While the horror genre has often been pushed aside in cinema for its campy and formulaic tendencies, there’s a reason real horror movies haven’t met their demise. They’re, quite literally, haunting. Ask even the harshest of critics about the scariest movie they’ve ever seen, and it is often one that they will never forget—whether they like it or not.
So often, horror misses the mark, venturing off into something else besides... well, horror. Perhaps it’s that very underdog nature of the genre, itself, that primes us to be off-guard when a great one comes along and pulls the rug out from under us. Just when we think we’ve become desensitized to jump-scares and gore, we find ourselves within a narrative that throws out the playbook, leaving us gripping with no avail for some sense of certainty. Watch them during Halloween, and it's amped up even more.
As we find ourselves in a Renaissance period for good horror films, now is the time to assemble your tool belt of tropes in preparation. If upcoming titles like Candyman, A Quiet Place II, and Antebellum tell us anything of what’s to come, you’ll need it.
Train to Busan
South Korean action horror film Train to Busan places the typical zombie apocalypse genre in a new container, as it follows one father and daughter's trip across the country by train as they learn that the country is becoming overrun by a plague.
Jordan Peele’s sophomore directorial feature Us stars Lupita Nyong’o as the mother of a family who finds themselves under the attack of a mysterious group of strangers that are their exact doppelgängers.
Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Barbara Hershey star in the first installment of the Insidious series, in which a family faces the reality that their son has fallen into a mysterious comatose state where he becomes possessed by otherworldly spirits.
The first partnership of Lighthouse director Robert Eggers and beloved production company A24, The Witch is set in 17th-century New England and follows a Puritan family who is quick to blame the disappearance of their son on their daughter. Suspecting she is a witch, they battle between their familial bond and dark forces that might prove more powerful.
Sometimes the scariest films don't need to venture into the supernatural or the grandiose to strike fear. Put a deep-woods boy on a bridge and give him a banjo and that's all you'll need to send a chill up a lot of people's spines. Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, this 1972 film about a foursome who decide to venture down a rural Georgia river likes to label itself as "an adventure drama," but the phrase "Squeal like a pig!" begs to differ.
After her estranged mother dies, Annie (Toni Collette) begins to notice some peculiar activity around her house. After another shocking tragedy, Annie begins to spiral out of control. Is there a supernatural force attempting to manipulate her family, or is it all in her head?
A Quiet Place
A family (led by John Krasinski and Emily Blunt) silently navigate a post-apocalyptic world, stalked at every turn by monsters that hunt their prey with a supercharged sense of hearing. Although the family of survivalists have so far managed to avoid the extraterrestrial hunters, the fractures within their own relationships may lead to their downfall. You will spend this entire movie on the edge of your seat.
In Jennifer Kent's gothic Australian thriller, a young widow is burdened with her troubled six-year-old son. But it only gets worse for the beleaguered mother when the titular character of her son's picture book—the tall, top hat-wearing spook named the Babadook—begins to creep beyond the pages of his book and wreaks havoc on the mother and son.
Six adventurous women go into the dark depths of an unmapped cave in North Carolina, hoping for a fun trek through the darkness. But their mountain vacation is disrupted when they discover that they aren't the only ones in the cave, which also happens to be full of flesh-eating humanoid monsters who hunt them women down.
Annie thinks she's found a nice guy in her new boyfriend, but after they have sex, he reveals that he's being stalked with an unnamed evil—which will now hunt her down until she can pass "it" onto the next person she sleeps with. The moody, retro-inspired horror film is a modern classic with an unsettling, unimaginable monster that our heroine must outsmart.
A young black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) joins his girlfriend (Allison Williams) for a visit to her suspicious, Obama-supporting parents' home and discovers that they can't be trusted in Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning modern masterpiece. In Esquire, Stephen Thrasher called the film, "The Best Movie Ever Made About American Slavery."
It's hard to pull off a children-from-hell movie, which makes it all the more remarkable how beautifully this Austrian thriller unspools the mystery of twin boys (who for some unknown reason are always wearing matching tank tops) and their mother whose face is disguised in bandages and may not be their mother.
