Horror movies aren’t for everyone. You’ve heard it a million times, or else you’ve said it a million times: “I just don’t like them”. Oh really? You don’t like The Shining or The Exorcist or Planet Terror or Psycho? Those are horror movies, jacko, and you like them. Admit it.
What you should say — what’s far more likely — is that you don’t like most horror movies. In our time as horror fans, we’ve realized the incredible range of this divisive genre. Horror is no one-trick pony. You might hate corny slashers like Halloween, but what about romping gore-fests like Dead Alive? Or super-scare ghost movies like Insidious that threaten to put you in the psych ward for a few days afterward? Check out silly black humor horrors like Dead Snow or a classic psychological thriller like The Innocents. Indie fan? There’re plenty of horrors for that. Genre-defying strangeness? Four words: Cabin in the Woods (and many others). Perhaps you’re demented and enjoy “torture porn”, a la Audition; there are plenty of films for you to watch, but you should also seek therapy immediately.
Truth is, skimming our list of the best 50 horror films of all time on this very special Friday the 13th should do more to convince you than any argument ever will. We’ve gathered a true blend of styles, with plenty of films that could easily bleed into other genres, and, of course, a bunch that are pure horror to their very blackened hearts. The bloody thread that ties them together? Very simply, they deal with the darkest sides of human nature: cruelty, despair, madness and the like. They’re are all monster movies in one way or another.
Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.
Pre-failure M. Night Shyamalan directed this super-creepy Best Picture nominee, in which a pre-awkward Haley Joel Osment is plagued by sightings of dead people and child psychologist Bruce Willis helps him deal. For bonus points, keep an eye out for post-chunky Donnie Wahlberg.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunesThe Exorcist
It’s got creepy religious elements, but the real horror comes from the characters, which this movie explores like no other. If that’s not enough reason to watch, “40 years of sucking cocks in hell” is a pretty awesome bit of dialogue. The unnatural body movements of a possessed girl will make your skin crawl, and you’ll never think of pea soup the same way again.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesPoltergeist
A family’s new home is built on a burial ground, and the “old residents” are pissed. Before watching this one, you’ll want to get rid of any clown dolls you might have lying around the house.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesAn American Werewolf in London
Two unusually naive college students in England visit a pub (shocking) and later get attacked by a werewolf. One dies, but still manages to communicate with the second, warning him to commit suicide before the full moon. Equal parts lunacy and tragedy make for a great werewolf film.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / NetflixFrankenstein (1931)
The monster movie that created a genre stars Boris Karloff as a haunting and haunted conglomeration of human parts made into a painfully human creature. Even in black and white, it still stands as the best interpretation of the classic Mary Shelley story.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunesRosemary’s Baby
Dragging one of life’s happiest moments into the dark world of suspicion, evil and dread is the key to the horror behind Roman Polanski’s critically acclaimed film. So what if it reinforces the New Yorker notion that friendly neighbors aren’t to be trusted?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesScream
Few horror movies have ushered the genre into the cultural mainstream more than Wes Craven’s Scream. Instead of casting unknowns, the film brims with recognizable stars and includes a “sophisticated” twist where characters are aware of typical horror movie clichés but still follow in their stupid footsteps.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Changeling (1980)
One of the best told ghost stories of all time, bits and pieces of which can be found in countless other successful films on this list, including The Sixth Sense and The Ring.
Amazon DVD / NetflixA Nightmare on Elm Street
It spawned a franchise, gave Johnny Depp his first break in a feature film debut and instilled terrified teenagers with the notion that even their dreams weren’t a safe place to hide.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Ring
Though it’s adapted from the excellent 1996 Japanese film Ringu by Hideo Nakata, the American version left an equally deep impression with most fans of the genre. The plot sounds dumb — a haunted videotape kills teenagers seven days after they watch it — but skillful use of subliminals, a psychoacoustic soundtrack, micro-edits and a generally vivid visual aesthetic make screams easy to come by.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Dario Argento’s first film quickly earned him the title of the Italian Hitchcock. Though it has the bones of a thriller, its impact on the slasher genre makes it deserving of this list.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / NetflixThe Birds
Hitchcock’s tale of nature unhinged takes our fine feathered friends and gradually turns them into terrifying, frenzied monsters. Don’t be fooled by the dated special effects — this is horror at its best.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesEvil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn
Sam Raimi’s second shot at a group of friends attacked by an ancient evil in an isolated cabin deserves all the cult praise it gets. It’s got all the possessions, campy special effects and tree rape (yea…it’s strange) any horror fan could ask for, plus a protagonist that deals with his situation in the way that we hope we would.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesBlack Christmas
Forgive the terrible title — no, it isn’t a “possessed Santa” tale. This is a truly terrifying ’70s slasher with less slash and more gibberish-screaming-stalker-in-your-attic.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunesInsidious
How do you create a modern classic? Retell the stories that made the genre great, and then add your own twist. Insidious feels like a great horror movie because it is — it has every type of scare imaginable, along with many that aren’t.
