The 75 Best Horror Movies of All-Time
Horror films are something you have to prepare for. Whether it’s gripping the seat or shielding your eyes or ears from the grossness, or wrapping yourself up in a Lovecraftian or Puritan world, great horror movies are much more than jump scares. Utilizing the sound of floorboards, the movement of shadows, the unpredictability of mist, horrific or hilarious (or hilariously horrific) deaths, or a tingling film score—this genre is always playing with the audience. The greatest horror flicks can be heady and philosophical, slapstick or serious—in short, if you’re a fan of horror, most likely you’re a fan of cinema. No other genre best represents how the moving image can affect us—by using every filmmaking tool in the toolshed: sound, image, score and dialogue.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably seen our lists breaking down the best horror films. We’ve combed each decade of cinematic history to unearth the horror gems from each filmmaking era. If you’re new to us, well, we greatly respect the genre and love uncovering new haunted burial grounds. But what are our true, true favorites?
Below you’ll find what we consider to be the 75 best horror movies of all-time. Some are terrifying, some are brutal, some are funny, and some evoke a delicate mood. All are fantastic examples of how varied this genre can be. We present them in an anthology—appropriate for the time—in alphabetical order. We aren’t killing our favorites or making a Sophie’s Choice here. That’d be too dramatic.
As always, sound off in the comments what you love and hate about this list, or that you now hope to see.
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle crafted a new image of the viral apocalypse in 2002, set to the tune of rage. Following Cillian Murphy‘s Jim after he wakes up in a post-apocalyptic London, ravaged by the “rage virus” that turned the civilians into bloodthirsty savages, 28 Days Later set an intimate character drama across the downfall of society, playing expertly with zombie and doomsday tropes (and no doubt helping to spark the resurgence of both genres that followed) with a healthy dash of Boyle’s signature cinematic stylings. 28 Days Later is so successful because it is as tender as it is terrifying, matching moments of horror with humanity, and a healthy spattering of cultural commentary along the way. — Haleigh Foutch
Ridley Scott’s sexually-charged gothic horror in space is a perfect sci-fi movie. And a perfect horror movie. And hell, I’ll say it, just a perfect movie. Scott takes the baseline narrative following the crew of the Nostromo, an ill-fated space expedition, as they come across the galaxy’s deadliest predator, the H. R. Giger designed Xenomorph, and infuses it with hyper-violent manifestations of imagery that invoke sexual violation, the biological perils of gestation and birth, all manner of sexual anxiety.
Ian Holm’s secret cyborg Ash, who harbors technological terrors of his own, describes the Xenomorph as a “perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” The same can be said for Scott’s film, which is an exercise in pure terror, crafted so specifically with the intention evoking dread that each layer of the film’s construction functions toward that fixed goal. Giger’s aesthetically beautiful but inherently disturbing designs, Dan O’Bannon’s expertly paced screenplay, the naturalistic and perfectly-pitched performances from the cast (led by a career-defining turn from Sigourney Weaver), and Scott’s gift for twisting tension and dread out of every moment between the Xenomorph’s ever-evolving appearances — every individual element of the film works in tandem to push the audience further into their fear. And each time the killer alien pops, lurches, or scurries onto screen, its presence cuts like a knife, turning the enduring ache of unease into an acute, piercing terror. — Haleigh Foutch
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Considered by many to be one of the best horror films in cinematic history now that its cult status has been firmly cemented, John Landis’ dark horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London has set itself apart from all other werewolf films that came before it and have come since. Notable for the make-up special effects work of Rick Baker, for which the film won the inaugural Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up, the visceral, bone-crunching werewolf transformation will haunt your dreams for years. If that doesn’t get you, then perhaps the slowly decaying forms of the living dead victims of the werewolf will.
Not content to churn out a simple monster movie, Landis chose instead to focus on the grief over losing a friend, the guilt at committing murder, and the maddening need to reconcile with those who are dead. It’s not just David’s curse that plagues him throughout this film, it’s the literal embodiment of those other negative emotions that follow him, pleading with him to end his own life before he adds more victims due to the curse’s effects. As is the case in other Landis’ works, there are laughs to be found, but boy are they dark. And delightfully so. – Dave Trumbore
The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook is already a horror classic. The Babadook boasts one of the most memorable villains in recent history with a striking look, chilling bellow and his own catchy nursery rhyme to boot. But what makes The Babadook exceptional is that it isn’t just some evil entity that needs to be vanquished. It’s a villain that haunts and torments with purpose, exploring how victims deal with their own inner demons.
Director Jennifer Kent put herself on the map with this one, showing off a profound ability to blend reality with a fairytale-like feel through top-notch performances, stunning sets and exceptional shot selection. First you’ll get swept up in the atmosphere, then the sheer terror will take hold and finally the thoughtful, twisted conclusion will ensure that you really can’t get rid of the Babadook, even after the credits roll. – Perri Nemiroff
Bay of Blood (1971)
One of the finest and most formative directors of the Giallo subgenre, Mario Bava had been turning out first-rate horror thrillers for a decade when he helmed Bay of Blood (alternately titled Twitch of the Death Nerve and Last House on the Left Part II, among many others). Because this world is light on justice, it is perhaps best known now as the film that heavily inspired the inferior Friday the 13th and the emergence of the slasher subgenere at large. That’s is not to disparage Friday the 13th, which admirably crystalized A Bay of Blood’s most lurid elements into their purest slasher form, but to consider it “that movie that inspired Friday the 13th” is to under-credit Bava’s complex, brazen murder mystery.
Centered around a warring set of family members willing to do whatever it takes to secure their inheritance, Bay of Blood keeps the audience guessing throughout the film, establishing unpredictability from the brilliant first scene. The film opens with the murder of old woman at the hands of a mystery man in black gloves, only to spin expectations on their head when that same man is immediately murdered by a second mystery assailant. All told, there are five murderers in Bay of Blood, each as creative and remorseless as the next, and Bava manages to orchestrate it in a way that’s never confusing. It’s essential for any fan of the slasher genre, the intelligent accidental godfather to the simplistically visceral genre that followed it, and it’s one of the best efforts from a legendary voice in Italian horror. — Haleigh Foutch
The Birds (1963)
The Birds was the most difficult film (wrangling all those birds and using very primitive technology) to make for Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn’t stand up as well now in comparison to many of his other classics, simply because the technological advancements years later makes us aware that in most attack scenes the birds diving are overlaid over the actors reacting in a different shot. It also doesn’t have a satisfying ending or an emotional through line to pull us through all the attacks. The Birds might not have aged as flawlessly as many of the Master’s films, but he still stages many masterful moments.
What The Birds does have is an amazing home invasion section that greatly influenced every zombie or home invasion film that would come later. The birds, which have begun attacking humans for no reason and seem to have a particular bone to peck with a socialite (Tippi Hedren) who was recently in court for her racy behavior, swarm the house that holds her inside. They peck through the walls, their beaks poking through like a Whack-a-Mole game. Her love interest (Robert Taylor) has to board the doors and nail furniture in front of weak spots.
The Birds shows all the survival tactics that we now know from zombie films and it also features the fatalist moment where the heroine goes upstairs. Always stay downstairs. — Brian Formo
The Black Cat (1934)
The Black Cat is a slick little tale of war, politics, and vengeance that works in necrophilia and Satan worshipping for good measure. Oh, and it’s the first of eight movies to feature Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together on the same screen. (It’s also one of the earliest films to feature a nearly continuous musical score.)
Inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe story, Black Cat finds Lugosi’s war veteran and prison camp-survivor Dr. Vitus Werdegast at odds with his former friend and fellow soldier, the engineer Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Caught in the middle of their feud is a young American couple visiting Hungary on their honeymoon. What follows after their fateful meeting is a bizarre cat-and-mouse game played between Lugosi and Karloff with the couple as the prize to the victor: Should Werdegast win, the couple will be set free and Poelzig will pay for his sins; if Poelzig wins, the couple will be sacrificed in a midnight ceremony and Werdegast will meet his maker as well. This is a crazy story that sees Lugosi portraying a crippling fear of cats, Karloff posing as a death-and-beauty-obsessed lunatic dabbling in dark magic, and a rather icky twist that further complicates the relationship between the two former soldiers. The Black Cat ends with a bang, so definitely seek this one out to see the horror masters on screen together but outside of their usual monster make-up. — Dave Trumbore
Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas is also one of the rare slashers that treats its victims with complete respect, never overtly sexualizing them and never punishing them for their presumed sexuality. In fact, Hussey’s “final girl” is not only openly sexually active, she’s struggling with her decision to have an abortion. And she’s never penalized for it. Likewise, Kidder’s character is endearing despite being a drunk. Hell, even the house mother gets to have a personality. From concept to execution, Black Christmas is one of the most dignified entries in the slasher genre that feels like it was made for adults seeking a thrill rather than teenagers seeking perversity. — Haleigh Foutch
Black Sunday (1960)
Before Mario Bava would direct the earliest identifiable slasher films in Italy, which genre-lovers loving know as giallos, he made this gothic throwback that could easily stand astride the best of Hammer Films’ output of the previous decade. Black Sunday begins with a stunning and horrific opening sequence that would get the film banned in the UK for years, although it is nowhere near as violent as Bava’s films would become less than half a decade later.
In the opening, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) is convicted of being a witch and has a bulky and spiky satanic mask nailed onto her face by a massive mallet. She’s buried alongside her lover in a crypt. 200 years later, two doctors discover the tomb, are attacked by a bat and blood is spilled on her casket. They curiously pry the mask off of the Satanic Princess’ face and a curse is unleashed, as Asa takes possession of a virginal woman in town (Steele again) and sets out too unleash her revenge.
