In honor of Horrormonal’s first anniversary and the catharsis and opportunities it has given me within the last year, along with the conversations it has started with other horror film lovers, I give you 60 of (some) of the greatest horror films of all time, starting with the 1960s until the 2010s (so far). I’ve been musing over this since August, and I’ve had such a difficult time narrowing it down to just 10 movies from each decade, but I think I chose pretty carefully. I love each film for different reasons- some for their artistic integrity, some for their metaphors, some for changing the way I look at cinematic arts entirely, some for haunting my nightmares, some for repulsing me, and others for their entertainment value. If you haven’t seen some of the more obscure picks, please consider checking them out, and be sure to revisit some old classics you may not have viewed in a long time. (Thank you to Collider.com for some guidance.)
Here are 60 of (some) of the greatest horror films of modern times…
After decades of tame horror films, in the fear of offending Hollywood rating systems and audiences alike, awakened ’60s filmmakers were tired of playing it safe about what they could and could not show on-screen. 1960s horror films pushed the envelope with more provocateur– more violence, more sexuality, more nudity, more horrific imagery, more Satanic cults– than ever before, and the results are classics that changed not only the horror genre, but filmmaking in general.
Peeping Tom (1960)
By modern standards, Peeping Tom is somewhat tame, but this British psychological horror classic repulsed audiences so much that it was removed from theaters. The narrative introduces us to a good-looking, yet peculiar loner named Mark, (Carl Boehm) a photographer whom takes racy pics of women during the day– but gets his real fix of perverted thrills at night, when he films women as he is stabbing them (with a blade on his camera tripod, mind you.) The metaphor in Peeping Tom lies in the fact that, when we are looking at photography, we can use our own imaginations to fill in the blanks of our fantasies, but when we’re watching motion films, the cameraman is controlling what we get to see and our imaginations come second, and all we can do is sit back and watch, as the terror unfolds before our eyes.
Black Sunday (1960)
In this classical Mario Bavo film, a witch gets burned at the stake in a 17th century setting and attempts to reappear to her tormentors in the form of her descendent. The enticing gothic imagery– including dusty grand pianos, stone castles, dimly lit chambersticks, and portraits on the walls that look as if they are staring directly through you– is particularly macabre in the black and white aesthetic of the film. Sure, the fake bats and cardboard tombstone props don’t necessarily hold up as well nearly 60 years later– however– a story about a scorned woman who literally rises up from the dead to avenge the conservative, God-fearing men who ruined her, is just as timely now as it ever was.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
This unsettling ’60s French horror film involves a doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who is riddled with guilt after an accident leaves his daughter with a disfigured face. The shame of the once-beautiful Christiane (Edith Scob) forces her to stay inside, while outsiders believe she is dead. Meanwhile, her father begins to kidnap and murder young women, so that he can remove their faces and transplant them onto Christiane, who dons a ghostly white mask over her face in the meantime. Scob conveys so much sadness in her eyes– which are the only parts of her face you can see– behind the otherwise emotionless, blank mask. Eyes Without a Face is beautifully poetic, yet haunting.
One of the most perfectly executed films ever realized, Hitchcock’s Psycho completely transformed modern slasher/mystery films by shattering audience expectations and 1950s style conformity. Between its flawlessly cut shower scene (shockingly killing off its leading lady halfway through the movie), its shrieking score, its violence, its reveal of the killer, and its rare glimpse at D.I.D. (dissociative identity disorder) during a time in which the public was ignorant to it, Psycho paved the way for just about every other slasher film that came after it. Initially, Hitchcock had little-to-no support from the production studio– because of the violence and “nudity” he wanted to convey on screen– so he took matters into his own hands, and carefully marketed the film to not reveal nearly any detail about it before its release, so that the audience would be stunned at what they were viewing. (It worked like a charm.) Like Peeping Tom, audiences were so horrified, that faintings and walk-outs (moreso running-outs) were aplenty during the film’s release. 58 years later, Psycho has never relinquished its impact.
The Innocents (1961)
Based on the story “The Turn of the Screw,” Jack Clayton’s black- and-white gem The Innocents uses a haunted house metaphor for depiction of what we do in the shadows, both literally and figuratively. When a nanny starts to see apparitions within the grounds of the house in which she is caring for two orphans, we are never certain if what she sees is really there, or if these are manifestations of her sexual repression. The visuals of Deborah Karr’s regal black velvet gown, bouncing down the staircase as she’s looking for a hiding spot for an innocent game of hide-and-seek with the children– right before one of the film’s scariest shots of a man making his way towards her outside the window is iconic. The Innocents is brilliant.
The Haunting (1963)
Many horror films within the ghost/haunted house subgenre utilize skepticism as an oft-tired plot point, in which some characters are feeling frightened by what they believe is paranormal activity, while other characters cast doubt upon them, criticize them, and argue that they are “going mad.” In the original The Haunting (and no, not that 1999 joke of a remake with Owen Wilson) rumors of paranormal activity, insanity, and death plague the compounds, while a team of investigators attempt to seek the truth of the 90-year-old Hill House. Some investigators begin to “go mad” while others retain their skepticism– but at the end of the day, no matter what they believe, the House will continue to attract visitors out of sheer curiosity, and that’s all that the House really wants in the first place…
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Mario Bavo’s giallo gem Blood and Black Lace legging-face-covered killer slashes his way through a stylish fashion house, which has its fair share of secrets and scandals. The visuals are enchanting. Between the cinematography that captures the streets of Italy, to the stunning set pieces and architecture, to the gorgeous costumes, to the attractive cast decked out in classic ’60s fashion, and the colorful splashes of fuchsia staircases, ruby-red lipstick shades, and flashing purple and green lighting to illuminate crime scenes, Lace is even pleasing to look at during the most violent scenes. More importantly, it serves as a commentary on the price of beauty, as well as toxic romantic relationships between men and women.