Eyes Without a Face
In the very literally titled French art-horror classic, a famous and unhinged surgeon kidnaps beautiful women and tries to transplant their faces onto his daughter who is, yes, missing a face.
Last House on the Left
Wes Craven was one of a few masters of horror who plumbed the depths of America's Vietnam War-era cultural divides in this grimy, arty thriller about two teenage girls who encounter escaped prisoners in the big city—and how the tables get violently turned.
In the most disturbing allegory for childbearing gone wrong, Mia Farrow's Rosemary becomes increasingly panicked about her painful pregnancy and the mysterious neighbors in a building with a history of Satanism. The great Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for her role as Rosemary's fiendishly quirky neighbor, who isn't as sweet as she seems.
The House of the Devil
Samantha, a broke college student struggling to pay her rent, picks up a babysitting job from a weird couple named the Ulmans. Things get even more strange when Samantha learns that her charge is not a child, but in fact Mr. Ulman's ailing mother. Foolishly ignoring her intuition, Samantha's gig turns into a night from hell when she realizes the Ulmans have some particularly devious plans for her.
Nearly four decades after its release, The Exorcist is still the scariest movie ever made—and features one of the most terrifying movie villains in Regan MacNeil, an innocent 12-year-old girl possessed by a demonic force. William Friedkin's Oscar-nominated film was pretty much the first prestige horror movie, with incredible performances, heavy thematic material, and game-changing scares.
Donnie Darko —which gave us a taste of how great (and weird) Jake Gyllenhall could be—follows Donnie as his cliche teenage-social-outcast problems somehow accrue interdimensional stakes. It’s a perfect scary-movie blend: A troubled teen, memorable monster, all set during the Halloween season.
Night of the Living Dead
It created the modern zombie genre, and its fondness for sociopolitical echoes. But even more than that legacy, George A. Romero's low-budget black-and-white original proved that you don't need money to create a horror classic; you just need braiiiiiiiins.
John Carpenter's bogeyman slasher nightmare spawned a legion of inferior sequels that couldn't diminish the ominous power of his original, about a psychopath who returns to his hometown years later to don a misshaped William Shatner mask and stalk Jamie Lee Curtis.
Arguably the scariest film of all time, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's bestseller generates terror from its meticulous filmmaking. And, courtesy of Jack Nicholson's turn as a murderous paterfamilias, it also features the most memorable horror-movie performance in the past few decades.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The story of a child molester who returns from the dead to prey upon his killers' children in dreams, Wes Craven's seminal shocker recognizes that you're never more vulnerable than when asleep—a fact that naturally set up countless scares for one of the biggest horror franchises in film history
Its sequel may boast grander man-vs.-beast action, but Ridley Scott's gorgeous 1979 outer-space saga about a group of astronauts battling against a malevolent extraterrestrial is still the franchise's most deeply frightening installment.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Ignore all the remakes, remake sequels, and remake prequels, and stick with Tobe Hooper's original 1974 grindhouser, about a slightly unhinged hippie-hating family with a house notable for its giant meet hooks, human bone furniture, and slammable slaughterhouse metal doors.
A cautionary tale about the perils of stealing from your boss—and, also, about staying at roadside motels run by mamma's boys. Alfred Hitchcock originated the surprise first-act murder of the star with the story of a woman (Janet Leigh) on the run who is way too accepting of a dark-haired stranger's (Anthony Perkins) generosity.
The only thing scarier than facing off against a hideous intergalactic monster is facing off against one that has the ability to shape-shift into human form—a who's-the-creature scenario that director John Carpenter employs for intense suspense (with some great, gross special effects).
Japanese director Takeshi Miike is infamous for pushing the boundaries of good taste, though he's rarely delivered more extreme tension than with this 1999 film about a man who discovers that dating can be a deadly affair.
Let the Right One In
A young outcast boy meets, and falls in love with, a young immortal bloodsucker in this superb 1980-set Swedish vampire romance from Tomas Alfredson, which climaxes with an unforgettable pool sequence.
Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho's 2006 film is a fantastic, Spielbergian tale of a South Korean family under siege from an extraordinary foe—namely, a giant sea monster created from toxic dumping.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Michael Rooker is a serial killer whose crimes don't warrant much attention from the powers that be in John McNaughton's cold, clinical, harrowing character study (partly based on real events).
Brian De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's novel is an unbearably disturbing portrait of youthful alienation and fury, with one of the genre's most unforgettable fire-and-brimstone endings.
Don't Look Now
A couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) grieving from the death of their daughter become convinced that she's trying to contact them from beyond the grave in Nicolas Roeg's profoundly unnerving thriller. You'll never look at little girls in red coats the same way again.
The movie that for a brief time in the early aughts made everyone afraid of their TV. Naomi Watts plays a journalist investigating why people keep dying from watching a certain video tape. And just like all of the best scary movies, it's got a creepy kid.
The Blair Witch Project
When The Blair With Project originally came out in 1999, people didn't know whether it was real or fiction. Advertised as "found video footage," it tells the story of three students who travel to a small town to investigate a murder, and eventually get terrorized in the woods.
Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi's 2009 horror film is the perfect example of unspeakable horror and gross-out humor. Alison Lohman plays a bank loan officer who turns down an elderly woman's request for an extension on her mortgage payment. The woman retaliates in witchy ways, placing a curse on her new enemy and promising an untimely death.
A nine-year-old Russian girl adopted by a kind American couple (played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard), Esther begins to act out in dangerous ways: bullying her new brother as well as kids at school, murdering a nun, and trying to seduce her new adopted father. It doesn't take one long to realize that maybe this kid is not all she seems.
If you’re Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagino, how do you follow up one of the most memorable love stories of the 2010s? By making one of its best horror films. His remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic puts Dakota Johnson in the leading role as an American dancer auditioning at a world-famous dance academy in Berlin (where, spoiler, the dance instructors aren’t just dance instructors!).
Before James Gunn hit it big with Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy, he was making weird-as-hell genre flicks—like the Michael Rooker and Elizabeth Banks-led Slither. Yes, there’s a comedic bent to the movie, which takes place in a small town that an alien organism begins to terrorize, but its body horror elements will leave a slug-sized stamp on your brain.
In Robert Eggers’s feature directorial debut, a Puritan family in colonial New England move to a farm outside of their Plymouth colony, where they encounter all kinds of crazy supernatural shit in its surrounding forest. Come for the period-piece colonial throwback, stay for the scary goats.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, which is based on a Stephen King novel, It follows a group of children battling against an ancient, supernatural clown named Pennywise. Of course, the 1990, Tim Curry-led It miniseries will always be a classic—but Pennywise was just begging for 21st Century, big-budget CGI effects. The giant clown in that projector scene? Tentacles swinging from Pennywise’s mouth? Good luck sleeping.
Even though this horror-world OG is nearly 100 (!) years old, this story of Count Orlok’s hosting of Thomas Hutter still delivers the goods. Yeah, old scary movies like this tend to look a little campy in modern times, but Noseferatu’s creepy mug, shadowy photography, and a timely message about xenophobia hold up today.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Body-snatching plots will always be unnerving—and Philip Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 original nails exactly why that is. The incredible cast of Jeff Goldblum, Donald Sutherland, and Leonard Nimoy star in the film, where San Francisco’s citizens start acting a little weird—and Goldblum’s character is tasked with finding out the cause.
I would imagine it’s hard to make a cannibal movie, let alone one that’s not a gross-out mess or a campy write-off. Raw, which tracks a vegetarian starting her first semester at veterinary school—where, woah, she gets a taste for flesh. It sounds simple, but Raw’s built-in suspense (how far is she willing to go?) and art-film vibe makes it worth the watch.
For a breathless 90 minutes of Stephen Lang in prime form, check out Don’t Breathe—Fede Álvarez’s breathless horror-thriller. The movie follows three robbers who try to steal $300,000 of cash from a house in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood—which happens to be owned by blind Gulf War Veteran, Norman Nordtrom (Lang).
Master of moving between genres, Steven Soderberg’s shot at horror is just as great as the rest of his filmography. Unsane stars Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, who is tricked into a 24-hour stay at a secretive psych ward.
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