Black Sunday was Bava’s first great horror and it’s appropriate to see him hone his craft within the confines of a classical horror (pushed a little too far for some) before creating a new cinematic language all his own. — Brian Formo
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
While (of course) what transpires onscreen is a fiction, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez did actually send the film’s stars into the forest for eight days, asking them to record the film’s proceedings themselves. This explains the sometimes stomach-churning camerawork, but also helps to color the film’s terrifyingly convincing environment, as Blair Witch follows the trio to their collective breaking points. Featuring but a few drops of blood and no look at the offending witch at all, The Blair Witch Project nonetheless has managed to spawn countless nightmares with its masterfully built sense of dread and final terrifying sequence. Perhaps it takes too long to get there, but once it does – well, you’ll never look at a basement the same way again. — Aubrey Page
The Brood (1979)
For my money, David Cronenberg, he of the most horrific body horrors, didn’t reach the peak of his craft until his staggering 1980s haul, but in the decade preceding he delivered three disquieting and devious horror delights; Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood. It’s the last of these, delivered appropriately at the turn of the decade, where Cronenberg’s mastery of physiological and psychological terrors truly began to emerge. Here we see the nascent stages of the slick, sci-fi bent aesthetic Cronenberg would adopt over the gritty grindhouse feel of his early films.
Staged as a commentary on the cold cost of divorce and the piteous inefficiency of psychiatry, the film follows Art Hindle as Frank Carveth, a man determined to uncover the peculiar means psychiatric treatment his estranged wife (Samantha Egger) is receiving at the hands of the unorthodox practitioner Dr. Hal Raglan (the always-welcome Oliver Reed) and his desperate attempts to protect their daughter (Cindy Hinds). At the same time, hideous hooded childlike malformities are murdering those closest to the family. Cronenberg builds the unease at a steady pace, erupting occasionally into shocking fits of violence, but saving the best (read: most disturbing) for last in a reveal that’s quintessentially Cronenbergian (or Cronenbergundian, as he prefers). A piquant combination of biological and spiritual terrors — fitting for a story about corrupted motherhood — The Brood is a prime example of the idiosyncratic horrors that spring forth from a mind as singular as Cronenberg’s. — Haleigh Foutch
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Cabin in the Woods is the horror fanatic’s dream come true. The movie is brimming with clever and wickedly entertaining genre references, but Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard don’t stop there. The movie runs with the very familiar scenario of a group of college kids packing up and heading out to a cabin in the woods for a wild weekend, but in this instance, everything that goes down happens for an insanely creative reason. Thanks to an ingenious core concept, Cabin in the Woods lets you have loads of fun with familiar situations, victims and creatures, but also lets you indulge and appreciate them in a whole new way – like all at once in an elevator bank for example. – Haleigh Foutch
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Director Robert Wiene‘s tale about a traveling showman and his fortune-telling somnambulist (a.k.a. sleepwalker) is a haunting example of the absurd angles and exploration of madness that’s at the heart of German Expressionism, but it’s also an outgrowth of the fears and experiences brought about by World War I. Screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz brought their pacifist and anti-authoritarian message to the script, a message the rings loud and clear throughout the picture. However, the bookends of the film’s framing story serve to undercut that message rather than underscoring it. This interpretation may be a subject of debate still, but its place in horror history is rock-solid thanks to Cesare the Somnambulist and the beastly, duplicitous Dr. Caligari. — Dave Trumbore
With Carrie, Brian De Palma took one of Stephen King‘s leanest stories, infused it with his high-style aesthetic, and created a horror masterpiece about the perils of abuse that wrenches your stomach into knots with the certain, unavoidable knowledge that this is all going to end very badly. While De Palma’s signature style and gift for paranoid unease makes his chilling construct pop, it’s built on two pillars of tremendous strength in the Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek as the titular pubescent telepath and Piper Laurie as her hideously pious mother, who has sheltered and tormented her daughter to a life of outcast solitude and crippling naivety.
When Carrie gets her period, unaware of what’s happening or what it means, she’s brutally bullied by the girls in her school locker room, who unify in the special kind of ugly that comes from group think, screaming and hurling tampons at her while she shrieks, cries, and shivers naked in the public showers. Burdened by guilt, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) recruits her boyfriend Tommy (a lion-maned William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom, seemingly a dream come true that turns into a fevered nightmare when the school’s bullies strike again, crueler than ever.
As that pig’s blood iconically rains down on Carrie’s all too short-lived happiness, they doom their classmates to a fiery death when the trauma unleashes the full force of her telepathic abilities in a deadly outburst of rage. As Carrie, Spacek is exquisite, and you feel a tender ache for this poor girl’s lifelong suffering — until she snaps, and you feel nothing but terror as she contorts the world around her into a hellscape with a bug-eyed stare and chilling stillness. It’s one of the best King adaptations of all time, but it’s also a complete product of De Palma’s trademark stylistic flourish and a testament to the director’s gift for taking every genre under the sun and twisting it to a sick-making exercise in anxiety. — Haleigh Foutch
Cat People (1942)
Cat People is unlike any of the other horror films on this list. Irena does not transform in full view of the camera on a whim or by some chemical obsession, but by the very act of sexual attraction. Oliver, frustrated by a sexless marriage and inability to help Irena overcome her superstition, enlists in the help of a psychiatrist and also confides in Alice about his troubles. These decisions only serve to further complicate their relationships and feed Irena’s jealousy to the point that it grows out of control and leads her to stalking Alice through the streets and into her own home. To make matters worse, an affair with the psychiatrist brings Irena’s latent fears and beliefs to life in horrific fashion. Cat People dabbles in such unusual topics for the time as powerful and dangerous women, the dangers of sex and seduction, divorce, femme fatales, and mental illness. Its conclusion, however, is anything but uplifting, so be prepared. — Dave Trumbore
Cemetery Man (1994)
After working as an assistant director for the likes of Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam, the Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi made his breakout film with this strange tale of zombie love, with an unlikely Rupert Everett playing a cemetery manager who must deal with the living dead as often as the merely dead. Soavi’s history with Giallo is evident here but he doesn’t go for many gushy, romanticized moments here, even when Everett’s careless lothario falls for the gorgeous wife of a recently deceased aristocrat, who promptly comes to life and infects his former love with his plague.
There’s a hint of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the way that Everett’s character continues to follow a murderous path with visions of the widow, and the romance between his overweight, mentally challenged assistant and the living-dead head of a politician’s daughter could have been a side plot in Dead Alive, but that’s not what Soavi is after ultimately. Cynicism is the director’s final fascination, and in this, Cemetery Man works as a sort of cautionary tale. Everett’s character comes to believe that the dead are more useful and friendly than the living, leading him to some outrageous, homicidal behavior. Don’t lose your faith in humanity, Soavi suggests, or you might begin to get comfortable, even envious, of the dead. — Chris Cabin
The Changeling (1980)
Though the haunted house genre had arguably fallen out of favor by the time The Changeling hit theaters, Peter Medak, whose early ‘70s black comedy The Ruling Class set a buttoned-up reputation for the would-be auteur, managed to make a film that would ultimately become a mannered classic of the genre, trendiness be damned. Evoking all the sweeping, creeping dread of The Haunting injected with a core of deep-seated loss, The Changeling isn’t so much a horror film as it is an unsettling mystery, brilliantly shot and calibrated to tick every known box of the genre while managing to build a mythos deep enough to step out very much as its own. A clear influencer of future child horrors like The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage, Medak’s meticulous direction coupled with George C. Scott’simpassively masterful performance as a father in the throes of immense loss makes the film an unmissable standout, even as The Changeling rumbles towards its inevitable, gothic conclusion. – Aubrey Page
At the center of John Carpenter’s wild, unsettling tale, the second best film to be adapted from a Stephen King novel, is a young man’s obsession with his first great car. One has to look no further than the success of the Fast & Furious franchise to get a sense of how closely automobiles are intertwined with a certain masculine archetype in America. Where the Vin Diesel-designed line of action films hold up that obsession like a tenant of Biblical belief, Christine rightly envisions this desire to reflect one’s self in cars as a kind of severe sickness. When our nerdy hero (Dressed to Kill breakout Keith Gordon) first finds and rebuilds the titular Plymouth Fury, it gives him a boost of confidence and ego, enough that he picks up the girl of his dreams (Alexandra Paul) over his dreamboat, nice-guy best friend (John Stockwell). Soon enough, however, the relationship turns dark and Christine starts picking off those who taunt her owner.
Carpenter ingeniously sees the inevitable tip from confidence to obnoxious ego as a matter of male pride, conjured into daily life by a vintage car that kills. The icy score helps, but this is classic Carpenter, evincing a level of sublime dread and terror that is so convincing, it can make you scared of a sentient car. – Chris Cabin
The Conjuring (2013)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead may well be the greatest zombie movie of all time, though it fights in fierce competition with its predecessor Night of the Living Dead, the stunning feature film debut with which George Romero single-handedly invented the modern zombie movie as we know it. For his sequel, Romero dodged the temptation to retread familiar territory (a quality he would maintain for each of his subsequent “of the dead” films, even as they become a series of diminishing returns), ditching the intimate confines of a home for the sprawling (but still confined) reaches of a shopping mall, and trading his black-and-white bleakness for a playful color-saturated palette.
Dawn of the Dead is a horror sequel in every sense, bigger and bloodier, but it maintain’s Romero’s commitment to skewering social commentary, this time tackling American consumerism. It’s also packed to the brim with Romero’s skilled eye for visceral violence rendered with first-rate old-school gore effects from Tom Savini, the legendary craftsman of carnage who transplanted his experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam to a career spent creating on-screen nightmares for generations. As in all of Romero’s great work (and the best horror in general), the bloodshed acts as a backdrop for a compelling character drama as the group of strangers seeking refuge in the abandoned shopping complex cope with increasing interpersonal conflict as the month pass in this safe-haven from an apocalyptic world gone mad. Romero directs it all with wit and empathy, and an unwaveringly attuned eye for when to drop the next big scare. — Haleigh Foutch
Dead Alive (1992)
The Descent (2005)
Equal parts tense thriller and badass gorefest, The Descent, a film about a group of tough spelunking women trapped in a cave full of ancient humanoid monsters. Following the grief-stricken Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) after the death of her husband and child, Neil Marshall‘s The Descent follows Sarah and her group of badass spelunking daredevil pals as they head into dark, underground adventures on a mission to pull Sarah out of her despair. Naturally, that all goes to shit. The exit path caves in and the women find themselves trapped in a monster-infested, off-the-map cave with no clue how to get out and no one on the outside who knows where they are.
