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Almost as long as there has been cinema there have been horror movies. While the genre is often branded with the stigma of being low-brow, cheap, and only for hardcore fans of jump scares and gore, it is also responsible for some of the greatest films of all-time, and certainly many of our favorites fall somewhere along the horror spectrum.
Just as there are trashy, forgettable, throwaway horror films every year, there are also those that that play upon our greatest fears to create tension, an ominous atmosphere, and to terrify us to our very core. The history genre is full of monsters, both human and otherwise, horrific events, and chilling scenarios that thrill us, scare us, keep us on the proverbial edge of our seats, and stick around to haunt our nightmares long after we leave the theater.
The list that follows is Cinema Blend’s definitive, once-and-for-all comment on the greatest horror movies ever made, though we can’t help but wish there was room for 50 or 100 entries. Will you agree with all of our choices? Probably not, but we’re willing to bet that some of your favorites made the cut.
30. Friday The 13thA franchise most known for it’s hulking, un-killable, hockey-mask-wearing, machete-wielding villain Jason Voorhees, it’s easy to forget that this iconic antagonist isn’t really a part of Sean Cunninghams’s 1980 original—he only shows up at the very, very last minute. Along with the likes of Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th helped define the slasher craze of the 1980s, and delivered the definitive kids-at-camp horror film. Full of tension and shocks and a very young Kevin Bacon getting speared through the neck, Friday the 13th is one of the authors of what we have subsequently come to accept as key components of horror, firmly establishing the steps for all of the by-the-numbers genre movies that followed.
29. Shaun Of The DeadShaun of the Dead is the one movie on this list that works as a comedy first and as a horror second, but it does both so exceedingly well that there was no way this slice of fried gold could be ignored. From the minds of star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, 2004’s Shaun of the Dead gave the zombie genre the "hometown bloke" spin and turned Pegg’s Shaun and Nick Frost’s Ed into legitimate movie heroes. With homages galore and weapons ranging from rifles to cricket bats to the Batman soundtrack on vinyl (but not Purple Rain), the movie wisely balances the narrative spotlight between imaginative zombie kills and the pub-loving Shaun fighting to keep his life from spiraling away. As quotable as it is blood-soaked and hilarious, Shaun of the Dead is boosted by a stellar supporting cast of talented Brits, including Bill Nighy, Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield and Lucy Davis (among many others). Fuck-a-doodle-do, this movie is fantastic.
28. SuspiriaWith the giallo subgenre, Italian filmmakers put their own unique, memorable stamp on horror. None of them left quite the mark that Dario Argento did, and none of his impressive body of work stands quite as tall as 1977’s Suspiria. When an American ballet student enrolls in prestigious German dance academy, she finds much more than she bargained for, as sinister supernatural forces leave a trail of violent, grisly murders. Glossy and blood-spattered, Suspiria is visually stunning—a virtual nightmare captured on film—violent, shocking, and with a score by the legendary prog rock band Goblin, the finished product is a hallucinatory sensory overload. And I mean that as the highest compliment.
27. RepulsionWith movies like Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski has shown that you don’t necessarily need monsters and jump scares to make a truly terrifying film. Case in point: his first English-language feature, 1965’s Repulsion. Starring Catherine Deneuve, the story follows her character, Carol, a woman repulsed by all things sexual, who, when her sister leaves her alone for a holiday, comes unwound, sinks into a depression, and is tormented by horrific visions and hallucinations, all of which culminate in shocking real-world violence. Repulsion is widely regarded as one of the all-time greats in the realm of psychological horror, and that acclaim has rightly remained for more than half a century.
26. Don’t Look NowWhen a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), attempting to come to terms with the death of their young daughter, travel to Venice, they’re haunted by a series of mysterious occurrences and reminders of death after an encounter with two elderly sisters comes with warnings from beyond. Clearly wearing Hitchcockian influences on his sleeve, Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 Don’t Look Now employs occult sensibilities, explores the impact of grief on a relationship, and delivers a chilling, menacing story, tinged with melodrama and the supernatural, that sticks with you long after watching. Psychologically and thematically dense, it’s an examination of the human psyche as filtered through the lens of a tense, tight horror thriller.
