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20. DEAD-ALIVE (1992)
Before he became a respectable filmmaker, Peter Jackson directed this slapstick carnival of gore. It starts as a neo-Psycho spoof about a nebbish and his awful mum, but Jackson soon pulls out all the stops and keeps them out. The movie is one outrageously gruesome set piece after another, with limbs, eyeballs, and — especially — intestinal tracts taking on an exuberant life of their own.
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19. EVENT HORIZON (1997)
In 2046, a spaceship voyages beyond Neptune to find out what became of the Event Horizon, an exploratory vessel that vanished into the cosmic void. Laurence Fishburne plays the captain as a soldier of stoic cool, but he's finally staring into the face of hell — a De Sadeian theater of violated flesh, served up in razory shock cuts that dig into your subconscious.
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17. THE KINGDOM (1994)
Made for Danish television (but released here as a feature), Lars von Trier's sinister soap opera about the hidden goings on in the neurosurgical ward of a hospital in Copenhagen is a cheeky gothic medical bad trip: It's like a twisted ER crossed with The Shining. Stephen King liked it enough to develop an American-TV remake in 2004.
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12. THE DESCENT (2005)
This British shocker about a group of women who go spelunking — that is, exploring caves — features encounters with a batch of humanoid beasties, but that isn't what's most terrifying about it. What's memorably unsettling is the movie's icy claustrophobia: It's a nightmare of damp rocky crawl spaces you would never want to be wedged into.
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15. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
Alert! The dead have risen and are feasting on the living — but in the lumpish working-class Britian of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's zombie satire, everyone is so blitzed and jaded and drunk that it's hard to tell the difference. The movie is so rambunctiously over-the-top that it works beautifully as the very sort of head-splatter spectacle it's parodying.
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13. HOSTEL 2 (2007)
In Eli Roth's splatter sequel, wealthy businessmen make bids to travel to Slovakia, where, in a network of dungeons hidden inside an abandoned factory, the top bidder will murder the victim he has bought. Calling up echoes of the sex-trafficking industry, Roth isn't just whipping up a blood-smeared megaplex hellhole. He's asking: In a world of global depravity, where anyone can buy anything, is homicide-for-kicks-for-the-right-price really such a huge leap?
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13. MISERY (1990)
Stephen King's cabin-fever nightmare about the dark side of fan worship only looks more prophetic in the era of all-celebrity-all-the-time mania. As a mousy, vengeful nurse who kidnaps a romance novelist (James Caan) and tortures him into keeping her favorite character going, Kathy Bates (who won an Oscar for her performance) has a homicidal gleam under her hilariously sunny, apple-pie earnestness.
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12. FROM HELL (2001)
The Hughes brothers' elegant and sensational Jack the Ripper thriller takes full, violent advantage of the license opened up by several decades of extravagantly bloody popcorn horror films. Johnny Depp plays a Sherlockian police inspector on the trail of the world's legendary first serial killer. The movie gives us flickering vérité flashes of the human soul turned inside out.
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10. PLANET TERROR (2007)
The Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse is a deliciously bottom-of-the-barrel living-dead thriller, set in a present day that feels just like 1974, with zombies that get shot and spurt raspberry Jell-O blood. Rodriguez captures a particular mood of desultory, badly lit gross-out ghoulishness, and he does it with such heightened fanboy exactitude that it's as if he'd made the Far From Heaven of schlock.
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8. RINGU (1998)
Still the greatest of all J-horror films, Hideo Nakata's shivery tale of a videotape that kills whoever watches it is a movie that gets under your skin by indelibly fusing mossy Victorian return-of-the-repressed imagery with the twitchy, staticky jolts of 21st-century technology. The 2002 American remake was surprisingly good — but not as freaky-good as the original.
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16. ALIEN 3 (1992)
David Fincher made his directorial debut with this criminally underrated sequel, which resurrects the fear-sick mood and squishy-obsidian look of the original Alien (1979). As a monster stalks the prisoners of a distant planet, another one, still unborn, is growing — inside Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. It's a terrifically queasy conceit, played by Weaver in a Joan of Arc shaved head that's the taking-off point for her supple and anguished performance.
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17. DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
In his candy-colored ghouls-gone-wild nightmare, Sam Raimi surrounds a comely blond lass (Alison Lohman) with demons that seem to be erupting right out of her head. Lohman plays a loan officer who refuses to renew the mortgage of a one-eyed, rotten-toothed old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver). She then spends the rest of the film assaulted by flash-cut visions of baroquely grotesque and evil things, which unite the audience in a collective moan-laugh-shriek.
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4. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
Before he became famous as a creator of big-budget synthetic horror fables with fearfully contrived twist endings, M. Night Shyamalan made this elegantly spooky and original modern ghost story, with a twist that earns every inch of its ''Whoa!'' factor. Haley Joel Osment is innocently creepy as a kid who sees dead people, and Bruce Willis is touching as the lost soul he befriends.
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7. WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000)
Though it's never gotten the respect it deserves, Robert Zemeckis's terrifying gothic-feminist ghost chiller may be his most satisfying movie since Back to the Future. Michelle Pfeiffer lends screamy and heartfelt conviction to this tale of a housewife who discovers that her husband...well, just watch the movie and see why Harrison Ford's logy underacting is, for once, perfection. The final bathtub scene is sheer shivery bliss.
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9. 28 WEEKS LATER (2007)
Richer, darker, crazier, and even scarier than 28 Days Later (the movie it's a sequel to), Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's jittery shocker is a piece of visionary apocalyptic zombie pulp. It's set six months after the rage virus first annihilated London. The U.S. army has restored ''order,'' but behind the paramilitary victory an even more lurid and unholy breakdown awaits. Among the struggling survivors: Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Idris Elba (The Wire).
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2. SCREAM (1996)
Poised on the knife's edge between parody and homage, Wes Craven's mock thriller revived the slasher films of the '80s in all their gruesomely ritualized glory. Except that the teenagers in Scream have been raised on endless replays of those films, so the sudden appearance of a mad killer becomes a case of life imitating schlock. The killer's mask suggests a plastic version of Edvard Munch's The Scream, and it has the eerie effect of reflecting the audience's fear right back at it.
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3. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
This ingenious mock-documentary jumps off from the premise that three young filmmakers, journeying into the Maryland woods in search of the legendary Blair Witch, have mysteriously disappeared. What we're seeing is the recovered footage they shot — a raggedy home-movie descent into hell that plays like MTV's Road Rules crossed with Rosemary's Baby. The Blair Witch Project became the ultimate indie crossover hit because some believed it was real, but also because it dips into primordial terror — not just ''darkness'' but genuine, godforsaken night.
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1. AUDITION (1999)
In a movie world saturated by routine horror, how does one create...true horror? The Japanese director Takashi Miike achieved it in this great, primal nightmare, which is no J-horror genre film; it's more like Psycho for the age of feminine empowerment. A lonely widower (Ryo Ishibashi) arranges to ''audition'' women for a movie (he's really looking for a wife). He meets Asami (Eihi Shiina), a passive and seductive mystery girl, who acts out her damage by putting men through the tortures of the damned. To watch Audition is to be afraid, very afraid.
More 'EW University' horror:
Owen Gleiberman responds to your comments about his top 20
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the roots of modern horror
Psycho: the film that defined a genre
Horror quiz: Scare us with your trivia knowledge!