There are many horror films out there, but only a few are of a must-watch level of quality. The following are the absolute best of the best. The ones that no one, film fan or layperson, should ever miss out on. Each of the following films holds considerable impact, whether they were made at just the right time or featured jut the right cast list or had the ideal director. They’re all at least a little different from one another, but what unites them is pure quality. From zombie movies to man-with-a-knife shockers, these are the horror films that no one should live a life without seeing at least once.
20 Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock blew the doors off the horror genre with Psycho, crafting a film that terrified audiences then and retains much of its effect even 60 years later. Whether it’s the film’s protagonist bait-and-switch, Anthony Perkins’ performance, or the infamous shower scene, Psycho is a film that’s been emulated many times since its release.
To call Psycho the prototypical slasher film is to diminish its true impact. What Psycho really is is a thriller, and an expertly crafted one. Robert Bloch’s novel is solid, sure, but Hitchcock undoubtedly elevated it not just in terms of fright factor but in terms of narrative impact.
19 The Birds (1963)
A truly bizarre film, it’s hard to believe Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds exists. But, it does, and there’s little doubt that no director besides Hitch could have made it not only scary, but anything other than laughable.
The Birds benefits from the lead performances of Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor just as much as it benefits from its inventive concept. There’s a relatively isolated locale, all is peaceful, and then an unforeseen unnatural force swoops in and upsets everything. But, what allows The Birds to stand out in this regard, is the fact that the avians’ attack is never explained.
18 Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski is widely considered one of cinema’s greatest (and most controversial) masters. A big reason for this is Rosemary’s Baby, which helped put him on the map in a major way just one year before he (and his wife, Sharon Tate) would make the airwaves in a different, far sadder, way.
For those who look at horror as a lesser genre in comparison to drama or the musical, Rosemary’s Baby refutes the assumption. It’s an art film, with sterling performances from Hollywood legends Mia Farrow, John Caavetes, Ruth Gordon, and Ralph Bellamy…it just happens to be a pretty darn scary one.
17 The Exorcist (1973)
The ultimate fright flick, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has as much power in the 2020s as it had in the early ’70s. No matter how many different, specific, new narratives are crafted, now matter how advanced special effects get, there’s simply no topping every element of The Exorcist‘s production.
But the film’s ace in the hole isn’t even any of the elements that make it so darn scary (the music, cinematography, etc.), it’s the fact that the tale is merely a mother watching her daughter disintegrate while having absolutely no control over it. It’s terrifying for a young single man or woman, but for an older, married mother or father? It’s beyond tolerable.
16 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Outside The Exorcist, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the scariest film ever made. There’s absolutely nothing in it that couldn’t happen in real life…and that should be enough to send shivers up anyone’s spine.
There’s nothing about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that isn’t exactly as it should be. From the often-restrained score to the long-shots of protagonists walking across Texan fields chatting (and letting the audience get to know them), Hooper’s film is one that understands pacing and the importance of horror seeming organic to real life.
15 Halloween (1978)
Quite possibly the most famous and revered horror film of all time, John Carpenter’s Halloween has had more positive words written about it than are in its entire screenplay. From the haunting opening scene to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Boogeyman line, it’s perfection.
There’s much to be said about a movie with the audacity to open on a little boy killing his sister. Add in the fact that the film hit theaters in 1978 and ticket-buyers must have been aghast. But that’s the impact of the film’s narrative: Michael Myers doesn’t feel compassion or anything else, he’s just there, and so are you. By the end of the film, that probably won’t be the case.
14 Friday the 13th (1980)
Now that a lengthy legal battle has concluded, the Friday the 13th saga is back up and running with a Peacock limited series starring the original film’s Adrienne King. If there’s a film franchise critics found easy to bash and poke fun at, it’s Friday the 13th. Like Police Academy, it’s a saga that found a new installment hitting theaters just about every year of the 1980s.
