“We’ve all got the disease – the disease of being finite. Death is the basis of all horror.” – David Cronenberg
It’s perhaps the oldest genre of all, used to conjure folk tales to children, keep our mortality in check and nip curiousity in the bud. From the inner workings of our fleshy minds to the inexplicable fears of the wider universe, horror is a genre ingrained within the subconscious. So how did this natural reaction to some of the worlds darkest problems manifest itself as one of Hollywood’s most iconic genres?
There’s a strange thrill to being terrified, particularly when you’re on a rollercoaster, lost in the world of VR, or indeed sitting in a cinema. Though whilst it has the capabilities to make us profusely sweat and keep us awake at night, horror films oddly bring us closer together, sharing in an experience of visceral delight with your fellow friends, family or moviegoers.
As the great John Carpenter once said: “Horror is a reaction; it’s not a genre.” It traverses genre and burrows into the fabric of everyday life, explaining the countless sub-genres that have been born since its inception. From Elem Klimov’s depiction of the horrors of WWII to Sam Raimi’s visceral comedy to Hideo Nakata’s Japanese moral tales, we take a look into the very best of horror cinema.
The top 50 greatest horror films of all time:
50. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Jennifer Kent’s fairytale gone wrong follows a single mother’s journey into despair whilst taking care of her autistic child when a mysterious, insidious book appears in her house, joined by a malevolent demon.
Terror lingers and builds to insurmountable dread in this terrific debut feature utilising simple monster production design and practical effects. Injecting horror through the context of the torment of depression and grief, The Babadook is more than a generic monster affair, with even horror legend William Friedkin commenting, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me”.
49. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)
Often recognised in the shadow’s of cinema fan forums as one of the most disturbing films of all time, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom remains fascinating viewing if you’re able to look past the depravity.
Set in Italy during WWII, the film follows four fascist libertines who round up nine adolescent boys and girls and subject them to 120 days of physical and mental torture. Part provocative exploitation film, and part a genuinely interesting postwar analysis of Italy’s political and sociological scars, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is by no means an easy or enjoyable watch, but there is truly no other film quite like it.
48. The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
Having only directed two feature films, following a trio of short film projects, it’s truly impressive to acknowledge how much of a following that filmmaker Robert Eggers has gained following 2015s The Witch and The Lighthouse starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Bringing traditional folk-horror to the mainstream, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a dread-filled countryside fairy-tale, perpetuating solitary paranoia in 1630s New England. Where folk-tales of witches were once shot in muddy, cheap grain, Eggers adopts a sharp resolution with fantastic cinematography making use of the limitations of natural light. Dreadful in the best sense of the word.
47. Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992)
Though he may be well known for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s career sparked in 1987 upon the release of Bad Taste, giving cult horror audiences a unique take on body horror that continued in 1992 film Braindead.
The film follows Lionel and his mother, Vera, who soon becomes a victim of the ‘Sumatran Rat Monkey’ and physically decays until she is reborn as a zombie, infecting the town around her. Possessing a homemade aesthetic of rubber props, thick exaggerated blood and theatrical performances, this culminates in the film’s conclusion, described by author Mark Jancovich as a “30-minute non-stop parade of zombie dismemberment”.
46. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)
John McNaughton’s compelling 1986 horror film is an investigation of the psychology of a serial killer Henry (played by Michael Rooker), a man who has murdered multiple people including his own mother.
An excellent breakdown of the slasher villain popularised in the 1980s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer forced audiences to question their own enjoyment of the genre they so beloved. As director John McNaughton reflected, “If the idea of a horror film is to horrify you, how could we best do that? Our conclusion was we could best do that by removing the fantasy. No ooga-booga, no monsters from outer space, no Freddy, no supernatural element. Pure realism. The greatest horror of all is, you know, human beings”.
45. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
A game-changer when it comes to the contemporary horror genre, 2018s Hereditary brought brains to the classic horror tale, with the story itself not too extraordinary, but the execution, revolutionary.
Horrifically hopeless, dread is built upon within an intense hotbed of guilt, envy and regret with help from fantastic performances across the board, specifically from Toni Collette. That car scene is, as a single entity, an example of horror at its very best. Aster’s follow-up Midsommar would cement his prominence in the contemporary horror genre, lacing his bleak narratives with strong subtextual emotion.
44. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
A favourite filmmaker of director Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell is a well known great of British cinema, having also helmed A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus alongside longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger.
Peeping Tom is among the director’s most provocative, revolutionary films, providing a shocking statement on the act of cinematic voyeurism that is arguably way ahead of its time. Starring Karlheinz Böhm and Anna Massey, the film follows a serial killer who murders his victims using a film camera to capture their expressions at the very moment of death. Disturbing and ingeniously shot, Peeping Tom is a classic of ‘60s horror.
43. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
Whilst war is, of course, one of the most horrific acts that humans can inflict on each other, it is rare that a war film could be considered part of the horror genre too. Though, so disturbing, depraved and sorrowful is Elem Klimov’s Come and See, it simply has to be included on the list.
Elem Klimov’s incendiary masterpiece structures the spectacle of the horrors of humanity’s capacity for unabashed destruction through the tale of a teenage protagonist whose psyche crumbles before our very eyes. As director Elem Klimov stated, “It was some kind of reflection of what I felt of my own emotions at the time of the war. Or, you might say, of my wartime childhood. …These were my memories of the war. Memories that will never leave me. And I am sure that, one way or another, they were reflected in the film Come and See”.
42. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)
Possibly the most celebrated zombie movie ever made, Dawn of the Dead is a joyous horror-thriller that also strikes an important sociological chord, comparing the lifeless bodies of the dead to the consumerist drones of modern day.
Urging the audience to ask questions about the ideological constructs of capitalism, religious morality as well as anti-natalism, all whilst crafting a compelling, highly enjoyable watch, George Romero helped to turn the zombie genre on its head. Between the scalping of zombies and the frenetic injection of a brilliant soundtrack, Romero pauses to reflect on the actual evils that threaten to destabilise our society.
41. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
From Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of The Raven and The Wages of Fear, comes Les Diaboliques, a horror-thriller that would have a significant impact on the shape of 20th-century cinema.
Telling the tale of a wife and mistress of a loathed school principal who decide upon killing him, Les Diaboliques is riddled with suspense as it cranks towards its final conclusion. Included on Stephen King’s list of his favourite ever films, the author told Criterion that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was a “suspense-horror masterpiece”, even adding the director, “out-Hitchcocked Hitchcock”.
40. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)
Announced as a favourite of both Stephen King and Martin Scorsese, The Changeling from Peter Medak exists in a genre of its own, suffusing a haunting tale with one of atmospheric mystery and unease.
The story follows a man retreating to the seclusion of a vacant Seattle mansion following the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash, only for his getaway to be disrupted by a paranormal presence in the house’s attic. Led by a terrific lead performance from George C. Scott as John Russell, this creepy gothic tale becomes something far more modern as it balances the despair of tragedy and the fragility of mental health.
39. The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
Emphatically interested in themes of sexual repression and its subsequent effects on the human psyche, The Devils is a dramatised historical account of the life of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest accused of witchcraft.
Grim, slimy and provocative, Ken Russell’s film is a horror film elevated by Derek Jarman’s gloriously elaborate set design. In a twisted narrative that merges blasphemous terror and a compelling romance, The Devils spirals into helplessness in the final act as darkness prevails and society crumbles. Russell’s film has since become a cult classic, honouring its 50th anniversary to the sound of uproarious celebrations.
38. Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s folk tales, Kwaidan is a mesmerising horror anthology by Japanese master Masaki Kobayashi. Separated into four different narratives with common subtextual elements, Kwaidan manages to capture the entire spectrum of horror.
A sprawling exploration of Japanese horror, each of Kwaidan’s four tales shares a supernatural theme that comes together to create a general atmosphere of true terror. As Kobayashi reflected: “I hate to sound self-aggrandising but watching my films today, they don’t feel dated. What this means is that I really spent time on the editing, but also spent a lot of time working on the whole sound of the film, including the music. So when I finished a film, it was really complete”.
37. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)
Grimey, disgusting and wonderfully creative, Clive Barker’s cult classic horror film Hellraiser is a punk joyride across the depths of hell, featuring one of the most iconic villains of all time in the hideous Pinhead.
