37. The Mist (2007)
Director: Frank Darabont
One of the better (and more underrated) Stephen King adaptations, Frank Darabont’s atmospheric chiller about an unseen malevolent presence that rolls in with the fog in a small Maine village flirts with supernatural silliness. But the performances and the cinematography (a suggestion: try watching it in black and white) ground it in a harrowing, paranoia-drenched reality that’s hard to shake. Even harder to shake is the final scene with Thomas Jane – it’s the sting in the tail that leaves a deep psychological welt.
36. The Witch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers
It’s 1630 and there’s something deeply sinister in the wintry woods of New England. Director Robert Eggers’ ye olde slice of Pilgrim horror (a genre that needs to expand, stat!) taps into the always-charged live wire of satanic possession in a God-fearing family undergoing a string of Job-like trials. What makes this creepy little black-magic folk tale work so beautifully is its evocative sense of time and place. Mark Korven’s soundtrack full of screechy, dissonant strings doesn’t hurt either. Best of all is Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest child, Tomasin, whose blossoming sexuality and wicked sense of humor make her an easy scapegoat when in fact, she may be the least of this cursed family’s problems.
35. Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Directors: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
As you continue through this list, you’ll notice a recurring theme: Unraveling moms and their creepy kids. And there’s a reason for that. No relationship is more loaded with psychological baggage. This slow-building Austrian import introduces us to 9-year-old identical twin boys (Lukas ad Elias Schwarz) who begin to suspect that something is up with their TV actress mother (Susanne Wuest) when she returns to their stark, modernist home after cosmetic surgery. Her face is wrapped in a gauzy white cocoon of bandages, which eventually becomes as chilling as any bogeyman’s mask. You may or may not see the twist ending coming, but either wayGoodnight Mommy will stick with you.
34. It Follows (2014)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Sometimes the scariest threats are the ones you don’t see. In David Robert Mitchell’s dread-fueled throwback to the look, feel, and synthesized sound of ’80s-era John Carpenter flicks like Halloween, Maika Monroe plays a Detroit teenager who is haunted by a curse resulting from a backseat hook-up with her boyfriend. Sex-equals-death metaphors aren’t exactly new to the genre, but Mitchell gives that timeworn formula a subversively suffocating twist as Monroe is pursued by shapeshifting apparitions only she can see. That is, unless she sleeps with someone else and passes the curse on like a bone chilling chain letter.
33. Dead Ringers (1988)
Director: David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg is creepy. And Jeremy Irons is creepy. Put them together and what have you got? Wait! Before you answer, what if I threw in another Jeremy Irons just to up the creep factor even more? Irons, in what can only be described as a magic trick of a performance, plays a pair of brilliant identical-twin gynecologists who fall in love with the same infertile patient (Genevieve Bujold). Needless to say, it does not go well. You watch enough horror movies and you grow numb to machetes, axes, and chainsaws. But catching a glimpse of Irons’ ”surgical instruments for mutant women”? That’s something you won’t be able to shake for a while.
32. Let the Right One In (2008)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
If Stephen King and Anne Rice moved to Stockholm and had a child, that child might some day grow up to write something like Let the Right One In — a touching and twisted coming-of-age story about a picked-on 12-year-old who befriends a young girl who just happens to be an extremely thirsty vampire. If your mind is already drifting toward the Twilight saga, fear not. This is a vampire story with bite, both literal and metaphorical.
31. The Descent (2005)
Director: Neil Marshall
What begins as a female-bonding outdoorsy weekend adventure quickly spirals into something out of our worst nightmares. Especially if your nightmares pivot around claustrophobia, dark, wet, cramped places, or bloodthirsty milky-white homunculi who live below the earth.
30. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
Everyone remembers Craven’s cheeky rib-poke at slasher films as an in-the-know genre satire. What’s less recalled is just how well Scream works as a great slasher movie on its own. Don’t take my word for it, just check out Drew Barrymore’s opening scene again…if you dare!
