon, and they even recreate the accent of early America.
But the real star here is the goat. Give Black Philip an Oscar, already.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers said that he chose to set The Witch in a Puritanical community to try to make witches frightening again.
“[A modern] ‘witch’ is a silly plastic Halloween decoration,” the director told The Verge. “It doesn’t mean much. It isn’t scary today. But in the early modern period, witches were such terrifying figures that women were being murdered over accusations of being witches, on a grand scale in Europe, and a pretty [large] one here.”
“So I thought, ‘What the hell was going on? What was that?’ When I discovered what the idea of the evil witch was—that the fairy tale world and the real world were the same thing in the early modern period; people really thought these women were fairy tale ogresses, and they needed to be exterminated—I thought, ‘Well, hell, we’ve got to get back to this time if we’re going to believe in a witch. We have to be in their minds, and this has to be a Puritan’s nightmare. It’s an inherited nightmare.'”
Best for: Horror fans who insist on historical accuracy. If you’re creeped out by the occult and you don’t mind authentic accents, get ready to live deliciously for 90 minutes or so.
14. Let Me In
Let Me In is a remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In. If you don’t mind subtitles, the original film is arguably superior, but the American film stands on its own as a thrilling entry in the vampire genre.
It presents a new take on vampires, but not in the sense of something like Twilight—the vamp in Let Me In is horrifying, violent, and unsettling. Granted, you’ll empathize with her throughout the film, but that’s partly what makes the unconventional plot so disturbing. In a sense, it’s a story of kids dealing with bullies, but, uh, with vampires.
“I was bullied,” director Matt Reeves told Den of Geek regarding the film’s appeal, “and I grew up at that time, and my parents went through a very painful divorce. And I identified with that sense of being incredibly confused and the sense of humiliation and the sense of isolation. There’s tremendous shame with being bullied.”
Reeves’ two young leads certainly share credit for the film’s success, and their earnest performances help to make this one of the greatest vampire films of any era.
Best for: Vampire fans who aren’t too bloodthirsty to appreciate a good drama.
13. The Birds
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this film imagines a world in which everyone forgets that they have birdseed in their pockets.
Well, sort of. The Birds pioneered green-screen special effects, but it’s Hitchcock’s eye for suspense that makes this an undeniable classic. You’ll never look at pigeons the same way again.
Neither will the film’s star, Tippi Hedren. In 2006, decades after The Birds had changed cinema, Hedren was filming a television show when a gallon of water hit her in the head, leading to a lawsuit that eventually culminated with a $1.5 million judgment. Per court documents, the water was able to accumulate “possibly because a bird’s nest was blocking a condensation tube in the air conditioning system.”
Apparently, birds hold grudges.
Best for: Classic film fans will have the most fun, but pretty much anyone can enjoy it, provided that they’re not chicken (Get it? A chicken is a well-known type of bird).
12. The Silence of the Lambs
Based on a Thomas Harris novel of the same name, The Silence of the Lambs could be classified as a thriller rather than a horror movie, but that’s true for many of the films on this list. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of serial killer Hannibal Lecter is iconic, and influenced plenty of the other performances we’ve discussed.
Lead actor Jodie Foster is no slouch; she plays FBI agent Clarice Starling, who’s tasked with tracking down a deranged psychopath with Lecter’s help. The Silence of the Lambs won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Picture, and it’s second only to Psycho in the serial killer subgenre.
That might not have been the case if the filmmakers had stuck closely to the book’s description of Lecter; he was supposed to be a Lithuanian with six fingers and red eyes. Screenwriter Ted Tally changed those characteristics, writing the part with Hopkins in mind.
“I always admired him as an actor,” Tally said of Hopkins in an interview with Rolling Stone. “His speech is so theatrical. I couldn’t think of an American actor who could really do it without us seeing quotation marks around everything he said. There was some talk of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, De Niro, but I just thought, Anthony Hopkins is sexy in the way that the character is weirdly sexual. And he’s very, very smart. You can’t fake that smartness on a big screen.”
Best for: Amateur criminologists who want to get inside the head of a sociopath.
For the purposes of this list, we avoided horror films from the 1950s and earlier, since they’re a hard sell for modern audiences. They’re also…well, not very scary.
That said, Nosferatu, a retelling of the Dracula story, still has some of the most horrifying imagery ever put on film. It’s the blueprint for modern horror, and Max Schreck’s performance as Nosferatu remains as haunting as ever. It’s also where the concept of vampires melting in the sunlight comes from—while earlier works of vampire fiction had portrayed the undead as weakened by sunlight, Nosferatu invented the whole “light turns them to dust” thing.
After the film’s release, Nosferatu’s producers immediately faced a lawsuit from Bram Stoker’s widow, who successfully argued that the film plagiarized Dracula. The judge ordered all copies of the film destroyed, but fortunately, several survived the purge.
It’s a silent film, and some viewers might not have the patience required to appreciate it, but that’s their loss. Nosferatu is a classic by every definition.
Best for: Horror fans who want to see where the genre really got started.
