With Halloween here, you might just be in the mood for a scary movie. The nice thing is that horror movies can be found littering video store racks or on pretty much any TV channel this time of year. Finding scary movies isn’t hard; finding good scary movies, though, is a challenge. To save yourself a slog through bloody gore or the chance of an unfrightening dud, here are 25 of the best scary movies.
25. EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN (1987)
Half remake and half sequel, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn took the haunted-cabin concept that the original Evil Dead helped refine and found room for comedy alongside the horror. A precursor for funny horror movies like Shaun of the Dead and Drag Me to Hell.
24. INSIDIOUS (2011)
Insidious is proof that a great horror movie needs not be very original so long as it scares the pants off of audiences with timing and stylistic aplomb. Borrowing from modern benchmarks like Poltergeist, Insidious is a haunted-house-in-the-suburbs movie, but manages to evoke genuine scares and moment that will haunt you long after — which is all the more impressive considering its PG-13 rating.
23. NOSFERATU (1922)
The very first vampire movie remains one of the best. An unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is an exercise in how to create terror through such simple elements as lighting and makeup. Max Schreck gives a chilling performance as the vampire Count Orlok.
22. CARRIE (1976)
The concept of a child with supernatural powers exacting revenge on those around them had been done before. Carrie found a way to not only make the victim/monster sympathetic but employed the story as a metaphor for the terror of puberty.
21. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)
Like a post-modern Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, The Cabin in the Woods seems at first glance to be a standard kids-terrorized-by-a-haunted-cabin story before upending the entire concept. The twists pile up so fast amidst the scares, it may even take a second viewing to appreciate the satirical tongue subtly planted in the movie’s cheek.
20. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead set an incredibly high bar for every undead movie that followed. His own sequel Dawn of the Dead managed to surpass the original by maintaining the same height of scares while ramping of the technicolour gore and daring to incorporate social commentary in this story of a mall beset by brain-eaters.
19. SAW (2004)
Forget about the myriad sequels and the parody of itself that the series became, and you’ll be impressed to find a truly gripping serial killer/detective story. It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Saw was before “torture porn” became a sub-genre unto itself. Saw is a wonderfully structured piece of film about two people who awaken imprisoned in a public bathroom and whose only chances of survival depend on brutally difficult choices.
18. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
Another wonderful melange of horror and comedy, director John Landis followed up National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers with this darkly comic tale of two American teenagers who get attacked while hiking across the moors of rural England. The fate of the young man who survives to become a werewolf is still a better one than his deceased companion, who comically reappears at progressing states of decomposition to harangue his lupine best friend. Not to be confused with the dreadful An American Werewolf in Paris.
17. SCREAM (1996)
Wes Craven flirted with reinventing the horror genre with his Freddy Krueger-featuring New Nightmare, but he saved his ace ideas for this pinnacle of self-aware horror. Starring characters from, and aimed at audiences of, the first generation to grow up with slashers and modern scare fests, Scream circumvented the clichés of horror movies by having the characters aware of what to do or not do if faced with horror scenarios (only to still have many of the characters fall victim to stupidity and hubris).
16. HALLOWEEN (1978)
The pioneer of the modern slasher, John Carpenter’s Halloween took the concept of the faceless killer from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and made it all the more personal by setting it in a suburban neighbourhood. A well-paced ride of tension and scares, Halloween also wrote the book on that moment when you expect the killer to be dead, only to see them slowly sit back up in the background behind the unsuspecting protagonist.
15. POLTERGEIST (1982)
Many audiences today couldn’t envision an effective horror movie with a PG rating, yet Poltergeist stands as proof that some of the scariest things in a movie can unnerve without gore or blood. The kind of movie that The Amityville Horror wanted to be, Poltergeist is an eerily disturbing look at a perfectly normal family driven apart and to stages of terror and madness by the haunted house they’ve moved into in the cookie-cutter suburbs. PG or not, Poltergeist is scarier than more R-rated gore fests.
14. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Sometimes, less is more. The 2003 remake was drubbed by critics and audiences alike due mostly to the fact modern producers completely missed what made the original so terrifying: its grit, its brutality, and its sheer unpredictability. No horror movie before 1974 dared to look as purposely unpolished or shied away less from sudden, graphic violence. The most frightening scenes may be full of shock horror, but the whole movie’s executed precisely and with an bold audacity, for a first-of-its-kind flick. The brutally graphic nature of many scenes hits you so suddenly that you’re too busy reeling to be disgusted.
13. JAWS (1975)
Not all horror movies take place in secluded places or in darkness. Sometimes, all you need is open water and the unknown. Jaws is another case of a PG-rated horror movie causing more fear than many R-rated terrors could hope to. Many adults still have trouble going in the ocean because of this terrifying story of a great white shark hunting swimmers off of an island resort. The shark is rarely seen in clear shots, which is the film’s masterstroke. By only showing brief glimpses, often shaped by dim lighting, cloudy water, and an unnerving score, Steven Spielberg makes you afraid not by showing the shark but by letting you imagine it in greater terrifying detail than the movie could ever visually accomplish.
12. MISERY (1990)
Many criticize Stephen King’s books (and their subsequent adaptations) for preposterous concepts, but one of his masterpieces was all the more terrifying for its plausibility. Misery tells the tale of an author who crashes his car in a snowstorm, only to be rescued at the brink of death by a woman who identifies herself as his number-one fan. When she discovers a manuscript in his bag in which the author plans to kill her favourite character, she holds him hostage and forces him to write a new book. Scenes of suspense build in Hitchcockian dread reminiscent of Rear Window, while one scene in particular will linger in your memory long after learning the meaning of “hobbling.”
