You could go Norman Bates-batty trying to come up with a list of the 50 best horror movies. There are so many factors to consider. Does there have to be a body count? Is blood required? Does Paris Hilton’s The Hottie and the Nottie qualify? No, no, and yes-but-it-doesn’t-make-our-top-50 are the answers there.
Instead, as we came up with this list, we simply thought about the movies that horrified us in a memorable way; the ones that left a lasting impact on the viewer, the culture, and the film industry. Some of these movies will still leave you breathless, others have softened over the years, worn down by countless sequels, spoofs, and outdated effects. But rest assured, each film on this list is a horror classic in its own unique way.
Now, lock the doors, shut the windows, and turn off the lights. We have something we want to show you. Check out our list of the 50 best horror movies of all time below – in no particular order.
What the hell, let’s start with the film that probably deserves this spot more than any other. Is it the “scariest movie of all time” as the tagline suggests? No, probably not. But one cannot overstate the cultural shockwave that rippled forth from William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s brilliant book in 1973. This film is an enduring icon, and minus a couple of now outdated special effects, it firmly remains on the Mount Rushmore of horror films.
The Exorcist III
What? The Exorcist 3? Yes, that’s right. The Exorcist III. While the first sequel to The Exorcist (The Exorcist II: The Hereitc) was a disastrous attempt at a money-grab by Warner Brothers, this 1990 gem features one of the most startling jumps ever put on celluloid. Besides that, it’s also got the pedigree, with William Peter Blatty directing this take on his novel Legion. It also has Fabio and Patrick Ewing. We are so not kidding.
In 1978, for $325,000, 30-year-old John Carpenter created one of the greatest slasher films of all time. It’s pretty ballsy to name your movie after a holiday (“Hey Gary, wanna go watch ‘Thanksgiving’? What? No! The movie!”), but this tale of an escaped homicidal lunatic (Michael Myers) slicing and dicing his way through a small Illinois town has held its own against October 31st for decades. Throw in a cute Jamie Lee Curtis, that still blood-chilling piano score, and a fun performance by Donald Pleasance, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a legendary horror film.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street – teenagers being hunted down in their dreams by a child killer who was burned alive by a mob of angry parents – is so freaking twisted and disturbing and compelling, it would’ve almost been impossible for Wes Craven to not have had crazy success with Freddy Krueger. But Craven nailed it big time here in the original, and Robert Englund was so good as Freddy, he’s still wearing that sweater and getting paid for it. A lot of people forget Johnny Depp was in this one, and we’ve always found Heather Langenkamp, who plays heroine Nancy Thompson, to be quite fetching—big teeth and all.
An American Werewolf in London
Talk about getting your money’s worth. This 1981 classic delivers satisfaction on so many fronts: horror, comedy, gore, great music, effects, and even a helping of sadness. John Landis directed here, and it’s a borderline travesty that the very likable David Naughton (who plays the protagonist David Kessler) did not reach super stardom after his turn here. But the true star of the film is special effects guru Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for his groundbreaking work here. The apartment transformation scene still holds up.
We’re going with the 2002 U.S. remake here over the ’98 Japanese version, but either way, the premise of someone watching a disturbing videotape (that isn’t Battlefield Earth) and then dying 7 days later was pretty damn creepy. That was the day we switched to DVD. And that image of the slimy girl coming out of the TV? It forever changed the way we look at slimy girls coming out of TVs.
While the infamous shower scene and maternal plot twist are legendary, Psycho really is much more of a suspense film. But that’s how we see it now. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of a woman on the run and her encounter with a disturbed innkeeper shocked audiences on many fronts. It’s considered to be the first slasher film, and even though there’s not much of a body count, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is truly one of the elite horror performances of all time.
28 Days Later
It can be legitimately argued that this most recent (and very long-lasting) fascination America has had with zombies was kickstarted by 28 Days Later. The haunting scenes of an empty, virus-plagued London and the revelation that, hey, zombies can run too, helped put this film on another level. And talk about versatility? Director Danny Boyle helmed 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and maybe the scariest of them all: the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.
Night of the Living Dead
When the Library of Congress deems a zombie film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” you know you have a classic. George A. Romero’s 1968 classic may have been filmed in black & white (for $114,000), but its scenes of grisly gore rattled the film industry and outraged a few million parents. So basically a big Thank You is in order here, is what we’re saying.