Described by Stephen King as “the future of horror”, Hellraiser follows the story of a woman who begins to kill for her recently resurrected brother-in-law so that he can escape the horrors of the underworld. It’s a bizarre, bombastic plot that well combines genuine terror and entertaining pulpy visuals, typified by the eclectic Cenobites, extradimensional beings who exist in a horrifying realm of dread.
36. The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
A personal favourite of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, The Haunting is a classic of the haunted house sub-genre of horror, starring the likes of Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson.
Inspiring Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wises’ film shares its name with the titular manor of the series, following Dr. John Markway as he assembles a team to help discover if the house is indeed haunted. Calling the classic haunted house flick “absolutely terrifying”, Scorsese would later compare the film to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, noting that both films embrace stories of familial fracture, with horror elements weaved in.
35. Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)
Inspiring countless remakes and reimaginings including Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In and Holy Motors from Leos Carax, Georges Franju’s iconic French horror film is a classic of European horror.
Detailing the story of a surgeon who causes an accident that leaves his daughter disfigured, the tale takes a dark turn when the doctor tries to create a new face for the young girl, spiralling into a moral tale of vanity and parental responsibility. A favourite of director Guillermo del Toro, Eyes Without a Face isn’t a terrifying film, though it is a deeply unsettling one, asking the audience to consider the mentality of an individual trapped behind a mask, saved and held captive by their father.
34. Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
Fears of a new digital age provide the fuel for 2001’s Pulse (Kairo) Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror-mystery, dealing with the ever-present isolation and loneliness of the internet.
After the mysterious suicide of a computer analyst, two groups of people set out to uncover the truth, discovering that spirits may be invading the human world through the door of the computer screen. Using an ingeniously spine-tingling choral soundtrack, Pulse depicts a new kind of spirit. Unstable, otherworldly and utterly terrifying, their dreamlike movements brandish their mark on horror cinema.
33. Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
The second iteration of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in cinema, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, is a crime thriller with serious bite with help from a delightfully shocking performance from Anthony Hopkins.
Based on the novel of the same name, and series of books following the serial killer from author Thomas Harris, Demme’s film tails along with a young F.B.I cadet seeking help from an incarcerated cannibal in efforts to track down another vicious serial killer. With a central plot that is palpable to the core, Hopkins’ performance drives the drama, fueling the roaring fires propelling the film forward. Lecter’s piercing, unwavering stare consumes the young F.B.I agent, played by an excellent Jodie Foster, makes for a heart-palpating conclusion featuring characters you cherish so closely.
32. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
A cinematic achievement on the smallest of scales, The Descent portrays horror at its very best and most simple; a claustrophobic fear of the unknown.
During a weekend retreat, a group of cave explorers become trapped in a strange network of caves that seem to harbour a breed of scuttling predators. Part monster film, part a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, the real horror of Neil Marshall’s film is in the sense of isolation that is cleverly created through the sound and cinematography. Dialogue echoes around the dripping, rocked walls, as our eyes scramble for a way out, bound only to the limits of the torchlight, creating a squirming, tense and highly uncomfortable atmosphere.
31. REC (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)
Inspired by the sprinting horrors of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and the British director’s innovation of the iconic monsters, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s REC formed together with its own ingenious take on the zombie sub-genre.
Truly innovative, REC plays out in real-time following a TV reporter and a group of firefighters who report to a mysterious disturbance at a block of flats. What conspires to be the result of occult medical science, REC spirals into a grungy, dirty take on the infected undead, helping to consolidate the zombie infatuation of the mid-late noughties. It’s a film that creates a tangible panic and a snappy sense of ‘fight or flight’ urgency like no other.
30. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
“Long live the new flesh…”
Possibly David Cronenberg’s most notable and most acclaimed films, Videodrome is a thrillingly sleazy judgement on new media and an entertaining conversation into what the technological future may have in store.
Though, of course, any technological future that Cronenberg suggests would never be as disorientating and bizarre as the one presented in Videodrome. Searching for a new kind of show for his seedy cable-TV station, a programmer becomes obsessed with a mysterious broadcast, and a new reality, named ‘Videodrome’. Typifying the style and extravagant nature of 1980’s filmmaking, Cronenberg’s film is a visual rollercoaster that utilises the very best effects of its time. This is a director in the crux of his career, flexing his muscles to show off the body-horror ingenuity that would go on to typify his filmography.
29. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1990)
The infamous found-footage horror film of the 1990s, The Blair Witch Project was, in many ways, a literal ‘project’ that challenged the cinematic medium as well as audience expectations.
Unapologetically unsophisticated and unpolished, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s film is simple, following three young film students through the woods as they try to capture footage of the urban legend, ‘The Blair Witch’. What results is a frantic dash through the Maryland wilderness with rare moments of respite, as the characters become lost in a labyrinth of occult mystery. It’s a paranoid chase scene with an invisible predator and horror at its most basic, resurfacing in your mind every time you go for a night time stroll.
28. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
Wes Craven doffs his cap to the very horror genre he helped to create with Scream, his final masterpiece, heralding in the reign of a brand new genre icon, Ghostface.
Satirically twisting the conventions of the horror genre itself, Craven would kill off the films biggest name, Drew Barrymore, within the first sequence of the film, letting you in for 110 minutes of pure surprise. The story is pretty predictable, and purposefully so, following a teenage girl and her group of friends, stalked by a serial killer using horror films as inspiration for his murderous acts.
With all its twists, turns and misdirection, Scream is thrilling to its very core, pedalled by a leading cast reaping obvious enjoyment from the inspired script. Matthew Lillard take a bow…
27. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
One of director, David Cronenberg’s greatest directorial achievements, The Fly is a pioneer of body horror special effects and an iconic piece of science fiction cinema.
Ripped and borrowed from hundreds of times over, Cronenberg’s film is based on the short story of the same name from author George Langelaan, following an eccentric scientist, who upon trying to master teleportation, uses himself as a test subject to disastrous consequences. Encapsulated by Jeff Goldbloom’s scatty central character, The Fly is, first and foremost, a psychological paranoia that raucously descends into gruesome physical horror.
Be afraid. Be very afraid….
26. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976)
The original, and arguably best horror movie minion, child and spawn of the devil, Damien, leads Richard Donner’s highly enjoyable satanic treat The Omen.
From the shocking suicide of Damien’s nanny to the hair-raising final shot, Donner’s film contains several iconic moments that would inspire a genre to-come. Surrounding the life of the American ambassador of the UK, and the mysterious deaths that stalk him every day, The Omen explores the horror and paranoia of knowing (or not knowing) that your own son may be the antichrist. It’s a wild ride.
25. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Before 2002, zombies were idiotic meat-parcels, pinatas of guts, goo and copious blood for characters to rip apart and stick into blenders. Granted, the terrifying, infected monsters that sprint around the city of London in 28 Days Later, may not technically be zombies, but the film certainly changed the way we looked at the undead.
Danny Boyle’s landmark debut horror movie is a visionary masterpiece. With help from a terrific script from Alex Garland which not only establishes an apocalyptic London with deft imagination but also manages to contain an excellent, isolated story within the world itself. Waking up from a coma to the windswept tumbleweed of central London, Jim (Cillian Murphy) staggers through the city, searching for survivors and sanctuary. It was a zombie movie that would change everything.
24. Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
The oldest film on this list by quite some way, the original vampire horror film from F. W. Murnau, the same mind behind The Burning Soil and Sunrise, may perhaps be the most influential horror film of all time.
As Roger Ebert once said, “To watch Nosferatu is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself,” with the film representing ambitions and narrative drive way beyond its limited technological advancements. Despite technically not being a Dracula film at all, its use of Expressionistic lighting and cinematography, along with the performance of Max Schreck as the titular beast makes the film a quintessential classic of the genre.
23. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Released the same year as ‘tween’ phenomenon Twilight, Let the Right One in showed an altogether darker, more humanistic approach to the classic monster.
Part horror, part coming-of-age romance, Tomas Alfredson’s remarkable film revolves around Oskar, a bullied schoolboy, who with the help of his new, mysterious friend, Eli, finds revenge and much more. This is a horror film, rooted in a love story, played out with naturalistic aptitude from lead actors Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. Though whilst presenting this touching tale of young love, the film effortlessly weaves in moments of pure terror, marvellously artistic set pieces that will leave you conflicted towards Oskar’s newfound friend.
22. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
Wes Craven’s fleshy supernatural slasher is a creative masterpiece of the subgenre, creating one of cinemas most subversive and iconic villains, Freddy Krueger.
Starring a young Johnny Depp, Craven’s film follows the evil spirit of Freddy Krueger, a deceased child murderer who seeks revenge from the grave on the children of those who sent him to his death. Featuring revolutionary, grungy special effects and a truly unique sinister entity, straight from the camp underworld, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of slashers’ best and most unsettling.
21. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
A favourite of Goodfellas and Killers of the Flower Moon director Martin Scorsese, The Innocents is a classic, creeping thriller that remains effective thanks to its timeless lead performances.
Starring Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, the ghost tale tells the story of a young governess for two children who becomes convinced that the grand house and grounds are haunted by a sinister presence. An eerie, well-realised gothic horror tale, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents remains a classic for good reason.
20. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Phillip Kaufman, 1978)
Often, the very best of sci-fi horror takes an outlandish, unfathomable cosmic horror and reigns in toward earth, embedding the terror within a deeply humanistic story. Playing on fears of paranoia, and of the ‘other’, Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a perfect example of this, embedding fear within the intentions of an unknown evil.
Based on the book from author Jack Finney, Kaufman’s film stars cult favourites Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nemoy as a solitary group fighting against the invasion of strange cosmic seeds, turning the population into emotionless automatons. Equally enjoyably camp and eerily disturbing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, fits snugly into that groove. When cosmic horrors are so difficult to translate from page to film, screenwriter W.D. Richter evocatively brings the body snatchers to life, with some truly horrifying special effects and sound design to boot.
19. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
Teetering of the borderline between horror and comedy is no easy feat. Too funny and the horror will be ridiculed, too grisly and the comedy could be seen as sadistic. John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London perfectly tows this line, miraculously producing a film both unforgettably disturbing and joyously camp.
A predecessor to late ’80s horror-comedy classic, Evil Dead II, Landis’ film is the grandfather of the genre, following the tale of two American college students who are attacked by a mythical werewolf whilst on a walking tour of Britain. Though, this brief description does a disservice to the wide breadth of chaotic imagination that Landis creates. Featuring one of cinema’s greatest ever transformation sequences in a true feat of practical effects, as well a satisfyingly strange scene of Nazi mutant house invasion, this is true horror at its most playful.
18. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
Though many films explore the many fears that come with high school, many of these stories stem from the horrors presented in Carrie, particularly its blood-soaked third-act sequence.
Based on the original novel from literary horror aficionado Stephen King, Carrie is a fantastical tale of grief and discrimination following a shy, lonely teenage girl with a domineering, pious mother and surprising telekinetic powers. Led by fantastic performances from Sissy Spacek as the frail, unstable titular character and Piper Laurie as her truly terrifying, possessed mother, Carrie is in many ways a tragedy, following a lonely and betrayed central character. Carrie’s journey is a metamorphosis fueled by teen-angst that results in a pivotal violent outburst and one of horror’s greatest scenes.
17. Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)
Takashi Miike isn’t unfamiliar to the explicitly disturbing, renowned for his frank and blunt approach to sex and violence. Audition is no different, taking the word ‘disturbing’ to new cinematic heights.
In this strange tale of a widower auditioning local women to be his new wife, Miike crafts a slow burner that patiently culminates into a gripping drama. However, behind the curtain something far more sinister is brewing, delivering one of cinema’s most surprising and most uncomfortable tonal deviations. Few films can imbed themselves into the minds of every viewer, though one particular image in Audition is so unforeseeable, and so instantly disturbing, it will inhabit the shadowed corners of your mind for long after.
16. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
Whilst horror can often deal in the abstract and psychological, it can also consolidate physical fears, and even embellish them, with Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws planting a fear of sharks into the minds of a whole cultural generation.