Sigourney Weaver stars in this claustrophobic space thriller directed by Ridley Scott. Unlike other science fiction horror films, it takes place in a realistically boring universe; Weaver’s character is on a deep-space commercial starship crewed by blue-collar workers who seem more like miners than space cadets. Weaver instantly became an iconic female hero in a genre dominated by male protagonists.
Scott’s original plan was to hire a male actor to play Ripley. That changed when the studio got involved; the film’s producers insisted that he re-write the role for Weaver.
“I thought, fine. It wasn’t a big deal to me,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I never thought once about it. I never had a problem. I thought they were taking the mickey out of me by calling her ‘Ripley.'”
As the film progresses, Scott keeps ratcheting up the tension, effectively using the ship’s dark corners to hide the film’s monstrous antagonist, but Weaver’s strong performance helps to establish it as a classic.
Alien was, of course, followed by the equally great Aliens, which didn’t make this list because it’s more of an action-adventure war film than a horror movie. Still, you should see both—heck, even Alien 3 is worth a watch.
Best for: Sci-fi horror fans. If you’ve already seen it a dozen times, the nearly three-hour-long director’s cut is a real treat for hardcore fans.
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director George Romero lost the rights to this cult classic due to a clerical error, so it’s in the public domain. The film’s distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, was supposed to place a copyright indication on the prints; according to U.S. law, copyrighted works had to present the indication on physical prints in order to maintain the copyright.
By neglecting to include the indication, the Walter Reade Organization effectively surrendered the film to the public, which also allowed other films to use the basic elements of Night of the Living Dead—including its iconic ghouls—without crediting Romero or anyone else involved with the film.
Because of that, you can find it online for free. Don’t go that route, though—the original soundtrack is part of the allure, and you can only get that from one of the official releases. Our pick is the Criterion Collection version, which presents the granddaddy of the zombie genre in all its original glory.
This was the first modern zombie flick, and it introduced many of the genre’s rules (for instance, the idea that zombies move slow and want to consume human flesh). Without this, there’d be no The Walking Dead, but don’t hold that against it.
Best for: Zombie fans who want to see where the genre actually got started.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
For a long time, critics dismissed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a trashy, ultra-violent bit of exploitation. By modern standards, though, the film is pretty tame—at least in terms of what you see on screen.
So why is this so close to the top of our list? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre creates a sense of impending doom that’s unlike any other slasher flick. It’s sadistic, cruel, and hopeless from the first scene, and while it’s not exactly subtle, that’s the point. Evil doesn’t hide in the shadows; it comes right at you (and sometimes, it has a chainsaw).
Director and co-writer Tobe Hooper found inspiration for the film while doing some Christmas shopping.
“There were these big Christmas crowds, I was frustrated, and I found myself near a display rack of chainsaws. I just kind of zoned in on it,” Hooper told Texas Monthly in 2004. “I did a rack focus to the saws, and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly.’ I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like about 30 seconds.”
Best for: People who don’t mind a slasher movie that’s utterly depraved.
7. Halloween (1978)
The great John Carpenter scored his first mainstream hit with Halloween, and he popularized the slasher genre in the process.
Brilliant direction and a groundbreaking performance by Jamie Lee Curtis make this one of the best films of the 1970s. It’s full of jump scares, but it basically invented them; Carpenter stages every shot to surprise and terrify his audience. He also created one of the greatest villains in cinema in Michael Myers, whose mask, incidentally, is cast from the face of William Shatner.
“Somehow, the producer, or the director, or somebody picked up a mask, a death mask of me that had been made on Star Trek, where they would use the mask for appliances—instead of using my face, they’d use the mask to make sure everything fit,” Shatner said in 2013.
“I heard about it, and the next Halloween, with my grandkids—they went out trick-or-treating, and I went with them. I was wearing the mask. They would go and say, ‘trick or treat,’ and they’d usually get candy. But one time, this guy goes, ‘Get out of here.’ I went up to the front door and knocked on the door, the guy answers, and I leered at him with the mask. And then I yanked it off, and I scared him. He screamed, shut the door.”
You heard it here first: William Shatner’s actual face is somehow more disturbing than the Michael Myers mask.
Best for: Horror lovers who don’t mind jump scares. Every slasher fan should see this at least once.
6. Psycho (1960)
Okay, we know we said that we wouldn’t have any spoilers, but Psycho’s imagery is so iconic that it’s hard not to shower in a couple of puns. If we really have to pull back the curtain without stabbing at a few turns-of-phrase, we’ll just say this: Alfred Hitchcock’s total mastery of the art of suspense absolutely holds up.
Psycho remains one of the greatest thrillers ever made, and it’s just as affecting today as it was in 1960. At the time, it was highly controversial thanks to its infamous shower scene (that scene, by the way, made Psycho the first major film to show a toilet flushing—but that’s not what was especially controversial about it).
The controversy followed Hitchcock for the rest of his career. Years later, he was preparing to film a scene in Disneyland when he received word that his permission had been revoked; Walt Disney didn’t want the director who made “that disgusting movie” anywhere near his Magical Kingdom.
