The best horror movies aren’t always the ones you’d think. Yes, there’s a fair amount of arterial spray in the movies below but the best horror movies aren’t the ones drenched in gore and packed with depravity. The best scary movies come in many forms. They can be subtle, insidious, and packed with more social commentary than jump scares. They’ll also handily deliver entirely new phobias you’ve probably never even thought about before. The best directors will take you on previously unimaginable journeys into darkness. Watch The Blair Witch Project and ‘if you go down to the woods today…’ becomes less of a nursery rhyme and more of an ominous warning. Where the best horror movies are concerned, nowhere is safe.
Given the success of the genre over the last, well, century, there’s no shortage of scary movies to choose from, which means whittling the list down to thirty titles has meant some messy sacrifices. To produce this collection of survivors – Final Girls if you will – we had to cull some serious classics. But what we’re left with is a lean, mean collection across multiple subgenres with a mix of silver screen institutions and plucky modern upstarts. Here folk horror meets creature features via slasher movies and psychological nightmares. Whatever your horror tipple, we’ve got something for you here. So settle down, dim the lights, check the door is locked, and prepare yourself for the best horror movies of all time.
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30. Host (2020)
The movie: We knew it was on the way, but post-pandemic horror has already arrived in the shape of a Zoom call gone very, very wrong. Desperately on the hunt for something to do other than endless lockdown quizzes – we feel this – a group of friends get together for an online mid-lockdown seance. What follows is a short, sharp shock of found footage adrenaline in an intimidatingly lean 56 minute run time. Host isn’t the first horror to take place on a computer screen, taking terrifying inspiration from REC, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity, yet delivering a dangerously relevant frightmare. Happy spookies.
Why it’s scary: Thanks to quarantine, we all speak fluent Zoom and every interaction – every joke about parents refusing to stay in and the woes of lockdown – is painfully relatable. Thus, when this group of women lights candles and something arrives where they’re meant to be safe, we can’t help but be dragged along for the ride. Some truly innovative uses of modern tech deliver perfect 2020 scares and brilliant performances crank the tension into unbearably terrifying territory. If this is what director Rob Savage can make in lockdown without actual face-to-face interaction with his cast, it’s going to be very interesting to see what he does next.
29. Saw (2004)
The movie: It might have reignited the so-called torture porn genre with its (mostly) truly disgusting sequels but – and this is a huge ‘but’ – the original Saw is nowhere near as gross-gusting as you think it is and happens to be brilliant horror. Yes, the title is about an implement that a depraved killer suggests someone takes their leg off with rather than use a key to unlock a cuff, but Saw is actually remarkably restrained. The ideas at work here are significantly more grisly in your own mind than what you see on screen. Made on a shoestring budget by Leigh Whannell and James Wan, this tale of two men waking up in a bathroom, a corpse between them, is twisted but constantly intriguing.
Why it’s scary: Put simply, we all play Jigsaw’s game along with our heroes. What would we be willing to do to save our own miserable lives? Would we be Amanda, ready to go into a stomach to find a key, or would we sit and wait for an ultra gruesome fate? Throw in the genuine terror of ‘Billy’, Jigsaw’s painted cycling doll, and one of the most terrifying extended jump-scare sequences potentially ever, and Saw still manages to pack a barbed-wire-covered punch.
28. The Birds (1963)
The movie: Sure, there’s all that talk about showers and murder – Editor’s note: we know it’s not just ‘talk’ and Hitchcock’s Psycho is a genuine horror masterpiece – but it’s time to talk about the feathery elephant in the room. The Birds, the Master of Suspense’s loose adaptation of a short story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, is scare cinema at its finest. When Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels heads to Bodega Bay to deliver some love birds, she gets far more than she bargained for when the wild winged inhabitants of the town decide that human eyes might taste just as good as discarded chips.
Why it’s scary: Much like Jaws, The Birds preys on your simplest fears. Open water? Not for me, thanks. How about the very idea that the seemingly innocent feathery ones in your surroundings are actually using those tiny skulls to plot to murder you where you stand? Hard nope. If you haven’t seen it, to go further would be spoilerific. Where The Birds excels is in its gradual, lurking fear; its patience and looming dread. Plus, the genuine panic in Hedren’s eyes as very real birds were thrown in her direction is a truly terrifying sight to behold. Just stay safe in the knowledge that no one makes films quite like this anymore.
27. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The movie: Choosing only one undead Romero offering for a list of the best horror movies of all time is a bit like taking on the shuffling horde with a letter opener: gory and challenging, but not altogether impossible. After much deliberation then, it’s time to go shopping. Romero’s gory attack on the consumerist American dream follows four survivors of the zombie apocalypse as they arrive at a sprawling mall. While they manage to get inside without anything munching on their brains, it doesn’t take long before the beacon of the mall attracts other guests and the defenses start to gorily break down.
Why it’s scary: We’ve had more hungry shuffling hordes than we can count since Romero’s initial offering but that doesn’t make the source material any less horrifying to watch. The gentle idea that the zombies are still heading to the mall after death is an insidious one, and the relentless violence of Night’s sequel is an experience that demands your attention. Tom Savini’s delicious practical effects too mean there’s still plenty of squirm for your buck as skin and muscle are ripped from their sticking places. Plus, if you feel like you just can’t watch anything in less than HD, Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake is a surprisingly effective, not to mention creepy, replacement.
26. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The movie: If Scream reignited the joys of the teen slasher movie, the return of good zombies to our screens is all Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s fault. The first in Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Shaun of the Dead follows the titular Shaun as he plods his way through his dreary London existence, only to discover (beautifully late) that the majority of the population has been transformed into shambling cannibals while he was asleep. Suddenly realizing he needs to be the hero everyone deserves, it’s time to rescue his mum, get his girlfriend back, and make sure everyone is fine in time for tea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite go to perfectly edited plan.
Why it’s scary: While it slickly plays for laughs, Shaun of the Dead is very much a horror at its gory heart. It plays by Romero’s rules with a slow zombie horde which means that their staggering relentlessness is a constant fear, if one tempered by a brilliant comic script. And these aren’t just disposable characters made to be pulled to pieces in an explosion of O-negative. Everyone matters here, meaning that every zombie encounter does too. Throw in a brilliant soundtrack, excellent performances, and more red than you can throw a cricket bat at, and Shaun of the Dead is a comedy horror masterpiece.
25. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The movie: Just like a certain dungaree-clad possessed doll, Freddy Krueger fell firmly into killer clown territory as the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise evolved over the years. Sure, he’ll spray your organs all over the walls but you’ll die laughing, right? Look back at Wes Craven’s original movie, though, and Freddy isn’t to be trifled with. Our selective memories mean we often forget that this serial child killer’s burns come from him being incinerated by an angry mob of parents. Living eternally through their fear and guilt, Freddy becomes the ultimate boogeyman when he dons his favorite murder glove and goes after a whole new generation of Springwood spawn while they slumber.
Why it’s scary: Bed is meant to be safe. Secure. Free of razor-sharp blades ready to plunge through your chest at any given moment… Robert Englund’s Freddy might be horrible to look at but it’s the very idea of falling asleep and never waking up again that’s the true terrifying kicker here. The desperation of Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy and her friends as they strive to stay awake to stay alive. No amount of caffeine or loud music can save you now, dreams are waiting and that’s where a maniac lurks menacingly in the dark to end your life. Yes, the whole movie is worth it alone for Johnny Depp’s spectacularly splattery death scene, but A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t one to press the snooze button on.
24. Evil Dead 2
The movie: So many Evil Dead 2 questions, so little time. Is it a remake? Is it a sequel? Would it actually be physically possible to switch out your missing (presumed possessed) hand for a chainsaw with relative ease? Well, thankfully, Bruce Campbell himself (opens in new tab) has answered the first two and explained that Sam Raimi’s cabin-based comedy horror is, in fact, a ‘requel.’ Whereas the original Evil Dead followed a group of twenty-somethings to a holiday house from hell, the sequel revolves exclusively around Campbell’s Ash and his girlfriend Linda as they attempt to survive after playing a reading of the Necronomicon aloud. I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn you about someone being beheaded with a garden tool post-reading.
Why it’s scary: Evil Dead 2 is perfect comedy horror. While it might not send you shrieking away from your screen, there’s a delightfully depraved viscerality to proceedings. Eyes in mouths, wall to wall gore, chainsaws feeling like the only option. It’s worth noting here, too, that if you do want something a little less punctuated with the word ‘groovy,’ then the Evil Dead remake from Fede Alvarez is truly something that can get under your skin. Where Evil Dead 2’s grim is played for much-appreciated laughs and you’ll embrace the physical effects, Alvarez’s reboot errs distinctly on the unnerving side, making them a perfect double bill.