25. The ThingLike many great horror movies, the ones that endure over the years, John Carpenter’s 1982 reworking of The Thing From Another World, The Thing, was initially dismissed by most critics as being nothing more than an excessive gross-out schlock film. However, in the decades since its release, it has been reappraised and become recognized as one of the great offerings of the genre. A jagged sci-fi thriller that continually creates a tense, taut atmosphere of paranoia and doubt, The Thing follows the rugged crew at an isolated Antarctic research facility as they’re besieged by an alien presence that can assume the form of anything it touches. Playing to gut-level fears and using grotesquely memorable practical creature effects, this is Carpenter, one of the masters of horror, working at the very top of his game. And the ambiguous ending is still the subject of great conversation and debate.
24. 28 Days LaterNo one can argue that George A. Romero is the godfather of zombie movies, but with 2002’s surprisingly effective 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle became the cool uncle of zombie movies that would show up with a case of beer and a couple of sledgehammers. Headed by Cillian Murphy at his most hypnotic, and from a script penned by future Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, 28 Days Later technically replaced the undead kind of zombies with fast-moving abominations fueled by a rage virus, but it still fits into (and sits near the top) of the subgenre. What starts as a stunning and contemplative look at a London mostly devoid of people turns into a rapidly worsening slide into terror as Murphy’s Jim and his fellow survivors come face to face with the somewhat predictable but still hideous outcome of such a population-depleted planet. Winning performances from Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston only add to its superiority.
23. ScreamIn the current landscape, it’s practically impossible to have a horror movie that doesn’t have meta, self-referential elements. You can thank horror master Wes Craven and his 1996 film Scream for that. As annoying as this trope has become in recent years, as handled by Craven, Scream was a game changer. Using comedy, a whodunit-style mystery, and every slasher cliché in the book, in Craven’s hands this mixture is a masterful work of genre subverting satire that honors the history of horror, deconstructs what came before, and also blazes a bold new trail. Beyond any academic praise you want to heap on the film, at the same time Scream is all of these things, it’s also a great horror film, one that is inventive and funny and harrowing all at the same time.
22. The Blair Witch ProjectSimilar in spirit (if not style) to producer/director William Castle’s attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to give movie audiences more than just what made it to the screen, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was bolstered by fairly extensive pre-release buzz that sold the central story of three missing documentary filmmakers as genuine truth. It’s safe to say that approach was effective, as the film eventually grossed almost $250 million worldwide on a $60,000 budget, though the actual truth did come out in those post-release weeks. At that point, "found footage" movies were few and far between, but The Blair Witch Project changed all that, and its influence on the genre is immeasurable at this point, for better or worse. By choosing indirect and abstract scares to keep viewers unsettled, and letting "real" emotions come through as the characters make their way to the ambiguous final sequence, this dread-filled thriller still stands (in a corner of the room) a head above most others. Rarely has a less-is-more strategy panned out so successfully.
21. Invasion Of The Body SnatchersAn argument can be made that only bad films should get the remake treatment, but 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a monolith of an exception. Perhaps it isn’t better in every way than the 1956 version (also based on Jack Finney’s novel), but it’s one hell of a lot more effective as a horror film. Kicking off a solid run of films for director Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the pod people movie to rule them all, and its legacy is cemented by stars Donald Sutherland, his mustache, and Brooke Adams (not to mention Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy), as well as some of the most fabulously disgusting special effects of the decade. The film also exhibits its 1970s-ness with a smart and fat-free script, a superbly restrained score, and an approach that treats these characters like human beings, rather than puppets being led to the slaughter. Or wherever you want to call that psyche-shattering mutant dog.