Today, the only misstep is a misguided sequence that seems somewhat prejudiced by today’s standards. Otherwise, this film could come out in 2018 and still enthrall audiences.
Best for: Fans of thrillers and whodunits. Psycho is a mystery film at heart, perfectly executed with Hitchcock’s meticulous touch.
5. Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski’s greatest thriller helped to show that horror movies could be artistic triumphs. Mia Farrow stars as the titular character (well, one of them—she’s Rosemary), and as with Polanski’s other horror films, the protagonist’s constantly changing mental state drive the plot in unexpected directions. It’s dark, evil, and depressing, so naturally, it’s frequently cited as one of the greatest films of the 20th century.
It was embattled director Polanski’s U.S. debut, but the real-life horror was soon to come. About a year after the film debuted, Charlie Manson’s gang of murderous hippies broke into Polanski’s home and took the life of his wife, Sharon Tate, as well as their unborn child. The story sparked a rumor that the film itself was cursed.
Best for: People who think that parenthood is at least a little bit creepy.
4. It Follows
In terms of direction, It Follows isn’t exactly original, but that’s intentional. It’s a clear homage to the works of John Carpenter, right down to the synth-driven soundtrack. That’s not a bad thing, as it turns out; director David Robert Mitchell has plenty of fresh ideas, and the main villain’s concept is good enough to set up plenty of horrifying scenes.
While It Follows isn’t completely perfect, it’s the strongest film from the recent horror renaissance, and its best moments shine as brightly as anything else on this list. New York Times film reviewer Stephen Holden summed up the film’s greatest strength, which is its willingness to leave mysteries mysterious.
“It Follows abides by a principle that few horror movies have the courage to embrace,” Holden wrote. “The unknown is the unknown.”
Best for: Anyone who wants to see the best John Carpenter film that isn’t actually directed by John Carpenter.
3. The Exorcist
We’ll go ahead and reveal one key plot point: The Exorcist is about an exorcism. If you’re freaked out by demons and possession, you probably won’t be able to sleep for a week. If you’re not particularly worried about the occult…well, you’ll still love the creepy theme song.
The Exorcist became a cultural phenomenon thanks to great acting, perfect pacing, and stunning special effects. There’s a reason that it’s always in the top three on these types of lists.
To this day, there are those who call the movie cursed. They might have a point. The film is associated with a crazy number of terrible events. Actress Ellen Burstyn, who played the unfortunate Regan’s mother, actually suffered a very real spinal injury while filming. You can still see the shot in the film, too—it’s when Regan throws her mother from the bed.
Sure, that could just be an accident, but consider this: The whole set of the film caught fire before the film was complete. Everything burned except for Regan’s bedroom, the site of the film’s most demonic events.
Plus, nine people who worked on the film lost their lives curiously after the film’s debut. It seems that this movie’s horror isn’t content to remain within the frame.
Best for: Anyone who thinks that a movie made in the mid-1970s can’t possibly be scary (and wants to be proven wrong).
2. The Thing
Director John Carpenter chose frequent collaborator Kurt Russell for the lead role in this classic alien flick. The practical effects still hold up, and there’s a terrifying creature, but as with Night of the Living Dead, it’s the paranoia of the human characters that really pushes this flick to the next level.
Oh, and it has a great soundtrack, too.
Audiences didn’t really know how great this film was—score or no—when it came out. Neither did critics.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times, in 1982, called the film “a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that…looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the ’80s…a virtually storyless feature composed of laboratory-concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated as—guess what?—more laboratory-concocted special effects.”
One wonders how Canby weathered the arrival of computer-generated graphics, in which this film partakes (virtually) not at all. Today, The Thing’s special effects are as reliably classic as anything Ray Harryhausen animated. Meanwhile, Canby, the theater critic, probably wasn’t the best fellow for the sci-fi beat—on retrospect.
Point being, like The Dude, The Thing abides.
Best for: Fans of sci-fi horror who want to see Kurt Russell wielding a huge flameflower (so, basically, everyone).
1. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is still being discussed and dissected today, and for good reason. It doesn’t use jump scares; instead, it builds an unbelievably tense atmosphere with perfect pacing, iconic cinematography, and career-defining performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
While it’s based on a Stephen King book—King was notoriously unhappy with the finished project—it’s Kubrick’s attention to detail that makes this the greatest horror film ever made. Given the way Kubrick spoke of his source material, it’s hardly surprising that King wasn’t 100-percent behind the effort.
“The problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak,” Kubrick told director Michel Ciment, as preserved on the site Visual-Memory. “The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel.”
As it turns out, King wasn’t the only one who had problems with the famous director’s approach to The Shining. The filming of the movie itself proved to be something of a horror. Kubrick apparently changed the script so often that Jack Nicholson, the unfortunate Jack Torrence himself, stopped reading new drafts.
Can you create a horror without partaking in it? Nope. You cannot, argues the entire story surrounding The Shining.
Best for: Anyone who appreciates great horror movies. If this isn’t on your list, you’re doing something wrong.