‘Be afraid, be very afraid.’ With Halloween on the horizon, UNILAD has one question: ‘Do you like scary movies?’
Stephen King once described the three categories of horror. There’s the ‘gross-out… the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs; it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm’.
There’s the ‘horror… the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around’. Finally, there’s the ‘terror… when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there’.
That’s the beauty of the genre; there’s something for everyone, pounding your pulse and whitening your knuckles. Sometimes, a good scare is a perfect escape from life when it becomes too crazy. ‘We all go a little mad sometimes.’
To mark the conclusion of the spooky season on October 31, we’re counting down the 50 best horror movies of all time.
50. Funny Games
The whole reason you’re here, reading this list right now, is because you’re interested in horror. In Funny Games, a blunt exercise in cinematic nihilism, we watch as two psychopaths terrorise a family, constantly breaking the fourth wall to condemn and relish in our fascination with its savagery. It’s perturbingly intimate – almost unbearably so.
49. The Entity
Here’s the pitch: an American mother is continually haunted by a spirit that rapes her and tries to kill her. It’s directed by a man, and released back in the 1980s. Yet somehow, no matter how improbable, it’s a brilliantly sadistic thriller, equipped with a hand-flailing, staccato ‘bram bram bram’ soundtrack.
An unofficial, yet superlative adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is horror with little-to-no scare-factor today – however, its delicious gothic atmosphere seeps through your soul like a wind chill, with a legendary performance from Max Schreck as the vampire. Nearly 100 years old, and still every bit as seminal.
47. The Mist
Interestingly, Frank Darabont’s third foray into the works of Stephen King is his only horror. That said, there’s not much else a filmmaker can do to equal The Mist, equipped with one of the bleakest endings of all time. If you’ve somehow evaded it, book a day off to recover.
Is David Lynch’s first film his best? Arguably. Is it his most harrowingly odd, ineffaceable house of imagery? Let’s look at the evidence: a small roasted bird spurting blood; the endless wailing of a deformed infant; unfurling, organ-packed bandages; a giant baby head floating in a bedroom. The answer is clear: definitely.
45. An American Werewolf in London
John Landis’s wacky, gruesome take on the werewolf legend, pitting two Yanks against the howling beast of England’s moors, was a revolution in practical effects. Courtesy of Rick Baker’s mesmerising handiwork, David Naughton’s agonising, eye-widening transformation has stood the test of time. Remember: ‘Beware the moon.’
Laced with twinkle-twinkle soundscapes and fluorescent adolescents, Dario Argento’s psychosis-warping giallo horror is a classic of the witchcraft sub-genre. An unnerving beauty that spawned a controversial remake in 2018; in this writer’s opinion, it never escaped the original’s shadow.
43. Trick ‘r Treat
An anthology-shaped slice of spooky, grisly, Halloween fun. Whether you’re into ghosts, dead children, werewolves or murderous school principals, Trick ‘r Treat provides its namesake for any pumpkinhead.
42. Paranormal Activity
Cannibal Holocaust introduced the found-footage genre. The Blair Witch Project ignited it. Paranormal Activity remoulded it. It’s easy to forget just how scary the first 2007 film was – considering its multiple mundane sequels, with the exception of the third – and its significance. It’s no overstatement to call it an event movie, capturing every moviegoer under the sun in its fixed-lens.
When a true crime writer moves into a home tied to some of the most horrific murders imaginable, his horror sits in tandem with our own. A showcase of snuff with strong direction, left with the haunting adage: ‘Bad things happen to good people and they still have to have their story told.’
40. Goodnight Mommy
A mother, her face clad in bandages, returns to her twin sons in a rural Austrian home. She tries to show love, but something is off. Is it their mum, or is a sinister doppelgänger tucking them in? It’s atmospheric and mighty unsettling, gorgeously composed straight into a diabolical third act, leaving precious little to the imagination. Nasty to the extreme, but devastating too.
39. Dog Soldiers
Before Neil Marshall brought the caving industry to its knees, he shined a full moon over the Scottish highlands for some grisly werewolf-on-soldier chaos. Released back in 2002, this cult gem received a much-deserved 4K remaster this month, available to feast on now.
38. Bone Tomahawk
S. Craig Zahler’s slow-burn Western-hybrid is a razor-sharp campfire story explored through the bloodied caves and tumbleweeds of old America. A film unlike anything that came before it. Warning: contains one of the most horrifying deaths in movie history.
