It’s that time of year again. The time around Halloween. The perfect time to watch horror films. Well, anytime is a good time, but they seem particularly effective during this time of year.
There are endless amounts of horror movies out there, and chances are, you’ve seen a lot of them. So this is a list of classic horror films that you don’t want to miss out on if you’re a true horror fan, or really if you just want to be a cultured individual. Let’s face it, everyone’s missed out on some very famous movies and that’s okay. There are so many it’s hard to keep up. It’s infuriating when people act like you’re crazy for not having seen something. Have they seen every movie that’s important to you? Probably not. So we want to tell you that it’s okay. And, we’ve got your back when it comes to your horror movie ‘must watch’ list.
The movies on this list span the years 1960-1990, and so were released at a time when many young people of today didn’t even exist or were too young to appreciate the genre. So, we’ve compiled a list for people just looking to watch a classic horror movie this Halloween; or whenever. The classics. A list of must watch films for every horror fan. So check and see if you’ve seen all of these, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Note: These films are not ranked in any order. They are all equally awesome.
15. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
As far as horror comedies go, this is surely one of the greatest. In it, two young American men are attacked by a werewolf while vacationing in England. One of them is killed and the other is infected. In the reality of this movie, the dead friend cannot rest until the bloodline of the werewolf who attacked him is completely wiped out, and so he appears to his friend in various states of decay to try and warn him. This aspect even led the film to receive the Oscar for Best Makeup in its first available year.
Directed by John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), the movie always maintains a healthy tongue-in-cheek vibe, and some stretches of time can make you forget it’s even a horror film. But a combination of scary nightmare sequences and dramatic tension make it surprisingly effective. In fact, it really hits home when it comes to self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
14. Alien (1979)
This movie blends the genres of horror and sci-fi perfectly, but in the end, its strength is suspense and outright terror. In some ways it could be considered a thoughtful person’s horror film, as its premise looks at the sacrifice of human lives for the sake of a larger goal.
Really, though, this movie is the perfect exercise in starting out at a slow pace and then exploding into a completely terrifying situation. In terms of bodily horror alone, it’s a nightmare to watch. Then, it expertly conveys the feeling of being trapped and completely hopeless. While these elements will have you yelling at the screen by the end, it does it all without sacrificing perfectly conveyed sci-fi elements. Throw into that one of the best female protagonists ever (Sigourney Weaver), and you’ve got yourself an all around win.
13. The Exorcist (1973)
It’s been called the scariest movie of all time by some, and we can imagine that’s true depending on your worldview. But whether you believe in the reality of demonic possession or not, this movie can be hard to watch. The supernatural subgenre of horror is exceedingly commonplace today and it’s one of the most effective— since it’s not confined at all by things of this world. But the attention to detail in this film, from some expertly composed imagery (as in the still above) to the great makeup and special effects (of the time, at least), is what really makes it stand out. What’s more, a huge part of the film is just dealing with the possession and the unsuccessful attempts of the priests to cast the demon out. Many horror films resolve events rather quickly, whether the outcome is good or bad. To sit with the situation is much, much worse.
To see someone’s humanity completely overthrown by something within is a chilling concept. The fact that it’s an innocent child makes it even more so. And whether that sounds overdone or is your favorite type of scary, you owe it to yourself to watch the genesis.
12. The Evil Dead (1981)
When talking about low budget, campy horror films, The Evil Dead is the master of them all. Set in a cabin in the woods where a group of friends awakens supernatural forces, the movie is well aware of the absurdity and extremity of its premise, and uses this fact to great effect.
There’s a lot to love here— the movie bounces back and forth between legitimate suspense and over the top, cheaply produced gore and special effects seamlessly. The acting is purposefully over the top as well. It’s just really hard not to enjoy. There’s a lot of crazy events that take place and the movie does a lot with the few resources it has. We’re not going to spoil anything if you haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say it induces shock and laughing and embraces each outrageous plot point with a lot of heart. This movie is in many ways what the horror movie experience is all about, and it’s essential viewing.
