Grab the popcorn and a cushion to hide behind, because here’s the best horror films of all time
For a genre with ostensibly one core intent (to scare the crap out of the audience) horror has always been one of the most creatively healthy film realms around. Covering everything from visceral shocks, to profound, emotional poundings, to cold, existential terror, to all-out splatter-laughs, horror (far from the genre of base thrills some have misguidedly assumed) is as worthy as any and more so than many. But that means that it’s also eclectic as all hell, which makes it rather tricky to narrow down the genre to the best horror movies.
Regardless, by putting BigBagBlog’s finest horror brains together, we’ve compiled an eclectic best-of-the-best covering every major era of the (relatively) modern period, with all major sub-genres and vibes accounted for. Slashers, spookers, monsters, murderers, nameless terrors, and nightmare teenagers. We’ve got the lot. So read on, peruse our wares, and you’re guaranteed to find something to scare you silly. Or make you giggle at highly inappropriate moments. That’s always good too. Don’t pretend that it’s not.
25. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The movie: Wes Craven’s iconic slasher takes the one place on Earth you’re meant to be safest – tucked up under your bed covers – and makes it deeply unsafe by inventing a killer who attacks teenagers in their dreams. The scarred-up, knife-fingered Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is one of horrors scariest villains.
Why it’s scary: The notion of impossible escape from a whole reality crafted by an evil predator is primally affecting, and doubly so when you factor in that the whole thing happens when you’re at your most vulnerable in the real world, a scenario that is always, ultimately, impossible to avoid. Whatever you do, eventually sleep always wins. Plus the whole nightmare conceit gave Craven and co. complete freedom to dream up some utterly horrible kills.
24. Ringu (1998)
The movie: Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) is investigating a story about a cursed videotape and in the process, manages not only to watch it herself but to let her ex-husband and young child watch it, too. The idea of a haunted VHS tape is a brilliant one, and the climactic scene where the vengeful ghost finally makes her entrance is pure nightmare fuel.
Why it’s scary: The cursed video concept suggests that not only are the characters in the film in danger but that you, the audience at home, are also in line to meet a sticky end. Yikes. And on top of the explicit scares, the scenes which show the surreal, creeping, indefinably nightmarish imagery on the tape itself make for some of the most instinctively unsettling, slow-burn horror ever committed to film. Two decades on, Ringu is one of the most incisively atmospheric ghost stories around.
23. Cabin In The Woods (2012)
The movie: The generic title is intentional. The Cabin In The Woods is a horror movie about horror movies; right from the beginning, it’s clear that something weird is going on as shadowy government types follow a group of kids heading off to, er, a cabin in the woods. It’s beyond post-modern. It completely deconstructs the horror genre, taking it apart brick-by-brick before putting it back together again in a smart new shape.
Why it’s scary: Recognising the manipulations that lead to familiar horror tropes supplies a fair few frights, but the real terror begins when those big lift doors open… Although consistently funny as hell, Cabin in the Woods steers right into the full potential of its genre-wide horror knowledge when things really kick off, delivering brilliant pastiche at the same time as totally legitimate recreation.
22. Scream (1996)
The movie: Wes Craven resurrected the slasher genre with this cheekily post-modern effort in the mid-90s. It ticks all the usual boxes, as a teenage girl and her friends are stalked by a masked killer, but these teens grew up watching movies and their ability to remember the rules will make the difference between living and dying.
Why it’s scary: Directed by the man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream works as a perfectly great, straightforward slasher in its own right, so even if you’re not enough of a genre nut to spot all the references and homages, it’s still terrifying. Someone calling you from outside the house? Yeah, that never stops being creepy. And if you do know the tropes, the crushing inevitability of what’s to come adds a whole extra, fatalistic weight to the stabbings and maimings. And ye gods, some of them are bloody.
21. Evil Dead (2013)
The movie: In this Fede Alvarez directed reboot of the age-old tale of woodland cabins and Books You Should Not Read – in truth as much sequel as remake – drug addicted Mia is taken to the worst intervention venue in the world by her well-meaning brother and friends, in an attempt to detox. Mia’s mind is tormented to start with, but things are about to get worse. Oh so much worse. You wouldn’t believe how much worse.
Why it’s scary: Because it’s the most rampant, relentless, gruelling, and obsessively dedicated cavalcade of nightmarish disgust you can possibly imagine. And it’s glorious. Eschewing CG entirely, in favour of sticky, stretchy, horrendously grubby practical effects and enough blood to drown on, Evil Dead 2013 is an absolute carnival of slaughter. After its disarmingly affecting, cold and downbeat opening, it erupts into a ripping, tearing, twisting, snapping tribute to the forcible malleability of the human form. Combining surprisingly touching character work with a giddy desire to push what’s possible in the most gleefully horrid, expertly crafted fashion it can, Evil Dead is one of the most focused and deftly executed splatter movies you’ll ever see.
20. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
The movie: Inversely to the 2013 reboot, Evil Dead 2 is more of a remake than a sequel. Reworking the 1981 original’s set-up – innocents go to a woodland cabin, find the book of the dead, accidentally bring the dead pouring down upon their own heads – but presenting it in a far slicker, more professional format than the first movie’s film-school scrappiness allowed, it’s also one of the finest showcases around for Bruce Campbell’s terribly underrated, kinetic character acting.
Why it’s scary: While it deliberately steers into the 1981 Evil Dead’s inadvertent comedy – allowing room for a great deal more slapstick and lashings of mapcap carnage – the thick, dread-laden claustrophobia Evil Dead 2 maintains as its foundation ensures a hellish, dream-like mania permeates the entire movie like old, dirty stain. The otheworldly, creepily graceful, stop-motion resurrection of Ash’s recently-killed girlfriend is a particularly striking image, but the real kicker is the sequence in which Ash, alone in the cabin, steadily loses his mind. Building from creeping, uncanny fear to screaming mad excess, it’s a slow-motion explosion of unhinged, fevered delight the like of which Campbell alone can invoke.
19. Alien (1979)
The movie: Arguably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made is also one of the greatest horror movies, as director Ridley Scott sends the crew of the Nostromo off to investigate a distress call from an abandoned alien spaceship as innocently as any gang of hormonal teenagers headed off to a remote cabin in the woods.
Why it’s scary: There’s nowhere more horribly isolated than a spaceship light years away from home. And Giger’s alien is as terrifying a monster as you could wish for. The dread goes much deeper than teeth and claws. The creature represents a multilayered, bottomless pit of psychosexual horror, its very form praying on a raft of primal terrors. And the visual ambiguity of Scott’s direction during the final act – during which the high-tech environments almost merge with the monster’s biomechanical countenance – are a masterclass in ‘What’s that in the shadows?’ tension.
18. The Innocents (1961)
The movie: Creepy kids strike again! Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) are the charges of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a governess working at a huge country estate. Their guardian has asked her never to trouble him with their problems, so when they start misbehaving and talking to ghosts, it’s left to Miss Giddens to figure out what’s going on.
Why it’s scary: Based on the classic Henry James novel Turn of the Screw, The Innocents has Gothic credentials by the boatload, being both a legit part of the canon and an influence on later works like Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Plus, the decision to keep the supernatural (or perhaps psychological?) threat ambiguous makes for a far more affecting source of fear. Are we dealing with ghosts, a troubled imagination, or perhaps something inbetween, projecting from one to the other?
17. Raw (2017)
The movie: A coming-of-age story about a vegetarian veterinary student who develops a craving for flesh after eating meat for the first time.
Why it’s great: Cannibalism films can be hit or miss, but writer-director Julia Ducournau takes that core idea and uses it as the nucleus for an intensive story of hilarity, heartbreak, and – yes – nauseating horror. It’s one of those deceptively smart films that draws you in with the promise (and delivery) of lurid, gory excess, but backs it up with a captivating atmosphere and a whole lot of narrative intelligence.
16. It (2017)
The movie: Derry, Maine, 1998. Children are going missing, and stories of a killer clown lead a group of plucky outcasts known as The Losers’ Club to investigate. Suffice to say, they won’t like what they find.
A shape-shifting space-demon that feasts upon fear. That’s what they’ll find.
Why it’s scary: Take that, production woes! Despite a change of director and some initially concerning deviations from the book, 2017’s cinematic adaption of It – Stephen King’s horror epic about a child-murdering alien dressed as a clown – is a veritable treat of a horror film. Bill Skarsgard gives us a Pennywise performance worthy of King’s prose, while the central focus on The Loser’s Club ensures that this fright fest still has a warm, beating heart.
15. Psycho (1960)
The movie: Hitchcock’s thriller about a murderer lurking in a roadside motel is so much a part of pop culture now it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to watch it on release. Anthony Perkins is wonderful as the vulnerable and frightening Norman; even when you know what happens, he’s got a kind of awkward charm that’s hard to resist.
Why it’s scary: There are at least two moments that would’ve been completely shocking to contemporary audiences. And yes, they might not be as surprising to today’s crowds, it’s still possible to watch it now and appreciate the craftsmanship of the film, how carefully it’s constructed and how overwhelming its atmosphere of dread.