Roman Polanski tackles a subject that isn’t nearly discussed in horror as much as it should be– the fear of intimacy– in his 1965 horror-drama Repulsion. When quiet Carole (Catherine Deneuvue) gets approached by men during her day-to-day life, she is so anxious by their presence that her irrational fear of them turns into disgust, as shown when she washes herself off when they even touch her in the slightest. Although Carole’s situation is an extreme one, it isn’t all that far off from many versions of female trust and intimacy issues, physically and emotionally. Our fears of opening ourselves up to others can often be so paralyzing that it prevents us from living normal, happy lives– so much so that they can ruin our lives entirely. Carole’s visions of violence and being raped and groped increasingly worsen, as she is bombarded by a world that is consistently being barricaded by toxic and intrusive men. Repulsion is so claustrophobic that we feel Carole’s anxieties just as closely as she does, but the most horrifying aspect of the film is that Carole’s anxieties are ultimately justified by the end of the film. It’s too bad that, for a director who seemed to understand women’s fears so intimately, Polanksi himself ultimately turned out to be just as big of a shit as the men he had shown in his films…
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
I’m the first to admit that I’m not too keen on zombie subgenre films. (You won’t be seeing too many on this list.) However, George Romero’s masterpiece The Night of The Living Dead is the mother of all modern zombie films– the film that birthed the idea of the mindless, soul-less, consumer-driven creatures that we all know now as the movie zombies. The difference between Living Dead and its countless wannabes is that we almost sympathize more for the “ghouls” (as the film refers to them as) than we do for most of the human supporting characters. The living characters have acquired the most detestable traits of humanity, including self-aborbness and racism, so it becomes refreshing to us when the kind African-American protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) outlives many of the others and becomes somewhat of a hero. That, however, is shortly lived, as the film’s bleak ending breaks our hearts in half, and Ben is shot down, mistaken for a ghoul, and his body is set ablaze with the rest of the pile of corpses. If it weren’t for Romero’s ballsy approach to racism within Living Dead, newer movies like Get Out would not exist.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
My love for Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is infinite– so much so, that when newer films get compared to it, like 2018’s Hereditary, I will make it a point to seek them out. Satanic cult films are one of my favorite horror subgenres, and Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps the best of them all. We meet a young couple named Rosemary and Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) who settle into a new NYC apartment, where they meet their nosy, but seemingly innocent-enough elderly neighbors. In one of the scariest scenes of all time, Rosemary falls asleep one night, and is raped by none other than the El Diablo himself, while her horrendous neighbors and Guy watch on. Rosemary becomes pregnant, and, of course, Guy and his cohorts try to gaslight her and tell her that it was only Guy who impregnated her, and that she’s crazy, etc. However, Rosemary strongly feels that something is wrong with her baby, and the truth reveals itself to be just as horrifying as she imagined. A metaphor for toxic male egos, betrayals against vulnerable women, and the anxieties of mothers-to-be, Rosemary’s Baby is a slow burn that is so worth the patience by its final moments.
Noteworthy mentions: The Birds, Village of the Damned, Carnival of Souls, Kill Baby Kill, Black Sabbath
Fresh off the Manson Family murders and heading into the final years of the Vietnam War, 1970s horror films reflected exploitative violence and brutality, murderous cults, feelings of distrust from the American government, and anxieties of living in all-American suburbs. Arguably horror’s greatest decade to date, 1970s cinema personified the slow-burn horror that has influenced some of the best movies that we have gotten today. The ’70s produced some of my favorites of all time.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Wonderfully weird and disconcerting, this intelligent horror film is not brought up in conversation as often as it should be. The film’s central mystery regarding a religious sergeant who has arrived to Summerisle– where a group of strange, but seemingly pleasant Pagans populate– to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, is sneaky in its approach. Wicker is subtle in its chills throughout– even a scene with a young, naked woman in the cult, breaking the forth wall, by singing and dancing and looking directly at you in the camera lens– proves that sometimes all you need in a horror film is just ultra-bizzaro scenarios that make you question everybody within it. With an intentionally slow-build, the film’s haunting ending that includes a sacrificial ceremony with some hellish flames, will sit with you long after viewing.
The Exorcist (1973)
“Do you know what she did? Your daughter?” Forty-five years and counting, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is still regarded as the scariest film of all time. Upon its release in ’73, audiences lost their shit– vomitting, fainting, and screaming their way out of theaters in utter shock. A young preteen named Regan (Linda Blair) becomes possessed by ruthless demons, while her mother and local priests attempt to stop it before they kill her. A young Blair made her performance all-too-believable, as she was scripted to do unimaginably vile things to herself, as well as to those surrounding her. (How much therapy she must have needed post-production.) I would imagine if you come from a Catholic background, you’d find this film to be nearly unbearable, as its infamous bloody cross masturbation scene is something that few other films would have the audacity to unleash upon audiences. As artistic as it is debilitating, The Exorcist is a commitment to true horror filmmaking.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Likely overshadowed by the other bigger releases of that year, Nicholas Roeg’s artistic Don’t Look Now is not so much scary as it is dramatic and thriller-based, giving us a peak into the post-traumatic life of a couple whose daughter has recently died tragically, and the ways in which grief can forever change the dynamics of a family. Its depiction of death and grief through its motifs such as characters falling, a recurring red coat, bodies of water, and the use of glass appearing as an omen before something terrible is about to happen, has rendered this British-Italian film a classic. The ending may leave some a little confused as to exactly what has been happening to this couple, but retracing your steps throughout the film, along with multiple viewings and critical analyses assist the overall watching experience.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s most important film is a blunt, in-your-face examination of human death, that reminds us of something that we’d rather not think about: underneath it all, we are all just flesh, meat, and bones, and when we decompose, that’s all that will be left of us. The Grim Reaper– which in this case takes the form of Leatherface and his cannibalistic family– doesn’t care who you are, how good-looking you care, how capable you are, or if you are kind, mean, smart, dumb, handicapped, able-bodied, etc.,– death will come for each of us. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is undoubtedly one of the most horrific films (that’s a compliment) brought to screen.