Marshall has the good sense to refrain from jumping straight to the bloody action, and the movie is damn freaky long before the creatures show up. As the women search for an exit, we are given time to explore the intricacies of their relationships. The sense of claustrophobia and tension between the women increase in tandem, bringing the overall atmosphere to a peak of piano-wire tension. On top of the emotional tension, Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy mess with our heads, playing on some of our most primal fears: the dark and entrapment. The women descend deeper and deeper into a shadow world lit only by headlamps, glow sticks, and camcorders; a palate of reds and greens. It’s a disorienting trick of color and light that ratchets up the sense of unease, creating a disquieting otherworldly realm. When the panic reaches its peak, Marshall drops the monster bomb and the pure carnal Darwinism begins. It’s a bloody, gruesome affair that layers the scares through a series of escalating frights to a crescendo of viscera-drenched, kinetic horror. — Haleigh Foutch
Don't Look Now (1973)
There is a quality to grief that accentuates everything about life; every breath, every beat, even stillness becomes heightened in a world that somehow seems re-lit and re-cast by the fires of suffering. Don’t Look Now pulls of an incredibly rare feat by capturing that desperate immediacy. Then it uses it to torment you through an almost unconscious fright that unfurls as the film blends present, future, and past to evoke parallelism and suspicion of the predetermined in an agonizing lilt toward the supernatural. Roeg uses visual metaphors and subtle hints of impending doom to drag the viewer into the depths of guilt and despair, pulling off a unlikely but seamless marriage between stark domestic drama and supernatural scares, and ultimately putting the pieces together until they form an image of soulful, heartbreaking horror. — Haleigh Foutch
The vampires in Blade II jump, fight, and do feats of near-acrobatic skill. Colin Farrell’s hunky bloodsucker in the Fright Night remake wears little more than a white t-shirt and jeans. Modernity and vampirism have done well together as it turns out, but there remains something about the haunting stillness of Tod Browning’s original Dracula from 1931. For those who look only for movies that are smarter than they are as humans, who need irony and dismissiveness to get along in the world, the original tale of the count’s meeting with the Harkin family won’t have much effect at all.
The black-and-white cinematography remains gorgeous and Browning’s shot compositions are exquisite, but if you want psychological menace, that’s not what this is about. Bela Lugosi’s take on the character is one that stresses his regal bearing, his veneer of the aristocracy and an age-old class. Browning sees the confidence in such a creature and also the wisdom. As good as Farrell is in Fright Night, he’s boastful, aggressive, and obvious. Lugosi’s creature wears his world-weariness, intellect, and experience like a fitted suit, never straining to catch his victim, rather knowing that he has the power to ensnare them and turn them. There are plenty of imitators worthy of pointing out but nothing beats the original in this regard. – Chris Cabin
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi‘s absence from the horror genre was sorely felt in the near decade he spent away after 2000’s The Gift, but when he returned, he returned in style with one of the best and most bananas films on his resume. Drag Me to Hell follows an unassuming, generally kind young woman, Christine (Alison Lohman), who chooses the exact wrong moment to act in her own self-interest when she denies a wretched old woman (Lorna Raver) a bank loan, effectively evicting her from her home. That woman turns out to be a powerful gypsy who can lay down one hell of a curse, and sics a Lamia demon on Christine that torments her for three days before dragging her alive into the pits of hell.
Raimi’s return to horror is some of the finest work in his career, his trademark gross-out gags and skewed cinematography perfected by his years of experience behind the camera, and his knack for kinetic horror amplified by his time at the helm of the action-packed Spider-Man franchise. As a result, Drag Me to Hell is an oozing, ass-kicking thrill ride that’s silly, gruesome, visceral, and raucously entertaining. — Haleigh Foutch
David Lynch is the indisputable reigning champ of modern cinematic surrealism and he cemented that status straight away with his feature film debut Eraserhead. Completed over the course of five years, Lynch described the film as a “dream of dark and troubling things” and that’s pretty accurate. But it’s more of a nightmare than a dream, and those dark and troubling things tend to revolve around fear of marriage, fatherhood, and society’s pre-ascribed roles, mixed in with a sick-making biological paranoia. Through Lynch’s craftsmanship, Eraserhead is as beautiful as it is disgusting, a black-and-white fever dream and a sensory assault of textures and symphonic ambient sound.
But for all of Eraserhead‘s technical achievement, it’s a legendary piece of filmmaking because it’s never more confounding than it is engaging. When Henry (John Nance) discovers an old fling resulted in the birth of a wormy, lizard-likemalformity whose hunger is as unending as its cries, his life is turned upside down in a series of visions and unsettling tangents where every indulgence sets a trap for further terrors. Lynch proves a remarkable emotional command with his ability to wring sympathy for the pathetic, putrid creature who lays there throughout the film like a raw nerve and constant source of agitation. Eraserhead is a force of singular vision, with Lynch serving as director, producer, writer, editor and sound designer, and as a result it unfolds singular horrors that defy genre categorization and announce the emergence of one of cinema’s most unnerving and beguiling voices. — Haleigh Foutch
The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Brace yourself, those who have never tangled with Evil Dead 2 before! If you’ve already seen The Evil Dead…well, some of this might come off as familiar. And yes, it really, really is all but identical in content to the first film. And yet, that’s what makes its crucial differentiations, the decisive ways in which director Sam Raimi makes this its own gory, glorious movie, all the more impressive. Ash’s second trip to the cabin in the woods promises that he’ll be dead by dawn and that his companions will be decimated. Well, the Deadites who made that claim were half right at least. This is where Ash gets his famous chainsaw hand and inaugurates it with the blood of a few white-eyed banshees. It’s funnier, it’s scarier, and to quote Jack Black in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of High Fidelity, “the soundtrack kicks fucking ass.” – Chris Cabin
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. Not just in 1973, but still to this day. When it first arrived in theaters, audiences completely flipped. There were reports of fainting and fleeing audience members, viewers making sick in the aisles, and while that’s usually the kind of stuff you’d chalk up to marketing, it is completely believable for the context in which the film arrived. Because The Exorcist is the demonic possession movie that cast the mold, even the most hardened of horror-going audiences had never seen anything like William Friedkin’s wickedly sinful, staggeringly sympathetic portrait of a 12-year-old girl’s battle with the devil.
Friedkin called upon his filmmaking origins as a documentarian to stage The Exorcist as an extremely realistic and all-too-believable attack from hell itself. But that never keeps the film from being cinematic, and Friedkin cleverly stages it as an intimate slow-burn drama for most of the film’s run, a move that makes the iconic, climatic showdown with the devil all the more horrifying.
You have been lulled into believing this world, you have invested completely in the humanity of these characters — who it, should be said are played gloriously from all involved — and then Friedkin pits them in the ultimate battle between good and evil. And he does it with the vilest, most ungodly deeds unfolding in exquisitely rendered detail across the screen. In an age when we’ve seen just about everything under the sun, and after decades of imitators and technological advancement, the ground-breaking effects and shock value aren’t what drive it home, it’s Friedkin’s commitment to the narrative and his belief in its inherent horrors that make The Exorcist such an enduring example of the heights genre filmmaking can achieve. — Haleigh Foutch
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Georges Franju was one of the creators of the famous French Cinematheque that housed long lost classics and introduced the filmmakers of the French New Wave. He’d worked tirelessly during World War II to find, protect, and move around various film cans from being destroyed. Franju was obviously a lover of the moving image. And in his most beloved film that he himself directed, Eyes Without a Face, the image creates the entire mood.
Franju’s eerie film follows a plastic surgeon that specializes in transplanting living skin tissue from one person to another. When he causes a car accident that disfigures his daughter (Edith Scob), he begins to abduct women and flay their skin, attempting to give his daughter a new face; when it doesn’t work, he has his assistant drop their bodies in the river. Meanwhile, his daughter awaits a new face behind a white mask, eerily ghost-like. When she learns what his father is doing for her, Scob and Franju are shockingly able to show sadness not for herself, but for the victims who her father is trying to graft her, with only eye movement behind an emotionless façade. — Brian Formo
The Fly (1986)
Jeff Goldblum is immediately engaging and charming in a lonely, obsessive way as Seth Brundle, a genius scientist who allows a cute, flirtatious reporter, Veronica (Geena Davis) to follow his creation of a teleporter. That’s what makes what happens to him in The Fly so devastating. The way most people get about The Notebook, I get about The Fly. When an accident leads to Seth’s DNA getting spliced with the DNA of a fly, Brundle sees a boost in his abilities but soon begins to mutate and deteriorate into a monster.
Any other director and any other actor, and this film would play like a laughing stock. In this case, however, watching the sweet-natured, brilliant young man turn into an insect monster bent on destroying the woman Brundle loved reminds me of great melodrama, even opera. It’s borderline traumatic, and one can easily suss out the allusions to AIDS and the demons of professional ambition in the narrative. The Fly represents the human potential of modern horror, the upper echelons of how the tenants of the genre could imbue with high art to create something both extraordinarily beautiful and deeply upsetting. - Chris Cabin
If Dracula wasn’t your cup of 1930s monster-movie tea, then there’s a very good chance that director James Whale‘s Frankenstein was. Boris Karloff burst onto the scene in a big way as the Monster in this briskly paced mad-scientist thriller that’s arguably every bit as influential as Dracula, if not more so. Thanks to Laemmle Jr.’s foresight in landing the rights to Dracula and that film’s nearly instantaneous success, Universal Pictures greenlit a number of monster pictures, of which Frankenstein would be next. It also features a curious introduction by actor Edward Van Sloan who warns the audience that the story of Frankensteinmight horrify us, which of course only added to the titillation.