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As part of a random attack, Liv Tyler and her spurned lover are set upon by a masked group of psychos. There’s nothing supernatural here, and that’s the best part.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Descent
A group of women trapped in a cave is scary. A group of women trapped in a cave inhabited by pale, sightless, ravenous humanoid creatures — that’s terrifying.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesDead Snow
Norwegian 20-somethings, meet undead Nazis. Horror, meet gore-filled, twisted comedy.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Orphanage
Dead kids are tragic, and they’re also creepy as hell. This Spanish horror wins points for its intertwined plot and excellent ending.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Fly (1986)
Ain’t teleportation great? Not really, because even the smallest of mishaps can slowly but surely turn you into an insect. Prepare to be grossed the hell out.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Amazon Download / iTunesHigh Tension
Ah, the French. Baguettes, beautiful farmhouses, the brutal murder of an entire family… it all has a certain je nais se quoi. Only a very determined friend stands in the way of the pretty young daughter’s decidedly unfortunate fate.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesNosferatu
Eh, it was made in 1922, how scary could it — OH GOD WHAT IS THAT THING?!
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Conjuring
The age-old paranormal team story gets retold, and it’s chock full of scary. Child-sacrificing witch? Evil doll? Dead kids? Moaning suicides? Exorcisms? How do they fit it all in a logical storyline? That’s the beauty of The Conjuring.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesHalloween
A defining slasher film from its opening scene, Halloween introduced us to Michael Myers, an evil killer who embodies the terror of the Boogeyman in human form. 35 years later some moments may seem campy, but the film’s genius lives on.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Innocents
It’s based on a Henry James novel (readers of James’ prose may find this fact terror enough) and considered one of the greatest psychological horrors of all time. A governess tries to solve a mystery surrounding the children under her care and the angry ghosts of two deceased housekeepers.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunesThe Grudge
Holy crap this movie is scary. Deaths beget deaths beget deaths, all accompanied by that goddamn atrocious death rattle sound.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesAudition
Audition lingers with you, disturbing not with shock or the supernatural, but something even more haunting: uncertainty. Exploiting our greatest fear, director Miike slowly wrings viewers through the mundane act of a man falling for a woman. But just as we lower our guard, we’re hit by a ghastly third act so diabolical and demented that it instantly burns its horrors into the darkest corners of our minds. Only dyed-in-the-wool horror fans will be able to escape its unnerving grip on the imagination, much less look a sweetly demeanored Asian woman in the eye.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Shining
Wildly twisting “take your son to work day”, this movie features Jack Torrance, a struggling writer who brings his wife and son to his new job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. There, he learns that the last caretaker went mad, a fate that slowly befalls Jack himself. Written by Stephen King, directed by Kubrick and acted by Nicholson, The Shining is generally regarded as one of the best movies ever made. That elevator scene is amazing.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Cabin in the Woods
The Jock, the Slut, the Party Guy, the Nerd and the Virgin go into the woods…do any of them ever come out? Josh Whedon’s unique spin on the horror genre is the perfect primer for anyone who’s ever said “I don’t like horror movies”. THAT ELEVATOR SCENE IS AMAZING!
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesSaw
Two men awaken to find themselves the victim of Jigsaw, a serial killer who gives his victims a chance to survive by escaping some type of deadly trap. If you don’t already know the twist, it’ll definitely drop your jaw.
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The American ambassador to Britain learns that his son is the antichrist. We’re not talking Jaden Smith here…we’re talking the literal antichrist.
Amazon DVD / NetflixIt
From master horror writer Stephen King comes the story of seven teen outcasts who save their town from a shapeshifting monster (It) that often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Thirty years later, they must once again return to battle the monster one final time. Though technically a TV mini-series, it was creepy enough to ruin clowns for an entire generation, so we’ll include it.