20. A Nightmare On Elm StreetThe only franchise I can recall that made jumping rope unnervingly creepy, the Nightmare on Elm Street films remain championed more than most genre series for never fully settling into haphazardly conceived dreck. And it all started with Wes Craven’s 1984 original, which took the slasher formula and imbued it with the thought-provoking dream logic of its morbidly compelling baddie, the resurrected pile of sweater and scars that is Freddy Krueger. Everything a horror fan could hope for is in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddy is the greatest movie monster of all time, the cast (including an infant Johnny Depp) is perfect, the backstory is chilling and the kills…come on, now. Freddy’s glove is a masterpiece of weaponry, but this movie’s best deaths were Tina’s, in which her bleeding body is dragged all over her bedroom’s walls and ceiling, and Glen’s, whose murder results in a wonderful geyser of blood shooting up from his bed. Depp’s character said it best: "Midnight. Baseball bats and boogeymen. Beautiful."
19. Bride Of FrankensteinWhen Bride of Frankenstein was first released in 1935, there was thankfully no Internet where people could argue over the value of movie sequels. Acclaimed but not entirely beloved upon its release, James Whale’s follow-up to his own 1931 classic is now largely accepted to be a cut above its predecessor in this new world of gods and monsters. With Ernest Thesiger eagerly welcomed as Henry Frankenstein’s former mentor Doctor Pretorius, Bride of Frankenstein tells the ghastly next chapter in the story of Henry and Boris Karloff’s Monster, treating viewers to visual and aural splendor for a grisly tale that climaxes in the creation of the Monster’s Bride, played with magnificence by Elsa Lanchester and her unforgettable hair. The Bride is sadly only in the movie for a brief period, but her "birth" is an indelible moment in cinema. One can only wonder what the film would have been like had it not been a big target for censorship.
18. Evil Dead 2Rare is the sequel that surpasses its predecessor in almost every way, but hail to the king of modern horror follow-ups, baby. As unexpectedly fantastic as 1981’s The Evil Dead was, director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell were older and more mature by the time Evil Dead II really started coming together in 1986, and it definitely showed. Everything is sharper, wilder and more disgusting this time around, as Ash finds himself both the deadite-killing protagonist and the possession-plagued antagonist, still stuck in cinema’s most interesting cabin in the woods. It’s almost hard to count all the ways Evil Dead II rules, though we’ll namecheck special effects genius Greg Nicotero (of Walking Dead fame), Ash’s iconic chainsaw hand, Jake getting munched by Henrietta, Ash’s hallucination that everything in the room is alive, and obviously that left-field ending that led to Army of Darkness. While the story behind Evil Dead II might not stick with viewers as much as other horror classics, there are no missteps here. It’s all groovy.
17. Dracula (1931)While Nosferatu was the first film to tell a version of this story, albeit in a different form due to rights issues with Bram Stoker’s novel, Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula was the first proper adaptation. Anchored by the most iconic, memorable turn of Bela Lugosi’s monumental career—one that would see him become a true genre and cultural symbol—this was the first of Universal’s early horror slate (Frankenstein followed later that year), and helped define the genre in ways that are still in place today. As influential as Dracula has been, it’s easy to lose sight of just how spooky, eerie, and genuinely terrifying a film it still is, even as the tropes and iconography it established has woven its way into the lexicon of horror.
16. Dawn Of The DeadFew directors are able to pull such a startling about-face between one film and its sequel as George A. Romero did with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the subversive and gore-soaked follow-up to Night of the Living Dead, which came out a decade earlier. Both the world and the filmmaker were in a completely different place, and Romero decided to sick his undead monstrosities on capitalism and class struggles via the shopping mall. Dawn of the Dead is a horror fan’s wet dream, trading in any form of dense and labyrinthine narrative for some dread-laden intensity, some incredible special effects (from legend Tom Savini) and some really inventive kill scenes, all layered with not-quite-tongue-in-cheek satire. The source of a successful Zack Snyder remake that retained little of the social commentary, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is the crowd-pleasing horror fest that can also start an important conversation once the entrails have dried.
