There are few things better than watching horror movies late at night. There is a thrill to turning off all the lights and sitting back with a drink and a snack as the most frightening images ever put on film flicker on your TV. Alone or in a group, horror movies can leave you filled with dread.
Still, not all horror movies are created equal. While we can all agree that Rosemary’s Baby is sure to make you uneasy, we must also admit that Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation is comically bad (sorry Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger). Even some of the classics have lost their edge over the years; when it came out, Universal’s Frankenstein had people screaming in the theaters, but today most audiences would snicker at it. They would be wrong to snicker – the movie is amazing – but the aesthetics of horror have changed so much in the last 90 years that Boris Karloff’s version of The Monster just doesn’t have the same impact anymore.
So what horror movies do hold up? Which ones will still leave you shivering late at night, questioning every sound you hear as you lay in bed, begging the universe to let that just be a loose pipe and not a crazed maniac coming to murder you in your sleep? Which fright fests can still make us fearful of demons and ghosts, even though science has assured us that such things don’t exist? Here, to help you stay up all night fearing for your life, are 20 of the scariest, most unsettling movies ever made.
20. Last House On The Left (1972)
Raised in a strict Baptist household, Wes Craven didn’t grow up with movies and TV. It wasn’t until he was in his teens that he finally saw a movie, and the experience changed his life. While he made his living as a teacher, Craven started to make short films with a 16mm camera he bought.
After spending some time working behind the scenes on adult films, Craven decided he was ready to make his directorial debut and, teaming up with Sean S. Cunningham (who would later create the Friday the 13th franchise) Wes Craven made one of the most disturbing films of all time.
With a story inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Last House on the Left is a brutal story about two middle-class teens who head into Manhattan for a concert and end up trapped in a living hell that spreads to one of their homes.
Last House on the Left was so terrifying, with its in-your-face reality of the horrors that regular humans can create, that is was banned in multiple countries and made it onto the UK’s list of video nasties – seventy-two movies that were considered so disgusting that people who owned them or showed them would be issued a fine.
19. It Follows
According to the Center for Disease Control, more than a hundred million residents of the United States have a sexually transmitted disease, and that number goes up by an average of fifteen million every year. From herpes to AIDS, the world is quickly becoming a petri dish of nasty sex ailments, and it is this fear that It Follows plays on.
In the movie, a person can be infected with a sexually transmitted virus that sends Death after them. Literally, Death will pop up and come after them – though it doesn’t look like a dude in a cloak; Death takes the forms of regular people hoping to sneak up on its victim.
The only way to escape Death is to spread the infection to someone else, and even then it is just a short respite from living in endless fear of those around you – once Death has caught the person you spread the infection to, it turns its attention back to you.
What makes It Follows get under your skin is just how perfect the allegory is. You can’t shake the movie’s premise after you’ve seen it because in truth, Death is following each of us, and sooner or later it will catch you.
With 1931’s Dracula, Tod Browning did something that many directors were struggling with at the time – he effortlessly moved from silent films to “talkies.” Dracula was a smash hit, starting the age of the classic Universal Monsters movies that would span nearly 30 years.
Browning would take the clout he gained from Dracula to make a project that everyone knew was a bad idea – Freaks. The movie, based on the short story Spurs by Clarence Aaron Robbins, Freaks told the tale of a group of carnival sideshow performers who, after learning that two “normals” are looking to kill one of their own, attack the evil couple and turn one of them into a freak.
Browning used real sideshow performers with actual deformities for the stars of his movie and didn’t hold back on the creepy factor. Audiences in 1932 weren’t ready to accept the metaphor of Freaks and after test screenings, MGM, the studio releasing the film, demanded that nearly thirty minutes be cut from the film.
17. Cannibal Holocaust
You know a horror movie is going to be good if the director was put on trial for murdering the cast, and that is exactly what you get with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust.
The movie, one of the earliest examples of found footage, follows the story of an American documentary film crew that heads into the Amazon to get some footage of a cannibal tribe. As you can imagine, things don’t go well, with the film crew being taken captive by the cannibals who then torture and eat them.
A week after Cannibal Holocaust premiered in Milan, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity, and the local magistrate demanded that all copies of the film be handed over to the authorities for destruction. To make matters worse, Deodato was then charged with murder – as part of the promotion for the movie, the studio wanted to make people think it was really a documentary, so the cast was under strict orders to keep out of sight for at least a year. Deodato had to go to court to prove that the actors weren’t dead before the murder charges would be dropped.
16. The Shining
Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, The Shining is a movie all about creepy feelings, spooky moments, and insanity. The basic concept itself – being stuck in a hotel for months on end with only two other people (and one of them being a kid) is enough to make anyone uneasy – the sense of isolation would be overbearing – but add in creepy ghosts and psychic powers and you have a really bad winter on your hands.
Kubrick’s eye for detail and impeccable cinematography creates a world that is sterile and cold that, when mixed with Nicholson’s constant fury as Jack Torrance, creates an atmosphere of dread that will leave you spooked for days.
15. Halloween (1978)
With ten movies (and an eleventh on the way) that have filled the story of Michael Myers with lots of weird cults and family issues, it can be easy to forget what made John Carpenter‘s classic so good – the simplicity of it.