23. The Babadook (2014)
The movie: On release, Jennifer Kent’s haunted pop-up book became a whole generation’s boogeyman seemingly overnight. “Have you seen The Babadook? I didn’t sleep all night,” was hissed gleefully across offices and pubs. And for good reason. The Babadook is scary. The tale of a young grieving widow trying to look after her young son, this is a movie that sneaks under your skin and stays there. It also makes you ask yourself a lot of questions. What would you do with a pop-up book about a creepy black-clad figure in a top hat? Would you read it to your already traumatized young son? What if he begged? And how would you deal with the ‘haunting’ that follows…?
Why it’s scary: Like the best horror movies on this list, the Babadook isn’t just about scaring its audience. The parallels between grief and depression are no accident and it’s interesting to note that one of the most disturbing sequences in the movie has nothing to do with a monster, but everything to do with a young mother losing control of her son while she tries to drive. On the surface, you might mistake The Babadook for something from The Conjuring universe but delve in and this is an intelligent, grueling fright-fest with a knowledge of exactly what you’re afraid of. Even if you didn’t know it when you sat down to watch.
22. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
The movie: By 2011, we were having a self-referential horror crisis. Scream 4 was out and had an intro multiple layers deep, smashing the fourth wall into pieces with horror-ception as character after character quipped about the masked slasher genre. But where could comedy horror go next? How many times could a leading actress say “I saw this in a movie once” without us wanting to remove our own eyes and never watch horror again? Well, it turns out that there was still some life in the reanimated corpse yet. The Cabin in the Woods manages to pin not just one horror trope but every single one, like someone armed with a laser sight and Final Destination 3’s nail gun. When this lot of attractive twenty-somethings head to the titular spot, they get significantly more than they bargained for. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth is one of them. Now you’re interested…
Why it’s scary: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s creation is no mere comedy escapade. I’m staying spoiler-free here because it’s too good, but just like the It movie and its monster’s multiple faces, The Cabin in the Woods will tackle plenty of your phobias. This is a creature feature like you’ve never seen before with gallons of gore and every monster you could ever imagine lurking in the dark. Like Buffy before it, this has the ability to make you laugh one minute and scream the next. Go in blind and this trip to the forest is a delightfully gory surprise.
21. A Quiet Place (2018)
The movie: Is there anything more terrifying than the idea of bringing up a young family in a world where brutal monstrosities with supernaturally good hearing hunt down the last of humanity? John Krasinski’s first horror – in which he also stars with IRL wife Emily Blunt – follows the Abbott family as they silently creep through a truly miserable existence where every single sound could be their last. Playing with movie audio in an entirely new way, A Quiet Place might have a simple premise but this is 90 minutes of sheer muscle-clenching tension.
Why it’s scary: It turns out that humans are loud. Footsteps boom. Food crunches. Doors creak painfully. Exquisite use of sound means that every noise that the family makes feels like an agonizing step closer to death. Electric performances from the entire cast – especially young Millicent Simmonds – command you to watch every single frame, holding your breath if necessary. Rarely has a horror director commanded your attention for so long with such blatant disregard for the nails digging into your palms. Watch A Quiet Place. Oh, and turn it up.
Read more: “Please shut the f**k up” – These reactions to annoying A Quiet Place moviegoers say it all
20. Paranormal Activity (2007)
The movie: While The Blair Witch Project revved found footage horror back into action like a haunted motorbike back in 1999, Paranormal Activity is where things got, err, dead serious. The first movie from now horror staple Oren Peli, it introduces us to Katie and Micah who have been experiencing some odd goings-on in their LA home. Ever the keen filmmaker, Micah sets up a camera at the foot of their bed to keep an eye on things while they sleep. The bumps in the night that follow are enough to make you never want to see another bed again, let alone lie on one.
Why it’s scary: The reason why Paranormal Activity is so nerve-janglingly effective is simple. Regardless of your favorite snoozing position or habits, we all lie down in a dark room, switch off, and become perfect prey for whatever lurks in the gloom. The now infamous shot from the bottom of Katie and Micah’s bed is a masterclass in slow-burn terror. Every simple extended shot as the clock ticks forward becomes an agonizingly tense eye test. What’s going to move? Was that a shadow? Lingering footage of nothing actually happening has never been this nail-biting as the days and nights roll on. The sequels have been relentless and a mixed bag in terms of scares but, like a slamming door in the middle of the night, the pure terror of the original Paranormal Activity just can’t be ignored.