15. Rosemary’s BabyRoman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, is like a master class on cinematic terror and tension. Every aspect is infused with dread and foreboding, even the most innocuous domestic moments. At the same time it’s grounded in the concrete, in reality, playing upon the inherent fears and dread of parenthood, there’s also a demonic side, as the forces of evil and darkness work against a young couple played perfectly by Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. When they attempt to start their own family, their journey takes them in dark, sinister directions. This is not gory, nor is Rosemary’s Baby particularly violent, but what it does is ratchet up the tension and pressure until you’re on the verge of bursting.
14. The Fly (1986)Though the latter portion of David Cronenberg’s career has been largely safe for mass consumption, the esteemed director’s early years were spent delivering some of the most gloriously disgusting body horror that VHS tapes could handle. And while all of his genre films are must-see flicks, Cronenberg’s most honed-in and emotionally charged gore-fest was 1986’s The Fly, the second and superior remake of George Langelaan’s short story. Viewers get a career-best performance from Jeff Goldblum as the impulsive scientist Seth Brundle, who tries balancing a relationship with both magazine journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and his teleportation pods. A riches-to-rags story through the viscera-covered lens of science-fiction, The Fly takes Brundle from a peak point of humanity to the hellish depths of mongrelism, taking away everything that made him an individual. (Although it’s hard to say he doesn’t retain some form of individuality after everything goes wrong.) With some of the best practical effects of anything on this list, The Fly will remain a terrifying treat for as long as people attempt to take science to the extremes.
13. FreaksMore effective in 90 minutes than American Horror Story: Freak Show was in more than a dozen episodes, Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks is one of the most uncomfortable horror films ever made. Many of the "freak" characters were legitimate sideshow performers, making it somewhat reprehensible to be frightened or disgusted by what’s seen on screen. (Not that they’re the real monsters of the movie anyway.) With its signature line of "One of us! One of us!" Freaks thankfully came in the Pre-Code era, although the final product was still the target of heavy censorship at the time, particularly where that stomach-turning and hand-melting climax was concerned. Perhaps the scariest aspect of Freaks is that, despite being a true gem of a directorial effort, the film completely derailed Browning’s career, regardless of him having directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula just one year before. So much potential, gooba-gobbled up by an American public that wasn’t prepared for it.
12. HalloweenBefore slasher movies became a dime a dozen—with that dozen sometimes composing just one franchise – John Carpenter created the subgenre’s first benchmark with 1978’s Halloween, the night Michael Myers came home. Low-budget even for the time, Halloween puts every iota of its production process on the screen, from the elementary-and-now-iconic Michael Myers mask to John Carpenter’s no frills (but also iconic) piano score. The movie also set the bar for so many future tropes, such as the killer that escaped from the asylum, and a non-damsel final girl taking the lead. In this case, the latter was played with scream queen regality by Jamie Lee Curtis in her breakout role. Halloween can still make one scared of what might be standing behind the neighbor’s bushes, or what could be waiting upstairs in that corner always cloaked in shadows. It’s not only (easily) the best film of the franchise, including the remakes, but it’s also the apex of John Carpenter’s entire amazing career.
11. The Cabinet Of Dr. CaligariWhen it comes to mind-boggling cinematic experiences, it’s somewhat strange that one of the most impressive efforts is nearly a century old and contains no spoken dialogue. First assembled from the compacted and pulverized nightmares of the paranoid (assumedly), German director Robert Wiene’s 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari astounds in every way, boasting a progressively frightening narrative of the titular hypnotist using another man to commit murders, while also utilizing one of film’s earliest and greatest twist endings. (And don’t dare blame this movie for inferior filmmakers’ copycatting.) But what makes Dr. Caligari so singularly enduring is without a doubt the endlessly striking and distinct set design, which offered few elements of grounded consistency in frames filled with distorted angles, jagged edges and odd shapes. It’s a rainbow of madness for the eyes, despite being in black-and-white, and its relatively short runtime is just another reason to rewatch and find details you’d previously missed.