Dealing with the deep, dark blue of the unknown, Speilberg’s classic horror-drama stalks the activity of a killer shark causing chaos in the waters of a local beach community. Featuring groundbreaking cinematography that places the viewer within the shark’s gaze, just beneath the break of the water’s surface, Jaws creates an unprecedented tension that screams of inevitable bloodshed. Considering the film’s soft PG rating, and relative lack of visceral violence, the terror it has created of the deep dark blue for a whole western culture is staggering.
15. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
When style defeats substance, emotion, over reason, takes the president. After all, often the ensemble of clever sound design and emotionally resonant cinematography can do a lot more in translating a particular feeling than words could ever do.
Dario Argento’s Giallo masterpiece, Suspiria, certainly falls into this stylistic bracket—a bright fantastical dream world of saturated reds and neon blues. Set in a German ballet academy, Argento’s film followers an American newcomer who quickly comes to realise that there’s something far stranger, and more sinister functioning behind the theatrical velvet curtain. Bolstered by a creeping progressive rock soundtrack, narrating the film from its mysterious introduction to its violent conclusion, Suspiria is a hellish trip into a sinister, alternate reality.
14. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Introducing one of cinema’s first-ever slasher killers, Halloween is perhaps the genre’s most influential release, leading a whole sub-genre into the late 20th-century kicking and screaming in fear.
With a blank, white rubber mask, Michael Myers (a name as starkly fearful in the genre as Freddy or Jason) wreaks havoc on a small Illinois town following his escape from a mental hospital. A town as defiantly postcard-American as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, John Carpenter’s Halloween brought a sense of unease to every small town U.S suburb—suggesting something fantastically abnormal could be lurking in the shadows. Setting the standard for modern horror cinema Carpenters film is underscored by his own, timeless creeping score. A synth-led nightmare that has you instinctively checking over your shoulder.
13. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Navigating the back alleys and sheltered corners of the psyche, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a psychological horror like no other, exploring the concept of grief with tormenting suspense.
Starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, the film follows their travels to Venice to take on the restoration of a church, only to be followed by the grief of their recently deceased daughter and the psychic warnings of two strange sisters. An impressionistic chiller, Roeg’s film builds uneasy suspense through particularly haunting, outlandish imagery, projecting the mind of an afflicted central character onto the surface of the film itself. What results is a bizarre, almost Lynchian, deconstruction of despair, laced with eerie symbolism of a life lost but never forgotten.
12. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)
The grandfather of the zombie sub-genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead set new rules and standards for the classic movie monster. Zombies were not fantastical ghouls, they were the living dead…
A simple, classic siege narrative houses the film itself, set in a Pennsylvanian farmhouse where a ragtag group barricade themselves against the flesh-eating, brain-hungry walking dead. Given the shoestring budget and near-total lack of visual effects, it’s no mean feat that Night of the Living Dead remains a gripping horror tale, especially when compared to the high-budget standards of contemporary zombie moviemaking. Moreso than its pioneering imaginative spirit, however, was the social commentary that lay beneath its foundations, making it more than a midnight movie, becoming instead an important piece of American cultural history.
11. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Horror itself tends to tap into the intricacies of innate human fears, whether it be something as abstract as the angst of existentialism, or the mental paranoia of an imminent physical change, such as pregnancy.
Rosemary’s Baby toys with this fear masterfully, creating an eerie, sinister atmosphere with no more than a handful of characters, a claustrophobic New York apartment and an anxious mother-to-be. Written for the screen from Ira Levin’s novel by director Roman Polanski, this simple tale follows a young couple who move to a plush New York apartment, where paranoia quickly brews when Rosemary (Mia Farrow) becomes pregnant and their peculiar neighbours begin to pry. Polanski is a master at upsetting the ambience, with slow, subtle suggestions, through a quality script and a creeping soundtrack, that something else may be at work as we watch our paranoia grow alongside Rosemary.
10. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)
A visually stunning 1980s masterpiece, Possession celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2021 and looks as though it could quite easily exist in the landscape of contemporary psychological horror.
Directed by Andrzej Żuławski and starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession echoes with the inspiration of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in its depiction of psychological breakdown, following the divorce of Anna (Adjani) and Mark (Neill) and the sinister fallout of the relationship. A classic of 1980s horror that defied the popular slasher zeitgeist, Possession was fuelled by the horror innovations of David Cronenberg’s The Brood and David Lynch’s Eraserhead to create something entirely new.