19. Suspiria (1977)
The movie: Less a movie and more an assault on your senses, not to mention your stomach, Dario Argento’s Suspiria follows young dancer Suzy as she arrives at a famous ballet school. Unfortunately, she doesn’t heed the girl running in the other direction and finds herself surrounded by horrific murder as young women are picked off artfully one by one. Still a gory cut above the remake, Argento’s original faced multiple cuts around violence on release and was one of the films at the bloody center of the 1980s video nasty panic. It doesn’t take long to see why.
Why it’s scary: Nothing about Suspiria is easy to experience. Every color forcing its way into your eyeballs like technicolor violence, every murder intent on you watching each moment in agonizing detail from angles only a madman would select, and a soundtrack so disturbing that you’ll feel like you might have accidentally found Hell’s playlist on Spotify. Depraved, stylish, and beautiful, Suspiria is an experience not to be missed. You don’t have to like it, but even after all these years, this is a true nightmare of a horror movie waiting patiently to sneak into your brain.
18. The Descent (2005)
The movie: If there was a dip in caving and bouldering trip attendance back in the mid-noughties, it’s probably the fault of Neil Marshall’s truly terrifying claustrophobic creature feature. Sarah’s friends want to make her feel better after the tragic death of her family so, instead of y’know, buying her some gin, they take her on a caving trip. Unfortunately, the movie wouldn’t be on this list if the six women were there to have a heartwarming, gently comedic adventure where they all grow as people. From the moment this lot lower themselves into the darkness below the Appalachian mountains, it’s very clear that getting back out into the light again isn’t going to be likely.
Why it’s scary: The claustrophobia of The Descent is horribly real. Before you even discover what’s lurking down there – with a night vision reveal so spectacular that it goes down in jump scare history – this cave system is stone horror. The women are experienced explorers but every shot of squeezing through tiny spaces as rubble gently falls, every huge cavern only lit in one tiny corner by their flares, and every step they take further into the abyss is heart-racing stuff. And this isn’t an unlikable crew of barely fleshed out American teens, pun intended, these characters and their complex relationships truly matter. This is beautifully grueling, not to mention empowering, filmmaking. Witness the UK ending of this cult classic and you’ll need more than a cheeky G&T to cheer you up afterward.
17. It Follows (2015)
The movie: Infection in horror movies is spread in many ways. A bite here, an injection of a transformational virus there. Hell, we’ve even had watching a video tape and having a ghost in real need of some conditioner come and get you seven days later. To add a new spin to things, the grim plodding nasty of It Follows comes to get you if you literally, well, do the nasty. While a 21st Century horror about a sexually transmitted horrific curse sounds like it should be driven off a cliff, It Follows is a truly terrifying experience. The horror is real as teenager Jay is plagued by ghosts no one else can see, slowly, endlessly walking towards her unless she ‘passes it on’. Proving just how good Jay’s friends are, they club together to take on the supernatural entity.
Why it’s scary: It Follows isn’t just scary. It’s chilling with jump scares that might mean you’ll need to remove yourself from your ceiling with a spatula. With an unsettlingly brilliant synth score from Disasterpiece – seriously, let’s put that in your headphones all day and see how it feels – Jay’s battle against those following her is shot in a way that never feels like you can settle. Like Jay, we can never relax, and while a scene might look peaceful, it never is. The most effective scares come from the relentlessness of these pursuers, dead-eyed, and unblinking with one mission. It Follows is a modern masterpiece.
16. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The movie: Comedy horror is nothing new. The best horror movies have been walking that bloodied tightrope between making us laugh and making us scream for decades. An American Werewolf in London, from legendary comedy director John Landis, is a masterclass in this particular circus trick. David and Jack, two American backpackers – don’t worry, it’ll be one in a minute – find themselves wandering the Yorkshire moors after dark, and instead of staying safe in The Slaughtered Lamb pub, decide to continue their journey. The locals even tell them they’ll be fine if they just stick to the path…
Why it’s scary: When two become one and Jack brutally falls to a mysterious lupine predator on the moors, a bitten David is taken to hospital in London. Regardless of what this says about the NHS’s ability to deal with werewolf wounds, it means that when David sheds his human skin to become a creature of the night, there are plenty of iconic places for him to gorily slaughter his way through. Once you get over the first transformation sequence – a true CGI-free agonizing marvel of lengthening bones, hewing muscle, and popping joints – this human canine’s tensely directed jaunt through the London Underground will absolutely ruin your late-night travel plans. And, while you’ll get to stop to laugh at Jack’s zombified ghost repeatedly rocking up to tell David to end his own life, the horror here is very real as his relationship with his nurse girlfriend threatens to have the heart, quite literally, ripped out of it. A masterwork.
15. Rec (2007)
The movie: First off, we’re going to pretend that the English language remake, Quarantine, doesn’t exist. Good. Now that’s out of the way, it’s time to wax lyrical about the true terror lurking inside a Barcelona apartment block in this Spanish scarefest. As with all the best found footage horror movies, the set-up here is very simple. The crew of a morning TV show is following a team of firefighters when a call comes in about a woman behaving strangely in her apartment. Of course, Angela and her cameraman Pablo excitedly follow the crew of emergency workers into, well, hell.
Why it’s scary: Rec ramps up slowly and expertly. You won’t realize just how tense you are until a little too late. Officially this counts as a zombie movie but, like 28 Days Later, this feels like the story of an infection rather than the shuffling horde. This is a claustrophobic nightmare and in its found footage package, painfully realistic and believable. From the fire crew to the residents of the apartment building, the performances are exceptional, meaning that ‘this is only a movie’ part of your brain will constantly struggle with what’s on screen. Prepare to be hiding behind something or someone long before Rec’s gloriously terrifying night vision-hued third act.
14. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The movie: Ever wondered why no one’s out camping in the woods these days? It’s not that millennials really need to be within one hundred feet of a charging point at all times, it’s just the fact that a full generation of us saw The Blair Witch Project in our early teens and we just really like to sleep inside now. This now almost mythical, found footage horror follows three young documentary makers as they journey to Burkittsville in Maryland. Heather, Mike, and Josh start off interviewing the locals about the local legend of The Blair Witch, a particularly nasty tale you’d hope was just to keep children eating their veggies, before heading into the woods where the witch apparently resides. Given that all that’s ever been found are these tapes, there’s not exactly a happy ending.
Why it’s scary: What’s waiting for Heather and co in the woods is terrifying enough, as strange noises drift through the trees and they descend into a directionless spiral of madness and anger, but what’s equally scary about The Blair Witch Project is the perfect blurring of reality and fiction. This is Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard. These actors were sent out into the woods and their horrifying ordeal is thanks to the filmmaker’s insistence on mentally torturing them every night. Released in 1999 and reigniting the popularity of the now horror staple found footage genre, the movie’s marketing even touted it as real. Every wobbly shot, every scream, and every stick figure that the three find are there to tell your brain that these people really went into the woods and never came back. Oh, and the ending is like being punched in the gut by nightmares.
13. The Witch (2015)
The movie: Self-described as a ‘New England folk tale’ – although it’s more like a fairy tale from hell – Robert Eggers’ terrifying period drama follows a Puritan family after they are ejected from their colony. Screaming ‘don’t do it’ at the screen just doesn’t work as William (Ralph Ineson) takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his five children into the deep, dark woods to survive alone on a farm. It’s not spoiling anything to say that it doesn’t go particularly well. Following Thomasin, the eldest daughter of the family played by Anya Taylor-Joy in her first credited role, we witness the tense unraveling of a dysfunctional family faced with the horrific prospect of an outside force staring out at them from the trees.
Why it’s scary: It’s love or hate time with this divisive movie, but lose yourself to The Witch and suddenly everything is scary and you can’t put your shaking finger on exactly why. Every perfectly constructed shot of the family attempting to survive in the wilderness is cranked into fear-ville with a constantly surprising hellish score of strings and vocals. This means that when true horror eventually does hit after a torturous slow burn of tension, it’s like Eggers has masterfully wired you in for shocks and you didn’t notice. From the unnerving skip and shrill voices of the young twins to the monstrous goat known only as Black Phillip, there is unique horror lurking in The Witch that just doesn’t go away.