37. The Ring
Gore Verbinski’s US adaptation of Hideo Nakata’s chiller is one of the best translations of a foreign text not just in horror, but cinema as a whole. The grimly infectious tape, the reckoning call of ‘You’re gonna die in seven days’, the deft use of VFX in bringing Samara and her curse to life. An artful, mainstream remake.
Our worst terrors tend to go bump in the night. In Ari Aster’s sophomore horror, they dance, dive and exhale under the beaming Swedish sun. The bursts of violence are shocking, the performances staggering, but the continuous sense of a grander plan – similar, but also very different to The Wicker Man – brings the daymare roaring to life.
Handheld camera movies are tried, tested and tired. But in their relentless output over the past two decades, dynamite emerged in REC; a blistering dose of zombie-fuelled adrenaline, anchored on the tangible gasps, tears and screams of our ill-fated Spanish news reporter. Its nail-dragging final shot sits with the greats.
34. The Cabin in the Woods
From the outset, it’s the most painfully generic – albeit strongly casted – perilous road trip with friends. The shameless references, the cutesy romances, the Breakfast Club of archetypes – then, the frame shifts. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s grinning juggling comes to the fore; cue the crème de la crème of pastiche.
33. The Witch
He orchestrated madness for offshore wickies. Beforehand, Robert Eggers brought silhouette-showering darkness upon a Puritan family, with baby-smooshing and nefarious goats. Navigating Elizabethan language is its own delicacy, but as the film asks: ‘Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?’
32. The Conjuring
One of the past decade’s most beloved horrors. It’s a decidedly old-school affair, employing all the playbook clichés in a creaky haunted house. Yet, with James Wan’s controlled, creepy vision, it’s more on the side of wired than tired, packed with crowd-whooping frights and a cherished introduction to Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s Warrens.
31. Rosemary’s Baby
Rosemary’s Baby has mastery in spades. It’s impeccably performed, none more so than in Mia Farrow’s superb turn. The restraint Polanski shows, cautiously sprinkling its satanic text, only strengthens how inescapable it all feels. We’re on the highway to hell, and like Rosemary, we’re the Devil’s passengers.
30. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Jason Voorhees invades your campsite, Michael Myers quietly wanders neighbourhood streets, but Freddy Krueger’s grasp is truly nightmarish: a mangled, blade-fingered child killer who torments, tortures and massacres teenagers in their dreams. Its concept alone is enough to make anyone lock their door, grab their crucifix, stay up late and never sleep again.
29. The Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter was earlier played by Brian Cox in Manhunter. While underrated, Anthony Hopkins’ turn as the cannibalistic psychiatrist earned more than an Academy Award – he became a cinema legend. One of the great psychological horrors, with a barnstorming Jodie Foster performance. Best served with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
28. 28 Days Later
Some zombies stumble on your brains (Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead). In 28 Days Later, they run, and they run fast. Cillian Murphy’s stroll around a desolate London at dawn is mystifying, its silence soon lost to the ruckus of rage. Although, what’s really more dangerous… the undead, or the living?
27. It Follows
It Follows‘ conceit induces a gulp: a curse is passed on through sexual intercourse. If you have it, you need to sleep with someone else to get rid of it. However, if they die, the demon works its way down the chain, with inescapable odds. A Carpenter-hued story for a new age; fiercely original but nodding to its synth-powered past.
Before it drowned in its own pool of bodily fluids, Saw began life as a lean, mean, psycho-thriller with extreme thrills in its veins, from a humble leg chained to a pipe to the reverse bear-trap. Post-2004, ‘Do you wanna play a game?’ trickled its way around the world, sparking a surge of torture porn.
25. The Wicker Man
The plumes of smoke, the undying flames, the screams; The Wicker Man‘s finale earned its fame, but deeper horror comes in the credits. Retrace your steps, feel the dawning realisation of how the pagans led one Scottish policeman along the green mile. The climax is jaw-dropping, but the path is just as compelling.
Pinhead’s poster grimace suggests standard slasher fare. While the franchise would devolve to the realm of nonsensical sequel-dom, Clive Barker’s original fantasy drops easy thrills for a guts-soaked allegory on the taboo of BDSM and promiscuity. Listen to the Cenobites: ‘We have such sights to show you.’
23. Evil Dead II
A rare case of the sequel conquering its predecessor. Sam Raimi brought back all the key elements – the Necronomicon, tree assault, dismemberment – with a renewed sense of Grand Guignol glee, equal parts hilarious and shocking, plus the promotion of Bruce Campbell’s Ash from everyman to hand-severing god.
