Like any list, this one is completely subjective, and there are only a few rules I followed. I limited my selections to what I consider true horror movies, so no Jaws which is an adventure drama, no Silence of the Lambs or Se7en which are psychological crime thrillers, no Terminator which is straight science fiction, and no straight spoofs like Young Frankenstein.
Also, when possible, included movies that truly scared me when I saw them, however, if I had ONLY included movies like that they would have all been from my childhood, so I did include horror movies where I was much more entertained than scared. Finally, although my other lists are in random order, this one is roughly bottom to top, so the last movie on the list is my all time favorite.
Hopefully, I’ve come up with a good selection of scare flicks that you can watch while stuffing your face with candy apples and fun size candy bars. Happy Halloween!
10. Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
Like many of Stephen King’s stories (Carrie was based on his debut novel), the “monster” in Carrie is far less scary than the people.
Poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). She’s a timid, misfit with a Jesus-freak mother (Piper Laurie, in an over the top zealous performance for the ages). She’s an easy target for the high school mean girls (Nancy Allen, Amy Irving). She also has a secret: she’s telekinetic, meaning she can move objects with her mind. A handsome boy (William Katt) invites Carrie to the prom. Her mother forbids her to go, leading to a telekinetic confrontation that doesn’t work out well for mom. Turns out, however, that the mean kids have come up with a plot to humiliate Carrie at the prom, dropping a bucket of pigs’ blood on her head. In the ensuing sequence, Carrie kills seals her tormentors in the gym and proceeds to kill them all with various flying objects and fires.
Mommie Dearest: Piper Laurie in Carrie
Carrie is a horror classic for a number of reasons. The classic “bullied kid pushed to far” makes you want to root for her, but her eventual blow up is horrific beyond words. Spacek’s wide eyed glare during the prom scene let you know she has snapped for good. This film also features the first “dead villain isn’t really dead” sequence, in which Carrie’s bloody arm shoots up from her grave. That’s a cliche today, but at the time it scared the living crap out of audiences.
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)
This film has been straight up remade at least three times by my count, and has been copied countless others.
A small town doctor (Kevin McCarthy) discovers that people are being replicated by alien pods. The replicants are well organized, emotionless and highly interested in making more replicants. One by one, the people closest to him succumb, even his girl (Dana Wynter), until finally he is all alone. In the final chase, we see McCarthy desperately trying to fight off sleep, knowing he is a goner if he gives in.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays on two of the most effective horror themes of all time. First, it is a classic story of being increasingly isolated because anyone could be the enemy. They were your friends and colleagues. Now they’re pod people. Second, they get you when you’re at your most vulnerable: when you’re asleep. The tale of alienation in Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a good 10 years ahead of its time, but it was still scary as hell.
8. Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero)
It’s hard to imagine in today’s Walking Dead and World War Z zombie-obsessed culture that, once upon a time, there was no such thing as a zombie movie. Enter Romero, with his interest in skewering consumer culture, and you get Night of the Living Dead and its progeny.
In a rural area in Pennsylvania, a small group of strangers become trapped together in a farm house where they must fend off hordes of walking corpses, who are rising from their graves and looking to eat the living.
O.Z.: Original Zombies
Night of the Living Dead featured a lot more gore than the typical horror movie of the era, and the scene in the basement, where the couple’s daughter turns and must be killed is truly nerve wracking. Although Romero insists that the casting of Duane Jones was incidental, having a black lead added an edge that would not have been present otherwise, and lent a significant political statement to the surprise ending.
7. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez)
Vampire movies have been done to death, but few are more entertaining, original and stylish than this 1996 film that featured a sizzling script by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Kurtzman.
Bank robbing brothers Seth and Richie (George Clooney, Tarantino) are on the run. To sneak across the Mexican border, they kidnap a defrocked preacher and his family (Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu). They go to a dive bar to wait for the brothers’ contact that will take them to safety. Problem: the bar is actually a vampire lair just waiting for human victims to feast on.
From Dusk Till Dawn features a variety of great action sequences and signature Tarantino dialogue, but it is outstanding performances that set the film apart. Clooney in particular is great in this picture, and there are a number of key smaller roles, including Salma Hayek, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Cheech Marin and horror make up guru Tom Savini.