11. Misery (1990)
This one’s worth watching for the performance of Kathy Bates alone. But James Caan does a great job also. Bates won an Oscar, though, and it has to be one of the most deserving wins. Bates plays a woman who rescues her favorite writer from a car accident— with no intention of ever letting him go. As you and the prisoner realize that she’s a psychopath of the highest order, the sense of claustrophobia and suspense skyrockets. There’s something extremely terrifying about watching a movie about a person who could actually exist. There’s also a scene that involves “hobbling” (Google it, you’ll thank us) and it alone gives this movie a place on this list. It’s just one of the hardest things to watch, period. Overall, she’s scarier than a lot of things in horror films, especially monsters and the like. This is the first film on the list to deal solely with a human element, and it’s awful imagining what it would be like in the novelist’s shoes.
10. The Fly (1986)
The body horror present in this film really makes Alien look tame. Yes, having a creature feed off of you and then burst from your chest is bad, but you’re unconscious most of the time and then succumb to a brief, though terrible, demise. The Fly has us watch Jeff Goldblum slowly transform into a disgusting hybrid creature, and it’s legitimately gut-wrenching.
The premise is that a scientist creates a teleportation device which he tests effectively, not knowing that there was a fly in the pod with him that is now fused to him genetically. The film won an Oscar for its makeup and the end result of the scientist’s life is absolutely revolting. But more than that, it’s incredibly sad. In one of his best performances, Goldblum gives us a main character who’s quirky but charismatic, someone we definitely have sympathy for. And how could we not, when the fate that befalls him is surely one of the most tragic things imaginable?
9. Halloween (1978)
This film was a huge cultural landmark and an extreme financial success, grossing a worldwide total of $70 million on a budget of $300,000. Based around the return of escaped mental patient Michael Myers, it’s credited by many as the starting point for the slasher subgenre, which would go on to have a huge place in horror cinema for the next several decades. Myers would also become one of the most iconic horror figures of all time.
Dealing with things like voyeurism and the immorality of youth, the movie helped to establish tropes found in countless horror films thereafter. Carpenter’s direction and score as well as the relatively low level of gore make the movie more about the terror of being stalked and marked for death; not to mention by someone whose motivation doesn’t really matter and will kill at any cost.
8. Friday the 13th (1980)
This movie was made as a direct response to the success of Halloween, one of many films produced with the realization that low budget slasher movies had the potential to make a very large amount of money. As such, many reviewers at the time found it to be too violent and artistically worthless just like Halloween, but also more soulless and just a less notable effort.
But something sets it apart, as it sticks firmly in the public consciousness of horror classics. It even created another of the most iconic slashers, Jason Voorhees, who has been included in countless sequels and crossovers. Perhaps it’s the fact that it makes use of the POV shot so heavily or leaves you really guessing as to who the killer is. There are also a lot of camp counselors to kill, and so a lot more violence and chances for variable deaths. Whatever the case, it’s important, iconic and a good one to watch.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
One of the earliest entries on the list, you might think the still above looks a little silly by today’s standards. Maybe, but this movie literally invented the modern day conception of zombies. It was made for pennies in a time when producing an independent film (let alone a successful one) was much harder work than it is today.
Its plot introduced tropes so present in zombie flicks since then that they might even seem banal. People trapped inside hordes of slow moving, reanimated corpses, and the relationships of survivors as a microcosm and commentary on society are things that owe a huge debt to this movie and director George A. Romero. At the time, the level of gore in the film was denounced by many, so if nothing else, it’s a worthwhile watch for cultural enrichment, and just to thank it for its part in letting horror movies get more and more disgusting and spine-chilling.
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This film works on so many levels. You might be surprised to find that it’s at times a bit like an art film, with shots of animals ready for the slaughter to foreshadow the movie’s main events. Still, the scariest element of this movie is its complete lack of reason. Many horror films, as terrifying as they are, portray events tied to some sort of rationale. Maybe the antagonist is getting revenge or there’s an indication that the victims in some way deserve their fate, for example. You won’t find that here. It’s just a family of cannibals and a chainsaw wielding maniac that kills and kills (not even for pleasure, but more just as a function of his existence).
It’s simply a very raw, realistic horror film. We talked about how Halloween helped to establish the slasher genre in a proper sense, but really, this movie did it first. Like many of these films, it was banned in many places at many different times because of its portrayal of violence. But watching it now, it still shows much less than a lot of modern, gory horror films. And perhaps it was banned, then, because the realism and vivacity of the little violence shown is more terrifying than any gore fest ever could be.