14. An American Werewolf in London
The movie: David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking across Yorkshire when they’re attacked by a mysterious creature. Jack is killed, but David is taken to a hospital in London, where he recovers and starts dating a nurse (Jenny Agutter). That’s not a happy ending, though, because the creature that attacked the boys was a werewolf, and there’s another full moon on the way. Director John Landis is as adept at comedy as he is at horror, and manages to use both to great effect in this movie.
Why it’s scary: Well, if the greatest werewolf transformation scene of all time doesn’t have you biting your nails, the scene of werewolves definitely will.
13. Carrie (1976)
The movie: Poor old Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a complete misfit. Her mother’s religious mania keeps her sheltered, confused, and scared, and her schoolmates aren’t much better. Being invited to prom with one of the popular kids looks like Carrie’s ticket to acceptance, but things don’t exactly go to plan and Carrie wreaks spectacular revenge on her tormentors. Brian De Palma expertly crafts a terrifying split-screen finale that shouldn’t work, but acts as a brilliant mood-setter before Carrie’s final walk home to face her mother.
Why it’s scary: There are plenty of high school horrors out there, but few as visceral – or as heart-breaking – as Carrie herself. Everyone knows it for thatparticularly bloody scene, but the film’s oppressive sadness is as unsettling as anything else on screen.
12. The Babadook (2014)
The movie: Already struggling to cope with her difficult child, grieving widow Amelia (Essie Davis) adds to her troubles when she reads a mysterious pop-up book called Mister Babadook. Is there a monster lurking in her house? Or is it just a convenient scapegoat for her own inner demons?
Why it’s scary: The Babadook is a harrowing tale about depression and grief. And while there are many, many horror movies about mothers and children, this might is one of the few that really plumbs the depths of that relationship, inconvenient truths and more. Working as both a torturous emotional drama and a nerve-shredding horror film, The Babadook will flatten you, however you interpret it.
11. The Shining (1980)
The movie: All work and no play makes Jack (Jack Nicholson) into a raving lunatic. The Shining is a story of isolation and terror, and from all accounts director Stanley Kubrick did his best to torment his cast and crew while they were making the film, demanding up to 127 takes of a single scene. The result is a delirious viewing experience that’ll make you rethink that skiing holiday.
Why it’s scary: The deliberate pacing and obsessive attention to detail add up to a hypnotic horror that’s impossible to look away from. Weird party guests bleeding from the head, elevators that gush blood, creepy twins, an overzealous bathroom break… The Shining has a lot of fantastic imagery, but the masterstroke is that it’s all couched in fantastic, claustrophobic, slow-burn psychological menace.
10. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The movie: There’s something nasty in the woods out near Burkittsville. According to the locals, it’s either a witch, the ghost of a witch, or a child-murdering hermit, but whatever it is, you probably don’t want to run into it after dark. Unless you’re Heather (Heather Donahue), a wannabe documentarian, who drags her camera crew out into the woods to make a movie.
Why it’s scary: Unlike many found footage movies, which throw in edits for no reason and forget who’s holding the camera, The Blair Witch Project gives you all the creepy feels because the actors really did all the filming themselves. Blair Witch was the found footage film that basically invented modern found footage horror, and as such, uses the genre far, far better than may latter pretenders. That final shot is a killer, too.
9. It Follows (2015)
The movie: After receiving an unexplained curse through unprotected… *ahem* horizontal jogging, a young girl finds herself relentlessly pursued by a demon. While this entity always pursues her at a walking pace, it can take the form of any human, will never stop tracking her, and is determined to kill once it gets its hands on her.
Why it’s scary: Eschewing grand gestures for more subtle sensory cues, It Followsis a sublime example of how the art of creative restraint can lend itself to some of the most rewarding audience scares imaginable. A instinctively terrifying concept delivered with an underplayed, but heart-stopping, visual wrongness, It Follows was an all-timer the moment it was released.
8. Halloween (1978)
The movie: Who’d have thought an old Star Trek mask could be so terrifying? Director John Carpenter created a modern classic when he gave his villain a blank white mask a Halloween mask of William Shatner’s face to wear while stalking babysitters around the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The movie created another icon, too, in Jamie-Leigh Curtis, who’d become both a scream queen in her own right, and the template for all final girls to follow.