I will admit that this film is not particularly scary, but it is one of the most entertaining vampire movies you will ever see, and if you somehow missed it along the way, makes for a great Halloween picture.
6. The Fly (1958, Kurt Neumann)
I will readily admit that the 1986 remake of this film is a better movie, a better horror movie in fact, but I put the original on here because I saw it on Chiller Theater when I was nine years old and it freaked me out. More on that later.
In The Fly, a scientist (David Hedison) has come up with a major breakthrough. He’s invented a teleportation chamber. But when he climbs in himself, disaster strikes. A fly had gotten into the chamber with him, and what comes out is an unspeakable deformity. The Fly includes several truly classic horror moments, including the scene where the scientist’s wife (Patricia Owens) sees his giant fly-head, and the classic demise of the fly with the human face crying “Help meeeee. Help meeeee” as a spider closes in on it.
When you’re nine, this is pretty freaking scary
As I mentioned, after I saw The Fly as a child, I was pretty f**ked up. I had a serious aversion to flies after this – not a fear, but skeeving them so bad I literally could not eat food if there was a fly anywhere in the room. When I saw It’s Good To Be Alive (the Roy Campanella story), the scene where he’s in his hospital bed being tormented by a fly landing on his face was nearly unwatchable to me. Horror movies that stay with you after they’re over are really the best kind. For that reason, the original The Fly makes this list.
5. Scream (1996, Wes Craven)
Wes Craven reinvented the horror film with this smart slasher pic. After three decades of everyone in the theater knowing that the teenage couple having sex were going to get murdered, or the guy who goes off alone to investigate the scary noise was going to get murdered, Craven populated his film with savvy characters who knew the “horror movie rules” and were intent on avoiding getting hacked to bits.
Scream is filled with references and homages to horror films of the past, including Psycho, When A Stranger Calls and Friday The 13th, but despite being completely up front about the “rules,” Scream still manages to put in plenty of scares, not the least of which is offing its biggest star (Drew Barrymore) in the first 10 minutes of the film.
Scream spawned three sequels, plenty of copycats, and one of the most popular Halloween costumes of all time. It also breathed life into the horror genre at a time when it had become staid and cliched.
4. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
The granddaddy of all the slasher movies to follow, Psycho was an experimental masterpiece by Alfred Hitchcock, and launched 1000 screams in horror movies to follow.
A girl on the run (Janet Leigh) checks into a remote motel to hole up for the night. Unfortunately for her, the kindly young man who runs it (Anthony Perkins) is actually a twisted killer. In the memorable shower scene, Hitchcock used 70 cuts and camera angles to create 45 seconds of film. Audiences swore they had seen the knife stabbing into the actresses body (in fact, they had not). To heighten the panic and disorientation of the attack, experimental music was used (the signature screeching violins you’ve no doubt heard in 100 horror movies since). The technique was so unheard of it could not be written on sheet music, and had to be explained to the musicians verbally.
Psycho’s fusion of sex, violence and madness, twisty plot, Hitchcock’s visionary camera and a killer (pun intended) performance by Anthony Perkins make this film the gold standard by which all slasher films are measured.
3. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
I know Alien is science fiction, but it’s just impossible not to call this a horror film. It contains arguably the scariest horror scene ever filmed.
The crew of the Nostromo receives a change of orders to investigate a distress call. They don’t find what they’re looking for, but Kane (John Hurt) finds an alien stuck to his face. The crew heads home, with Kane in the infirmary. Eventually, he regains consciousness and seems to be fine. Then comes the scene. Over lunch, Kane begins showing signs of distress. Suddenly, a tiny alien bursts out of his chest and runs off. As it grows, it begins hunting down and killing everyone on the ship. Only the intrepid Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives.
Is that an alien in your chest or are you just happy to see me?