And, also like Police Academy, basically all of them are the same. But there are quirks in each one that help them stand apart, and that includes the original (and, arguably, still the best) film. Having a mother seek vengeance for the death of her son is a brilliant motive, just as it was brilliant to set the film in a summer camp that’s just about to be reopened for the first time in years. Would it have been more in line with a functioning narrative to introduce Mrs. Voorhees even once before her reveal? Sure. But, thanks to Betsy Palmer’s unhinged performance, it hardly matters, especially since the viewer is unsettled after having just watched some seriously likable characters get their throat slit, an arrow through the back of the neck, an axe in the head, and a pair of spears in the groin and eye.
13 The Shining (1980)
It may be pretty different from Stephen King’s source material, but Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is still ice-covered dynamite, not unlike its central antagonist. Of course, the film is most known for Jack Nicholson’s frighteningly emotionally detached lead performance as writer Jack Torrance, but there’s much else in the film to recommend as well.
The score is as haunting as music in film can get, with Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s work letting the audience know they’re in for a nightmare even before the Torrances have reached the Overlook Hotel. Then there’s the Kubrick trademark of methodical camerawork, and there’s an argument to be made the auteur never had a better shot film than the King adaptation. Toss in some underrated work from Shelley Duvall (who Kubrick unfortunately and notoriously wasn’t great to behind the scenes) and the line “Redrum, Redrum, Redrum!” and the audience won’t forget a moment of The Shining until months have passed since the credits rolled.
12 The Evil Dead (1981)
Between The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, it’s hard to say just which of Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead films is more required viewing. Why? Because they both are, but one might as well start off at the beginning.
The ultimate cabin in the woods movie, Raimi’s film is legitimately terrifying throughout. The low-budget is an absolute asset in this particular case, and no matter how many years pass the film’s admittedly aged special effects still hold a substantial fright factor. Toss in an iconic scene where a woman is attracked by a treet and The Evil Dead is a stone-cold classic.
11 Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist is a masterpiece of familial stress and floating specters. The ace in the hole when it comes to the film’s effectiveness is not unlike The Exorcist: All the characters are experiencing this trauma, but it all centers on the youngest member of the family.
Carol Anne is helpless, which is just how her parents (and the audience) feel. It’s palpable and nightmarish because only the true monsters of society wouldn’t put their lives on the line to get a little girl back from some nasty ghosts.
10 The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter has directed two legitimately perfect films: Halloween and The Thing. Neither is perfect just for the horror genre, but in a general sense. However, critical and commercial reaction to The Thing was, at first, weak at best.
But, time has shown it to be one of the scariest alien movies, not to mention its a perfect summary of (at the very least) the United States’ mentality throughout the Cold War. It’s a film that begs for rewatch after rewatch, and not just to see who is the Thing when, but jut to appreciate its meticulous plotting and well-built characters.
9 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven changed up the slasher subgenre with his genius creation Freddy Krueger. But it’s not just Krueger (or, more specifically, the incredible performance from Robert Englund) that sells A Nightmare on Elm Street, but also the inventive kills and constant toying with reality (to frightening results).
It may be a slasher, but A Nightmare on Elm Street is one that refutes the many critics out there who view the subgenre as the lowest of the cinematic low. Many of them are, sure, but there are elevated slashers, and A Nightmare on Elm Street is the king of them. Not to mention, it’s Johnny Depp’s first film, so for those who still consider themselves a member of his fan-group, that’s just one more reason to check it out.
8 Fright Night (1985)
Almost a John Hughesian horror film, the utterly charming Fright Night makes for a wonderful early R-rated entry for the growing horror fan out there. The 2011 remake, starring Colin Farrell and the late Anton Yelchin, ain’t half bad either.
Yet, for all its extra stylistic fluorishes, it’s the original Fright Night that reigns supreme. It’s one of those movies where, afterward, the viewer will say ‘There’s just something about it.’ That something is likability; at it’s core Fright Night is just a coming-of-age story…with a vampire.
7 Hellraiser (1987)
With a haunting visual landscape and genuinely compelling performances from the cast, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is one of the most luridly interesting horror films ever gifted audiences. It’ also bolstered by sublime production design and razor-sharp performances from Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins, Andrew Robinson, and, of course, Doug Bradley as Pinhead.