29. Hereditary (2018)
Director: Ari Aster
Seances, shock scares, and the supernatural. Check, check, and check. Ari Aster’s Hereditary doesn’t reinvent the horror wheel, but it sure does strip-mine the genre’s classics for parts in effectively atmospheric new ways as the Graham family (which includes a go-for-broke Toni Collette and the creepily clucking Milly Shapiro as her odd-duck daughter) reckons with a curse and a string of freaky incidents that don’t let up until the end credits. Like the most unsettling nightmares, it doesn’t all make sense, but the imagery is unshakeable.
28. Audition (1999)
Director: Takashi Miike
A widowed film producer stages a sham casting call to meet a new bride. What could go wrong, right? Anyone who’s seen Miike’s gruesome, cover-your-eyes finale knows the answer. Not for the weak of stomach.
27. The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Creepy kids are a dime a dozen in horror movies. But what makes Down Under director Jennifer Kent’s charcoal-black chiller so effective is how it plays on the hardwired fears of parents. In this case, a widowed mother (Essie Davis) who may or may not be slowly unraveling as her son Sam becomes terrified by a creepy children’s pop-up book inexplicably left in their home. The monster of the title is a slim dark figure in an inky top hat — and also totally beside the point. The real terror here comes in the ferociously unnerving performances of Davis and the saucer-eyed Noah Wiseman.
26. Suspiria (1977)
Director: Dario Argento
Horror doesn’t get more stylish than the bespoke films of the Italian Hitchcock, Dario Argento. This supernatural chiller set in a European ballet academy run by a coven of witches has a slick, surreal vibe, a hauntingly spooky score, and some of the most baroque kills anyone’s ever choreographed. Watching Suspiria is like experiencing a dream — a very, very vivid, strange, and scary dream. Buon appetito!
25. 28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
Boyle’s post-apocalyptic syringe full of adrenalin pushed the envelope in two major ways. The first was its introduction of ”fast zombies.” In almost all previous incarnations, the undead lumbered like slow-walking trees, arms raised at 90-degree angles, moaning for brains. But in 28 Days Later, they moved like rabid, caffeinated jackals. It was new, bold, utterly terrifying. Boyle’s second twist was having his zombies not be zombies, per se, but infected people. When Cillian Murphy awakens in an abandoned hospital, the plague that’s turned London into a no-man’s-land isn’t something out of a horror film we’ve seen a million times before; it’s something far scarier, timely, and believable.
24. Poltergeist (1982)
Director: Tobe Hooper
”They’re heeeerrre!” Horror comes to suburban cul de sac in Tobe Hooper and writer/producer Steven Spielberg’s ode to what lies beyond. Creepy clown dolls, thunder and lightning, the things that go bump in the night, there isn’t a kiddie fear that the filmmakers don’t exploit the hell out of in their joy-buzzer ghost story. But underneath all of the jumps, shrieks, and primal scares is the story of a family doing whatever it takes to stick together and bring their little girl back home.
23. The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Someday, an enterprising film student will write a master’s thesis on why the Nixon-Ford era spawned the cinematic unholy trinity of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. Until then, let’s just picture the last of those demon seeds, Damien (Harvey Stephens) — the tiny Antichrist with the 666 devil sign on his scalp — maniacally pedaling his tricycle and knocking Lee Remick over the second-floor railing to the menacing strains of ”Ave Satani”. Or even scarier, the boy’s nanny, about to hang herself, cooing: ”Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!”
22. The Evil Dead (1981)
Director: Sam Raimi
Two decades before he would famously tackle the Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi was just a college dropout with $385,000 and a dream. A nightmare, actually. Plotwise, his white-knuckle calling card, The Evil Dead, is just your basic ”kids at a remote cabin in the woods foolishly read forbidden book and unleash demons” movie. But the film wound up being so much more. It became a template for a generation of horror filmmakers, thanks to the wry Bruce Campbell (as ”Ash” Williams, in the performance that made him a cult horror hero), those predatory trees, and Raimi’s wickedly inventive daredevil direction. As he told EW, ”When we made Evil Dead, I wanted [viewers] to jump and scream and feel my wrath!” We’re still feeling it.