22. The Strangers
Horror can be flamboyant, otherworldly, fantastical, but it can also be nerve-rattlingly simple. The Strangers taps into one fear: what if there was a malicious intruder in your home, and you didn’t even know it? As one masked killer emerges from the shadow, then simply disappears, your chin will remain attached to your shoulder.
21. The Descent
Neil Marshall had a head start with potholing, a hobby riddled with anxiety without B-movie horror. Yet, as a crew of women force themselves down The Descent, the audience endures one of Britain’s scariest, most punishing monster movies. For extra sinister oomph, make sure you’re watching the UK version.
20. It (2017)
Andy Muschietti’s take on Pennywise came at the perfect time. Stephen King was back in and Stranger Things already reignited the world’s affection for tween coming-of-age stories. Bill Skarsgård’s dancing, cackling, child-hungry clown aside, It has a strong emotional undercurrent, à la The Goonies and Stand By Me, for all the Losers Clubs out there.
Audition has the framework of a sleazy 90s rom-com: a widower and his film producer pal set up a ‘movie’ in order to reel in potential candidates for romance. For most of the movie, aside from a head-tilt here and there, it doesn’t veer far from this track… until it does. Three words, leg-crippling panic: ‘Kiri, kiri, kiri.’
Is Psycho scary anymore? Not really. Does Norman Bates’ eventual reveal evoke more of a giggle than a scream? Probably. But let me ask you this, and answer honestly: even today, do you always feel safe in the shower? Alfred Hitchcock’s karmic shocker invented the slasher sub-genre; 60 years later, it’s still a powerful, beautiful picture.
17. American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 book evoked widespread furore, vilified for its lengthy, meticulous slaughter-book depictions of sex and violence towards women. Mary Harron’s adaptation, with a deplorable, star-making performance from Christian Bale, takes a tactfully sinister approach to Bateman’s cruelty, evolving its satire into something more, something ‘illusory’, something irresistibly, terrifyingly corrupt.
16. The Babadook
The Babadook is a provocative, thoroughly spooky triumph, festering in your imagination for days, months, even years. While its titular invader may go bump in the night, Jennifer Kent is more interested in our sympathies, our faltering spirits, how in times of trauma and grief, we can run out of care to give. Resentment can yield our greatest demons.
15. The Thing
‘Man is the warmest place to hide’, an idea that defines the nauseous, chilly paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Its domino effect is a merciless marvel, with explosive, grotesque effects crashing against the icy current of menace. Close encounters have never been so vicious.
The founding father of blockbusters and hereditary thalassaphobia. Jaws is more than a movie; it’s the perfect introduction to horror, with nail-biting suspense and a rip-roaring sense of pursuit. Very few scenes replicate the pure terror of Susan Backlinie being tossed, turned and dragged to her death, with only the gentle crash of the surface to comfort our grief.
Peering behind a bush, standing between wafting bedsheets, observing an impaled teen on a wall; the pastel-white inhumanity of Michael Myers – he’s even referred to as The Shape – makes him an apex on-screen predator, stalking us in our safest spaces. John Carpenter forged one of the tensest, most influential horrors of all time, with a killer soundtrack to boot.
12. Come and See
One of the most effective showcases of unimaginable evil and ‘the horror, the horror’ of war. Its futility and immorality blister through an unwavering eye, reducing any viewer to the ashes of its flames. Surely the most disturbing movie ever made.
11. Kill List
Kill List‘s world is unnervingly normal. The assassins are everymen you’d find in any home. The contract killings, savagely violent without off-screen mercy, are entirely believable behind the doors of suburbia. Then, from the droplets of dread, the real picture comes together, one of ineradicable trauma that nobody, and I mean nobody, sees coming. One of Britain’s finest chillers.
10. Get Out
An accomplished, imperative satire, aimed firmly on the (un)conscious horrors of America’s White liberals. Although, while its social critique rose to the top of the conversation, it’s important we don’t lose sight of its filmmaking and writing gusto, from Bradley Whitford’s Obama plea to the void of the Sunken Place.
With a staggering, Oscar-winning debut, Jordan Peele forged a place as a bold, essential voice in modern cinema. Don’t Get Out, get in.
It’s still the greatest pitch ever heard: ‘Jaws in space.’ Somehow though, Ridley Scott’s space nightmare boasted something more diabolical than a shark: the Xenomorph, one of sci-fi’s most visceral creatures, justifying the film’s tagline: ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream.’