Deep Red (1975)
The brilliance of Dario Argento’s Deep Red is his ability to blend much of the film’s ordinary everyday-ism, with characters doing normal things and living their lives in the daylight, so that the truly horrific scenes that are scattered throughout leave a particularly nasty scar on your memory. Highlights include: an off-camera murder scene in front of a Christmas tree; shaky, killer POV shots (several years before John Carpenter famously did this in Halloween); effective utilization of creepy paintings and drawings for unique storytelling purposes; a haunting children’s lullaby song that you’ll hear in your dreams; and….the DOLLS. Deep Red contains some of the scariest uses of a child’s baby doll I’ve ever witnessed, and we all know how I already feel about dolls to begin with. Argento doesn’t skimp on the creatively brutal death scenes: from a death by scalding hot water to another painfully caused by nearby furniture in the room, Deep Red is fascinating and a must-see.
Despite the various production setbacks on-set, Stephen Spielberg could not have made a better film in this first ever movie labeled a “summer blockbuster” that scared audiences straight out of the water in the summer of 1975. Spielberg famously struggled on-set with the animatronic Great White (referred to as “Bruce” on-set), which fortunately ended up benefiting the film, as the shark only appears sporadically– carefully not over-shown to the point of oversaturation and eventual boredom from audiences. And Jaws is so character-driven, that the film becomes important because of your concern and love for its three central protagonists– played by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Shaw– especially during the film’s anxiety-inducing third act that brings the ultimate battle between the three men versus the shark. So many predecessors have attempted to make effective shark films after the success of Jaws, but none of them can compare to this masterpiece.
Brian DePalma adapted this Stephen King narrative about a sheltered teenage girl with telekinetic powers and turned it into a compelling, feverish nightmare. A narrative about bullying, abuse, and trauma, Carrie is a stylish 90+ minutes of anxiety, as we watch the withdrawn protagonist finally begin to open herself up after years of torment from both outside and inside her home– only to have everything crumble from beneath her, until which she has had enough. Sissy Spacek’s performance as the meek-turned-rageful Carrie drives sympathy from the viewer, yet also terror, as Carrie becomes otherworldly by the film’s iconic, bloody, prom-night conclusion.
Some movies take your breath away, and Suspiria blew my mind on my very first viewing. When young ballerina Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives to a prestigious German dance academy, she starts to suspect something witchy lurks within its walls. This Dario Argento giallo masterpiece features vibrant, splashy shades of blues and reds across the screen, that translate to a surreal, technicolor nightmare. Featuring an iconic score by Goblin that reviles John Carpenter-level auditory greatness, slow-panned camera movements through the creepy hallways of the school, perfectly symmetric backdrops that surely inspired The Shining, and gallons of fuchsia blood galore, Suspiria will make you afraid of (and fascinated by) all things covenous.
Thanks to the visions of Debra Hill and John Carpenter, this simplistic indie thriller about a guy with a knife who slowly walks around and stalks babysitters is one of my most beloved horror films of all time. Although the Halloween franchise has turned into a sort of spectacle, filled with disappointing sequels and corny versions of the William Shatner-originated mask, John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece breathed new life into slasher films, with his usage of shadowy lighting, stylish and creeping camera shots, slow pacing, little gore, a perfectly ominous musical score, and a likable final girl in Jamie Lee Curtis’s performance as Laurie Strode. The simplicity of the mysterious “boogeyman” known as “The Shape,” that had no dialogue, no motive, and no soul behind his “black” eyes, is something that almost no other slasher films have come close to capturing. Halloween was the first horror film I was shown in its entirely, and I owe my love of horror to it alone.
When a space expedition crew finds itself within the perils of an aggressive, deadly alien named Xenomorph, their fates are doomed. But is Xenomorph the most terrifying aspect of Ridley Scott’s one-of-a-kind Alien, or is it the amount of dread he creates within every frame before its arrival? Scott additionally morphs sexual violations within the film’s graphic imagery, and boom- you have a film that is so much more than just another sci-fi horror film. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is also one of the most inspiring final girls of all time.
Noteworthy mentions: Eraserhead, Alice Sweet Alice, The Last House on the Left, The Omen
The 1980s brought decadence and overcompensation to culture in general, and it especially reflected this in its decade of horror films. Camp, gore, laughs and lightheartedness may have dominated, but prosthetics, masterful camerawork, and family dynamics prevailed with these classics.
The Changeling (1980)
When it comes to the classic psychological/haunted house subgenre, Peter Medak’s The Changeling remains one of the most chilling films to date. When a grieving pianist decides to start a new life in a new city, he chooses an enormous, deserted, Gothic mansion to rent, where he can practice composing his music (and process his grief) in peace– until he realizes that other inhabitants may lurk the hallways as well. Superior shots of a good, old-fashioned gothic mansion, mixed with a man who is being haunted in more ways than one, The Changeling is atmospherically unnerving and emotionally shattering.