12. The Wicker Man (1973)
The movie: If the above image doesn’t strike a sense of menace into your heart, it’s time to mainline Robin Hardy’s folk horror directly into your eyes. No, The Wicker Man isn’t just about reaction gifs and mocking the bee-packed Nicolas Cage remake. If nothing else, watching Edward Woodward’s journey to Summerisle is essential background reading for the 21st Century spate of rural scary movies. The ideal accompaniment for the modern nastiness of Ari Aster’s Midsommar or Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, The Wickerman’s appeal is in its sheer terrifying simplicity. Policeman goes to island on the hunt for a missing girl. Policeman discovers all is not what it seems. Oh, and indeed, dear.
Why it’s scary: It’s a horror message that we’re all quite used to by now but humans being the real monsters never seems to get old. The inhabitants of Summerisle might seem somewhat comedic and there are more than a few moments of genuine humor in here, but The Wicker Man is fuel for your trust issues. Why should you truly believe what anyone says? How can you actually go to sleep in a world full of human beings? The fear of the unknown is potent as Woodward’s Neil Howie blunders into a world with its own set of rules and beliefs. And, if you have managed to somehow not know how it ends, the reveal is still absolutely devastating.
11. Get Out (2017)
The movie: Mid-20’s photographer Chris is driving out to rural New York to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, but he’s a little nervous. “Do they know I’m Black?” he tentatively asks Rose, but she’s having none of it: “My Dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!”. Phew! What could possibly go wrong? Everything. Everything can go wrong, Chris. Turn back now. This isn’t just going to be slightly socially awkward.
Why it’s scary: Bubbling with resonant social commentary, layered with hard-hitting goosebumps, and sprinkled with uncompromising humor, Get Out is a modern horror masterpiece in every sense of the word. Not content with scaring you just for its 90-minute run-time, director Jordan Peele wants to draw your attention to the real frightening truths rooted deep in the identity politics of contemporary America, and his grand reveal is more horrific than any jump scare could ever hope to be.
10. 28 Days Later (2002)
The movie: Let’s get the undead elephant out of the room first. Danny Boyle’s horror is a zombie movie. Yes, they can run, but it’s important to think of this horrible lot as part of the same family tree as Romero’s finest. Maybe they wouldn’t have Christmas dinner together but they’d at least send cards and maybe some gift cards for the necrotic kids. The important thing is, regardless of their speed, these zombies are still the destroyers of worlds. When Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed – a lot like our friend Rick in The Walking Dead – he staggers out into an apocalyptic London that will never be the same again.
Why it’s scary: 28 Days Later feels like a nightmare. Complete with a quite often heartbreaking as well as heart-pounding soundtrack, this feels like the truest glimpse at the modern British apocalypse as Jim and his fellow survivors quest for safety in Scotland. The Infected are truly horrifying, survivors are suspicious, and the fallen British landscape is an impressive feat of cinematography. Throw in excellent performances from everyone involved and 28 Days Later is a gory feast for the eyes and the heart.
9. Scream (1996)
The movie: By the late ’90s, horror was looking a little tired. The masked slasher trope was staggering along in a dire need of a cup of very strong espresso. What it got instead was Wes Craven’s Scream which, despite being parodied into Inception levels of postmodern irony since, reinvigorated the genre with its perfect blend of knowing comedy and scares. Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan, and Drew Barrymore as teenagers talking fluent horror movie while being picked off by a genre-obsessed serial killer? Oh, go on… Add in Courtney Cox – at the giddy heights of Friends fame – as intrepid news reporter Gale Weathers and Scream is a modern horror classic.
Why it’s scary: Just because something is self-referential doesn’t mean it can’t be truly terrifying. The Scream mask, based on Munch’s painting, might have been twisted into stoned bliss by Scary Movie, but it still manages to unsettle and thrill. Scream’s scares remain unpredictable too. Victims fall to this slasher’s knife with disturbing regularity and as we grow attached to our genuinely likable quipping heroes, the end game becomes all the more stressful as we wonder who will survive to the credits. Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street scare talents guarantee terror all the way to the end. Why don’t you, liver alone, eh?
8. Alien (1979)
The movie: Arguably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made also just happens to be one of the greatest horror movies too. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The original Alien from Ridley Scott sends the crew of the Nostromo to investigate a distress call from an abandoned alien spaceship as innocently as any gang of hormonal teenagers headed off to a remote cabin in the woods. And, just like those teenagers, not many of them are going to survive to tell the tale. Sigourney Weaver makes for the ultimate Final Girl here.