Despite its relatively short runtime of 70 minutes and its prevalence in our modern culture, Frankenstein was heavily censored in certain regions upon release. One scene that was long considered controversial–and is probably my favorite part of the whole picture–is when the monster throws a little girl into the lake, ultimately drowning her. Other censors asked to cut Dr. Frankenstein’s line about knowing what it’s like to “be God”, the same line in which he famously shouts, “It’s alive!” The most egregious censorship would have trimmed the film down to nearly half its length. Luckily, thanks to modern conveniences and the preservation of this film by the Library of Congress, we have viewing access to the entirety of this classic horror icon. — Dave Trumbore
Moving away from the realm of famous Universal Monsters and into the taboo, we have Tod Browning’s follow-up to the very successful Dracula with MGM’s first horror picture, Freaks. This much-maligned film, which is nearly impossible to categorize due to how unique it is, elicited strongly negative reviews from critics, heavily censored edits before release, was pulled before completing its domestic run, and suffered a sizable loss at the box office. The poor reception essentially ended Browning’s filmmaking career and burned off any cachet Dracula had earned him.
And yet Freaks found a resurgence in popularity among counterculture groups and film buffs in the last 40 years or so. The film, which no longer exists in its original, even more shocking version, tells of a troupe of circus performers including a collection of “freaks” put on display for paying audiences. The cast included actual performers, people with physical disabilities or abnormalities, and other conditions, as well as “normal” actors playing the more traditional roles. However, Freaks is anything but traditional since it portrays the beautiful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) as truly ugly and corrupt people attempting to take advantage of the “freaks.” Let’s just say that they get what’s coming to them.
Freaks might not seem like a horror movie until you get to the last 15 minutes or so, at which point it becomes rather terrifying. So if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and seek it out. If you have seen it, considers yourself one of us, one of us! — Dave Trumbore
From Beyond (1986)
The ghastly visions that Gordon conjures when Jeffrey Combs’ assistant returns with his psychiatrist and a bodyguard are some of the most imaginative and wildly provocative that 1980s cinema provided but the point is not merely to shock and scare. The mad scientist knows quite a lot about engineering, science, and philosophy and his goal is to know what only God knows; in other words, he wishes to be God. There’s something uniquely remarkable about a horror movies that uses egregious yet not sadistic violence to the body to give a sense of the true terror that the mind is capable of creating. – Chris Cabin
Funny Games (1997)
With this 1997 art-house white-knuckler, Michael Haneke honed his occasionally self-serving indictment of audiences who look toward violence, torture, and death for their entertainments to a fine point. Two pleasant-seeming psychotics enter the home of an affluent family and put them through a series of near-sickening games in which their lives are constantly on the line. The psychotic boys intermittently address the audience, and even rewind the film at one point, suggesting that the viewers are in on their cruel activities and are, in a way, rooting for them.
Funny Games is a stunning criticism that hits like a jackhammer at certain moments, but Haneke cops out in one regard, in that he never faces his own place in the making of films that are mainly built on suffering and death. Still, Funny Games is one of the venerable filmmaker’s most exhilarating creations, right up there with Cache, Code Unknown, and The White Ribbon, and though his moral arguments are muddled, the power of his film’s clinical visuals and menacing plot turns cannot be denied. — Chris Cabin
Slasher films certainly weren’t new when horror maestro John Carpenter got his hands on the subgenre with his third feature film, Halloween, but they were never better and never more viscerally terrifying. Halloween may not be the first, but it is the definitive, setting the template for decades of slasher flicks to come that would riff on the film’s stylistic devices and creeping, slow-burn dread as freely as Carpenter riffed on Psycho and Peeping Tom. And in Michael Meyers, the unrelenting force of evil at the heart of the decades-long running franchise, Carpenter introduced one of cinema’s all-time great ghouls — the slow-marching force of evil that would be emulated endlessly in almost every slasher movie to follow.
Meyers is as unknowable as he is unstoppable; pure murder incarnate, a soulless evil searching only for the next young flesh to sink his knife into. And Carpenter gave him a “final girl” to match, Jaime Lee Curtis’ Laurie, who likewise set the mold for all slasher survivors to come with a formidable career-defining performance. In addition to Carpenter’s commanding character creations and expertly taut pacing, not enough credit can be paid to his iconic soundtrack, which turns the simply-framed shots into prolonged beats of terror. To watch Halloween is to watch a genre great define his own talents so implicitly that it wrote the rule book for generations to come. — Haleigh Foutch
And it all started with Hellraiser, a film that explores the linked sensations of pain and pleasure on a number of levels. The main players are Larry Cotton and his second wife Julia, who cheated on him with his brother Frank shortly after they were married. This sets up one of the most bizarre yet rich mythologies in cinema history: Julia’s obsession with Frank continues well after his death and is rejuvenated when Frank himself is resurrected. However, Frank needs fresh blood to return to his full health, blood that Julia is happy to supply by luring men back to Frank’s abandoned childhood home and sacrificing them.
And yet, as horrible as this is, it’s mundane compared to the arrival of the Cenobites, beings from another dimension obsessed with carnal experiences elucidating the extremes of pain and pleasure. Their design and presence is fantastic in the truest sense of the word and the practical effects on display here are just as terrifying today as they were in 1987. If you haven’t seen the original or any of the sequels, Hellraiser is the perfect place to start. If you’re not careful, this movie will tear your soul apart. – Dave Trumbore
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Michael Rooker plays Henry and it’s a brilliant performance. His Henry isn’t an approachable guy who goes dark on you when triggered. His Henry doesn’t have any wildly disturbed tics, either. Something is off, but that thing that Henry is missing is empathy and a conscience (he never knows when he’s going past a personal barrier) and it’s the type of personality dysfunction that usually can’t be picked up on until you’re already a little too close. You don’t watch Portrait of a Serial Killer for excitement and shrieks; you watch it to pass a basic humanity test. If you’re deeply troubled by the film and can’t shake it, you have a conscience. In some miraculous way, Henry will improve your viewing of horror films and shift your attention more to the victims and away from a fixation on the killer. — Brian Formo
House of the Devil (2009)
After his well-chronicled struggled on Cabin Fever 2 (which he disowned), Ti West became an instant genre director to watch in 2009 with House of the Devil, a delightfully old-fashioned tale of satanism that remains one of the best things to come out of the vintage-tinged horror throwback trend. West wrote, directed and edited House of the Devil, which ultimately becomes the film’s great strength. The film feels like the force of a single creative vision, an intimately and exactly articulated homage that never feels beholden to the subgenre it’s homaging because of the obvious delight it takes in playing by those rules.
Centered on a good-natured college student Sam (Jocelin Donahue) who’s desperate for some cold hard cash, House of the Devil follows her to the titular house of horror’s where she’s recruited the vaguely eerie, though charming Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) for a high-paying babysitting gig. Eager for a sum of cash that could turn her life around, Sam ignores all the red flags along the way until it’s far too late and House of the Devil delights in withholding the big scares as those creepy clues add up until the moment of maximum impact. It’s a beautiful movie that’s not afraid of the slow-burn and the nostalgia never suffocates the smoldering atmospheric dread that is occasionally punctuated by moments of blunt violence. — Haleigh Foutch
The Innocents (1961)
The Innocents is one of the most evocatively shot horror films of all time. Both narratively and visually, this ghost tale is about what we do in the shadows. The black and white cinematography makes candle flickers unpredictable, the space under a doorway extra creepy, but Jack Clayton also uses it to highlight the black-and-white approach of right and wrong adherence in religion that makes people go mad. In The Innocents, we’re never sure if the ghosts are real or are a manifestation of a mind that’s shaming itself for losing innocence.
Deborah Kerr plays a governess who believes that the grounds of the house—where she cares for two orphaned children—are haunted, perhaps even working to possess the children. Her first inkling of a haunting comes after she hears the children’s uncle (a lascivious Michael Redgrave) boast of a sexual encounter. There’s further evidence that the previous governess and her brutish lover might have introduced sexuality to the children at a young age. There’s an inkling that Kerr’s governess is so sexually repressed that her desire to take care of children is a substitution for feelings of attraction to their experienced uncle. She sees ghostly spirits, whether they’re there or not, and Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis find shadowy dread in every corner. But an undervalued feat is done by screenwriter Truman Capote, who turns a screw on the Henry James novella, The Turning of the Screw, and introduces a locket and photograph at a much earlier point than James’ novella in order to turn the screw on the audience and call everything into question. — Brian Formo
Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo nightmare of maternity and grief is a sticky, gruesome affair that’s splatter-painted with thick, hard-earned torrents of blood. Four months after the horrific car crash that killed her husband, Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is in mourning and about to give birth when a mysterious and malicious woman creeps into her home with the intent to cut the baby from her belly with a pair of scissors. From the moment La Femme (Beatrice Dalle) slips those shears into Sarah’s navel, the movie descends into frenetic in-your-face chaos caked with blood that spatters, sprays, drips, drops, jets, explodes and oozes absolutely everywhere on screen. Sarah escapes La Femme’s initial attack to a pristine white bathroom, gleaming with white tiles, white towels, a white shower curtain, and Sarah herself in a white nightgown. Then we watch as minute by minute it’s desecrated and defaced by unending torrents of bloodshed.