The Shining (1980)
Kubrick’s masterpiece about one family’s descent into insanity– based on Stephen King’s legendary novel– cannot be compared to other ghost/psychological horror films. It stands on its own as one of the most stylish movies to be ever put to screen, with its symmetrical shots of the hotel halls and its closeups of a young, horrified Danny Torrance gasping at what stands before him. With each fresh viewing, the film can represent a myriad of multiple interpretations: a family man who unleashes his repressed toxic masculinity after placing it aside for years; a child with possible schizophrenia that isn’t being treated properly by wayward parents. Nearly four decades later, The Shining not only holds up, but has ruminated so far into audiences’ psyches that they still regard it as one of the most effective horror films ever made.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
This John Landis horror-dark comedy takes the simplistic monster movie formula and transforms it into a thoughtful statement about grief, guilt, and the need to make peace with the dead. Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning makeup on David Naughton for the infamous werewolf-morphing scene is some of the best prosthetics you will ever see– not just in horror, but in cinema in general. Period.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter achieved what all other modern studios that remake and “reboot” past films and franchises wish they could do– he remade a version of an old movie that surpasses its original 1950 take. When a shape-shifting alien takes ahold of a crew of researchers (including the ability to take on forms of the members of the crew themselves) tensions rise and the surviving team members start to suspect each other and turn against one another, as some are picked off one-by-one. The human condition of prioritized survival is discussed against a backdrop of an iconic score and perfectly gory physical prosthetics that today’s computer-generated-obsessed films would never be able to capture in the same way.
“They’re here.” Tobe Hooper ruined the innocence of little blond girls, television sets, and clown dolls forever when he released Poltergeist, a zeitgeist of ’80s haunted house horror. When a family starts to suspect that their home is plagued by something otherworldly– after their young daughter is sucked into another dimension– a group of investigators attempt to help them from this poltergeist intrusion. With its quotable dialogue, empathy for its central (albeit quirky) characters, and its effective use of frightening imagery (not to mention its notorious string of “curses” behind-the-scenes) the film has translated through generations, even though some parts of it can feel a bit muddled. Poltergeist is a modern paranormal classic that will make you suspicious of your child who is talking back to and watching the TV screen a little too closely.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
I won’t lie, the Freddy franchise has never been one of my favorites. However, Wes Craven’s vision, combined with an original premise consisting of a disfigured, vengeful man killing young victims in their most vulnerable state of sleeping, and Robert Englund’s unmatched enthusiasm for the role of Freddy Krueger, makes for a compelling masterwork that still frightens people decades later. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Don’t mess with natural science. An adaptation based on H.P. Lovecraft’s written story, Stuart Gordon’s horror/dark comedy/fantasy Re-Animator tells the tale of two medical students who get caught up in Frankenstein-esque techniques of bringing people back from the dead, to dire consequences, as you might imagine. This body horror doesn’t bring the scares as much as it brings the dead-pan humor with a (mostly) likable group of characters, along with nods to Psycho within its score. Sit back and laugh your decapitated head off.
The Fly (1986)
Jeff Goldblum– before he became commonly referred to as the “shirtless guy” from Jurassic Park— broke everyone’s hearts when he took on the role of the sweet-natured, loner scientist, Seth Brundle, whose DNA gets mixed with that of a fly’s after an accident-gone-wrong. He begins to deteriorate further and further until he turns into a monster that holds a vendetta for the woman (Geena Davis) that he once loved when he was human. The film draws metaphors for what can happen in the context of unhealthy work-related and/or academic ambitions, as well as the AIDS epidemic that riddled the 1980s. Few horror films are as agonizingly heart-rending as The Fly.
Blue Velvet (1986)
As visually stunning as it is obnoxious and off-putting, the controversial neo-noir/ mystery film, Blue Velvet, is rightfully regarded as one of David Lynch’s most intriguing works. Similar to the color design that Argento produced for Suspiria, Lynch also incorporates shades of blues and reds, while beautifully threading close-up shots of a character’s blue velvet dress throughout– everything is detailed and placed purposefully. The metaphors, particularly one involving a robbin, come full circle by the film’s conclusion– even if you are left scratching your head at everything that has been shown to you during its two-hour run time. As overbearing as the brutal scenes of violence against a female character is to watch, along with a performance from Dennis Hopper that will make you want to punch him through your screen, Blue Velvet is definitely a haunting work of art.
Child’s Play (1988)
Is Child’s Play a perfect movie? No, but not many horror monsters, ghosts, and/or serial killers terrified me growing up as much as the late ’80s serial-killer-infested Good Guy doll named Chucky. When a young boy named Andy (Alex Vincent) begs his mom for a battery-operated, talking, life-size doll, he gets the worst birthday present ever, in the form of a dead serial killer who knew his way around voodoo magic by inserting his soul into the body of the doll. Impressively, producers used various forms of Chucky on set: animatronics, little people actors, and child actors. With his furrowing eyebrows and maniacal laugh, Chucky is the stuff of true childhood nightmares. Thirty years later, Chucky is still slashing his way through our screens, with a franchise that continues to pump out sequels, and even a “reboot” that has nothing to do with the ‘Child’s Play’ name, that nobody is looking forward to…
Noteworthy mentions: Christine, Gremlins, Evil Dead 2, Fright Night, Creepshow, Sleepaway Camp, Pet Sematary
By the 1990s, we were jaded and sarcastically judgmental towards everything ridiculous that the ’80s had brought to us– so much so, that we started looking subversively within our horror films by making fun of the tropes that audiences knew through and through, by blatantly commenting on their mistakes within our new films, in a postmodernist way. Coming off of the franchises that were starting to become stale (Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, the Friday the 13th sequels) the ’90s are usually not considered horror’s greatest decade, but we did manage to get a handful of these gems that revitalized the genre.
