The 10 Best Horror Movies of All Time
From creature features to haunted house capers, the horror genre has been giving audiences the willies since the dawn of film. Here are our picks for the 10 best of all time. (If you’re bemoaning the lack of, say, Alien or The Fly, check out our list of the 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time first—there are just too many excellent films to justify any duplicate entries.)
1. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
One of the reasons that the recently departed George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead became such a touchstone of the horror genre is, well, it’s a damn good movie. But a more minor reason has to do with a copyright fluke that put the film in the public domain. (The theatrical distributor changed the title prior to the film’s release, but when they updated the title card, they forgot to add the required copyright notice.) No copyright means no royalty fees, which in turn meant that Night of the Living Dead got more play on TV and a larger home video release than it would have had otherwise. It also meant that other filmmakers could create their own twists on Romero’s zombie classic without having to pay the man for the privilege, helping to give rise to the robust zombie sub-genre that’s been eating brains ever since.
2. PSYCHO (1960)
With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock broke new ground in a lot of ways. For one, he changed the way film was exhibited. Prior to Psycho, it was a generally accepted practice that moviegoers could enter a theater at any point during a screening. Hitch, determined that people wouldn’t wander in halfway into the movie and wonder where mega-star Janet Leigh (killed off in the famous shower sequence in the film’s first third) was, had theaters put up notices to the effect that late admittance was not allowed. And speaking of: In Alexandre O. Philippe’s doc 78/52, which is all about Psycho’s shower scene, horror director Richard Stanley posits that the film “might have also started the rather negative trend of victims undressing before they’re butchered, which is something that’s haunted slasher cinema throughout the ‘70s.”
3. HALLOWEEN (1978)
John Carpenter’s Halloween, which begins with a six-year-old Michael Myers stabbing his nude sister, remains the only slasher film to date on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Upon its 2006 induction, the Library of Congress’s Steve Leggett noted that the film “launched Carpenter’s career and started the slasher genre.” Despite its status as the godfather of a particularly gory genre, Halloween is a film without any (literal) blood. That was intentional; writes David Konow in his book Reel Terror, it was Halloween cinematographer Dean Cundey’s belief that “even before the mad slasher craze, the feeling was that too much gore and special effects can call too much attention to itself, take the audience out of the movie, and make the story less realistic. ‘We actually spoke specifically about it,’ [said] Cundey. ‘I think part of what was so effective about Halloween is you could say any of this could happen.’”
4. SCREAM (1996)
Where Halloween invented the slasher genre, Scream reinvented it for a new generation, combining horror with meta comedy that skewers years of slasher movie tropes. Scream also revitalized the career of Wes Craven, a founding father of horror who made a name for himself with films like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Still, in the mid-‘90s Craven was trying to move away from the dark, violent cinema he was associated with in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed. As such, he initially turned Scream down.
“The turning point was when a kid came up to me at a film conference or a panel I was on,” Craven later recalled. “The kid said, ‘You know, you should really do a movie like The Last House on the Left again. You really kicked ass back then, and you haven’t done it since.’ I went home and I thought, ‘Am I getting soft?’ I’ve always had this ambivalence about doing violent films, and I’ve also had this other side that says, ‘This is your voice, this is what comes naturally to you. You do it really well, go do it.’ So I called Bob [Weinstein, producer] and off we went.”
5. SUSPIRIA (1977)
A surreal, gory, Technicolor extravaganza of witches, ballet, and murder, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is generally considered one of the finest examples—if not the finest example—of Italian horror. But one party involved in Suspiria wasn’t too keen on being associated with it: American distributor 20th Century Fox, which released the film under little-known subsidiary International Classics Inc. so as to avoid having its name attached to the film. Per Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ Suspiria, there were “concerns about the impact [Suspiria] might have to its recently boosted industry reputation on the back of the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars.”
6. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
Though directed by one film legend, Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby was at one point going to be helmed by a director of a different sort: William Castle. An icon of B-movie, gimmick-heavy horror—his most famous film is House on Haunted Hill, in which Vincent Price kills someone using an elaborate skeleton puppet, and for another of his movies, The Tingler, buzzers were installed in theatre seats to gently zap moviegoers—Castle bought the rights to Ira Levin’s unpublished novel with an eye toward rehabilitating his image. (“We used to sit around our dining room table at night and instead of saying grace, my father would practice his Academy Award acceptance speech,” his daughter, Terry Castle, remembered.) Alas, it was not to be: Paramount, which co-financed Rosemary’s Baby with Castle, insisted that the film be directed by the more respectable Polanski, who was fresh off the success of his Euro horror hit Repulsion.
Though he initially found Polanski “cocky and vain,” Castle was won over by the younger director’s vision for the film, which basically boiled down to “Do it exactly like the book. Barely change anything.” Paramount won the fight, and Polanski signed on as Rosemary’s Baby’s director, with Castle producing. Some other Hollywood icons were involved behind the scenes, as well; Tony Curtis has an uncredited cameo as the voice of Donald Baumgart, and a cameo with Joan Crawford and Van Johnson playing themselves was filmed but later cut. (Johnson calling Polanski “Pinocchio” probably didn’t help.)
7. RINGU (1998)
One of the most influential international horror films of all time, the success of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu helped Japanese horror “[break] out of its cult status” in the West, subsequently kicking off a wave of American remakes of Japanese horror films. Ringu was remade in 2002 by Gore Verbinski as The Ring, which made more money in Japan than its source material—though not much more; Ringu made approximately $13 million in Japan, compared to The Ring’s $14.1 million. Subsequent American remakes of Asian horror hits included The Grudge (originally Ju-On), Dark Water, and Pulse.
8. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves its biopics and its period dramas ... but horror movies? Not so much. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is to date the only horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And it won a lot more than that: it’s only the third film in Oscar history to take home wins in the Big Five categories, a.k.a. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Adapted Screenplay, in Silence’s case), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster.) The other two Big Five victors are It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
9. THE EXORCIST (1973)
The Silence of the Lambs’s route to Oscar success was paved by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It received nine other nominations, too, including one for teenaged Linda Blair, playing the possessed Regan MacNeil. The nomination was met with controversy at the time, given the fact that Regan’s “possessed” voice was actually another actress: Mercedes McCambridge, who had to fight to receive on-screen credit. The Exorcist eventually won two Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound.
10. THE HAUNTING (1963)
The gold standard in haunted house movies, Robert Wise’s The Haunting is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, in which a paranormal investigator enlists a team of strangers to document their experiences living in a purportedly haunted mansion. (Not to be confused with the Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill, mentioned above.) The favorite horror film of no less than Martin Scorsese, The Haunting adopts the show-don’t-tell ethos of Wise’s mentor, Val Lewton, who was famous for his highly atomospheric, low-budget horror movies where you frequently don’t see the monster in question. To that end, the supernatural forces in The Haunting are rarely visualized, with the emphasis more on the deteriorating mental state of the fragile, frazzled Eleanor (Julie Harris). Harris suffered from depression on-set and isolated herself from her co-stars, the result of not feeling that they took the film as seriously as she did. Wise followed up The Haunting with a decidedly more peppy film: 1965’s The Sound of Music.