11. THE OMEN (1976)
A sibling of sorts to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen follows a married couple raising a son who, unbeknownst to either of them, is actually the Antichrist. Marrying old-school eeriness with shocking death scenes (for their time), the film is a wonderful blend of styles. As a whole, The Omen is a disturbingly gripping horror film that ranks among the best involving pure evil.
10. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
Few recent horror films made this list, in large part because so many horror movies today are more concerned with gore than scares and don’t understand that true terror stems from dread. Paranormal Activity makes expert use of dread and frightened anticipation, establishing a pattern for audiences and then changing the variable each time. In the movie, a couple is worried their house in haunted and sets up cameras at night to find out; while they sleep, audiences witness the terrors they remain perilously ignorant of. For a post-millennial horror movie, Paranormal Activity is refreshingly old-fashioned in how skilfully crafted its scares are.
9. THE RING (2002)
While The Ring may have begat the trend of remaking Asian horror flicks for North American audiences – see: The Grudge, The Ring Two, Dark Water, Pulse, Shutter, One Missed Call, The Uninvited, The Eye, the upcoming Oldboy, etc. – it planted its flag proudly and with style. The Ring is one of the best-looking horror movies, in no small part because of its colour scheme of washed-out grays and steel blues. The concept is ridiculous (anyone who watches this certain video receives a phone call warning of their death in seven days), but it is told so hypnotically and with such visual flair that it dazzles you whenever you aren’t jumping.
8. ERASERHEAD (1977)
David Lynch once famously described Eraserhead as “a dream of dark and troubling things,” although it could just as easily be described as a lucid nightmare. While Eraserhead is not a horror film in the sense of being scary, it’s so downright disturbing and unnerving to sit through that it can leave you terrified without even understanding what you truly just saw. Avant garde cinema at its most haunting, Eraserhead proves creepier than most studio horror movies could ever dream of being.
7. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Revolutionary for its time both in concept and execution, Wes Craven’s introduction to Freddy Krueger created not just a fascinating character but an original story idea in a genre mostly worn out by the time of the ‘80s. A pedophile who is burned alive in an act of vigilante justice begins to kill the vigilantes’ children in the one place they can’t be protected: their dreams. Featuring a 21-year-old Johnny Depp in his screen debut, A Nightmare on Elm Street holds up amazingly well and remains the stuff of bad dreams.
6. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
Generally speaking, remakes stink – and horror remakes downright suck. Perhaps the trick, as demonstrated both by Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, is to remake a sci-fi movie as a horror film instead of redoing a pre-existing horror flick. As brilliant as the 1956 original is, director Philip Kaufman’s take on pod people imbues the story with late-‘70s paranoia and post-Nixon distrust, creating a wholly more grim and dangerous tone that’s much more suited to the terrifying concept.
5. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Maligned by many for its use (or debatable overuse) of shaky, handheld cameras, The Blair Witch Project managed a spectacular feat nonetheless. Without showing so much as an antagonist, the movie managed to create a sense of pure terror in audiences, solely by making the viewers feel they were stuck in the haunted woods right alongside the three doomed filmmakers. By the studios very publicly promoting the movie as found footage, audiences went in aware that the lead characters were ill-fated yet were forced alongside them, almost as if dragged by the hand. For many people, The Blair Witch Project did for camping what Jaws did for swimming.
4. THE EXORCIST (1973)
The Citizen Kane of horror movies, in both quality and hype, remains one of the scariest films made. Many exorcism movies have followed, but none have matched the sheer horror of watching the sweet, 12-year-old Regan become possessed by the Devil and turned into a projectile-vomiting, head-rotating monster. An expertly made movie that explores deep philosophical and spiritual issues while making you shriek at a moment’s notice, The Exorcist remains the best of its kind.
3. THE THING (1982)
One of the greatest remakes of all time, John Carpenter’s The Thing plays like a twisted Agatha Christie novel, set in a remote research station on Antarctica. A parasitic alien is dug out of the ice and infects one of the crew members. The hitch is that it’s almost impossible to tell who’s been infected, and the parasite can jump to a different host, leading to characters all turning on each other as paranoia and cabin fever sets in. Sudden shocks permeate the film, while cutting-edge effects that still impress today keep your eyes riveted.
2. ALIEN (1979)
Alien isn’t truly a horror film, but it skirts into scary territory often enough to leave deep traumas among most who watch it. Much like The Thing, it’s ostensibly an Agatha Christie concept, this time with a crew aboard a spaceship being hunted down one by one by an unseen malevolent hitchhiker. The famous tagline advertised, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Usually, such an inference would be hyperbole; with Alien, the odds are pretty good you’ll end up screaming by the end.
1. THE SHINING (1980)
Stanley Kubrick never dabbled in the same genre twice, yet attempted and nearly mastered each one. Following his period piece Barry Lyndon, Kubrick set his sights on making the horror equivalent of what his 2001: A Space Odyssey had been to science-fiction. His adaptation of Stephen King’s literary titan is a masterpiece of terror, creating a sense of creeping dread that rebuilds upon every viewing. While most other horror films suffer from the audience knowing what will happen on repeat viewings, The Shining somehow is enhanced, as you’ll know what’s coming and still be afraid to see it again. Even better, as a first-time experience, it manages to grip you from the opening helicopter shot right to the final close-up, hypnotizing you and frightening you to your core. Definitive proof that true horror never fades, The Shining is the perfect horror movie.