What makes a great horror film? Is it the number of scares? Or is it how effective the scares are? Is it the performances? Or maybe it’s the direction and cinematography. All of those qualities, combined with a plethora of others (the score, the lighting, etc.), contribute to the success of a great horror film. We figured there was no better month than October to celebrate the best of the best of the best in horror, especially since, in the 16 years since Bloody Disgusting’s inception, we have never made a list like this before. It’s about time we remedied that!
I’ve never been particularly fond of “Top [Insert Number Here] Movie” lists, or at least I’ve never taken them seriously. They’re fun to read, but how can one person actually determine what the best 100 of anything are? Art is subjective and no one person’s opinion can ever be qualified as fact. So when I was asked to write an article on the best 100 horror films ever made, I hesitated. I mean, who am I to make that call? Nevertheless, I was tasked with it so here we are.
Determining what qualified as one of the best horror films of all time was actually a very complicated and scientific process. Three things were taken into consideration: critical reception, importance to and influence on the genre, and (of course) my own personal opinion. The first and second items helped determine which films were included on the list (which means personal favorites of mine like Sorority Row and I Know What You Did Last Summer could not be included), while the last item determined those films’ placement on the list.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
100. Phantasm (1979)
Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? I am not wild about the Phantasm franchise. I think it has something to do with the fact that I saw Phantasm for the first time when I was 26. Had I seen it when I was a child, there probably would have been more of a nostalgia factor in play to allow me to view the film with rose-colored glasses. My opinion aside, you can’t deny that Don Coscarelli’s film is remarkably original and creative. While the film is notable for its iconic villain the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and his flying silver spheres of death, it is the relationship between brothers Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury) that so many viewers connect with. If there was ever an argument for a strong relationship between two characters improving a film, Phantasm is it.
99. Suspiria (1977)
Some (myself included) might say that Dario Argento’s Suspiria, a film about an evil coven of witches at a ballet academy, is all style over substance. Those people wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Argento chooses to focus on the aesthetics rather than the script, but the film is all the better for it. Suspiria has an undeniable beauty to it that even the most cynical viewer will find themselves submitting to. Couple Argento’s style and signature bloodletting with Goblin’s chilling score and you have Suspiria, one of the most surreal horror films ever made.
98. Friday the 13th (1980)
It’s no secret that the only reason Friday the 13th was made was to cash in on a trademark “holiday” (Cunningham took out an ad in Variety before he had even finished the script) and the slasher craze that began with 1978’s Halloween, but the Sean S. Cunningham’s franchise-starter has a sort of charm to it that is difficult to resist. Reviled by critics at the time, the Jason-less original is goofy fun that has, while not being a particularly good film, helped define the slasher genre. Also, Betsy Palmer. Betsy Palmer for life.
97. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Wes Craven’s second feature film is a nasty piece of filmmaking (though not quite as nasty as his debut feature, which we will get to in a bit). The film follows the Carter family as they travel through the Nevada dessert on their way to Los Angeles. Along the way they are attacked by a family of deranged cannibals. Come for Craven, stay for the batshit insane trailer attack that takes place about halfway through the film. The Hills Have Eyes has an unpolished low-budget feel (because the budget was very small) that will undoubtedly cause you to feel a little gross once the credits start rolling. This was Craven at the start of his career, but it’s also at his most confident.
96. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Keanu Reeves’ atrocious accent aside, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a glorious and somewhat gaudy piece of filmmaking from Francis Ford Coppola. Gary Oldman commands the screen as the titular vampire, but it is Anthony Hopkins’ Abraham Van Helsing who steals the show (one need only look at this scene to get a taste of his excellence). Thomas Sanders’ luscious set design, filmed expertly by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, is also a standout. The film may be a bit overstuffed, but it is never boring. You won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen.
95. Kairo (2001)
Arguably Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s most chilling film, Kairo (aka Pulse) has more on its mind than just a bunch of creepy ghosts. Not that it doesn’t have a bunch of creepy ghosts, mind you. Kurosawa’s film is bleak as hell (in the film, death is eternal loneliness) and manages to get under your skin more than a few times. Its commentary on technology and, more specifically, the Internet, is more relevant today than it was back in 2001. Wes Craven unsuccessfully attempted to adapt the film for American audiences with his script for the 2006 , but it didn’t translate very well, with director Jim Sonzero removing much of the mounting dread in favor of a bunch of jump scares. Stick to the original.
94. Wolf Creek (2005)
A common complaint from the horror community with certain well-respected horror films is that they’re either too slow or just plain boring. Wolf Creek certainly falls into this category, being one of the few films to ever receive the infamous “F” CinemaScore from audiences (the Christmas Day release date probably didn’t help). It is a punishing viewing experience from director Greg McLean, who captures the realistic torture of his three leads at the hands of John Jarratt’s horrifying villain to gruesome effect. He does take his sweet time getting there though, as the film spends the majority of its first hour as a slow burn road trip movie before turning into a legitimate nightmare.