Director Rob Reiner knocked this Stephen King-adaption out of the park in the early ’90s, as we meet injured writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) and his punishing super-fan Annie Wilkes (flawlessly portrayed by Kathy Bates)– the latter equally as terrifying and cruel as the modern-day fanboys that bitch, troll, and unhealthily obsess on the Internet about every new genre movie that comes out each year, proving Misery not only holds up today, but is perhaps even more relevant than it was nearly 30 years ago.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
This trippy think piece film revolves around Jacob (Tim Robbins) who struggles with PTSD from his service during the Vietnam War, as well as grief from the death of one of his sons, while attempting to live a somewhat normal life with his girlfriend. When he starts experiencing increasingly worse nightmarish visions in his day-to-day life that represent the psychological trauma that plagues service men and women long after they return home from war, he seeks help from those around him, but his reality/surreality becomes even more confusing, as twists and turns await the film’s plot at every corner. The film’s obvious biblical references should clue you in to what is really going on with Jacob, but Jacob’s Ladder still does not give us easy answers, much like the lack of answers we have to the questions we face about what really happens to us after we die.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
Loosely based on real-life serial monster Henry Lee Lucas and his cohort Ottis Toole, Henry is one of those movies where you can actually taste the cigarettes that get lit up in the scenes– Henry is gritty and gut-wrenching, yet deeply personal and close-up, in terms of its characterization of Henry and its other supporting characters. There’s essentially nothing fun, comical, or lighthearted in this film- in fact, watching this feels like someone punched you in the gut and then proceeded to toss your body in a black hole with no resolution or escape. Henry is one of the bleakest films ever made– but, if you’re a true crime nerd like me, and read countless biographies on the Gaceys, Dahmers, and Bundys in the world, and curious to understand the psychology that lurks within a serial killer’s mind, Henry should be viewed at least once (maybe twice)…but that’s probably all you’ll be able to stomach.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name is a deep dive into the scariest monster that exists: the psyche of a human being. When FBI trainee Clarice (Jodie Foster) is given the duty to interview former psychiatrist and violent psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in order to gain insight into a current case, Lector demands something in return, and Clarice starts to understand more about her own personal demons, as she gets closer to solving the case. Anthony Hopkins’s hypnotic turn as murderer and cannibal Lecter never feels contrived: his muzzled-covered face stares intensely at his scene partners, and his unsettling vocal mannerisms demand attention, but also bring intrigue and mystery simultaneously. The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential horror-thrillers of all time, garnering four Academy Awards the following year– a sadly rare feat for films within the horror genre.
An unnerving narrative about a modern urban legend that takes place within the seldomly used backdrop of inner-city Chicago, Candyman takes aspects of the “Bloody Mary” folklore and blends it with racial injustice that made a film like Get Out possible, 25 years later. Candyman is as angry as it is bloody, with vengeance being taken onto white society everywhere, as the titular antagonist returns to seek vengeance after being killed for fathering a child with a white woman, when he was a slave years prior. Main protagonist Helen (Virginia Madsen) takes much of the vengeful heat, as she is not only beaten in a public bathroom for seeking research into a ghetto neighborhood– in one of the most unforgettably disturbing scenes in recent memory– but is also set up by supernatural Candyman to be the one behind all of the murders happening within the community. Candyman isn’t a perfect film logistics-wise, but it is undoubtedly one of the most thought-provoking and scariest of the ’90s.
What’s in the box? David Fincher’s Se7en solidifies what horror often should be: emotional horror that remains with you long after viewing. Two American city detectives– a rookie and one that is on the brink of retiring– come together to solve a series of murders that are based on the Seven Deadly Sins. The rookie (played by Brad Pitt) is constantly expressing his disgust for the crimes at hand, while the serial killer they discover who is committing them (known as John Doe) is disgusted at the tolerability of society for allowing his immoral victims to commit the sins he kills them for in the first place. These contradicting perspectives on immorality are the core of the film, and with Fincher’s technical abilities, Se7en becomes a masterpiece. Every shot of the nameless crime-riddled city is bleak, with gray tones– that is, until the final, sunshine-laden scene of the film, which is arguably its most gut-wrenching, ironically.
With smart, quick-witted teenage characters, and an even more clever killer that was stalking them with horror-based trivia questions, Wes Craven’s game changer Scream will always remain one of my favorite movies of all time. Kevin Williamson’s biting script contained commentary on the sheer stupidity and unoriginality of the slasher films that came before it, while simultaneously and self-awaredly acknowledging the horror tropes that the movie itself consisted of. The jaded horror genre of the ’90s had done the whole meta thing before (Wes Craven’s 1994 film New Nightmare) however, Scream delivered the shocks, the scares, the twists, and the gore that separated itself from any other movie of that particular time. From its iconic 15-minute opening sequence that killed off the film’s biggest star, to its final 20-minute conclusion that forced us to question our own sanity/unhealthy obsession with violent horror movies, Scream proved itself as unsafe, unpredictable, fresh, and original.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This low-budget, documentary-style indie scared the crap out of audiences, after catching a lot of film festival buzz before its theatrical release and its creation of a clever marketing ploy that claimed that the film was actual found footage. The Blair Witch Project was not the first found footage subgenre film, but it certainly was the definitive one– influencing future titles like Paranormal Activity and Rec in the early 2000s. With realistic acting, clever editing, effective amounts of dread, and an ambiguous ending that rivals some of the best endings in horror, Blair Witch is a minimalist game changer.
