25. Freaks (1932)
While Tod Browning’s shocker is now considered a horror classic, it was not so well-received at the time of its release. Reviews criticized the film for being repulsive and offensive. Simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, Freaks is the ultimate revenge tale coupled with a kind of sweet story about the importance of friendship and solidarity that has thankfully found an audience in the 85 years since its release (though the original 90-minute cut has been lost, leaving only the existing 64-minute version).
24. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis’ werewolf film is another film where the makeup effects (this time provided by Rick Baker, who won an Academy Award for his work on the film) are the real star of the show. This isn’t to say that Landis’ script, which superbly blends horror and comedy, isn’t noteworthy, because it is. An American Werewolf in London is the definitive werewolf movie if only because it is the most entertaining one in existence.
23. The Innocents (1961)
You’ll find that many of the most highly regarded horror films include a certain level of ambiguity, forcing the audience to decide what really happened in the film they just watched. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’ supernatural novel The Turn of the Screw, is no different. To help with this effect, cinematographer Freddie Francis darkened the edges of the shots so that the audience would question what (if anything) lurked off to the side. Film tricks like that help make The Innocents one of the more atmospheric horror films to come out of the United Kingdom.
22. The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting has been deemed one of the scariest haunted house films ever made. While it may not seem so scary today, it was in 1963. Robert Wise’s crowning achievement in horror centers around Eleanor (Julie Harris), a shy woman with a history of supernatural experiences who joins a group of strangers in studying the haunting of Hill House. Since Wise wanted to make The Haunting as implicit as possible, the scares in the film are mostly that of the unknown and you never see any ghosts. The Haunting has plenty subtext that film scholars have been studying for years (for example, the film could be read as a metaphor for Eleanor’s repressed lesbianism), but it is mostly just really, really creepy in a high-class sort of way.
21. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Before The Exorcist, there was Rosemary’s Baby. In Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary (Mia Farrow, in a dedicated and harrowing performance) is raped by Satan and becomes pregnant after moving into a new apartment with her husband (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor. That is a rather stripped down explanation of the plot of Rosemary’s Baby, but it is what it is. Rather than load the film with jump scares and shocking imagery, Polanski opts for a more subdued sense of paranoia that pervades the film, causing viewers to feel uneasy until its horrific conclusion. This, coupled with Krzysztof Komeda’s incredible score and some fantastic performances (Ruth Gordon won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Satan-worshiping neighbor Minnie Castevet) make Rosemary’s Baby one of the greatest horror tales ever made about pregnancy.
20. Peeping Tom (1960)
Peeping Tom and its director Michael Powell got a bad rap when it was released in 1960. The film was criticized for being too disturbing and it destroyed Powell’s career as a director. This is all the more shocking considering it was released just months before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was met with a much more positive critical reception. Time has been kind to Peeping Tom though, as it is considered a masterpiece of horror cinema, as well as the first slasher movie ever made (take that, Psycho). The film tackles the subjects of voyeurism and psychosis and puts the viewer in the killer’s POV on multiple occasions (a first for the genre). The effect of this technique essentially made viewers accessories to murder, which is no doubt why so many critics were put off by the film.
19. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead begins a trio of sequels on this list that somehow manage to surpass either match or surpass their predecessors in terms of quality. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t quite as good as his debut feature Night of the Living Dead, but its near-perfect blend of social commentary on American consumerism, plenty of gore and pure entertainment allow Dawn of the Dead it to overcome the odds and be a sequel that manages to step out of the shadow of the original and stand on its own. And you just can’t beat that helicopter blade giving a zombie a haircut.
18. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale returned to the director’s chair for his sequel to his smash hit Frankenstein, and somehow manages to make it a better film too. The film, while still very much a horror picture, is injected with a healthy dose of camp to lighten up the proceedings. Much of the film’s success is due to Karloff’s magnificent return performance as the monster, but the film belongs to Whale, who clearly poured his heart and soul into the film. He manages to make the film scary, funny, suspenseful and heartwarming all at the same time, up until the finale, which is a heart-rending tragedy.