10. Audition"Kiri kiri kiri!" A modern masterpiece like no other, Audition is the apex of prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike’s career – though everyone should also check out his batshit crazy One Missed Call, among others. A slow burning thriller that gets more manic and strange on its way to an unforgettable climax, Audition at first appears to be about a widower (Ryo Ishibashi) using a rather chauvinistic method of finding a new girlfriend, and his attempt to win over the deceptively quiet "winner," Asami (Eihi Shiina). But as the story moves forward, you realize that this movie absolutely belongs to Asami and the disfigured puzzle pieces making up her twisted life. Like many, this film is one that’s best viewed knowing as little as possible, but with the understanding of how jarringly quick things turn from crazy to agonizing. More effective and lasting than the J-Horror hits that soon followed, Audition takes Ryu Murakami’s novel to great heights and earns every second of audience turmoil.
9. The Silence Of The LambsSome people fall on the side of the argument that Jonathan Demme’s 1991 smash The Silence of the Lambs isn’t a horror movie, and those people should spend some time trapped inside of Buffalo Bill’s house before reaffirming their thoughts. That character’s actions feel unbridled and maniacal, but he predictably exhibits bad movie villain behavior in the end, while Anthony Hopkins’ legendary cannibal Hannibal Lecter gives off a calm and affable vibe that can instantaneously give way to the most sadistic and malicious atrocities that humans can do to one another. That well-balanced wave of antagonism worked perfectly against Jodie Foster’s career-high performance as Clarice Starling, and the film’s cat and monster-mouse game doesn’t let up until its harrowing climax in the dark. Saying nothing of the rest of the Hannibal Lecter films, Silence of the Lambs is an absolutely perfect mix of horrors both psychological and visceral, and it remains the only film in the genre to take home the Best Picture Oscar (as well as many others).
8. PsychoYou don’t get a nickname like "The Master of Suspense" for just any old reason. Alfred Hitchcock earned that moniker many times over though the course of his career, but nowhere was he as pitch perfect and on point as with 1960’s Psycho. At this point the saga of Norman Bates has been endlessly spoofed, parodied, emulated, prequelled, and even shot-for-shot remade, but none of that takes away or diminishes the eerie power of Psycho. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals thousands of dollars from her boss and hits the road, she winds up at the worst possible motel. Using this noir-ish set up, Hitchcock slyly subverts expectations and meticulously crafts a deeply psychoanalytical thriller that deconstructs fear, desire, sexuality, and the human psyche. Beyond all of these themes and the subtext, Psycho is also creepy, taut, and horrifying—the shower scene still stands as one of the most terrifying moments in all of movie history.
7. Night Of The Living DeadWhen you think of zombies, it probably calls to mind a wave of undead corpses in varying stages of decomposition shuffling at you like an inevitable wave, and if one happens to bite you, game over, you become of these brain-hungry bastards. This is largely thanks to George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, which changed the game as far as zombie movies go—before his interpretation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend they were primarily voodoo-related creatures. Not only did Night permanently alter the landscape and create the modern zombie, an independent production, it’s also a terrifying horror tale, and a sharp critique of everything from racial politics in America to Cold War paranoia to the Vietnam war. Not too shabby for a film about flesh-starved cannibals.
6. NosferatuDracula has a long, storied history on the silver screen, and that got started in 1922, with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which is still, more than 90 years later, one of the spookiest, scariest movies of all time, and still perhaps the greatest rendering of the world’s most famous vampire. With names and details changed because the studio couldn’t secure the rights to Bram Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu follows the mysterious Count Orlock, his real estate agent, and the real estate agent’s wife. This is Dracula before he became a mainstay of popular culture, free from the baggage of decade’s worth of appearances. Max Schreck, who plays Orlock and has his own shadowy mythology, is one of the eeriest screen presences of all time, sending shivers up your spine. One of the defining entries the early 20th Century German Expressionism, Murnau’s stark contrasts, artistic flourishes, and symbolic imagery have been felt for decades, through horror, film noir, and more, and continue to be influential to this very day.