Stephen King is a prolific genius. Let’s just get that out of the way. This 1976 film was based on his ’74 book, and for some reason it’s already been remade twice. The tale of a motherly-abused and classmate-bullied teenager with telekinetic powers easily resonates with anyone who’s ever been picked on. Sissy Spacek was perfect as Carrie, and the film’s final scene ranks as one of the earliest and best ‘gotchas’ ever.
If you wanna call this the best horror movie of all time, we won’t argue. There’s just so much to love here: the superb story; Jack Nicholson’s performance; the unforgettable abandoned hotel setting; and of course, the long list of terrifying images–bathtub woman, twins in the hallway, the snowy maze chase. Why Stephen King doesn’t absolutely adore this adaptation of his book by the amazing Stanley Kubrick, we have no idea. Everyone else seems to.
Director: Roman Polanski
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Director Roman Polanski’s first American film was this take on Ira Levin’s novel, which sees Mia Farrow as a pregnant woman who fears that her husband may have promised their strange neighbors her child to be used as a human sacrifice. It’s one of those rare horror movies that almost all the critics love, as evidenced by the 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.
While ‘horror’ isn’t the first word that springs mind to when we think of Alien, there’s no shortage of horrifying moments in Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. Even its poster and tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” are icons. And damn if those Chalupa Supremes from Taco Bell don’t get us thinking of the chest-popping scene every time.
The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi’s debut was a low-budget stunner. It was crude, unpolished, and the acting was on the weak side, but it still packed oodles of originality, black humor, and graphic gore. Its cult status is undeniable, and the sequels and remakes are proof of that. If Stephen King calls it one of his favorite films, that’s good enough for us.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
This 1956 classic is sometimes seen as an allegory for McCarthyism and the anti-communist movement, but even if it really just is a movie about an alien invasion in a small California town, the paranoia produced by the plot is perfect. Since the aliens look like humans, everyone’s a suspect. The ’78 remake is also superb.
Drag Me to Hell
Director Sam Raimi’s (Evil Dead) playful take on terror works again here in this 2009 jolt-a-thon. The story of a loan officer who pisses off a creepy old lady features plenty of scares, but its shocking final scene raises it into our top 50 of all time. True stat: Since the movie’s release, 100% of creepy old ladies have been approved for their requested mortgage loans.
Before Dracula was being spoofed by Sesame Street characters and breakfast cereals, Dracula was a Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897. It was then a stage play in 1924, and then in 1931, Bela Lugosi famously starred as the blood-sucking vampire from Transylvania. At the time, newspapers reported that audience members fainted in shock from what they saw on screen. It was one of the first full length horror movies in cinema history, and its enduring legend easily earns a place on our top 50.
We’re honoring the 1958 version of the film here because it came first, but really the 1986 version deserves a spot in the horror hall of fame as well. True, only one movie features Jeff Goldblum’s fingernails failing off and Geena Davis giving birth to a baby maggot, but the original paved the way with the legendary Vincent Price and the memory-burning “Help meeee!” line.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
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Upon its release in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was flat out banned in several countries. Marketing the film as a true story (it wasn’t) probably didn’t help either, but it sure as hell added to the horror brought on by the power-tool wielding, human skin mask-wearing Leatherface. Director Tobe Hooper made the film for only $300,000, but its scenes of relentless horror helped catapult this one into a cult classic.
Phantom of the Opera
You know a scary movie has done its job when nearly 100 years later, the antagonist’s face can still send shivers down your spine. This silent film is probably closer to being a thriller than a horror film, but Lon Chaney’s hideous face and the story’s everlasting appeal earn it our top 50 accolades.
The Blair Witch Project
Made on a shoestring budget by a cast and crew of unknowns, The Blair Witch Project managed to do some amazing things; like convincing many viewers that what they were seeing was lost footage from a hiking trip gone horribly wrong. While some people resent the film’s shaky camera work or lack of blood, we think this psychological breakdown of three college students and their fear of the unknown is a horror gem. The box office take of $248 million made it one of the most successful independent films of all time.
Combining the talents of Tobe Hopper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Steven Spielberg (you probably know a couple of things he did), Poltergiest scared millions in the summer of 1982. The tale of a suburban family being stalked by some seriously pissed off ghosts featured some memorable lines from young Heather O’Rourke who played Carol Anne. Sadly, she died at the age of 12, and her death along with the death of 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne (eldest daughter Dana) and others associated with the film and its sequels helped create the legend of the “Poltergeist curse.”
Director: Richard Donner
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For most single men, the horror of having to raise a child is more than enough to fuel a 2-hour movie. Now imagine that kid was the anti-christ. You’re gonna need a bigger sitter. Gregory Peck plays a U.S. ambassador whose secretly adopted child turns out to be quite the little devil. This mid 70’s classic spawned sequels and put an immediate halt to anyone naming their child ‘Damien.’