A game of cat and mouse drifting through the cosmos, with an all-time hero in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Alien may have spawned a sensational legacy, but for its palm-sweating ingenuity, the original reigns supreme.
Ah, that well-trodden parental adage: ‘Your school days are the best of your life.’ True for some, a falsity for many. Monsters, clowns, murderers, killer cars and dogs… more overt, sure, but less resonant than the cruelty of bullies. ‘They’re all going to laugh at you.’
Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, starring Sissy Spacek as the titular teen, is an unrivalled coming-of-age horror. As Carrie stands on-stage, drenched in pig’s blood, amid the rattling laughs of the auditorium, her wrath evokes terror, awe, even catharsis. It’s the ultimate revenge movie; the mystical, nerve-racking endgame of institutionalised nastiness, both active and idle.
I was six years old when I first watched Drew Barrymore’s doomed teen fall victim to her phantom caller. As her bloodied corpse – gutted like a fish, mind – hanged from a tree, I hid weeping under the covers. The tears were not brief.
That’s just the thing. In 1996, Wes Craven dissected the genre’s tropes with a deft, fiendish wit while retaining genuine scares. Ghostface’s mask is a Halloween staple for good reason – Scream isn’t just a subversion of the classics, it is a classic.
6. The Exorcist
Its place on this list was pre-written; not to satisfy its reputation, nor to appease genre-savvy readers. Simply, there’s a solid argument that it is, as the sacred texts profess, the ‘scariest movie ever made’.
The Exorcist carries a blood-curdling legacy, but its elemental power compels you without the summon of Christ. Even after 47 years, it’s the definitive possession movie, with ghastly make-up, petrifying imagery and a truly scary story, one to make any pure soul cower from Pazuzu.
5. The Fly
David Cronenberg is the master of body horror, and The Fly is his crowning achievement. ‘Be afraid, be very afraid’ it warns – firstly, because it’s horrifying, and secondly, it’ll tear your heart out.
Its transportation pods have often been parodied, notably in The Simpsons. But underneath its intricate, sickening make-up and effects, there’s two currents: a poignant love story and heart-breaking tragedy, with a man betrayed by his own greatness withering down to his last shred of humanity.
During my screening of Hereditary, my girlfriend openly wept for three-quarters of the film, and multiple couples, shielding their sight, leapt for the doors in the final act. To the eyes that just rolled, let me assure you: it is that scary, but sacrificing your sleep will pale next to the film’s rewards.
It’s a once-in-a-generation nightmare machine, with Toni Collette giving the best performance in all of horror – director Ari Aster already sits among the greats. Say it once, say it again: hail.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’ A harrowingly apt tagline for the king of slashers; yet, despite its title, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a bloodbath. Instead, Tobe Hooper conjures the ‘mad and macabre’ from sweaty, grungy, vile frenzy.
Leatherface’s first appearance, like a klaxon of doom across the sticks, sums up the film’s horror in seconds: its power is more than what we see. From the drop of the hammer, to the moonlit bush chase, to the sunset dance of the saw, its vividness lends a realism that’s never been bettered.
2. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick defined any genre he picked: sci-fi epics with 2001: A Space Odyssey; war pictures with Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove; lavish period pieces with Barry Lyndon; and horror with The Shining.
His mastery of the camera, flying through the Overlook with Steadicam precision, Jack Nicholson’s unhinged downfall, the imagery – ‘Come play with us’, ‘Here’s Johnny’, the elevator full of blood – work together with intoxicating precision; a portrait of madness, fresh and ingrained, in total artistic control.
1. The Blair Witch Project
Local folklore and spooky bedtime stories are the bedrock of our horror lives. Therein lies the allure of The Blair Witch Project, a found-footage masterpiece that dares to wander into the woods; one so convincing, many believed it to be real.
From the start, it’s charming; a rough ‘n’ ready mash of dated handheld camerawork and black-and-white segments of a college documentary focused on Burkittsville’s titular ghoul.
The spookiness soon ramps up. Piles of rocks, pitch-black crackling, twig stick figures; someone, something, is messing with them, and when darkness falls, they aren’t afraid to show it. You soon realise Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez aren’t showing you a study of a ghost story – they’re putting you in one.
Creepiness soon evolves into raw terror, with panicked sprinting through the moods, a terrified goodbye and a finale that still leaves me breathless and desperate for light. The film’s unfiltered ‘What the f*ck was that?’ hysteria makes it entirely authentic. ‘I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them.’
It scares me more than any other movie ever has, and ever will.
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