21. Friday the 13th (1980)
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Forget the slew of mostly terrible sequels, the original Jason-less Jason movie is a tight and tense slasher flick about a pack of randy camp counselors paying the price for their sins (even you, young Kevin Bacon!). Cunningham’s Crystal Lake movie gets an unfairly bad rap from genre purists and I can’t figure out why — it’s a perfectly engineered bodycount movie with one of the all-time-great final leap-from-your-seat scares.
20. Get Out (2017)
Get Out is obviously more than just a horror movie. It’s a meditation on race in America. But that third-rail subtext wouldn’t work at all if the movie wasn’t as unsettling as it is. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Chris becomes especially layered upon second viewing, once you know the twists and can focus on the nuance with which he plays the film’s finer emotional notes. Get Out is a dark comedy and a stinging satire, but more than any of that it’s the sort of movie that never lets you feel sure of your footing. Peele’s biggest jolts have nothing to do with blood or bodycounts, but instead with big ideas.
19. Repulsion (1965)
Director: Roman Polanski
Only 21 at the time, Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, an icy blond fragile flower who shares a London flat with her sister. When she’s left alone for the week, she slowly unravels — she’s haunted by strange noises and hallucinations where the walls turn into grasping hands pawing at her. As he would later in Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski gives us a psychologically terrifying glimpse of what madness looks and feels like.
18. Se7en (1995)
Director: David Fincher
From the jittery, scratched celluloid of its opening credits onward, Seven oozes more deranged creativity than any Brad Pitt movie has a right to. Before this film came out, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, pride, and lust were just intangible words uttered in Sunday school. From its bleak, rainy setting to an unshakably grim finale, Seven is so nihilistic and disturbing it’s hard to fathom how it ever got greenlit. And we mean that as a compliment.
17. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
The screen debut of the character who gave striped sweaters a bad name, Nightmare introduces a suburban monster who stalks teens while they sleep. Craven makes the most banal aspects of adolescence hellish, whether it’s turning the sanctity of childhood bedrooms into murder zones or a phone into a demonic tongue. Freddy Krueger eventually turned into an all-too-jokey shadow of himself — but there’s nothing funny about him in this first installment. Bonus: A young Johnny Depp gets eaten alive by a bed.
16. Carrie (1976)
Director: Brian De Palma
”If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom.” De Palma’s pig blood-soaked metaphor about a young woman coming of age in the oversexed world of high school remains a master class in dread. As the picked-on telekinetic Carrie White, Sissy Spacek pivots from tormented to tormentor with the flip of switch. The prom scene is a Rube Goldberg contraption of suspense. And the final scare remains the best stinger in horror movie history.
15. Ringu (1998)
Director: Hideo Nakata
Before it became a J-horror cliché, Nakata’s fiendishly clever import introduced us to the unshakably spooky and strange image of a long-haired ghost of a dead girl crawling out of the television. Good luck sleeping after you see that for the first time.
14. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Director: Zack Snyder
Is it as good as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? No (more on that later). But the opening 20 minutes are the most frantic, insane, pulse-quickening moments of any zombie movie ever. You feel what it’s like to wake up in the middle of an apocalypse where the dead have risen from the grave and they won’t be stopped until they’re gnawing on your flesh.
13. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Director: George A. Romero
Zombies come to the shopping mall in the splatter-packed second installment of Romero’s living dead cycle. Enhanced by an almost sickening sense of dread and make-up maestro Tom Savini’s gruesome special effects, Dawn is every bit as unshakeable as Night of the Living Dead was a decade earlier. Plus this time the gore was in color.
