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.
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.
18. LET ME IN (2010)
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) didn’t just remake the Swedish cult vampire film Let the Right One In into a more fluid and visceral movie. He made it more dangerous. Let Me In invites us to sympathize far more directly with its 12-year-old vampire heroine’s ambiguous overseer (Richard Jenkins), even when it suggests — as the original film didn’t dare — a much creepier side to their bond. As the blood-sucking Abby, Grace Chloë Moretz curls her lips with macabre domination, and the movie makes her shockingly fast — a herky-jerky demon. She becomes the savior of a sensitive boy in her apartment complex, a ”redemptive” love so haunted you’re never sure if it can lead to anything but more evil.
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.
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.
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.
14. FUNNY GAMES (1997)
In his mockingly sadistic and terrifying watch-the- middle-class-writhe-like-stuck-pigs thriller, Austrian director Michael Haneke puts his characters in a vise, and the audience too. In a wealthy secluded neighborhood, a family of three, staying at an airy summer cottage with perfectly polished white floorboards, are trapped by a pair of preppy psychos who proceed to tease and torture them. The two are like Leopold and Loeb reimagined by Abercrombie & Fitch. They bind, gag, maim, and terrorize, but they never lose their bland smiles or impeccable manners. Funny Games is designed, knowingly, as a lofty exploitation-horror film, and that’s a compliment. It’s made with brutal fascination and skill, and a kind of sick-puppy suspense.
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?
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.
11. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE) (2011)
Far more grotesque than the first Human Centipede — in fact, it could well be the sickest B movie ever made — this all-out snuff nightmare is shot in industrial black-and-white, without the benefit (or reassurance) of even a basic three-act plot. But that’s why you may feel gripped by the horror of what you’re seeing and the terror of what’s coming. In a fetid London warehouse, a vengeful geek uses a staple gun to assemble a 10-person centipede. Laurence R. Harvey, who plays this monster, is corpulent in a dwarfish, obscene-phone-caller way, with sweat-plastered hair and the dead, scowling fish eyes of a predatory bottom feeder. The scatological climax would have the Marquis de Sade gagging into his popcorn.
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.
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).
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.
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.
6. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)
What’s the scariest thing to appear in a horror film in years? A home-video surveillance camera. Oren Peli’s ingeniously stripped-down haunted-house thriller is made in the peekaboo-vérité spirit of The Blair Witch Project. The entire film takes place in the home of Katie (Katie Featherston), who claims to be plagued by demons, and her boyfriend (Micah Sloat), who totes around a video camera to record evidence that those spirits are real. At night we see the two of them asleep, the camera at a fixed angle in their dankly lit bedroom, the shots skipping ahead, hour by time-coded hour, until stuff starts to…spook. With its this is really happening vibe, Paranormal Activity scraped away 30 years of encrusted nightmare clichés. The fear feels real, because the fear is really in you.
5. THE CELL (2000)
Every so often, a horror film goes over-the-top in a baroquely outrageous and satisfying way. In this stomach-churning psychedelic S&M freakfest directed by Tarsem Singh, a child psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) uses a virtual-reality device to enter the dreams of a serial killer (played by Vincent D’Onofrio at his most leeringly arresting). The plot — Alice in Wonderland meets CSI — may be bonkers, but the movie’s gory-surreal excavation of a psycho’s mental landscape is memorable.
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.
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.
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.
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.