Why it’s scary: There’s nowhere more horribly isolated than a spaceship light years away from home and Giger’s alien is as terrifying a monster as you could wish for. The dread goes much deeper than teeth and claws though. This creature represents a multilayered, bottomless pit of psychosexual horror, its very form praying on a raft of primal terrors. Plus, the visual ambiguity of Scott’s direction during the final act is an absolute masterclass in ‘What’s that in the shadows?’ tension. Ignore the recent xenomorph-packed movies, turn off the lights and watch this and Aliens to reignite your passion for the true horror of Scott’s vision.
7. Jaws (1975)
The movie: Before Jurassic Park, before ET, and an eternity before the majority of the cast of Ready Player One were brought screaming into existence, there was Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s toothy horror. And yes, this is a horror movie. Jaws, one of the original blockbusters on account of the number of people literally queuing round the block only to flee the cinema in terror, is horrifying. It doesn’t matter that the shark looks a little ropey now when he gets up close and personal, the story of Amity Island’s gory summer season as Chief Brody desperately tries to keep swimmers out of the water is the stuff of horror legend. And, let’s face it, you’re already humming the score.
Why it’s scary: The reason that Jaws haunts you long after the credits roll is simple. One viewing and this particularly vindictive shark can potentially ruin every trip to the seaside. Every gentle paddle as waves lap at your toes. Every skinny dip. Every precarious trip out onto the ocean wave on anything smaller than the Titanic. Spielberg doesn’t pull any punches either. Dogs die, children die, heads float out of sunken boats. No one is guaranteed to see the credits here, especially not the three men who head out to sea to slay the beast. With legendary performances and a monster that will never leave you, Jaws is the ultimate creature feature.
6. Halloween (1978)
The movie: Who’d have thought an old Star Trek mask could be so terrifying? Director John Carpenter created a modern classic when he gave his villain a blank William Shatner mask to wear while he stalks babysitters around the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The movie created another icon, too, in Jamie-Leigh Curtis, who’d become both a scream queen in her own right, and the template for all final girls to follow. Who cares if the first scene makes no sense? This is a movie that starts with a child-murdering his sister while wearing a clown mask and if that’s not scary, you need your horror fan status revoked immediately.
Why it’s scary: Pretty much the original stalk-and-slash, Halloween set standards that have rarely been matched. Carpenter composes his shots to keep you constantly guessing, blending both claustrophobia and fearful exposure, often at the same time, to create a deeply uneasy sense of vulnerability wherever you are and whatever is happening. Also, that soundtrack. Composed by Carpenter himself. There is a reason that pounding doom-synth is still the soundtrack for oppressive horror. As a great follow up too, get the 2018 sequel into your eyes. The new Halloween removes all those messy other sequels and does a perfect job of showing the real trauma of growing up as a victim of The Shape himself.
Read more: The best Halloween movies rewatched, reviewed, and ranked
5. The Exorcist (1973)
The movie: And here we are into the top five of this best horror movies list. It almost feels predictable now that William Friedkin’s masterpiece, now in its 40s, is still looming near the top of so many horror features. But watch The Exorcist and you’ll understand why. This is the tale of Regan, the daughter of a successful movie actress who one day occupies herself in the basement by playing with an ouija board. If you have ever wondered why your parents don’t want you playing with this innocuous-looking toy, a young Linda Blair probably has something to do with it. Using the ouija board as gateway, an unwelcome guest takes root in the little girl and the rest, as the titular exorcist arrives, is cinema history.
Why it’s scary: Much like The Shining, The Exorcist is not safe. Unpredictable, visceral, and primeval, this is a movie based on the simplest of premises but even in its happiest moments, is absolutely anxiety-inducing. With a now near-mythical production, William Friedkin’s relentlessness for ‘authenticity’ meant his actors were frozen in a refrigerated bedroom, physically pulled across sets to replicate the demon’s physical prowess, and, of course, splattered with warm pea soup. The result is a horror movie that you’ll probably never say you actively enjoy, but will find yourself rewatching, just to feel the sheer terror of Friedkin’s battle of good vs evil in all its disturbing glory once again.