17. Evil Dead II (1987)
Most sequels would pick up right where the original left off, but not Evil Dead II. No, Evil Dead II is essentially a remake of The Evil Dead but given a comedic makeover and it is glorious. It’s difficult to say that it’s a better film than The Evil Dead, if only because it’s an entirely different beast. Running a brisk 84 minutes, Evil Dead II manages to cram in more gore, jokes and quotable lines than you can imagine. It is a hilarious good time anchored by a triumphant performance from Bruce Campbell, who takes physical comedy to a whole new level. Sam Raimi’s playful directing style shouldn’t go unnoticed either, as he perfects his technique that he masterfully showed off the first time around.
16. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King famously loathes Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, but taken on its own The Shining has a hypnotic quality that is basically a two-hour study of claustrophobia and cabin fever. Jack Nicholson takes center stage in an enthralling performance that almost takes the attention away from Kubrick and his camera…almost. With his shots of the desolate hotel hallways, gallons of blood pouring out of an elevator and a moldy bathtub ghoul (among other horrendous sights), Kubrick has crafted a horror film that would rather send chills up the spine rather than simply scare the audience. That the film’s three main characters are completely unreliable only adds to the terror. Is what they are seeing real? Or are they all just going mad? In Kubrick’s film it is never 100% clear. One this is clear though: The Shining has withstood the test of time and remains to this day Kubrick’s magnum opus, even if he took more than a couple of liberties with the source material.
15. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The sheer terror inflicted upon audiences when the Phantom is unmasked in Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera will never be understood by modern audiences. At the time of its release, no one had ever seen such grotesque makeup effects like those that adorned Lon Chaney’s face in the film (fun fact: he did his own makeup). Despite being nearly a century(!) old, there is something about the film that remains spectacularly creepy. The Gothic sets and lack of sound (save the for score) only add to the film’s effectiveness, but Chaney is the draw here. He gives an awesome, exaggerated performance (a necessity for silent films) that is a must-watch for any genre aficionado.
14. Scream (1996)
The ’90s are a sore spot for many horror fans. After the slasher craze of the 80s, the market had become oversaturated with subpar sequels and terrible original films. Box office receipts were down and the critics were very much “over it.” You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of truly great horror films made between 1990 and 1995. Then Scream came along. With Scream, director Wes Craven took Kevin Williamson’s script and perfected the meta-commentary that he tried and mostly succeeded with in 1994 with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. This time, all of the teenage victims had seen all of the horror movies before, making the film a clever deconstruction of the genre. The winks at the audience may not be for all tastes, but Scream helped revive a dying genre and inspired a plethora of copycats. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
13. The Evil Dead (1981)
Some may disagree that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is better than its sequel, but what makes it better is the fact that it does so much with so little. Made on a shoestring budget (anywhere from $350,000 to $400,000), The Evil Dead launched the career of Sam Raimi and began Bruce Campbell’s career as a cult icon. At the time it was considered the goriest film ever made, and though the makeup effects haven’t necessarily aged well, they are still a marvel to behold. Lest you think the film isn’t scary though, don’t worry. The Evil Dead is very, very scary. After all, when Stephen King calls a movie “the most ferociously original horror movie of the year,” (as quote The Evil Dead‘s poster proudly wore as a badge of honor) it means something.
12. The Birds (1963)
On paper, the idea of killer birds is fairly silly. Lucky for us, Daphne du Maurier disagreed when she wrote a short story titled The Birds in 1952. Alfred Hitchcock felt similarly, taking his penchant for bird symbolism and plastering it all over this 1963 film. Gone is symbolism. In its place is a lot of real and terrifying birds. You have to admire the film for its simplicity. The human drama that fills the film’s two hours almost feels superfluous, but it serves to build the dread that Hitchcock so expertly blows up in the final 30 minutes. That no explanation is offered for the avian invasion is even more unsettling than the attacks themselves, though they are quite unsettling (see below). With The Birds, Hitchcock created the best natural disaster film ever made.
11. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece (frequently referred to as “Jaws in space”) is a movie-lover’s dream come true. Every part of the film works. From the exceptional sound design to the top-notch performances to H.R. Giger’s creature design to Roger Christian’s outstanding sets (the list goes on), Alien is movie magic. Scott goes for a more traditional haunted house movie approach instead of splattering gore all over the screen, with the famous chestburster scene being the only scene with any bloodletting. The halls of the Nostromo convey a palpable sense of claustrophobia that only enhances the film’s terror. Released just two years after Steven Spielberg showed us the friendly side of aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien showed us that sometimes our fear of the unkown is justified.
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It’s no accident that four of Wes Craven’s films appear on this list. The man really was a master of horror. His pièce de résistance is undoubtedly A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film with an innovative premise that created a slasher icon who helped define the horror genre in the ’80s. While the sequels would turn Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund, in a career-defining performance under some outstanding makeup) into more of a jokester, Craven’s original highlighted the dream killer’s more sinister qualities. The then-groundbreaking special effects were the star of the film (save for those goofy looking quicksand stairs), but it is Heather Langenkamp’s performance as smarter-than-your-average final girl Nancy that gives A Nightmare on Elm Street its heart.
9 Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws has the distinction of not only defining the term “blockbuster,” but also for improving upon its source material. By excising some unnecessary subplots (Mrs. Brody’s affair with Hooper being the most unnecessary), the is able to focus on the shark itself and the relationship between the three men who set out to kill it. Notorious for its troubled production (the mechanical shark never worked, which is why it is hardly ever seen), Jaws forced Spielberg to get creative with his fimmaking technique. How do you scare the audience when you can’t show them what they’re supposed to be afraid of? Jaws is proof that it’s what you don’t see that is scarier than what you do see. To this day, people are still scared to go in the water because if Jaws. If there is one negative thing to say about the film, it’s that it has made it impossible for any other killer shark film to be taken seriously. No film will ever be able to match it in terms of quality or sheer entertainment.
8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film (and yes, it is a horror film) to win the five major awards at the Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Anthony Hopkins gets the most praise (and rightfully so) for his 16 minutes of screen time as Hannibal Lecter, but it is Foster who shines the brightest here, giving an insightful and compelling performance as the rookie FBI agent on the hunt for a serial killer. This isn’t to say that Demme’s direction pales in comparison. On the contrary, he directs with a firm, controlled hand and lets his actors sell the story. The Silence of the Lambs remains his greatest contribution to society.
7. Nosferatu (1922)
What do you do when you want to adapt Bram Stocker’s Dracula but you don’t have the rights? You change the name, of course! F.W. Murnau’s silent-era vampire film is by no means scary by modern standards, but it is an awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking. Filmed during the German Expressionist era (just two years after the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Nosferatu‘s importance to modern horror goes beyond the fact that it was the first on-screen adaptation of Dracula. More influential were Murnau’s filming style and of course Max Schreck’s haunting performance as Count Orlock. Nosferatu remains the first and best vampire film.
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
There are few horror films that can make you feel simultaneously exhausted and dirty when the credits roll, but Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of them. One of the most controversial horror films of all time, which is interesting considering there is very little blood actually seen in the film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unrelenting in its brutality and shocking in its authenticity. Hooper’s grimy documentary filming style transports you into the hot Texas summer, delivering an assault on the senses that will send you reeling. It would be a sin to discuss the film without mentioning Leatherface, one of the most iconic faces of the horror genre. Though played by different actors in the sequels (and prequels), Gunnar Hanson is the Leatherface. His hulking figure is an intimidating presence, one made even more terrifying by Dorothy J. Pearl’s outstanding make-up effects.