Suspenseful and cringeworthy, the Japanese thriller/horror Audition effectively sets up the story of a lonely widower who gets a suggestion from his toxic and misogynistic friend to “audition” potential women to be his next bride…until he meets the innocent-looking, but deeply disturbed Asami (Eihi Shiina). With her dead-eyed stares and sadistic smirk, Asami smashes the patriarchy (literally) by cutting up any man who, not only has done her wrong, but also will probably do her wrong in the future. Fucking men! She doesn’t waste any opportunity in this film– and neither should you by not experiencing it at least once.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Rarely do PG-13 horror films– especially ones from a first-time director– manage to crawl under your skin as perfectly as Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. A film that takes place in the old, cobble-stoned, and vastly underused outskirts of Philadelphia, Sense knows when and how to show you the scares, as well as utilizes your patience for one of the most famous film twists in history. Memorable performances from Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, and Donnie Wahlberg (who knew?) shocked us and installed sympathy, sadness, grief, and fear into us, as we helplessly watched ghosts (who didn’t know they were so) floating through the world alongside the characters, suffering from the pains of the afterlife. Shyamalan has never quite matched the near-perfection of Sense in his films since– but with a debut film this effective, who says he ever has to?
Noteworthy ’90s mentions: Ringu, Funny Games, The People Under the Stairs, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Cronos
Ugh. The early aughts were rough for horror. Choosing silly CGI-ridden remakes and “reboots” over originality, Hollywood was still riding off the teen slasher craze and found footage BS in the early ’00s. Probably my least favorite decade within the genre, however I did fall in love with these 10 movies that reminded me why I loved horror in the first place.
American Psycho (2000)
After the success of postmodern ’90s classics like Scream, Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s book of the same name became yet another satirical horror quintessential, dissecting common archetypes and narrative structures, while simultaneously making blatant commentary on extravagant materialism and envy. Christian Bale gives one of his most afflicting performances as Patrick Bateman, a deranged, internal loner-turned-serial-killer whom, outwardly, is an attractive man that has climbed up the ladder to success and seems to have it all. The dark humor, the blood, the anger, and an unrelenting chainsaw sequence make this one of the more unique and interesting horror adaptations of the early aughts.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Long before Bonnie Aarons was scaring the shit out of people as the devilish Nun figure from the Conjuring franchise, she left a disturbing mark on us all when she played a bit part in David Lynch’s noir horror-mystery, Mulholland Drive. However, her brief turn as a nightmarish hobo is far from the real horror of this film. This psychological thriller may be considered more drama/mystery than horror by some, but it is no less disturbing, which is why I included on here. An aspiring actress (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles and meets an amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring), and begins to help her put the pieces together about her identity. Fans of Lynch’s Twin Peaks will appreciate this mind-fuck of a mystery film that landed Lynch a coveted Best Director Oscar nomination.
The Others (2001)
This Alejandro Amenabar film is classically creepy storytelling at its finest. Nicole Kidman plays a woman who fears that her house may be invaded by paranormal intruders, along with her photo-sensitive children who bare some resentment toward her. Kidman gives one of her most poignant performances yet, even when her character is at her most unlikable. This poised haunted house tale flips the tropes of typical ghost story films on their heads, as a final twist (spoiler alert) within the third act reveals the actual ghostly dwellers of to be none other than the family of characters that we’ve been following all along. A particular scene involving a child wearing a veil, talking to Kidman from across the room, will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
The Ring (2002)
This American remake of the J-horror classic Ringu is surprisingly equally as effective, and scared the hell out of audiences– thanks to its creepy-crawly visuals and its main antagonist Samara, who seamlessly crawls out of television sets to contort her victims’ faces after “seven days” of messing with them. J-horror influence rocked Western audiences and grossed a $250 million box office lifespan from a $50 million budget. The Ring still holds up as one of the most nightmarish horror films of the early 21st century.
The Descent (2005)
Six badass women lead this all-female cast of friends that get trapped within a claustrophobic cave that dwells with disturbing humanoid monsters. The real brilliance, however, behind The Descent is its narrative through-line about a woman who is still dealing with her grief from losing her husband and daughter in a tragic accident, (as well as a painful betrayal from another member of the group of friends) so her buds plan a adventurous caving trip, to help her get out of her depression. The women rely on each other to survive the mess they find themselves in, while also questioning their loyalty within their relationships to each other, as their fates become increasingly hopeless. With an original ending that was deemed too bleak for American audiences, the British film leaves chills up your spine, as you realize that nobody is getting out of this situation unscathed.
The Orphanage (2007)
In this slow burn ghost story produced by Guillermo del Toro, we follow a woman named Laura (Belen Rueda) who returns to the orphanage in which she grew up in, in order to create happier memories for disabled children than the ones that she had when she was residing there as a child. After Laura realizes that the former orphanage is haunted by the spirits of several dead children, she discovers that her critically-ill son Simon has befriended a little boy ghost whose face is covered in a haunting mask made from a sack…and nothing good comes from a little dead boy wearing a sack mask. Simon then disappears, and Laura is forced to confront some truths, while she begins to think that the spirits are trying to help her find her son. The Orphanage is not for the casual horror fan, as it caters to more emotional, heart-wrenching horror than cheap thrills and blood.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
In this wonderfully fun and clever love letter to Halloween enthusiasts everywhere, Michael Dougherty’s anthology film Trick ‘r Treat introduced us to the ever-charming horror icon, Sam, who just wants everyone to respect the rules of Halloween, dammit, or he will viciously kill you. (Like I mentioned previously in The Orphanage, nothing good comes from a little boy demon/ghost wearing a sack as a mask.) Within this small Ohio town, interwoven stories– involving characters that are much different than the facades they wear in their daily lives– include a school principal that shadows as a secret local murderer, a woman who hates the holiday and tears down the decorations before the night is over, and a group of creepy-masked, mentally-challenged school children that die within a school bus crash are all cleverly connected through Sam. Many anthology films surrounding Halloween have been tolerable at the very least, but Trick ‘r Treat is truly special.