The film suffers from some logic issues, especially near the end, but what it lacks in plot, it makes up for in a ferocious, breathless battle of attrition. The two women go at each other with primal rage, and Inside transforms everyday household items into objects of terror through a series of escalating set-pieces; scissors, knitting needles, hairpins, toasters, teeth, and air freshener are all used to inflict maximum damage. Absolutely anything and everything that can be used as a weapon is brought to bear as an instrument of destruction in this war. Because what this film boils down to in its final act is an all-out, no prisoners, guerilla war between two badass bitches determined to keep this baby; a savage battle that leaves the house awash in a waterfall of blood and viscera. — Haleigh Foutch
It Follows (2014)
It Follows boasts one of the most extraordinarily clever concepts for a horror film in ages. The story centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a sweet high school girl who finds herself caught in a deadly bind after she contracts a sexually-transmitted death sentence after giving into her adolescent lust one night. Jay hasn’t caught an STD, but something much worse; a ghoulish apparition that stalks her wherever she goes, ever close behind. It follows. When “it” reaches her, she will die…horribly. She can give it to someone else by sleeping with them, but if it kills them, it will move back to her, and so on, right up the line of everyone who’s ever caught it. David Robert Mitchell’s concept is brilliant, and while the script fumbles at moments, his execution of that concept is gorgeous.
The film is shot with a hazy dreamlike aesthetic that’s strengthened by Disasterpeace’s alternately ethereal and ominous score. Playing on our innate fears of intimacy and mortality, It Follows excels at a sensation of creeping unease; a relentless dread and paranoia that will…well, follow you for days. – Haleigh Foutch
Jaws is a bonafide classic, an enduring cinematic adventure that never looses its effect. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Spielberg famously struggled with “Bruce”, the unreliable on-set shark construct that forced him to reevaluate and use the giant beast sparingly — a move that makes his big appearance an ace in the hole when the film finally delivers on the promise of the enormous primordial beast. Jaws will have you busting a gut one moment before twisting those guts into intolerable suspense and horror the next, much of that inherent terror thanks to John Williams‘ groundbreaking score. A movie about a giant shark has no business this excellent, but what Spielberg and co. wrest from that barebones concept is a tremendous character drama that pits the spectacularly rendered heroes against the greatest antagonist of all, that bitch mother nature. And it’s unmitigable proof that Spielberg is a force of nature as fierce as any of the wonders you’ll find in his films. — Haleigh Foutch
Let the Right One In (2008)
Thomas Alfredson‘s 2008 masterpiece is an adolescent vampire film only in the most literal sense. Adapted from the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay), Let the Right One In is a staggeringly mature and intellectual spin on immortality, bloodlust, and the need to belong told through the contrast between first love and ancient longing. The story focuses on an outcast and disturbed 12-year-old boy Oskar, who bonds with his new neighbor, Eli, an enchanting immortal in a child’s body with an unquenchable thirst for human blood. As the oddball duo connects over their shared macabre obsessions and deepest secrets, they learn to trust and love each other with a complicated but earnest devotion.
Let the Right One In is an absolutely gorgeous film that showcases remarkable work from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, but it’s deeper beauty lies in the tender and terrible emotions it evokes, vacillating between the heart-warming and horrific with a rich, soulful sadness. A vampire film unlike any before it, Let the Right One In is one of those rare cinematic blessings that pushes the boundaries of genre and escalates it to new heights. — Haleigh Foutch
Near Dark (1987)
After spending the previous decade in sexploitation films, vampires re-emerged in the 80s as postmodern leather-clad punks. And that look gave filmmakers a lot of new angles to play with: gangs, bikers and junkies. All of those groups run in packs and engage in more dangerous behaviors than the old-fashioned singular vampires of old. These were a new breed of terrorizing clans and sorry (not sorry), Lost Boys, but Kathryn Bigelow‘s Near Dark is the best of the 1980s vampire movies. She puts them in a hybrid of both the neo-western and the road movie that became popular in the 70s and she also seems to call bullshit on eternal love.
These vampires are modern bandits. They roll down our sleepy highways. In the best scene, they pick a bar fight. The epically named Severen (a wild Bill Paxton) has blades at the tip of his cowboy boots, an addition that removes the need to bite, and thus removes the intimacy of feasting that most vampires previously engaged with their victims. But there is still an intimacy in Near Dark. It’s a young love that starts at a convenient store (between Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright). But Bigelow presents the young idea of eternal love as something that could only be fueled by the type of things that keep you close to death: sex, drugs and rock and roll; thus on the edge of death at all times. — Brian Formo
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead are called “ghouls” but nonetheless this is the film that created the movie zombie as we know them: blank, thoughtless creatures who lumber around with vacant stares and barely retain any resembling sense of their humanity. For this reason, the thrill of the movie zombie has generally been in seeing how our heroes with brains dispatch them with great efficiency and cruelty. They’re no longer human, after all.
However, re-watch Romero’s film and try not to escape with having more sympathy for the “ghouls” than most of the humans. The living humans mostly only retain humanity’s weakest learned attributes: prejudice, xenophobia and selfishness. The most selfless non-ghoul we follow (Duane Jones) is famously shot—after valiantly fighting against the ghouls—simply because his skin color triggers a suspicious reaction to the man on the other end of the rifle. But Romero plants many other distrusts of authority motifs throughout Night of the Living Dead. In 1968, recent public opinion on the war of Vietnam and in the police tactics during the Civil Rights movement had shifted to no longer give blanket trust of best intentions to law enforcement, generals and soldiers. They’re human after all, and many humans harbor ill intent to others. Just watch the burial of the once human ghouls who are dragged out by meat hooks and burned in a pile and try not to think of any xenophobic war or a horrific systemic view of the “other”. — Brian Formo
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
With Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven introduced one of horror’s all-time greatest villains in Robert Englund‘s Freddy Krueger, a cruel and crass killer of children who somehow manages to charm even as he cuts his way through the innocents of Elm Street. In fact, Kreuger’s legacy has grown so great over the years, spawning seven sequels and a remake along the way, that it can outshine how incredibly innovative and well-executed Craven’s original film was, and how inherently brilliant the film’s basic idea was.
Craven took the slasher concept popularized by films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, twisted it through the lens of nightmarish dream logic, and redefined it through subtle genre deconstruction (though nowhere near as outright as his New Nightmare and Scream). Craven found a way to take the tropes of the slasher genre and reshape into the legend of Freddy Krueger. You can’t escape most slasher killers because, well that’s just how the genre works, but it’s innate to Kreuger’s very construct. At the end of the day our dreams are always waiting for us, and if he’s set his sights on you, Freddy Kreuger is there waiting too. — Haleigh Foutch
In one of the earliest of vampire films and still, to this day, the absolute best, F.W. Murnau does not attempt to romanticize his vampire but instead presents him as a diseased and weasely shell. Count Orlok (Max Schreck) is the physical representation of death. With pointy ears and nose, structurally, he has the face of scavenger, and the long pale claws of a devil. Murnau does not attempt to film Schreck in a manner that would imply that he used to be human; with his claws and hunched posture, his every movement appears as though he’s dragging hell within his shadow. Yeah, not romantic.
Despite all warnings from the town, an agent and his bride travel to visit Nosferatu, who hopes to purchase a new estate. There is a big payday if the agent completes the sale, but his bride is also at stake. And while future films will go to great and exciting lengths to romanticize and sexualize the creature that beckons a potential eternal bride, Nosferatu works as a stunning metaphor for the blindness people have when financial rewards are dangled. Even when it’s dangling from claws.
Nosferatu isn’t just the best vampire movie ever made. It’s one of the best films evermade. Period. — Brian Formo
Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog’s breathtaking remake of F.W. Murnau‘s 1922 essential Nosferatuis both an homage to what he considers the most important German film of all time, and a definitive entry into his own career that cements his status as one of modern cinema’s most poetic artists. When making Nosferatu, Murnau famously couldn’t access the rights to Dracula, so he adapted the material to his needs, changing names and locations, in a bold move that resulted in a cinematic masterpiece that was almost entirely struck from existence as a result of retaliatory lawsuits from Bram Stoker‘s widow. By the time Herzog got his hands on the material for Nosferatu The Vampyre, Dracula had fallen into the public domain, so the filmmaker was able to merge the two great source materials into one of the finest horror dramas of all time.
Herzog presents the vampire mythos through the spectrum of loneliness as an ancient ache, questioning any inherent advantage of immortality when one must spend it so completely alone. That existential investigation is carried by a triumphant performance from the director’s long-time collaborator and object of fascination turned mortal enemy (no seriously, watch My Best Fiend), Klaus Kinski. In Kinski’s hands, Count Dracula is as pathetic as he is powerful, spreading his insidious scourge with the weariness of a monster never indulged in mortal rest. His desperation and longing are ultimately his undoing in the staggeringly beautiful, bizarrely sensual climactic moment when he finally feasts on Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani). That scene acts as a sort of crystallization of the film’s power; an iconic moment in the Dracula mythology that Herzog managed to subtly reinvent with his infusion of pathos.
Thanks to Herzog’s gift for capturing nature’s perilous beauty and the reliably resplendent work of his frequent cinematographic collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, every beat of the classic tale is rendered with the utmost visual artistry. In Herzog’s hands, the daring remake of one of horror’s greatest films becomes a doting homage (sometimes down to the very shot) while also establishing its own place in the canon of the genre. — Haleigh Foutch
Eyeballs. To me, there’s nothing more disgusting than things happening to eyeballs in a horror film. These violent images are being observed through your own eyeballs after all. The very thing that is being harmed in the film in front of you is entering your own iris and traveling up to your brain. Anyway, Dario Argento fully understands the eyeball horror and he exploits it gleefully in Opera.
Opera is an elaborate stalker film. Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is an operetta singer who’s about to perform Phantom of the Opera in Rome but she’s forced to watch everyone who gets close to her die in a horrible fashion, while the killer has her trapped behind glass with needles placed under her eyelids, so closely, if she closes them her eyes will be shredded. So, for her, the show must go on.
Argento goes even further with eye terrors, using peepholes and the point of view of a crow’s eye in the rafters of the opera (from a crow cam!) and it’s delicious and grotesque fun (not for the squeamish, Argento also heightens the sound of the kills and plays metal music on the score; he’s gutting your every sense!). He also puts a camera in a trashcan to frame the dumping of evidence as though it’s dropping through an iris. It’s also pretty deep, right? She’s being forced to watch unspeakable horrors but her eyes also deceive her ability to see the killer fully. ~ Brian Formo
Peeping Tom (1960)
Audiences were so horrified by Peeping Tom that it was actually pulled from theaters. They felt violated and betrayed because one of the most revered and hopeful of Britain’s directors, Michael Powell (The Red Shoes), had made something perverse and psychotic. He made viewers confront the level of thrill-seeking they hope to get from a moving image by following a smutty photographer/amateur filmmaker (Karl Boehm) who photographs nudie pics for side money, but gets his real thrills from filming women while he stabs them to death with a blade on his tripod.