5. The Texas Chain Saw MassacreHow can you not love a chainsaw wielding Texas madman wearing a mask made out of human skin, one who also happens to be part of the most dysfunctionally psychotic cannibal family you’ve ever seen? I guess if you happen to be one of the teens who happen upon Leatherface and his clan in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you might not be a fan, but as for the rest of us who adore horror, we have relatively few complaints. Dismissed upon its release as "despicable," Chain Saw went on to become a cult favorite for gore hounds that evolved into a legitimate horror classic. Brutal and bloody, shocking, and deeply unsettling and transgressive on so, so many levels, the film uses the exploitation trappings to explore themes of violence, capitalism, gender politics, and more, not to mention that it’s one of the greatest slasher films ever put on celluloid.
4. AlienIt’s easy enough to scare the crap out of people with an eight-foot-tall, armor-plated alien killing machine with razor-sharp teeth, an extra mouth, and acid for blood, but Ridley Scott’s 1979 thriller Alien brings so much more than incredible creature design to the table. There’s been an endless debate about whether this is truly sci-fi or horror, but any way you look at it, Alien is straight up terrifying. Scott manages to squeeze every last bit of claustrophobia and terror out of relatively few moving parts, building the surprise and suspense throughout what remains, decades after its release, one of the creepiest, scariest movies ever made. And all of this is capped off with one of the best protagonists of all time, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, who is tough and badass, but also fragile and relatable as a woman driven to extremes by an extreme situation.
3. JawsWhen a movie scares the hell out of an entire generation to the extent that they wanted to stay out of the ocean, and gave water sports a seriously sinister, terrifying edge, you know it’s something special. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws not only ushered in the era of the modern blockbuster, it remains, to this day, one of the most taut, terrifying movies ever put on film. You don’t even need to see the shark to feel the tension and horror—this was partially strategic, partially due to rampant technical issues with the mechanical creature—but the shot of the monster great white popping out of the water as Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody chums behind the Orca is one of the most enduring images not just in horror, but in cinema history.
2. The ExorcistIn William Friedken’s The Exorcist, when 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair’s career defining performance) begins to exhibit strange, terrifying behavior, her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn) tries everything she can think of. Torn between science and religion, knowledge and superstition, and pushed to her limits, she turns to her last hope, the short-on-faith priest Damien Karras, to cast out the demon that has taken up residence in her formerly sweet little girl. The Exorcist pits old time religion against more modern beliefs, explores the nature of faith, themes of good versus, and the intrinsic fears of parenthood. Additionally, it’s full of masterful tension building, blasphemous and profane imagery, a deep spirituality, and fantastic performances that only enhance the scares and frights. It’s impossible to hear that haunting, nerve-jangling theme and not shiver with dread.
1. The ShiningFor all the spine-chilling tales that horror-meister Stephen King put to the page, so very few share a similar impact in live-action, and such an achievement is a small fraction of what suspends Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining high above all other horror films. Upping the supernatural ante of King’s alcoholism-fueled descent into madness, Kubrick meticulously took each maddening piece of this claustrophobic story, which sees a writer and his family caretaking a very special hotel, and jammed it into another until it resembled the iconic Overlook carpet. And from that vision came Jack Nicholson’s maniacally uninhibited Jack Torrance, Shelly DuVall’s tortured Wendy, dream-stealing twins, blood-spewing elevators, never-ending hallways, one royally mind-fucked visit to Room 237, a garden maze, and backwards words that turn mirrors into hazards. To say nothing of Scatman Crothers’ heroism. Bypassing any snap decisions on how to inspire nightmares, Kubrick famously ran his cast and crew through the wringer of muck until perfection happened, and that perfection is The Shining, which ends on a bizarre photograph more paralyzing than an ax to the spinal cord.
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