Why it’s scary: Pretty much the original stalk-and-slash, Halloween set standards that have rarely been matched. Carpenter composes his shots to keep you constantly guessing, blending both claustrophobia and fearful exposure, often at the same time, to create a deeply uneasy sense of vulnerability wherever you are and whatever is happening. Also, that soundtrack. There is a reason that pounding doom-synth is still the soundtrack for oppressive horror, and Halloween is that reason.
7. The Wicker Man (1973)
The movie: A little girl has gone missing on Summerisle, an isolated island off the coast of Scotland. But when Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives to investigate, the locals seem reluctant to help. They’re more interested in preparing for their elaborate May Day celebrations.
Why it’s scary: The Wicker Man shouldn’t work. It’s a mishmash of genres that throws in comedy and musical numbers alongside images of utter horror. But that’s why it does work. It’s the inherent otherness to Summerisle, the tonally incoherent, constantly surprising, onward-creeping wrongness – amplified by the normality felt by its residents – that makes this one of the greatest pieces of ‘stranger in a strange land’ horror ever filmed.
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The movie: You can kind of see why the BBFC felt they had to ban this film on its original home release. The story of a group of kids who run into a family of chainsaw-wielding cannibals. including one who wears the peeled-off skin of his victims as a mask, is shockingly violent, with a heavy atmosphere of dread.
Why it’s scary: For all the reasons it was originally banned. It’s brutal, it’s unsettling, and it has an oppressive atmosphere of heat and violence that clings to you like sweat afterwards. And while The Texas Chainsaw massacre’s reputation for gore might be overcooked, that’s only because its filming and editing makes the whole thing feel so aggressive that you’ll wear you saw splatter that never made the screen.
5. Get Out (2017)
The movie: Mid-20’s photographer Chris is driving out to rural New York to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, but he’s a little nervous. “Do they know I’m black?” he tentatively asks Rose, but she’s having none of it: “My Dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!”. Phew! What could possibly go wrong?
Why it’s scary: Bubbling with resonant social commentary, layered with hard-hitting goosebumps, and sprinkled with uncompromising humour, Get Out is a modern horror masterpiece in every sense of the word. Not content with scaring you just for its 90 minute run-time, director Jordan Peele wants to draw your attention to the real frightening truths rooted deep in the identity politics of contemporary America, and his grand reveal is more horrific than any jump scare could ever hope to be.
4. The Thing (1982)
The movie: A shapeshifting alien stalks the inhabitants of an Antarctic research station, masquerading as one of them until it gets an opportunity to attack. John Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s sci-fi The Thing From Another World ramps up the gore and the paranoia, and ends on a note of resignation, not triumph.
Why it’s scary: That paranoid atmosphere, for one thing. The Thing’s oppressive, one-second-from-doom vibe never lets up for a moment, amplified by brilliant, tightly-wound performances throughout. Ansd it’s impossible to over-value The Thing’s ground-breaking (and award-winning) special effects work, which unleash increasingly bizarre, hybrid nightmare creatures that will stick with you for life.
3. Suspiria (1977)
The movie: Dance student Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives at a prestigious German academy on the same night as one of its students is mysteriously murdered. And as she settles in to her new school, she starts to notice that things aren’t quite what they should be especially where the school’s director is concerned.
Why it’s scary: You don’t watch Suspiria for the plot. You watch it because it’s a super stylish assault on the senses. Everything from its ornate set design, to its unnatural lighting. to its prog rock soundtrack is intense and bewitching. Dream-logic, nightmare horror film-making at its absolute best.
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The movie: Romero’s sequel to Night Of The Living Dead sees the living dead causing even more carnage. This time, survivors are holed up in a shopping mall, not just a house, while the world falls apart around them. The larger scale also gives Romero scope to include more gore and more social commentary.
Why it’s scary: It’s all too easy to imagine that this really might be the way the world ends. The zombies might be an ever-present, ambient threat, but the very real failings of human nature, and the bleak, quiet, often monotonous creep of the lonely apocalypse make Dawn of the Dead one of the sub-genre’s most affecting works.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
The movie: After messing with a Ouija board, Regan (Linda Blair) starts acting weirdly. And not just acting weirdly in a normal teenage kind of way: she talks backwards, scuttles around the house like a crab, and does unspeakable things with crucifixes. Her mother calls in a couple of Catholic priests to cast out Regan’s demons, but it won’t be easy.
Why it’s scary: It quite simply has the most evil-soaked atmosphere of any film ever made. The Exorcist is relentless in its determination to creep you out, but ignore the scares for a moment and you’re still left with an exceptionally smart and sophisticated film that demands your unreserved attention and has kept people talking to this day. A bona fide cinematic masterpiece that just so happens to be an edge-of-your-seat scare-fest too.