4. Hereditary (2018)
The movie: Home is where the heart is. It’s also where the worst horror lives, hiding just beneath the surface of the perfect family life. A harrowed Toni Collette leads Ari Aster’s very first (!) feature film as the mother of a grieving family. The death of her own mother has sent shockwaves through their home and, to keep this review spoiler-free, the future isn’t looking exactly, errr, bright either.
Why it’s scary: It’s fair to say that at no point does Hereditary feel safe. Nowhere during its two-hour run time do you feel like you can stop and take a breath, or even make a guess as to what’s coming next. Is this a supernatural movie? Is this an exercise in grief, similar to the Babadook? Is there even a difference between these two ideas? Every shot of Collette’s artist painstakingly creating miniature dioramas feels like a threat and every awkward conversation between the two teenagers of the family leaves a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach. Why? There’s no putting your finger on the exact reason. It might have split cinema audiences but Hereditary is a tour de force of modern horror that will leave you reeling long after its grueling third act. We’re just not going to tell you why.
3. The Thing (1982)
The movie: Perhaps you’ve been buried in snow and have missed John Carpenter’s ultimate creature feature. Entirely understandable. Why don’t you come closer to the fire and defrost? The title might sound hokey but The Thing remains one of the most gloriously splattery and tense horrors of all time as a group of Americans at an Antarctic research station – including Kurt Russell’s R.J MacReady – take on an alien, well, thing that infects blood. It might start off taking out the canine companions – there’s no need to check out DoesTheDogDie.com (opens in new tab) this time around – but it really doesn’t stop there.
Why it’s scary: The Thing is a movie of physicality. There’s intense paranoia and horror sprinkled in as the party begins to fall apart as the infection spreads but it’s the very real, oh-so-touchable nature of the nasties at work here that’s so disturbing. The practical effects – the responsibility of a young Rob Bottin and uncredited Stan Winston – are the true stars as arms are eaten by chests, decapitated heads sprout legs, and bodies are elongated and stretched. The macabre vision of these murderous monsters at work is never anything less than true nightmare fuel.
2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The movie: Some movie titles are vague, letting you gradually work out their meaning as the narrative slowly unfurls in front of your eyes like a delicate flower in tea. Then there’s Tobe Hooper’s grim, sweaty horror movie. There is nothing delicate here. Its titular weapon needs to be sharp but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a blunt instrument of horror. This is a tour de force of violence as five young people leave the safety of the world behind and journey into dusty Americana. What they find in one house when they innocently enter looking for gas is such death and depravity that the movie is still, decades on, a disturbing endurance test.
Why it’s scary: The funny – and there is humor here, it’s just not there on the first watch – thing about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that there’s actually very little blood. There’s the iconic Leatherface, inspired by Ed Gein in his fleshy face covering, and a death scene involving a hook that will make you look down and check your body is still there, but very little viscera. Gore is something that your brain mentally splashes everywhere to try and deal with the horror on screen here, to cope with the screams of pure terror and iconic disturbing soundtrack. It’s suffered plenty of clones over the years, not to mention a Michael Bay-produced glossy cash cow remake, but nothing can replicate the sheer desperation and violent honesty of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It would almost be dangerous to try.
1. The Shining (1980)
The movie: Even if you haven’t watched Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, you’ll know of The Shining. You’ll know Jack Nicholson’s (apparently ad-libbed) “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny” and you might even be aware that if you’re handed the keys to room 237 in a hotel, you might want to switch it for another suite. But what if you haven’t? What if you have been snowed up in a mysterious hotel with only hedge animals for company? Well, The Shining follows a man and his family as he takes on the role of winter caretaker at a resort hotel known as The Overlook. Given that this is a Stephen King adaptation (albeit one that that horror author hates so much that he made his own movie), the winter months don’t go well. The Overlook Hotel, it turns out, doesn’t really like people.
Why it’s scary: There’s a reason that this is the top of this veritable pile of screams. The Shining feels evil. From Jack Nicholson’s deranged performance as a man descending into murderous insanity to Kubrick’s relentless direction as we hypnotically follow Danny navigating the hotel corridors on his trike, this is a movie that never lets you feel safe. Like Hereditary earlier in this list, The Shining is like being driven by a drunk mad man. What’s coming next? Lifts of blood? Chopped up little girls? The terror that lurks in the bath of room 237? This is not a horror movie made of boo scares or cheap tricks, Kubrick’s film is a lurking, dangerous beast that stays with you long after your TV has gone dark.