That said, for those hoping to see a ton of Pinhead, they might be better off seeking out Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Fortunately, that film makes for a perfect companion piece to the original, and it even brings back Bradley, Laurence, and Higgins. For those who like movies about tempting fate, Hellraiser (and Hellbound) is the ultimate. It just probably shouldn’t have kicked off a long-running franchise.
6 The Lost Boys (1987)
The late Joel Schumacher’s best film, The Lost Boys is a moody, music-fueled blast of a vampire flick. It’s also loaded with many of 1980s’ audiences’ favorite actors, e.g. the iconic pairing of Corey Feldman and Corey Haim (which was never done as well again), Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz (Twister), Jason Patric, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure‘s Alex Winter.
The Lost Boys makes for a good starter flick for the budding horror fans of the world. There’s nothing too crass or too gory, but it also doesn’t shortchange the audience on that latter element. The movie has great momentum throughout, whether it’s from the cast’s obvious enjoyment of the material or the narrative’s magnetic setting. Schumacher’s movie is a very enjoyable one, even for those who do not gravitate towards narratives involving vampires.
5 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Not only a terrifying horror-thriller but one of the best murder mystery movies based on a book, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a masterclass on tension-building and narrative pacing. An expert adaptation of Thomas Harris’ brilliant novel, it’s no small compliment to call the film better than the book, but that is the case.
The film doesn’t hit a false note in any regard, but the best decisions in its production came from the casting end of things. Both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are unspeakably perfect in their roles, with Foster imbuing Clarice Starling with the necessarily realistic brand of fearlessness while Hopkins gives Hannibal Lecter a near-smarmy, consistently-condescending way about him that’s totally in line with the character. Then there’s Ted Levine as the film’s true antagonist: Buffalo Bill. Levine is so terrifying as the disturbed character that it’s genuinely hard to imagine anyone but the Monk and Heat star playing him, an effect that’s only intensified when the viewer learns that, in real life, Levine is as kind a person as Hopkins or Foster. The Silence of the Lambs is an all-timer, one that should be seen even by those who despise the horror (or thriller) genre.
4 Candyman (1992)
Based on Clive Barker’s ingenious short story “The Forbidden,” Bernard Rose’s Candyman is a smart, well-made horror film that makes for a perfect double-feature alongside Barker’s Hellraiser. Not to mention, if someone is watching the 1992 version, they need to follow it up with the 2021 reboot.
The original film deserves much credit for tackling race relations the way it did back in 1992. It’s like Night of the Living Dead in that way, a horror film with more on its mind. But, it’s not just the film’s intelligence that makes it so good, it’s also the lead performance from Virginia Madsen and, especially, Tony Todd as Daniel Robitaille AKA the Candyman.
3 Scream (1996)
Easily one of the best horror movies from the ’90s, Wes Craven’s Scream showed that the horror master was more than capable of turning out a classic even later in his career. If there’s an ultimate ’90s timepiece, it’s Scream.
From the note-perfect casting to the two-killer twist, it’s a film without a dull moment. Not to mention, even including Jaws, Craven’s film has what is quite possibly the strongest opening scene of all time.
2 Trick ‘R Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty has directed three movies thus far, and all three are enjoyable on different levels. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is ambitious if not also overstuffed while Krampus is an often-funny holiday nightmare.
But his first film, Trick ‘r Treat, is going to be really hard to top. Save for Creepshow, Dougherty’s film is the best anthology film out there, and it’s truly astonishing it wasn’t given a theatrical run, at least not at first.
1 The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan’s The Conjuring is one of the best religious horror movies of all time. It’s also one of the best examples of a horror film that puts family front and center.
Like Poltergeist, The Conjuring centers on a family unit that is living peacefully until they are not. And that peace goes away in a major way. The audience feels every ounce of the Perrons’ suffering throughout the possession, and that’s all due to both the natural, believable nature of the performances and the claustrophobic cinematography.