93. Slither (2006)
James Gunn’s (Super, Guardians of the Galaxy) feature directorial debut was a box office flop when it was released in 2006 (it grossed a paltry $12.8 million worldwide against a $15 budget) and it’s a real shame, considering it’s one of the best horror-comedies out there. Taking cues from films like Night of the Creeps and David Cronenberg’s Shivers, Slither is a gross and hilarious alien invasion/body horror film that respects its elders and is just plain fun.
92. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
The director of Fatal Attraction and the writer of Ghost team up for Jacob’s Ladder, one hell of a freaky psychological horror film. The film, about a Vietnam war veteran (Tim Robbins) who experiences strange visions after returning from the war, is filled with strange and surreal imagery that will unsettle even the most stoic viewer. The film (like so many of its kind) is remembered for its twist ending, which is emotionally poignant and surprisingly powerful.
91. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
It’s hard to pick the best William Castle film (he had so many!), but if I had to pick one it would be the campy yet sinister House on Haunted Hill. The setup is simple: an eccentric millionaire (Vincent Price) invites five strangers to a haunted house and will give them each $10,000 if they are able to stay the night. As one would expect from a William Castle film, there are frights aplenty, but it’s mostly just an unpretentious film that asks its audience to have fun with it. Just watch out for that vat of acid!
90. Paranormal Activity (2007)
It’s amazing how many people will hate a film simply for starting a trend (see also: Scream). Paranormal Activity was hugely successful when it received a nationwide release in 2009 (a full two years after its initial festival premiere), grossing $193.4 million worldwide against a $15,000 budget. The bulk of Paranormal Activity consists of static shots of the lead characters’ home, but it sure is scary. As we wrote back in 2009, “[Director Oren] Peli deserves props for milking the maximum amount of tension out of the spare, modern setting – an ordinary, cookie-cutter tract home in San Diego. It doesn’t sound very scary, but Peli manages to make it terrifying. If you aren’t white-knuckling your armrest at least once or twice while watching it, you probably don’t have a pulse.”
89. High Tension (2003)
Your affinity for Alexandre Aja’s High Tension will depend on your thoughts on the film’s third act twist, which has been criticized ad nauseum. It will make or break the film for you, but the film’s importance (it helped popularize the New French Extremity movement in the early 2000s) cannot be ignored. High Tension is a savagely violent film that has so much blood flowing all over the place that it practically leaks out of the screen. It is not a film for the squeamish.
88. Oculus (2014)
Mike Flanagan made a mirror scary, you guys. A mirror. In his second feature (the first being the immensely effective Absentia), Flanagan seamlessly moves back and forth between two timelines (seriously, the transitions are amazing) as our two protagonists (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan and The Giver’s Brenton Thwaites) attempt to solve the mystery of the Lasser Glass, the mirror that tore their family apart. The bulk of the film takes place inside one house, giving the film a claustrophobic feel that only adds to the tension building over the course of its 103 minutes. Flanagan’s script is clever, addressing many “Why don’t they just….?” questions early on in the film. The final 30 minutes are filled with unbearable dread, culminating in an event that you’ll probably see coming, but will still be able to knock the wind out of you.
87. Candyman (1992)
Other than Stephen King, Clive Barker is probably the most well-known horror writer alive today. Much like King, it can prove difficult to adapt his work, with many filmmakers failing to capture Barker’s macabre prose. With Candyman, writer/director Bernard Rose manages to overcome the odds and expand upon Barker’s short story The Forbidden while also paying it the necessary amount of respect. Tony Todd’s Candyman is an imposing villain and Virginia Madsen makes for a sympathetic (if slightly too curious) protagonist. And not that there’s much competition, but it also has the distinction of making the best use of bees in a horror film.
86. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted countless times, but it is arguable Philip Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 film adaptation that stands above the rest (the 1993 remake isn’t half bad either). Donald Sutherland leads an all star cast (which includes Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum) in a film that seems to be a direct reply to the Watergate scandal. Whether you’s here for the social commentary or just some old fashioned chills, you have to agree thatr Invasion of the Body Snatchers is so good that, as Variety’s review put it, validates the entire concept of remakes.
85. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Alice, Sweet Alice is mostly known for being the debut feature of Brooke Shields, but that is almost a disservice to the film because it really is great. Director Alfred Sole’s slasher film/murder mystery follows a killer wearing an absolutely terrifying mask and a yellow raincoat, and is a love letter to the horror films Sole admired at the time (the whole film has an Italian giallo feel, the raincoat is a direct reference to the red raincoat in Don’t Look Now, etc.). It is a fascinating exercise in filmmaking, and makes one wonder why Sole gave up directing after his third feature, Pandemonium, in 1982.
84. You’re Next (2011)
If you’ve ever wanted to see a bunch of mumblecore actors get sliced and diced, then You’re Next is the movie for you. Adam Wingard’s slyly self-aware film, which sees a family reunion interrupted by a trio of masked killers, is both terrifying and hilarious. Australian actress Sharni Vinson turns in a tough-as-nails performance and Simon Barrett’s script has plenty of surprises to keep you on the edge of your seat all the way to the gore-soaked finale.
83. Dracula (1931)
Dracula is arguably the “worst” of the classic Universal Monster movies, but that’s not saying much as it has withstood the test of time and become a classic of horror cinema. It’s a bit melodramatic, but Bela Lugosi’s commanding performance makes him the definitive version of Dracula (of course he had a bit more time to practice, as he also portrayed the character in the stage play). It is a mesmerizing portrayal that will never be forgotten.
82. May (2002)
I almost hate calling Lucky McKee’s (All Cheerleaders Die, The Woman) May a horror film, but it is about a girl building a human doll out of people’s body parts so….there you go. Angela Bettis shines as May, a girl who just doesn’t quite fit in. The film chronicles her attempts at making friends (including Jeremy Sisto and a post-Scary Movie Anna Faris), which ultimately fail, leading to a blood-drenched third act that is more tragic than it is horrific. It also boasts one of the loveliest final shots in horror history.
81. Deep Red (1975)
Otherwise known as the film that launched Dario Argento’s career, Deep Red is a murder mystery coated with blood but offers a compelling story that allows it to stand out from the crowd of copycats that later followed. The film is more about Argento’s playful camerawork than anything though. You can tell he is in his element here (even more so than he was with Suspiria, which would be his next film), as the technical aspects of the film are sometimes more enthralling than the story that is unfolding on the screen.
80. The Others (2001)
The Others is one of those films that is often overlooked when discussing post-2000 horror films, and it is most likely due to the fact that its twist is nearly identical to that of The Sixth Sense, which was released just two years prior. This is a shame as The Others is a classy, spooky ghost story anchored by a committed Nicole Kidman (who was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her performance. Director Alejandro Amenábar manages to sneak in quite a few effective scares as well. The most famous of which is the “I am your daughter” sequence but, as cheap as it is, I always favored the jump scare where the door slams in Kidman’s face.
79. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
John McNaughton’s film (loosely based on the killing sprees of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole) gained notoriety for its long road to theatrical distribution in the late 80s. Filmed in 1985, the film was screened at several film festivals in 1986 but couldn’t find a distributor to release the film, which had been given an X rating by the MPAA. Greycat Pictures eventually picked the film up and released it unrated in 1989. To be fair, the film is highly disturbing, with one particular multiple murder scene being shot in one long take. Even when compared to more recent and more violent films, Henry remains a powerful and troubling glimpse into the life of a serial killer.
78. The Strangers (2008)
To think we almost never saw a theatrical release for Brian Bertino’s The Strangers. Originally slated to be released in July 2007, it was postponed to November 2007 before being postponed again until May 2008. In a brilliant example of counter-programming, it opened against the first Sex and the City movie to $21 million, more than double its $9 million budget. The Strangers isn’t just financially successful though. It is one of the scariest films (featuring two of the dumbest protagonists) you will ever see on screen. From the moment the strangers enter the house to their chilling reason for targeting the couple, The Strangers is a roller coaster ride of terror that will legitimately leave you out of breath.
77. The Loved Ones (2009)
Sean Byrne’s demented masterpiece (those Australians really know how to do horror, don’t they?) rises above standard horror conventions by injecting plenty of dark humor into the mix (something Hostel Part II also did to improve upon the original). Xavier Samuel is compelling as the kidnapped prom king, but it is Robin McLeavy, as the deadliest prom queen since Carrie, who steals the show. It’s an unpleasant little film with a few tricks up its sleeves to ensure that you never quite know where it’s going to go next.
76. The Skin I Live In (2011)
Pedro Almodóvar has an amazing track record when it comes to filmmaking, so it was only a matter of time before he tried his hand at a horror film. It should come as no surprise that his attempt at the genre was a smashing success. The Skin I Live In is a beautifully shot tale of obsession and sexual identity with a plot that contains so many moving pieces it’s a wonder that Almodóvar is able to keep track of them all, much less tell a cohesive story. Yet somehow he prevails, and his foray into the horror genre leaves a lasting impression.