When the photographer begins to form a friendship with his downstair’s neighbor, he attempts to reform, but his psychosis goes much deeper than thrills and reveals a nefarious experimentation in fear, with his father as the controller and he as the subject. Powell, who always possessed one of the most impressive visual eyes, uses the grainy mouth-open screams of women to communicate to the audience that the act of filmmaking is providing something to voyeurs. There are different levels, sure, like the fellow that Boehm observes shopping for nude photos in says store but says no to purchasing a nudie film. With a picture you retain control of your fantasy. With a motion picture, someone else has control of the imagination and you just watch. — Brian Formo
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Another touchstone of horror from the silent film era is the Swedish picture Körkarlen, literally “The Wagoner”, or as its U.S. title calls it, The Phantom Carriage. The film’s release came with an early touch of viral marketing since it was released on New Year’s Day in 1921 and, as the story goes, the last person to die before the New Year becomes Death’s carriage driver and soul collector for the following year. This fantastic premise sets up a story about a dysfunctional family as told through a relatively advanced narrative structure using flashbacks within other flashbacks and special effects achieved through double exposure.
In The Phantom Carriage you’ll find early echoes of such redemptive tales as Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” or even Frank Capra‘s 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. This tale deals with Death more directly than those Christmas movies. In fact, it’s cited as a major influence on Ingmar Bergman who would would revisit Death in the 1957 film The Seventh Seal. It’s also rather apparent that The Phantom Carriage influenced Stanley Kubrick since there’s a scene that clearly inspired a classic moment in The Shining nearly 60 years later. That alone makes this film a must-watch. — Dave Trumbore
Location, location, location. If only the Freeling family had taken the first law of real estate to heart, they would have saved themselves a lot of headaches. Not that it was their fault that their house, and all the others in the community, happened to be built on a pre-existing cemetery. With a story like that, it’s no surprise that Tobe Hooper was at the helm of this horror classic, but what may be surprising to some is the fact that Steven Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay, would have also directed it were it not for a contractual conflict with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (The story goes that Spielberg’s “take-charge” personality had more influence than might appear on paper.)
Instead of Spielberg’s signature style, what we get is a nightmarish carousel of every type of haunt that could conceivably scare audiences. Spooky kids talking to ghosts in the machine, grasping trees that come to life, creepy clowns, lurking closet danger, and spirits from beyond, not to mention corpses rising from their graves and nearly drowning or being buried alive in mud. Dark Spielberg is my favorite Spielberg and this is easily his most “horror” film he’s ever written. Memorable for its characters, its quotable dialogue, and its smart plotting that keeps audiences guessing, Poltergeist is an 80s horror classic that still makes me want to wheel the TV outside, just in case. – Dave Trumbore
Possession is a film of escalating tones that build without a break between the tones, until it’s ultimately a cacophony of high-pitched screams. Unlike an argument that gets bigger and bigger to the point where someone leaves, smokes a cigarette or takes a walk, and then comes back and apologizes for letting things boil over, Possession has an argument that boils over, spills blood onto the floor, goes out the door to have sex with a Lovecraftian monster, has a cruel and goopy bodily breakdown in a subway and a heightened showdown at the Berlin Wall.
Andrzej Zulawski’s film takes the type of domestic drama that Ingmar Bergmanand John Cassavettes turned into probing masterpieces of relationships in hysteria and he pushes it into a toxic nightmare. Every screaming match between the married couple (a wide-eyed Isabelle Adjani and a vein-popping Sam Neill) feels like it could end in murder. And the wife’s sexual obsession that forms with both a stranger and a strange thing, shows a death wish attraction and complete lack of self worth. Every scene in this film feels like it could end with death or fucking—or by fucking someone to death.
Possession is one of the tensest films you’ll ever see, but there are icky rewards here, too. Never has anyone been asked to go the lengths that Adjani does here for a horror film. She wrecks her body and during production, it even undid her mind, as Adjani said it took years of therapy to erase the intensity of emotional breakdowns she was asked to do. There’s a perversity in knowing that she want mad during production, but it’s one of the greatest performances of the decade. The proof is in the groceries. ~ Brian Formo
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the big kahuna of this list. The shower murder of our beautiful heroine (Janet Leigh) features 77 camera angles and almost as many cuts (and string shrieks from composer Bernard Herrmann). It’s one of the most perfect moments in all of cinema. And there’s so much to unpack from those three minutes alone; everything in this scene is so close and jarring it gives the affect of visual processing itself, as the eye funnels the violence down the drain of our own mind.
But as standalone amazing that sequence is, the rest of the film is equally terrific. One of Hitchock’s most amazing feats that he pulls of with Psycho is creating fully formed characters whom he knew he was going to dispatch halfway through or introduce halfway through. It’s something that most horror films don’t have the gall to attempt: to humanize the victim that won’t make it and simultaneously their relationship with the killer. Our heroes and heroines and villains don’t need to be with us every step of the way.
Psycho is a pure flex of the film muscle. Like Powell, Hitchcock understands that the very act of filmmaking is presenting something to voyeurs and he begins by putting his actress in a bra but then later shows the disturbed hotel manager (Anthony Perkins) looking through a hole at her; Hitchcock knows that the audience will recoil, even though he’s repeating the same anti-Production Code act that the audience probably enjoyed at the start of the movie. — Brian Formo
Pulse, or Kairo as it’s titled in Japan, is a masterclass in terror through sound design. As a whole, Pulse can be hit and miss, falling into lapses of stagnant dialogue and slow-moving action, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, Pulse delivers some shit-your-pants horrifying set-pieces that are, for my money, some of the scariest moments in horror history. A none-too-subtle metaphor for the isolating effects of technology, Pulse finds the human world invaded by spirits from the internet. It sounds goofy. It’s not. Elevated by an unnerving, wailing score from Takefumi Haketa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s terrifying tale of supernatural invasion plays with your senses, using light and shadow, sound and music, and eerie, unnatural movement to create otherworldly menace, using the surreal and the suggestive to evoke fever-pitch fear and despair. It’s one of the best and most original films to come out of the J-Horror boom, and while the tale of techno-doomsday occasionally threatens to overstay its welcome, the moments of feverish dread make the lulls well worth the wait. — Haleigh Foutch
Horror movies taking cues from H.P. Lovecraft‘s iconic works—even if the work in question happens to be one of his most poorly received—is a great place to start with the right creative team. It might surprise you to find that Re-Animator was inspired by Lovecraft, but the 1920s short story serial “Herbert West, Reanimator” was one of the first fiction stories to envision zombies as scientifically resurrected entities; it’s also the first mention of Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University. Gordon and his writing team only adapted Lovecraft’s first two segments of the story for this film, but the final segments were later adapted in 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator.
Gordon’s contemporary take on Re-Animator kept the title character of Herbert West but brought him from his inauspicious career at the University of Zurich to New England’s Miskatonic University to continue his training as a medical student. The movie quickly dives into its mythology centering on scientific experiments bent on reanimating dead tissue (be they cats or humans) and soon folds in the concept of mind-control and themes of anti-authority, all complemented with fantastically low-budget practical effects. This is a must-watch for horror aficionados. - Dave Trumbore
While many found footage horrors suffer from the seemingly silly “keep the camera rolling” imperative even as the world topples around the person capturing the chaos, [REC] employs a simple narrative device – that is, our central protagonist Ángela (Manuela Velasco) is a television reporter – to keep the camera’s continuous rolling from crossing over into the absurd. Inadvertently entering an apartment complex moments before it’s discovered to be the ground zero of a curious (and increasingly vicious) zombie infection, Ángela becomes immediately intent on documenting the spread of the disease; that is, until the bubbling violence turns a would-be broadcast into a tooth and nail fight for her life. Making good use of its claustrophobic environment, [REC] languishes in sickening person-to-person scares (a la The Mist) before ticking the “supernatural horror” box in an incredibly taught final scene – and while perhaps the indulgence could strike some viewers as unnecessary, it’s inarguable that the film’s final minutes remain some of the highest pitched tension the genre has to offer. — Aubrey Page
Roman Polanski’s first English-language film follows a fractured woman who fears penetration from every man she encounters. It’s also a film that breaks into new fractures due to the grotesque and crooked turns in Polanski’s personal life that came later (the brainwashed cult murder of his wife and child, and his drugged rape of a teenager). There’s a sense in Repulsion that no one has control of his or her mind. Certainly Carole (Catherine Deneuve) has no control over her fear of sex (with small hints of previous abuse). She has nightmares of hands breaking through the wall and groping her and thinks of men cornering her and raping her. She’s paralyzed and near mute by these visions.
There’s also a sense that the men can’t help it either, not necessarily that all men could potentially rape, but they don’t know how to not be turned on by someone as beautiful as Deneuve. Polanski films most of her psychological breakdowns while she wears a near sheer nightie. I don’t think it’s meant to be gratuitous, but perhaps Polanski feels that he should provide evidence that she should indeed be afraid. Even when she’s had a complete meltdown and requires help off the floor, the manor in which she’s cradled by the man who helps her is filmed like a successful conquest of carrying a virgin into the bedroom for the first time. Repulsion is a fantastic psychological study that’s perhaps even more psychological and, at times, repulsive—now that we know of Polanski’s fractured existence. — Brian Formo
For the most part, this J-horror classic keeps to the same plot turns as Gore Verbinski’s exemplary remake: there’s a video out there that once you see it, you die an awful, unexplainable death via (seemingly) a cadre of menacing spirits. Where Verbinski hung his hat on the journalistic investigation into the source of the tape and its confounding imagery, but the original Ringu leans on imagery itself to replicate the effect of the tape on its victims for the audience, smash cutting to more bewitching and disturbing visions of a young woman with long black hair who twitches and contorts in unexpected ways.