Let the Right One In (2008)
This beautiful, modern masterpiece is a coming-of-age vampire story on its exterior, but an allegory of outsider-ness and loneliness at its core. When a disturbed boy befriends a young vampire girl who happens to be his neighbor, the two bond over their love of the macabre, while falling into a deep devotion to each other, that is as touching as it is depressing. The cinematography is compelling, but the emotional arch that it provokes is what makes Let the Right One In a romantic vampire film for the ages.
Lake Mungo (2008)
Wow. I had never even heard of Lake Mungo until recently, which is a shame, considering its lasting impact on the viewer after watching. On its surface, this Australian festival darling is filmed documentary-style, mixing its found-footage qualities with too-close-for-comfort realism. A family is grieving after the tragic loss of their daughter, and believes that they may be experiencing paranormal entities within their home. Lake Mungo is a contained narrative of realistic grief that relies on atmosphere dread and sadness which undoubtedly influenced more recent films like The Babadook and Hereditary. Mungo will make you gasp and lose your breath after its twists and turns, with a conclusion that bears the possibility of losing sleep over.
The House of the Devil (2009)
This ’80s aesthetically-styled movie– from the opening credits with ’80s style font and synth music, to the acid washed jeans, to the battery-operated Walkman– is equally excellent at establishing backstory and characters, creating investment out of the viewer from the very first scene. After a shocking first act that kills off a seemingly important character, you continue to grow scared by the film’s lingering camera shots of the interiors of this hellish house, that gives off an iciness that never leaves you during its total runtime. Though some familiar horror topes and themes may run throughout (along with a somewhat questionable ending) The House of the Devil is very well made, and services as a reminder to never trust a stranger who offers you a light for your cigarette…
Noteworthy mentions: Rec, The Strangers, Paranormal Activity, Orphan, Session 9
2010s (thus far)
Sure, we still have to suffer through shitty remakes and CGI-ridden disasters, but in the 2010s, we’ve been experiencing an absolute renaissance of arthouse/”elevated” horror films. Recently, I have been overwhelmed at some of the modern masterpieces that have been coming out from year to year- some of which you’ve heard of, and others which you probably overlooked. I actually found it rather difficulty to narrowing it down to just 10. Currently, it is a great time to be a horror fan.
The Conjuring (2013)
For those of us that were turned off by his torture-pornish Saw franchise, James Wan redeemed himself in 2013 with his tour de force, The Conjuring. Modeling the cinematography, moodiness, and aesthetic after the films of the decade in which it takes place in (the ’70s), The Conjuring did something that so few movies of current times do: it utilized simplicity. Conjuring is a simplistic haunted house/possession story with characters that you care for and are concerned about throughout their long ordeal. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s loving, onscreen chemistry as the famous demonologist couple, the Warrens, is counterbalanced by some of the most frightening and horrific exorcism scenes– a few of which could even rival those from the mother of all possession moves, The Exorcist. Through its great use of sound effects, makeup, and imagery that will likely keep you up at night, the original Conjuring film is right up there on the list of one of the scariest movies of modern times.
The Babadook (2014)
A deeply emotionally-wrought and frightening look at the difficulties of parenthood and grief, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook uses the metaphor of the titular children’s book character to reflect upon a widowed wife/mother’s descent into insanity. Whether you are a parent or not, Essie Davis’s performance as Amelia is tangible and relatable, as her young son with ADHD forces her to question her ability to care for him– especially during the nail-biting crescendo, where Amelia is dangerously close to not being able to control her demons. Horror is one of the few genres that dares to go to the too-close-to-home places when it comes to the downsides of motherhood/parenthood that nobody prefers to think or talk about in real life, and this Australian gem is one of the most moving to date.
It Follows (2014)
This innovative and stylish horror hit about a supernatural death sentence that one contracts after having sex with a person who passes it onto them (but not necessarily a metaphor about sexually transmitted diseases) wowed critics and audiences alike with its brilliant camera work, its ’80s feel (that doesn’t feel cheap and gimmicky) and its haunting message that death is always closely following each of us. The death sentence– which can take the form of virtually anyone– ranges from the main protagonist’s father, to a friend, to a stranger, making the threat of death all the more terrifying. The technical aspects of the film are more interesting than the plot at times (just in my opinion) but the technical aspects are so impressive that you also feel paranoid in this fight against the death sentence, along with the protagonist– which you are, because we all are paranoid about our death sentences, when you think about it…
Goodnight Mommy (2015)
Some films aren’t always traditionally “scary” as they are eerily lingering, and this Austrian arthouse crawls under your skin and stays there. When a single mother comes home from having cosmetic work done on her face, her two twin sons are convinced that she is acting differently, even to the point that they start to think that it may not actually be their mother under those bandages. Contradicted by gorgeous shots of the Austrian countryside, Goodnight Mommy has no problem creeping you out with its grotesque visuals and use of space and tension, that makes the family’s stunning, modern home feel like Frankenstein’s castle. Sure, the “twist” of the film may be blatantly obvious within the first act, but that’s not necessarily supposed to be the shock of the film– instead, the shock comes from just how brutal young children can be, especially those who have gripes against their mothers. With an ending that (literally) stares at you through the screen, you will be left with chills on the back of your neck and with questions as to whether you really know the true identities of your family members like you think you do.