Alien is brilliantly claustrophobic. The crew are quite literally trapped aboard the ship. There’s also strong political elements present, as when Ash (Ian Holm) is revealed to be an android with orders that include the expendability of the human crew. Having his female character be the lone survivor and the one who eventually kills the monster was also novel. Alien was also very different for a science fiction film. Despite the futuristic setting, the Nostromo was dingy and cramped, unlike the high tech confines of the Enterprise on Star Trek. The crew were not brave explorers, they were union workers bitching about their pay (and ultimately sold out by their employer). Alien remains a horror classic to this day, and is still scary, even when you know what’s coming next.
2. The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)
I am a huge fan of John Carpenter, and for me, this film is his true masterpiece. Based on the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World, The Thing was a box office and critical failure when it was released, but eventually gathered a huge cult following and is now considered an all time horror classic.
At a remote base in the Antarctic, scientists are surprised when a Norwegian helicopter enters the area shooting at a dog. The helicopter explodes, and the base personnel later learn that the dog was in fact an alien organism that can replicate itself to appear to be any living thing. With no way to tell who is real or who is a Thing, the scientists turn on one other. Eventually, the base is burned to the ground, leaving only MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) left with no shelter from the cold and still neither knowing if the other is, in fact, The Thing.
All time great scenes: The Blood Test from The Thing
The Thing combines the claustrophobia of Alien with the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the gory shock effects of Night of the Living Dead (in reality, the non-computerized special effects in this film were among the best ever rendered using conventional technology). The Thing also contains the classic “blood test” scene, which raises the suspense to a hair trigger level. The Thing stands the test of time to this day, as evidence by a recent prequel that failed to live up to the original in any way.
1. The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)
It has become trendy for critics to regale Rosemary’s Baby as the demonic horror classic of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, dismissing The Exorcist for being too sensational. Well f**k Rosemary and her baby, that movie wasn’t scary at all. The Exorcist, by contrast, is the single scariest movie ever made, bar none.
Chris MacNeill (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous Hollywood actress. Her daughter (Linda Blair) being showing signs of illness. She’s having wild physical seizures and using foul language. Doctors methodically rule out neurological damage and then suggest the child may need a psychologist to deal with the effects of Chris’ divorce. When that goes awry, Chris turns to a priest (Jason Miller), asking him to perform an exorcism, as she has come to believe that her daughter is possessed by the devil.
Face of evil: Blair in The Exorcist
There are so many classic scenes in The Exorcist it would be impossible to list them all here. The wild effects in the film are both realistic and incredibly shocking. Seeing a little girl uttering some of the foulest foul language anyone’s ever heard also lends itself to the horror. But The Exorcist is really the most scary because it introduces a horror that literally gets inside you. How do you stop the devil if he takes over you or your child?
I saw The Exorcist in second run when I was 10 years old. It f**ked me up for YEARS. That night, I slept with holy water in my bed (not a joke). For about a year afterwards, I had a true fear of being alone at night, and started sleeping with a light on. The Exorcist is the most brilliantly terrifying horror movie ever made. Don’t watch it alone.
Honorable Mention: I feel compelled to bring up Trilogy of Terror, which is not even remotely a good movie. It’s not even a movie. It is, in fact, a made for TV movie comprised of three vignettes starring Karen Black, and it’s the last one, subtitled Amelia, that stuck with me.
Black plays the title role, who purchases an African tribal doll as a gift for a friend. When the doll’s chain breaks, it comes to life and attacks her.
Before there was Chucky. . .
Amelia chases/gets chased around her apartment, trying to catch the doll and avoid it stabbing and biting her. The thing makes a horrifying noise that is something like the noise the langoliers make in The Langoliers. Eventually, Amelia tosses the thing in her oven and turns it on. We hear the doll screaming and see it scrambling around the oven in flames. Eventually, the noise stops and she slowly opens the oven door to look…fade to black.
We next see Amelia seemingly back to normal in her apartment. She then, however, picks up a very big knife and starts stabbing it into the floor. She smiles and. . .
Once again, I was a kid when I saw this in 1975, but it really scared the crap out of me. Maybe it was an Exorcist hangover, maybe it was the idea that the doll actually took over her body instead of just killing her, but I think, honestly, it’s because I saw it on TV and scary shit like this just wasn’t on TV in 1975. TV was my safe place where The Exorcist couldn’t get me and then. . .aaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!
Happy Halloween everyone!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October of 2014.