5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Made on a budget of $114,000, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead radically changed and redefined the horror genre. Its influence can still be seen today. As most of the best horror films usually are, Night of the Living Dead was made during a time of political unrest (in this case the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War). Romero load his debut feature with an unprecedented amount of gore, something that was a point of contention with critics at the time, but most agreed that it was a groundbreaking film that would ensure that the horror genre would never be the same again. And it most certainly wasn’t.
4. Halloween (1978)
We have John Carpenter’s masterpiece to thank for the slasher genre. The film is an exercise in terror that spawned countless imitators and originated all of the rules and clichés that Scream effectively called out. Because of this the film may not seem quite as impressive (or scary) to modern audiences, but its importance to the genre cannot be denied. Viewing it through that lens (and understanding that it really was the film to originate the now-laughable trends we see today), Halloween can be seen for the brilliant horror show it actually is. Carpenter’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with producer Debra Hill, also sneaks in some clever satirization of suburbia (as seen when the neighbors turn their porch lights off upon seeing a frantic Laurie Strode on their front porch). I haven’t even mentioned Carpenter’s score, which he apparently wrote in one hour. The simplistic piano tune still sends chills up the spine (though I happen to prefer Halloween II‘s synth version of the theme). Halloween is a perfect horror film. There is no argument to be made that it isn’t.
3. Psycho (1960)
Initial reviews for Psycho were decidedly mixed, with some critics praising Hitchcock’s masterful filmmaking while others criticized it for being an overly melodramatic film that hinged on a single gimmick (no one was allowed into the theater after the film started). Of course the film is now considered to be Hitchcock’s best film, and for good reason. Hitchcock expertly manipulates the audience, giving them a female protagonist in Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, who won a Golden Globe for her performance) before ***SPOILER ALERT*** violently killing her off 40 minutes into the film. We are then introduced to another protagonist in Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and follow her and Marion’s lover Sam (John Gavin) for the remainder of the film. It is something that had never been done before, and audiences loved it. The shower scene has been analyzed countless times (just see the recent documentary 78/52 for an example), but really the whole film is worthy of just as much praise as that one scene gets. Without Psycho, the horror genre as we know it would not exist.
2. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing had some unfortunate timing. Released just two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s family-friendly and optimistic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, it was met with scathing reviews and grossed a mere $19.6 million against its $15 million budget. People just didn’t want to see a bleak killer alien movie in the summer of 1982. Contemporary reviews have of course been more kind, as the films has since been reappraised and is not considered Carpenter’s best (or second-best, depending on who you ask) film. As I mentioned in my ranking of Carpenter’s films last Halloween, “The whole film is an exercise in mounting dread, and Carpenter pulls it off with aplomb (the blood test scene is discussed frequently, and for good reason). All of the pieces of the film come together seamlessly. The Thing has it all: Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, Dean Cundey’s gorgeous cinematography, Rob Bottin’s outstanding creature effects (the aforementioned blood test scene, the defibrillator scene, the dog scene, and so much more), and committed performances from every actor. Carpenter has never been better than he was here.”
1. The Exorcist (1973)
It may be cliché to declare The Exorcist the best horror film of all time, but that’s only because it is is the best horror film of all time. William Friedkin flawlessly directs this adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, which grounds the more horrific and fantastical elements of the horror genre into a compelling and (most importantly) relatable family drama. Dealing with issues of faith, doubt and the relationship between a mother and her daughter, The Exorcist showed that the horror genre could be taken seriously by general audiences and critics alike. Up until a few weeks ago it was the highest grossing R-rated horror film of all time (and it most likely always will be when inflation is taken into account). It received critical acclaim, becoming the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (it didn’t win, but it did win for Best Adapted Screenplay), and also has the distinction of winning over devout Christians and loyal Satanists alike. That alone is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.