The Invitation (2015)
I find it frustrating that indie gems like Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation don’t receive the amount of attention they deserve. The Invitation introduces us to a man named Will (Logan Marshall-Green) pulling up to his former wife’s house for a dinner party in the Los Angeles hills (where all the weird shit happens). Will is immediately skeptical of the intentions of his ex-wife and her new husband, who have also invited about 7 or 8 of their other mutual friends– suspecting that they may be involved with a sinister “lifestyle” cult and possibly trying to recruit their guests to join as well. A slow burn that is so worth the wait towards the last 30 minutes, we learn more and more about the tragic loss of Will and his former spouse, as well as how much their grief has impacted them and pushed them into odd behaviors. The film also serves as a reminder of what awful things can happen in a social situation when people are too polite to speak up– even when they are confident that something weird is happening. The Invitation is so gripping and is by far one of the best films of the current decade.
The Witch (2016)
The Witch is cinematically beautiful, with its drab imagery and colors, (which makes the occasional shades of red within the bloody scenes pop) and its wide shots of scenic New England clouds. Ana Taylor-Joy plays oldest daughter Thomasin, whose younger siblings begin to accuse of witchcraft, and the drama/horror catapults from there. You find yourself unsure of which characters to root for and identify with initially, but as the story unfolds, you begin to realize who is flawed and who is really flawed, thanks to impeccable performances from its cast. The film’s themes of 1) worldly temptations/Adam and Eve allegories, 2) finding your identity as you grow up and start to wonder what else is out there, outside of your family, 3) roles of men and women in society/the demeaning of women, 4) and fundamental religious beliefs leading to paranoia and mass hysteria, linger far longer in your brain than this 93-minute art horror film would indicate.
Raw is the narrative of teenager Justine who, coming from a family of strict vegetarians, begins attending a veterinary school, where she is “forced” to engage in all sorts of weird and heinous hazing techniques as a newbie. Aside from being told that they have to look down as the elder students pass them in the halls to show their inferiority, Justine and the other freshman are forced to have blood poured all over their lab coats, as well as being pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney one day. From this point forward, Justine is changing before the audience’s eyes as she develops a craving for raw meat…and not necessarily for raw animal meat... This perfectly shot film becomes a subtle feminist conversation piece, as prevalent themes of female sexual liberation and embracing womanhood are vital throughout– which is remarkable for a genre of film that often seems to favor violent masculinity towards vulnerable female protagonists.
The Devil’s Candy (2017)
A young, struggling couple and their daughter move into a new house that may contain a dark past and satanic entities within its walls, as well as a stalker nearby who may have lived in the house prior to them. On the surface, it’s a haunted house story that has been told a thousand times before, but what makes the The Devil’s Candy so special is that you absolutely fall in love with this family. The dad and teenage daughter are crazy metalheads who bang their heads to Metallica in car rides, while the wife/mother is as supportive of a mom that anyone can hope for during trying circumstances. You find yourself audibly crying out, “Noooo!” whenever something horrific happens to any of the family members, making this an effective character-rich horror film, that happens to be as light-hearted in some moments as it is dark in others. Candy serves as a love letter for metalheads who love the horror genre (i.e. me), but anyone and everyone who watches will find themselves rooting for this family to come out of this house alive.
Get Out (2017)
A recent modern classic that had never been done in the same regard before, Jordan Peele’s debut Get Out put us in the shoes of the horrors of everyday life for an African-American protagonist. Between Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris being forced to sink into the floor and being silenced within the metaphorical Sunken Place, (symbolizing the historical silencing of African-Americans in regards to their speaking out against racism), to the scene of literal cotton-picking to help escape the film’s own version of slavery in its plot, to a black character hearing the ominous “Run, Rabbit, Run” from a car stereo before being ambushed and dragged against his will to a deliberatly-colored white car– the brilliance of Get Out lies in its intricately executed layers and Easter eggs. Jordan Peele is a tried and true screenwriter. Every minuscule detail in Get Out was obviously thought-out, creating a new surprise for each and every viewing after your first initial screening.
When we think of a familial construct, we’d (like) to associate it with support, communication, and love, but in Ari Aster’s masterful directorial debut, we follow the Graham family- a mother, husband, teenage son and daughter- who are haunted by the tragedies that have befallen them after their elusive grandmother has died. Inspired by some of the classics that came before it, Hereditary manages to draw artistic aspects from Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Shining, and The Exorcist. A brutal, yet poetic look at grief, parent/child relationships, betrayal, and figurative (and literal) demons that can be passed down from the generations before us, Hereditary even serves as a metaphor for mental illness running through a family– even though the members of the Graham family likely do not suffer from any mental illnesses, whatsoever. Meticulously shot, beautifully acted (hi, Toni Collette), and bone-chilling to its core long after the credits roll, Hereditary has crawled under my skin and remained there ever since my first watch. I pity those who did not understand this modern masterpiece.
Noteworthy 2010s mentions: Mandy, Super Dark Times, Hush, A Dark Song, You’re Next, Green Room, The Cabin in the Woods
Feel free to contact me about what you would have chosen. Thanks for looking. XO