9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
In his astonishing cinematic career, covering several genres, it was Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining that piqued director Stanley Kubrick’s interest—leading him to create one the greatest films of the genre.
Set in the magnificent, fictional Overlook Hotel, located in the Colorado Rockies, the tale follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family who opt to look after the hotel over the winter. Dwarfed by the towering presence of the hotel, however, Jack soon becomes engulfed by an evil, violent presence, influencing his temper toward his wife and psychic son. This chilling, isolated exploration of madness is punctuated by several fantastic performances, notably Jack Nicholson who’s cruel psychotic descent is one of the very best put to screen, and perhaps more so, Shelley Duvall radiating an unrivalled physical fear; coming undoubtedly as a result of her taxing time on set.
8. Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)
Departing from the tone of the iconic original, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, turns the horror genre into a sandbox playground, injecting a good dose of manic comedy to create one of cinema’s most innovative films.
Surviving the horrific onslaught of the previous film, Ash (Bruce Campbell) becomes the leader of another group of strangers hoping to survive against the evil dead, barricading themselves inside a cabin to fight off the flesh-eaters, whilst they each become increasingly insane. In Raimi’s inventive, slapstick approach to gory horror-comedy, he had subverted the bad taste of the genre like few others had ever done before. His bombastic journey into the depravities of hell’s most ghoulish and malleable creatures is campy horror fun, and equal parts grimy horror and deranged hilarity.
7. Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
Spawning sequels, spin-offs, remakes and re-releases, Ringu and its following series has become a horror trailblazer for all things grungy, supernatural and long-black-haired. Centred around a mystical VHS tape that carries the curse of a young, bedevilled girl and the dark promise of death after seven days, the film birthed a new fear of technology and was, for many western audiences, their first taste of Asian horror. Its influence has been evident ever since.
Whilst ghosts and curses used to inhabit spaces of the home, spaces of particular objects and even the spaces of one’s own mind, Ringu suggested that it might exist in the questionable realm of television and marvellous new technologies. The film was a cultural questioning of how trustworthy technology truly was, and in-particularly television. It’s a truly terrifying concept that cinema, let alone the horror genre, had never seen before – a dark, demonic, impossible spirit that you couldn’t evade and was futile to fight against…
6. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
Master of cult cinema, John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, itself based on John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, is a pioneer of cosmic horror storytelling; deftly entwining the terror of man’s paranoid struggle with the inconceivable horror of the unknown.
Set within an isolated Antarctic research facility, The Thing follows the activity of a cosmic being that perfectly assimilates its prey, infiltrating the team of scientists and taking them out one-by-one. With help from the groundbreaking monster design from special effects artist Rob Bottin, The Thing exudes a shocking terror that remains as slimy, gruesome and disturbing to this very day. A compelling thriller with more than a few doses of stomach-churning horror, Carpenter’s film is a masterpiece of suspense typified by an ominous climactic scene that radiates a perpetual paranoia even after the credits roll.
5. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
The fear of the ancient and unexplainable in an ever ordered world is a staple theme of folk horror. It’s a theme which underpins the pioneers of the sub-genre and is most notably laced throughout The Wicker Man.
Robin Hardy’s film about a catholic police sergeant who travels to a Scottish island to solve the mystery of a missing girl is a chiller that speaks to the very core of the human condition. From the moment Howie, the film’s central character, steps on the island he is unknowingly trapped in the performance of the townsfolk—a pawn in their latest ritual. It is this central fear of ignorance, of never really knowing what is going on, and never really feeling safe as a result, that The Wicker Man emanates so well. Suddenly, the idea of walking through a secluded, quaint, countryside village doesn’t seem so jolly.
4. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
‘The master of suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock, likely earned his rightful title from his 1960 film Psycho, a psychological thriller years ahead of its time, that subverts cliches of the genre and leaves you on tenterhooks till it’s shocking, and now infamous final sequence.