Using the “found footage” style, this story of a young couple being haunted in a new home rattled a new generation of teenagers who probably never saw The Blair Witch Project. While the amount of mundane scenes and pedestrian acting one must endure here hollow the film out a bit, the impact left by Paranormal Activity and its effect on audiences earns a spot in our top 50.
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
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Nicole Kidman stars as a mother with two children who cannot be touched by direct sunlight. On top of that, they in New Jersey. Boosted by some great atmosphere and a suspense level that keeps ratcheting up, The Others proves that haunted houses are always a force to be reckoned with.
Scream is given credit for reinvigorating the horror genre in the mid-90s, and it did so with self-awareness; characters referencing the “rules” of slasher films and then being trapped in one themselves. While its final half hour fizzles a bit, Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson helped jumpstart horror again. Killing your star in the first 20 minutes also was a bold move.
After his success with Halloween and The Fog, this remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World solidified director John Carpenter as a horror legend. Antarctica is the setting for this gory story about a group of researchers who run into a nasty alien life form. It’s a great take on paranoia and the need for proper and dog spaying and neutering.
Another Stephen King novel gets the silver screen treatment, and while Pet Sematary does have an undeniable cheesy factor to it, it also has some disturbing scenes that linger on in our memories. The premise of an old Indian cemetery bringing life back to the dead was solid, but the toddler/truck scene was shockingly brutal.
With a flurry of torture porn sequels, it’s tempting to dismiss the legacy of Saw—but don’t. The inventive premise, featuring a deranged killer putting people through horrific “games” to save their lives or their family, was the kind of twisted sadism that seemed all too plausible in real life, especially in ’04, as scenes of brutality and beheadings from Iraq were a way of life. Jigsaw has earned his place in the villains hall of fame, and Saw forcefully put him there.
“I have seen the future of horror… his name is Clive Barker.” That quote from Stephen King was how the original trailer for Hellraiser began, and while King’s prognostication didn’t quite pan out, Barker’s debut here did create an iconic character (Pinhead) and a fair share of disturbing scenes.
When a Stranger Calls Back
Director: Fred Walton
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Yes, you read that right. It’s a 1993, made-for-TV sequel to the 1979 film that we’re endorsing. Here’s why: The opening 25 minutes. Much like the original’s classic “Have you checked the children?” scene, this is one of the finest slow-burning terror scenes ever set to film (superbly crafted by the same director Fred Walton). And also like the original, the rest of the movie fails to match the first quarter’s intensity. But that brilliantly paced opening and a surprisingly creative scare at the end are good enough to put this one on our list.
English director Neil Marshall takes six attractive women, puts them in a cave, and does the impossible: making you not think about seeing them naked. The claustrophobia and morality themes would’ve been enough to make for a very tense flick, but the creatures take the horror to another level. We haven’t been spelunking since.
The amazing thing about Candyman is that it managed – if only for a brief period of time – to get teenage girls to spend less time in front of the mirror. Based on a short story by Clive Barker, the film features a hook-handed phantom who brings the pain when his name is said five times in front of a mirror. The plethora of haunting images and urban legend aspect has kept this one in our minds for two decades now.
The Amityville Horror
This one hasn’t aged too well, but it was a box office smash back in the day. And when you throw that “Based on a true story line” out there before any film, and it’s usually good for at least a 10% bump in the fear factor. When the Lutzes move into a haunted suburban New York home, a lot of nasty, evil crap starts going down. How long would it take you to move out of a house that yells “GET OUT!” at you? It took the Lutzes 28 days. We’re thinking 28 minutes.
Director: Dario Argento
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An American ballet student finds out her fancy dance academy is offering up way more than tutus. The strength doesn’t lie in the script of this Italian cult classic, but in its style. The atmosphere. The disturbingly vivid colors. The lighting. The soundtrack. Oh, and the heaping helping of blood.
Nothing put Coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) on the map quite like It. This TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s novel centers on a wacky kind of life form that has the ability to transform itself into its victim’s worst fears, but we just remember Pennywise the clown. Tim Curry is utterly terrifying in that makeup.
The Cabin in the Woods
Even if you resent the whole meta, movie-within-a-movie kinda thing going on in with The Cabin in the Woods, you still gotta respect how bat-crap crazy it gets in those last 20 minutes. While the transitions between the scenes in the woods and in the underground control center can jar the senses a bit, Cabin scores big points for creativity and some legitimate “What the freak?” moments.