Amazon DVD / iTunesPeeping Tom
A repressed, psychologically disturbed recluse kills prostitutes and films their dying expressions. Now regarded as a landmark piece of horror, the film’s twisted subject matter effectively sunk director Robert Powell’s career.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesHouse of Wax (1953)
The plot is simple enough — the owner of a wax museum starts making statues that are a little too lifelike — but the acting and sets are anything but. In 1953, directors knew how to make horror without the gore that pervades today’s selections.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Vanishing (1988)
Rex and Saskia stop at a service station, and Saskia disappears. Rex seeks Saskia with a stubborness that edges on madness — he must know what happened to her. The brilliance of The Vanishing is not in what you see, but what you don’t.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / NetflixWolf Creek
If you thought getting lost in a dark alley was scary, you definitely don’t want to get lost in the Australian Outback. Because then you might hear the words, “I’m going to do something now they used to do in Vietnam. It’s called making a head on a stick.” Yep, that happens.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The movie that introduced the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface to generations of moviegoers. Supposedly inspired by real events, the opening police report describes one of Leatherface’s victims as “a grisly work of art”. This movie is too.
Amazon DVD / NetflixNight of the Living Dead (1968)
The Patient Zero of zombie flicks. Romero’s terrifying look at what happens when you go to graveyards, and a pretty solid case for keeping weapons in your home. Reanimated people roam the countryside, hunting for living flesh — and there’s not a whole lot you can do but wait to be ripped apart, piece by piece.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Thing (1982)
Possibly where we get the old adage “kill it with fire”, The Thing is the story of an Antarctic research center besieged by a parasitic alien that metamorphoses to mimic its prey. Plenty of flamethrowers, suspense, paranoia and Kurt Russel; chilling terror abounds.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesEvent Horizon
Often dubbed “The Shining in space”, Event Horizon is full of grotesque, mind-warping, reality-questioning, gratuitous you-can’t-escape-because-you’re-in-space dread. A team of scientists is sent to investigate a spacecraft and finds the ship has been bending the fabric of time and space to quickly leap across galaxies. It’s also become a gateway to Hell along the way, which certainly isn’t good.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesDawn of the Dead (2004)
Are you down with the sickness? Zombies. Everywhere. In Milwaukee, what few survivors are left reluctantly band together in a shopping mall and hope to avoid being eaten. It’s excellently cast; Jay Leno gets his noggin blown apart; and Phil Dunphy is a sleazeball. Nothing better.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes28 Days Later
Some zombie apocalypse scenarios involve a sickness that’s transmitted via blood and/or bites. Danny Boyle’s flick features raging, violent zombie-like creatures created by an unwittingly released virus bioweapon. We’re treated to post-apocalyptic England via a hospital patient who somehow slept through the whole ordeal. Also, the zombie people barf up a lot of blood.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesJaws
In the 400 years since humans started recording these things, there have been fewer than 500 confirmed deaths due to unprovoked shark attacks. And yet, after you watch Jaws for the first time, you’ll be convinced that you’re next. The movie that kept an entire generation out of the ocean also features some of the grandest characters, finest acting and most terrifying filmic devices (Where is the shark?) to grace the silver screen. Bigger boat be damned; you’ll need drier pants.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesGrindhouse: Planet Terror
Released in tandem with Tarantino’s Death Proof, Robert Rodriguez’s zombie film tribute is rife with camp but still delivers all the right thrills. Bloody pustules, flesh-devouring zombies and a go-go dancer with a machine-gun leg: it’s a highly stylized send up of the highest order.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesDead Alive
Peter Jackson (yup, that Peter Jackson) directed this absurdly gory New Zealand romp of a zombie movie, the crux of which is a housewarming party that turns into a brutal but funny zombie delicatessen.
Amazon DVD / NetflixFunny Games
Never trust two Aryan neighbors dressed identically. This shot-for-shot remake doesn’t straddle the lines between psychosis, monstrosity and abject barbarity — it completely embodies all three and makes them its bitch. And that’s the game. Funny, right?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesFriday the 13th
The movie that started the franchise and established the hockey mask as an iconic part of American horror. Any movie where Kevin Bacon dies is, by definition, good, and the ending is still one of the scariest we’ve ever seen.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / NetflixPsycho
The level of crazy hidden under Norman Bates’s innocuous persona spawned a new twist in a genre typified by obvious scary monsters or villains. Hitchcock uses suspense and psychological mystery to full effect, leaving the viewer guessing at the genesis of the psychosis and motivations of the main character. “Psycho” was the first “slasher” film, and the shower scene remains one of the genre’s most famous.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesCarrie (1976)
The rite of passage that is high school hazing takes a twist when the telekinetically gifted Carrie turns the tables on her tormentors. The image of Sissy Spacek, bathed in pig’s blood, takes a woman’s wrath to new levels — better be careful, gents.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesHellraiser
From the initial ripping-to-shreds-with-hooks scene to the reconstruction of an animated corpse, Hellraiser was a masterpiece of horrifying visual effects. Featuring a husband cuckolded by his brother, and a wife who plays succubus to feed her dead brother-in-law, the heavy family themes will make your personal holiday horror-fest look tame in comparison.
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