Like most of the best J-horror films, Ringu is not entirely interested in the logic of its story but rather in expressing the utter eeriness and unexplainable happenings that one would imagine occur around ghosts and sinister forces. In this respect, Ringu counts as one of the most hypnotic and unforgettable works of the sub-genre. — Chris Cabin
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
For me, Rosemary’s Baby is the best horror film of all time. It operates so highly on every level. A newlywed couple, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) appear idyllic when we’re introduced to them as they shop for a new Manhattan apartment. But when there’s a lack in one person there becomes a lack in a relationship. Guy is a struggling actor and Rosemary tells everyone who’ll listen the two plays and commercials that he’s appeared in. This should sound like support, but to Guy it’s a reminder of his perceived failure. In their new apartment building they befriend some old kooks (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) down the hall.
In one hellish sequence, Rosemary drifts off to sleep on an bed on water, catches glimpses of Satan climbing atop her while Guy, the neighbors and other creeps watch the demon claw and thrust and not do not assist her as she cries. In the morning, she wakes up nude with claw marks all over her. Her husband says that he decided to impregnate her even though she was asleep because he was in the mood and they’d talked about it. So what if she was “drunk.” Rosemary later thinks that she was raped by the Devil and that Guy promised the Devil’s child to their Satanist neighbors to better his career.
Not only is the ceremony one of the most terrifying and transfixing sequences ever committed to film, it’s one of cinema’s biggest violations. There’s a violation of trust and body so profound in the ceremony, but it’s further insulted by Guy’s lax cover-up of “I wanted you right then.” The rest of the film shows Rosemary completely unable to have agency for any choice involving her body. Everything is decided by the elders and by the male doctors; even the one she trusts, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), who she chose on her own, hands her over to a different doctor because he thinks she’s unstable. Every man silences her and thinks she has no idea what is going on in her body. With many men still feeling fuzzy and woozy (like Rosemary on her drugged bed) about what actually constitutes consent and choice, Rosemary’s Baby is still one of the most terrifying and necessary films ever made. — Brian Formo
Wes Craven’s masterwork shares some DNA strands with Alejandro Amenabar’s Thesis from 1994, but whereas Amenabar leaned heavier on the academic tone, Craven indulges with colorful, anxious imagery that has denoted his pulpiest gore-laden delights, from A Nightmare on Elm Street to The Serpent and the Rainbow. The story itself, however, similarly toys with the moralism of enjoying horror movies, with Jamie Kennedy representing the giddy, know-it-all fanboy contingency and Skeet Ulrich representing the over-it seducer with Neve Campbell’s sanctified Sidney Prescott stuck in the middle as her friends and classmates are carved up by the now-famous ghost-face killer.
Sure, there’s a minor kick in watching these stereotypes get gutted, cut-up, and, in one instance, crushed to death by a garage door, but Craven’s post-modern conception here brings an unfussy maturity to a genre that was always denoted for its general cheapness and impersonal feel. Scream marks perhaps the most personal and reflective of all the slashers, and represents a major turn towards big-budget horror as a place for burgeoning auteurs to hone their craft and flourish in distinct new directions. — Chris Cabin
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
From a script he penned with long-time collaborator and star Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright‘s joyful horror comedy goes straight for the guts with horror, humor, and a healthy dose of heartfelt character drama. Shaun of the Dead stars Pegg as the titular hero, an affable if under-accomplished young man who’s jarred out of his stagnant day-to-day when the zombie apocalypse spurs him to reunite with his estranged girlfriend and sort out his issues with his mom. With his crass, foul-mouthed best friend in tow (played by the hilarious and endearing Nick Frost), Shaun sets out to save the day and prove his worth in the midst of the “zed-word” plague.
Wright directs with his signature vibrancy and pop culture reference, striking a razor-wire balance between homage and reinvention, and the script is packed with cheeky dialogue, pithy one-liners, and generous heaps of visual comedy along the way. But if Shaun of the Dead can be gleefully silly, it also has real characters and real stakes that make the zombie action as engrossing as the laugh-out-loud comedy, and escalate the film beyond in-jokes and witty banter to something a more soulful and enduring. — Haleigh Foutch
The Shining (1980)
The only way to really make a great movie out of a Stephen King novel is to offer a counterpoint to his masterly, if not exactly sophisticated brand of storytelling. The Social Network needed both Aaron Sorkin’s cynical, prodding screenplay and David Fincher’s empathetic direction to ascend to such a distinct place in modern American cinema. Similarly, The Shining needed King’s macabre, imaginative source material as well as Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral form of visual storytelling and severe lack of romance to become what it is.
Then again, of course, The Shining could be seen as a myriad of things in its alluring, enigmatic expressiveness. At first, it’s just the greatest ghost story to ever be put to film, and yes, I’m counting The Innocents, the original The Haunting, and The Changeling when I say that. And then, with each viewing, something startling and new comes to the fore. At one point, the movie seemed to be the perfect vision of repressed, enraged masculinity, the beast inside the family man allowed full reign after years of remaining dormant. Another time, the film seemed to ingeniously encapsulate the wild, incalculable dreams of a young adolescent living with passively warring parents, with the hotel working as a playhouse for his most demented fantasies and nightmares.
None of these readings, however, fully give an amateur any sense of what Kubrick’s film really attains by the end of its brilliantly paced runtime. Like so many of the master’s best works, The Shining is at once exactly what it purports to be and a transcendental abyss far beyond that veneer, an exploration of the maddened, inventive self in what might seem like a ludicrous realm. And yet, by the time we see Jack in that photograph, one can feel that the filmmaker has been ruminating on something very personal, intimate, and disturbing within himself. The film’s popularity would only suggest that Kubrick’s inner turmoil was not unique to him alone. – Chris Cabin
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme can do anything. That sounds like a bold statement, but if you take a close look at his track record, the man has made some of the best films of the decade for the last three-to-four decades. This is true of his work perfecting the romantic comedy in Something Wild or putting some much-needed blood into the timely political drama with Philadelphia or redesigning the Altman-esque multi-character melodrama with Rachel Getting Married. Yet none of these successes are within the realm of his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, an almost operatic treatment of the horror genre.
Not for nothing is The Silence of the Lambs also a work of layered psychological confession and warfare. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter gets fleeting but substantial kicks out of breaking down the psychological walls that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a talented FBI cadet, has been building up in the fallout of her father’s death. And yet, it’s his needling of the cadet that brings her to become the stellar agent she becomes, through both offering her his opinion of the crimes and liberating her from her conditioned wanting for masculine security and dominance that she’s been looking for after her father’s death. The influence of Hannibal, another man, may signal a complication but Hopkins’ devious creation is a thing beyond power over others and when he’s done pressing the anguish out of Sterling, he relinquishes his power, leaving her calling after him, as if calling after her father one last time.
This is just one angle to take on this superb film – its views on sexuality are far more knotty subject matter – but like Se7en, the pleasures of the artistry on every level here supersede its vast intellectual applications. The acting, from Foster and Hopkins to Scott Glenn and Ted Levine, is continuously daring, attuned to physical and emotional nuances, and riveting in every sense of the word, and Demme’s direction is the kind of expert work that looks effortless on the outside and yet attains a kind of grace that few other films of any year can cop to. Over two decades later, I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs well over 50 times and still don’t get tired of its visual and dialectical details, its contours never particularly predictable despite knowing nearly every line that is spoken. This is what progressive horror looks like, and it’s a shattering realization that only a handful of films have come within its sanctum since its release. — Chris Cabin
The Sixth Sense (1999)
It would be so much easier to give up completely on M. Night Shyamalan if he hadn’t made The Sixth Sense. The unequivocal success of his 1999 feature (and cult status of Unbreakable) has seemingly been enough to keep him working despite a long line of interesting-enough mediocrities and outright disasters that have followed. It’s not entirely surprising, honestly, as The Sixth Sense shows a more assured sense of tone and audaciously expressive direction than nearly any other ghost film that was released in the 90s.
The big twist ending often overshadows the story, but it’s important to remember just how elegant his film is in the revelation of its myriad horrors and haunting visions of grief and loss. The scene where Haley Joel Osment’s seer discovers a ghost child in a friend’s home is the stuff of nightmares, while the famous “I see dead people” scene is paced with a conductors patience and precision. Beyond even its hugely admirable tenets as a ghost story, the film offers a strong thematic backbone in its considerations of being left alone to survive, as much with Bruce Willis’ wife (Olivia Williams) as with Toni Collette’s frazzled single mother. Shyamalan’s films have always balanced the troubles of the living with the impending breach of supernatural forces, but he never balanced these forces with such finesse as he did in this breakout thriller. — Chris Cabin
The Strangers (2008)
In a decade filled with home invasion horror, Brian Bertino‘s blunt, simple, and honest entry has stood the test of time as one of the best. The Strangers is bleak. There’s a haunting randomness and pointlessness to the violence that is beset upon our heroes Kristen and James, played by the painfully sympathetic Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. We find the pair at moment of peak emotional pain, partially wrenched apart, as their romantic weekend getaway turns south after Kristen turns down James’ marriage proposal. Divided as they’ve ever been, though obviously, earnestly still in love, that’s when a trio of masked assailants shows up on the porch of their remote vacation cabin whispering threats, silently stalking the halls of their home, and doling out calculated moments of all-too-realistic violence.