One of the greatest films of all time. The original summer blockbuster. It’s been such an imitated and parodied icon over the years, sometimes people forget the asteroid-sized impact Jaws had on moviegoers and the film industry. But there’s one thing no one ever forgets when they wade past knee-deep water in the ocean: that two-note score. Peter Benchley’s riveting book, Steven Spielberg’s masterful direction, and terrific performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw all add up to a masterpiece.
Another one of Universal’s horror classics, this version of Mary Shelley’s novel is an enduring legend. The tale of a mad scientist constructing a living being from various body parts was pretty damn gruesome for its day. Of course things don’t turn out well, and the unforgettable image of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is among the most famous in horror history.
You gotta respect your elders. And in the horror genre, there really is no film older and more deserving of that pioneer respect than Nosferatu. This silent film was based on the story of Dracula, but since the studio couldn’t get the rights to Bram Stoker’s book, the names and some details were changed to protect the guilty. Despite that bit of thievery, this is a landmark film that broke ground in terms of chills, and the makeup job on Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok still frightens the raisinets out of us.
Friday the 13th
The birth of this famous horror franchise started off with one major plot twist that many people seem to forget: (spoiler alert) The mother does all the killing. There’s no hockey-masked Jason here; that would come in future sequels (the mask wasn’t in play until #3). Jason’s one appearance though at the end of the film is one of the greatest scare-jumps in horror history. Fun fact: Kevin Bacon is actually in this.
Thinking of brining a cockatiel into the home? Hang on a second. The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, also leaned more towards pure horror at times, as The Birds proves. While sure, the special effects don’t hold up 50+ years later, the nightmarish feel of the film remains fully intact. And think about it: Hitch made seagulls scary. That’s talent.
Dawn of the Dead
Director: George A. Romero
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George A. Romero’s second swing at the zombie apocalypse featured not only more gore and lots of color, but also a stinging bit of social commentary on consumerism. That message, with the undead swarming a shopping mall much like the living do, even warmed up critics like Roger Ebert to see past the blood and guts. The 2004 remake’s opening scene though with infected girl is the best out of both films.
Let the Right One In
Oh boy, if it isn’t another Swedish romantic horror film on the list. OK, despite that bizarre categorization, Let the Right One In takes its vampires quite seriously. This is not Twilight. At all. It’s about a bullied 12-year-old boy who meets a girl in town; a girl who perhaps not coincidentally, seems to be showing up as people start dying. There are surprisingly strong acting performances from the kids, and an almost poetic flow to the entire 115 minutes.
Bride of Frankenstein
Think sequels are a new thing? Nuh uh. In 1935, director James Whale followed up Frankenstein with this classic tale of a monster who “demands a mate!” Many critics consider it the greatest of all Frankenstein flicks, and its debatable subplots of homosexuality and necrophilia make it even more shocking.
The Silence of the Lambs
Whether you consider this Best Picture winner a horror movie or thriller, it doesn’t matter—it scares you every time. There’s so much tension, with actually two killers to worry about, and it hasn’t lost a step at all. Major kudos to director Johnathan Demme for handling Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel with such skill, and of course Anthony Hopkins for his terrifying portrayal of Hannibal Lecter.
Before Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski delivered a heaping helping of psychological horror with his 1965 story about a young woman’s frightening fall into schizophrenia. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol Ledoux, whose disturbing mental breakdown spirals way out of control. Sadly, Carol’s fear of sex reminds us of a few of our ex-girlfriends. But maybe it was us?
This Spanish ‘found footage’ creeper was remade in the US as Quarantine, but we like the original much more for its excellent pacing, heart racing scares, and relentless stress level it puts on the viewer. If you can get past the shaky camera effect, you’re in for a terrifying treat about a TV reporter and cameraman when they get stuck inside a particularly nasty apartment building.
A severely underrated pearl of a film, Jacob’s Ladder focuses on a Vietnam vet who’s struggling with a series of disturbing hallucinations. Or are there actually people, or demons, out to kill him? Adrian Lyne’s (Fatal Attraction) directing is superb here, and Tim Robbins turns in an empathetic performance as Jacob Singer. A unique blend of thriller, horror, anti-war/government conspiracy, and ultimately, sadness.
The Wolf Man
Another Universal horror classic, Wolf Man stars Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a man who gets bitten by a beast (Bela Lugosi) and then… well, you know… full moons, howling, and a massive need for a Gillete Fusion. The special effects are chuckle-worthy today, but it’s the definitive werewolf movie of all time.
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