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
One of the ultimate exercises in suspense and dread, Rosemary’s Baby is one of those rare horror films that shows you almost nothing. In fact, a vast majority of the movie has you sequestered away in an apartment with Rosemary, whose pregnancy is taking an unnatural toll on her body. This isn’t a bad thing, though— Mia Farrow gives an excellent performance that carries the psychological weight of the film.
The movie depicts Rosemary being raped by the devil in a dreamlike sequence. She doesn’t think that anything has actually happened, and though at times this may seem woefully naive, it’s also reasonable. Would you believe someone saying they were possibly carrying the devil’s child? The movie plays with this reality and at points leaves the viewer guessing too, but the notion of using someone as a vessel and the premeditation of the horror is the truly disturbing part.
4. The Shining (1980)
As with all Kubrick films, this one is defined much more by his artistic vision than by the genre. It’s also one of the best horror films of all time. If you haven’t seen The Shining, you’ve surely heard of it. In fact, you may have even seen memorable, beautifully composed stills from it like the one above. Why don’t more movies do that? Frustrating, but best left for another discussion.
Kubrick’s meticulous direction, cinematography, and a certain undefinable hypnotic quality achieved by a combination of all of those things aren’t even the only good parts. Jack Nicholson turns in one of his most explosive and memorable performances, the child actor is impressive, and Shelley Duvall was made to do so many takes of scenes that her frantic frustration and terror isn’t even acting.
The craziest thing is that the movie’s reception was rather lukewarm at first. King was famously not a fan of the adaptation, and to be fair, it did stray from the book quite a bit. But that’s what an adaptation is, and when you go see a movie and think it’s not as good as the book it’s probably because the filmmaker just tried to translate it exactly. Except, oh wait, it’s an entirely different medium.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This movie has such a cool concept. The “slasher” in the movie is outright supernatural, and stalks you in your dreams. Oh, and if you die in your dream, you die in real life.
Because the movie sets this up right from the start, it can toy with the audience’s perception immediately. So much of the story involves dream sequences that it quickly becomes difficult to separate fiction from reality, which is what the victims are trying to do throughout the whole movie. In Halloween, Michael Myers is shown to be a killer who can’t die, but it’s not really explained. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy also can’t die, but might just be a psychological manifestation of terror, since technically the most scary parts of the movie are taking place within the main characters’ minds. The premise just leads to such an interesting (and creepy) viewing experience. How can you possibly escape a killer like that? Combine this with some outrageous deaths (like Johnny Depp‘s), and you’ve got one of the best horror films of all time.
2. Psycho (1960)
It’s the oldest movie on the list, and the progenitor of so, so many others. If you by chance haven’t seen this movie, you really should. It’s okay, but you absolutely need to.
This movie was made a couple of decades before the slasher film had even been mentioned in any sort of real way, but by most accounts retrospectively it’s the first one. But it’s so much more. While later slashers would often be characterized as faceless killers with little character development, this movie was all about violence, voyeurism, and perverse sexuality. Made by the master of suspense himself (Alfred Hitchcock), it was originally thought to be exploitative and an odd deviation from his other work.
You probably know about the shower scene and the classic score, but as an examination of a truly disturbed psyche, this movie is creepy, horrifying, and intelligent all at once. And that’s why the earliest film on this list showed us, without a doubt, that it’s not what happens that scares us, but rather the psychological implications.
1. Evil Dead II (1987)
Some people prefer it to the original. Regardless of your opinion, it simply took what made the first one great and gave you more of the same. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying the franchise in any way, what makes them great is that they are quite simply the best blend of horror and hilarity there is.
One of the reasons the movie holds up so well when compared to its predecessor is that it was made on a budget of $3.6 million, a huge sum when compared to the budget of Evil Dead. This means that the campy special effects and gore are even more extreme. The acting is equally over the top, and the events that occur are surprising and absurd. It’s not easy to make something that accomplishes these things well. While it rehashes a lot of the same things, that’s okay, because we just want to keep seeing more and more.