Under the strange domination of his mother, a young man named Norman Bates runs the everyday functioning of the ‘Bates Motel’, a secluded hideaway where a young woman evading the law finds herself trapped. A masterclass in tone and sustained suspense, Hitchcock elevated the, then ‘trashy’, horror genre into what it looks like today, validating its existence by toeing the line between thrilling terror and well-constructed art. This terror is heightened by an iconic soundtrack, a hellish staccato theme, stabbing itself, with every beat into your mind and mentality.
3. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Together with the titular Jaws in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece, Ridley Scott’s Alien created the blueprint for every great monster movie. The crux? Using tension as a tool, gradually cranking it up with every glimpse of the monster at hand—sometimes what’s scarier is the mere suggestion that something is there. A fin above the water in Jaws, or the cosmic shriek of the Xenomorph in Alien.
A mere merchant vessel floating through space in the year 2122 AD, the Nostromo crew pick up a distress call from an unknown transmission, and after following it, become the vulnerable prey of a deadly alien. Ridley Scott’s iconic science fiction nightmare owes its popularity to a number of different ingredients that each blend effortlessly, thanks to the simplicity of the story at hand. This is a game of cat and mouse between the Alien and the crew, a space in which fighting back seems futile and the only option is to run. An unbearable tension is built up with the simplicity of just a few moving parts, and no less from the visionary art direction from H.R. Giger, giving the ship itself a flabby, fleshy life of its own and the Xenomorph an alarmingly sickening presence. A modern classic, Ridley Scott’s film is one of the scariest, most intense film experiences and is an antecedent to contemporary sci-fi horror.
2. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
When it comes to popular media, the 1970s was a far more innocent time. In America, despite the horrors of the Vietnam war overseas, nudity was still considered taboo and shocking on public television screens and the slasher-movie phenomenon of the 1980s was yet to spill depravity onto cinema screens worldwide. As a result, in a similar way to which audiences ran from The Arrival of a Train in 1896, in 1973 people fainted, experienced anxiety and even reportedly suffered heart attacks from The Exorcist.
William Friedkin’s film, based on the novel and screenplay from author William Peter Blatty, is in part a dark tale of a young girl transitioning into adulthood with intense painful trauma, and on the other hand, a satanic possession story about two priests questioning their faith to save the same girl. These two elements marry together with perfection to explain why Friedkin’s film is such a timeless classic, defining the horror of a generation marred by the Vietnam war.
Punctuated by the flickering, ethereal soundtrack of the tubular bells acting as a religious omniscient overseer, the film achieves an eerie, unsettling tone with effortless ease. Layered atop of groundbreaking special effects, bringing a satanic Linda Blair to life, as well as a rich subtext of growing women’s independence, The Exorcist’s longevity and impression on horror cinema make it a classic of the genre.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Whereas with many horror films, including some on this list, the genre is often bound to the walled limits of its celluloid boundaries. In the case of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however, a certain tone is achieved that is so visceral that it transcends the limits of the screen—it infects your mind and environment and intends to stay for several hours.
Framed as a true-story upon its release in the mid-1970s, despite its near-complete fiction, the film follows two siblings and three of their friends who fall victim to Leatherface and his cannibalistic family after venturing into the baron Texas countryside. Captured on a budget 16mm camera with fine-grain, Hooper’s film manages to acquire a suffocating tone, documenting a living nightmare of raw, brutal authenticity. Upon many of the main characters’ capture and demise, we venture into Leatherface’s family home, a desolate wooden shack with a fog of hopelessness and impending doom. The dank stench of the rotting walls wafts through the film itself and throughout a house stained with blood and dirt. It’s one of cinema’s greatest, understated pieces of set-design.
There’s no crescendo, no fancy camera work or piercing soundtrack when Leatherface, a snarky, dribbling villain captures his victim, only his terrifying victorious pig squeal that sends a grotesque shockwave down the spine. His equally despicable family join him in his torture, a band of unkempt, greasy maniacs, that in one particularly horrific dinner table scene evoke an almost fantastical quality, as if they’re so repugnant and depraved that they somehow inhabit a different plane of existence, typified by a grandfather impossibly clinging to life through his wrinkled white skin.
It all leads to a strangely beautiful ending, an ode to mindless chaos and destruction, showing the sunset on Leatherface’s brutal murders, but also the sunrise on a new dawn for horror cinema.