The secret ingredient that makes The Strangers so effective is its humanity – the victims are so bare and honest, you want to reach through the screen to protect them, but the fiends hunting them down are also defined by their embodiment of humanity’s worst impulses. They don’t have super strength, they’re not aliens or ghosts or monsters or mutants, they’re just bad people with a taste for blood. And they’re all the more terrifying for it. That heightened realism, combined with Bertino’s commitment to silence over spectacle, creates a piercing atmosphere of dread and the dawning realization that this could be happening next door, or worse, to you, should you be unlucky enough to be at home when sadistic strangers come calling. — Haleigh Foutch
Dario Argento‘s masterpiece is a technicolor fever dream of lavish violence and operatic production design that stands as possibly the ultimate incarnation of the Giallo aesthetic — rich, sumptuous, and frenzied — a film you experience as much as watch. Along with the staggering achievement that is Deep Red (which fought tooth-and-nail in my mind for this spot on the list), Suspiria cemented Argento as the patron saint of Giallo, and one of horror’s greatest filmmakers.
The film follows a young American ballet dancer abroad at a prestigious German dance academy where she uncovers an ancient, sinister coven of witches. Suspiria is famous for its baroque, wildly violent kills and Goblin‘s clamorous, chanting prog-rock score. As elegant as it is salacious, it’s a visually and aurally immersive trip down a red and blue-tinged rabbit hole where intricately orchestrated murders are a common occurrence and enchanted evil-doing lurks around every corner. — Haleigh Foutch
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper‘s sophomore feature film is a brilliantly blunt deconstruction of human mortality that forces us to confront the reality that we are all but meat and bone racing toward the unavoidable moment when we cease to be anything but a decomposing corpse. It’s brutal and it’s basic, and that ruthless efficiency is what makes it such a grueling, unnerving watch to this day. What’s more, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre revels in the reality that death does not have sympathy, it does not care who you are — strapping and strong, young and beautiful, good-natured, kind, weak, meek, abled or disabled — death comes for us all.
The setup is simple, and it’s all in the title, a group of good kids make a detour in Texas where they are massacred one by one, sometimes with a chainsaw. It’s a genre-defining entry in backwoods horror, a relentless onslaught of butchery that invokes sledgehammers and meat hooks and, of course, chainsaws as implements of horrific violence and depravity. It’s almost too ugly and too effective to ever be really “enjoyed”, a bit like staring in the face of the worst-case-scenario underlying humanity’s inherent mortal fears, but it is an undeniable achievement of the horror genre that evokes dread with such efficacy and aggression that it possesses a timeless effectiveness. — Haleigh Foutch
The Thing (1982)
If you’re making a case for remakes that vastly improved upon the original work, look no further than The Thing. Adapted from John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”, which was previously adapted by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby as The Thing from Another World in 1951, the 80s version remains the preferred and iconic version of the story today.
And how could it not? It featured Carpenter in his prime, riding high with Russell from their experience on Escape from New York the year before; the amazing practical creature effects were churned out by Oscar-winner Rob Bottin with an assist from the legendary Stan Winston; Tobe Hooper worked on a draft of the script; and the one-and-only Ennio Morricone composed the score, one of the few times that Carpenter hasn’t done the music himself. And that’s just the cast and crew of the film! The story follows a tough crew of researchers at an Antarctic station who come into contact with a dangerous alien shape-shifter. From the completely insane opening sequence, to the unabashed reveal of an extraterrestrial spaceship, to the cat-and-mouse game played between the entity and each of the surviving humans, The Thing could arguably be called the best sci-fi horror film of the 80s. – Dave Trumbore
Trick 'r Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty‘s Trick ‘r Treat is perhaps the finest ode to Halloween spirit ever created. An anthology film consisting of four expertly interwoven stories, Trick ‘r Treat follows the residents of a small town where no one is quite what they seem; the local principle is a child-murdering sociopath and the nubile virgin, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Along with the flawless autumnal production design, Trick ‘r Treat‘s greatest strength is Dougherty’s obvious love and expert knowledge of the holiday’s lore, tradition, and superstition, which saturates every moment of the film. That spirit is perfectly embodied in the impish menace, Sam, a pint-size terror in a burlap sack who pops up throughout the segments, exacting punishment on those who fail to honor the rules of Halloween.
With all due respect to John Carpenter’s slasher masterpiece, Trick ‘r Treat is perhaps the quintessential Halloween film that perfectly encapsulates the holiday’s dark magic. — Haleigh Foutch
Amongst the most complex works in the career of David Cronenberg, Videodromestill seems to hold a special place in his fans hearts above even masterworks like Scanners, The Brood, and Dead Ringers. It’s not entirely a mystery as to why Videodrome sticks out even in such an estimable group. Videodrome incorporates technological sabotage and pirating, snuff films, mutation, porn, TV production, rampant cigarette smoking, and Deborah Harry into its unhinged 90-something minutes, and that’s not even counting the fact that James Woods leads the film as a tried and true scumsicle.
There’s plenty of blood and gore, as well as ample psychological damage conveyed throughout, but Videodrome doesn’t come off as a movie made simply to be warned against or stared at in emotionally shattered awe. Cronenberg is talking about the move from the movie theater to the living room to get our culture, and his feelings on it are not what you might call optimistic. Indeed, a breathing VHS tape serves a demonic purpose here, and the director depicts Canada’s local TV affiliates and networks as perverse, heartless charlatans and murderers. Cronenberg sees the movement away from public places to see art as a move away from art’s place in the public mindset, which comes with making what one thinks of art more private by extension. The alienating dystopia that we witness in Videodrome is, for Cronenberg, mostly the product of a world where people no longer have outspoken opinions and yet still have hidden desires that they must find some way of letting out, even in the most ghastly and horrific ways imaginable. – Chris Cabin
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Finally, someone breathes new life into the vampire genre! What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary about four vampire flatmates and it takes an absolutely delightful approach to exploring creature clichés in a deadpan, reality show-like manner. Viago (Taika Waititi), Vlad (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) all turned during different time periods, which leads to some brilliant spins on familiar issues like doing the dishes, getting into nightclubs, adapting to new technology and so much more. The only unfortunate thing about What We Do in the Shadows is that it clocks in at a mere 86 minutes. Between the winning jokes and the wildly charming friendships between the characters, I’d happily watch a whole series about their antics. — Perri Nemiroff
The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy began his infrequent and unusually sparse directorial career (he made three movies over the course of 45 years) with his magnum opus, The Wicker Man. But hey, when you’ve made one film this exceptional, perhaps any more would be greedy. The Wicker Man sneaks up on you. It’s subtle and seductive, and it’s nasty secrets are revealed with an expert patience, but when it ends up at its final destination, it will leave you curled in a ball with a smoldering sickness in the pit of your stomach.
Centered on the investigation into the disappearance of a young girl, The Wicker Man follows Edward Woodward‘s Seargeant Howie to a remote Scottish island village where nobody is offering answers and the clues never add up. Much of the film doesn’t play as horror at all, but a sort of jovial, vaguely eerie trip to a peculiar society where pagan ritual reigns supreme under the benevolent leadership of the island’s ruler Lord Summersisle (a perfectly utilized Christopher Lee). Anthony Schaffer‘s script is a wickedly clever subversion of expectation, and Hardy nurture’s the slow-boiling tension for all its worth, gingerly doling out hints of the evil hiding behind the artifice of folksy, flower-crowned charm. Once the riddle is solved, you’ll wish it hadn’t been, watching the predestined horror show as your rendered helpless alongside the hero, unable to stop the grim fate from unfolding. The Wicker Man is gripping and haunting; a completely unusual spin on terror. — Haleigh Foutch
The Witch (2016)
Here’s the truth of the matter: I’m not sure if I was every truly scared while watching The Witch, Robert Eggers‘ tense, atmospheric tale of early 17th century religious paranoia. Can one be scared when one is in constant and complete awe of the confidence of the artistry on screen? Despite bearing an exquisite sense of period detail in wardrobe, environs, and vernacular, Eggers digs beyond the trappings of the historical settings to speak to man’s dominion over women, which only seems to repress mankind’s fear of female sexuality and independence.
That subject rides underneath every exchange between the family at the center of the film, led by severe, pious William (Ralph Ineson), up until the wondrous and insidious conclusion. William’s self-inflicted charge is to rid his family of sin, which becomes something of a problem when his younger children start accusing his eldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), of being a witch working for Black Peter, their pet goat. Eggers is clearly poking organized religion’s expansive history of blaming women for all the world’s troubles, but he doesn’t stop at making his furious political point here. The Witch ensconces the viewer in an expertly tailored world, only to then break open the calm and cool of that world with jaw-dropping set-pieces of flailing physicality and quiet, potent unease that you simply cannot shake. The director tears at the very fabric of early New England society and religious serenity, and finds an anxious, hungry evil festering at its roots. - Chris Cabin
You're Next (2014)
Adam Wingard‘s breakout, brilliant slasher does at least one thing that, for me, was revelatory: when the masked attackers of an affluent family get cut or hit or worse, they react and are clearly hurt. The men with animal masks are, indeed, human and in this, Wingard excises the element of hopeless slaughter, making the fight between the family and their assaulters somewhat even, minus the crossbows, axes, and such.
Working from a script from regular collaborator Simon Barrett, Wingard spins this blood-soaked night of horrors into a not-so-quietly satirical look at the fears of the wealthy, and also pokes more than a little fun at the mumblecore movement, with memorable American-indie character actors like Joe Swanberg, Kate Lyn Sheil, Amy Seimetz, and AJ Bower gamily taking their hits. Even if you ignored all the thematic density and sense of stylish detail that Wingard gives this film, You’re Next would remain one of the best slashers to see release as of late, blending ample humor with inventive deaths and a line of genuinely clever twists. –Chris Cabin
Was your favorite not on this list?
Maybe it’ll be on one of these:
- Best Horror Films from 1900-1950
- Best Horror Films of the 1960s
- Best Horror Films of the 1970s
- Best Horror Films of the 1980s
- Best Horror Films of the 1990s
- Best Horror Films of the 2000s
- Best Horror Films of the 2010s (so far)
- Best Cannibal Movies
- Best Found Footage Movies
- Best Vampire Movies
and if it’s not, you’re still welcome for the 250+ horror film recommendations and we welcome your comments below.