12. Nosferatu (1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
The granddaddy of all vampire films thanks to German maestro F.W. Murnau and his indelible leading man Max Schreck, whose silent, sinister, slim-fingered Count Orlock still raises goosebumps more than 90 years later.
11. Alien (1979)
Director: Ridley Scott
”In Space no one can hear you scream.” Although technically not correct, that tagline for Ridley Scott’s old-dark-house-in-space thriller is spot on. After all, the first half of the film is like a noose that slowly tightens around its audience’s neck. When the jack-in-the-box shock finally does come in all of its chest-bursting glory, it’s a giddy, gruesome catharsis. And the best part is, the good stuff is just getting started.
10. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
”What have you done to its eyes?!”
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
”They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” Filmed in black and white for about $100,000, Romero’s original zombie fever dream is still a haunting vision of a particularly gruesome sort of apocalypse and a perfect let’s-barricade-ourselves-in-this-old-house siege thriller. Romero’s film is packed with indelible images — none more chilling than an undead little girl in a nightgown going after her parents.
8. The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
A loose remake of Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ 1951 sci-fi Cold War allegory, Carpenter’s Thing isn’t concerned with messages; it’s just a terrifying meditation on paranoia and subzero dread as a group of scientists at the South Pole (led by Kurt Russell) is infiltrated by an alien that assumes the bodies of its victims in very messy ways. And despite its many gross-out F/X (thanks Rob Bottin!), no moment in the movie is more unsettling than watching cuddly Quaker Oatmeal pitchman Wilford Brimley go insane. Reviled at the time of its release, The Thing has rightly been reappraised as one of Carpenter’s masterpieces.
7. Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter
The original Halloween is, was, and ever shall be the alpha and omega of bogeyman flicks. It also remains one of the most profitable indie films of all time — costing a mere $300,000 and pulling in more than $55 million. The influence of Psycho is everywhere — from the tiniest details (Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis is named after Janet Leigh’s boyfriend in Psycho) to the casting of Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as Halloween‘s shrieking heroine.
6. Jaws (1975)
Director: Steven Spielberg
”You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
5. Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
What’s left to say about Psycho? This is the movie that invented the rules by breaking them. Janet Leigh’s iconic shower death occurs so early in the film we’re left dizzy and disoriented. Hitchcock is toying with us. Anthony Perkins is the essence of creepy as mama’s boy Norman Bates (”She just goes a little mad sometimes…we all go a little mad sometimes.”). This is where the modern horror movie officially begins.
4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
As Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins is a waking nightmare of seductive depravity — the sick, twisted serial killer America hates to love. We hear his performance goes down especially well with some fava beans and a nice chianti…fffttpp, fffttpp, fffttpp!
3. The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Forget all the conspiracy theories swirling around what The Shining‘s really about. Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about the Torrance family’s descent into madness is a hypnotically artful chiller that works on the most primal of levels. It doesn’t need additional subtext. Ghostly butlers, creepy twins, REDRUM, the apparitions of Room 237, there’s more than enough there to fuel our collective nightmares.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Truth is stranger than fiction…and a hell of a lot scarier, too. Based (like much of Psycho) on the horrific ritual murders committed by Ed Gein, Chainsaw looks, feels, and smells so much like a grainy, low-budget documentary that it borders on snuff. Leatherface and his clan of sadist, backwater cannibals seem to be bogeymen conjured from a diseased mind. And Hooper, the owner of said mind, jokes that when he settled on the film’s title, ”I lost several friends. But I thought, they’re putting so much energy into hating the title, maybe there’s something there.” Indeed there was. A copy of Chainsaw now resides in the Museum of Modern Art.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
The Exorcist isn’t scary. A cat unexpectedly jumping from off camera is scary. The Exorcist is so unsettling it will mess you up for weeks. Months. Years. Controversial and profane, Friedkin’s bone-chilling masterpiece remains the most viscerally harrowing movie ever made, not only because it dares to question the existence of God, but because it has the audacity to put Satan in the body of a sweet 12-year-old girl.