It is the simple horror movies that stick with us the most because they are the ones that seem the most possible, and in the original Halloween, there is no simpler a story. On Halloween night in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers picked up a knife from the kitchen, headed upstairs to his sister’s room, and brutally murdered her. Fifteen years later, Michael would escape from the institution that held him and terrorize the town of Haddonfield once again.
In the sequels, we would learn that Laurie Strode – played by Jamie Lee Curtis – is Michael’s sister. We would learn that Michael was inflicted by a Druid curse called Thorn. We would learn a lot of stuff that made Michael way less creepy. But in the original, there is no explanation for why Michael is filled with the need to kill, and that makes him all the more terrifying.
14. Paranormal Activity
Not unlike Halloween, Oren Peli‘s found footage film Paranormal Activity would become diluted with each sequel, but the original is still endlessly freaky. It also stands out as a testament to the idea that you don’t need much to make a good horror movie. Filmed with a budget of just fifteen thousand dollars, Paranormal Activity would scare up nearly two hundred million at the box office.
The movie, set entirely in a single home, spends a great deal of its run time showing us a couple sleeping at night, and the tension that these scenes create is nearly unbearable. The scares work because we don’t know what to expect or when to expect them. More to it, the couple are two people we connect to – we feel like they are real. They are so real that many people who saw the movie in theaters believed it was all true.
13. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven is the only filmmaker to show up on this list twice, that’s how good he was.
With Last House on the Left, Craven showed us a vision of realistic horror – normal people doing terrible things. With A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven took a true story about Southeast Asian refugees who were terrified to sleep, and with good reason – three of them had died while having nightmares. Craven took the article he read in the LA Times and mixed in a childhood memory of a man he saw from his bedroom window one night to create one of the most iconic film characters of all time, Freddy Krueger.
In the movie, Freddy Krueger is a child murderer who was killed by the parents of Elm Street. Now, Freddy’s spirit is entering the dreams of the children of Elm Street and killing them in horrific ways.
Just how scary was Jaws when it came out? Beaches saw a drop in visitors because everyone was positive a shark would eat them or their kids.
With his movie based on Peter Benchley’s novel, Steven Spielberg created generations of kids who are terrified of the open seas. No matter how many statistics we see about the rarity of shark attacks on humans, you can’t go into the ocean and not have a little bit of worry that a great white is going to gobble you up.
Add in John Williams‘ music, with that simple yet endlessly creepy “dun dum” beat and you have a movie that will stick in your mind for all time.
Part of what makes Jaws work so well is that the animatronic shark, nicknamed Bruce, didn’t work very well, so Spielberg and his crew had to come up with inventive ways to tell us danger was near, including showing us scenes from the shark’s POV.
11. Psycho (1960)
In 1960, acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock took Robert Bloch’s book and created one of the most famous horror movies of all time, Psycho.
The movie, all about a young man who just can’t seem to break away from his mother’s iron grip, is endlessly tense and filled with disturbing moments. The story was so disturbing that Paramount Pictures, who Hitchcock was under contract with, refused to make it. Still, Hitchcock knew that this story could be a masterpiece, and so he funded the film himself, using the crew from his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to make the movie for less than a million dollars.
While the reviews were mixed upon release, Psycho was a massive hit with audiences, making fifty million dollars at the box office and becoming Hitchcock’s best-known film. The shower scene, which has been homaged in countless films, is a masterclass in editing. Psycho is also the first American film to show a toilet, which shocked audiences at the time almost as much as all the murders in the movie.
10. Pet Sematary
To be honest, most of Pet Sematary, based on the novel by Stephen King, isn’t very scary. Well, it is scary, but it isn’t the kind of scary that keeps you up at night. Sure, Miko Hughes is creepy as the undead Gage Creed, and his whole style and look would end up being the go -to form for creepy kids in movies for years, but it isn’t enough to give you nightmares.
But then there’s the character of Zelda, the girl suffering from spinal meningitis. To bring out the irrational fear that we can feel from seeing people with very real, very terrible illnesses, director Mary Lambert cast Andrew Hubatsek to play the teenage girl. Hubatsek’s performance, along with the amazing makeup work, will take days to leave your mind. You’ll close your eyes and see Zelda coming towards you, and suddenly, pulling an all-nighter watching episodes of Parks and Rec seems like a great idea.
While some would argue over Deliverance being categorized as a horror movie, it is hard to ignore the horrors that the movie shows.
Based on James Dickey’s novel of the same name and directed by John Boorman, Deliverance turned Burt Reynolds into a movie star, but the movie is best remembered today for turning Eric Weissberg’s song Dueling Banjos into an omen of terrible things that can only happen in the woods.
The movie, about four city slickers who head off for a vacation in the Georgia wilderness that turns into a nightmare of survival, male rape, and murder, was a massive critical and box office success. Today it serves as a reminder of the dangers of being a real jerk to small town locals.
8. Maniac (1980)
While monsters, vampires, and zombies are plenty creepy, there’s nothing more horrifying than regular guys and gals becoming horrific killers. The idea that within each of us there is something that can just snap – that the person standing behind you in line at your favorite coffee spot could well have a human head sitting in their freezer – is endlessly frightening.
William Lustig’s 1980 film Maniac, starring the great Joe Spinell (who also co-wrote the screenplay) is exactly that kind of scary. The movie, which follows a lonely man in New York who can’t get past his mother’s death and kills women before adding them to his mannequin collection, is endlessly disturbing because, unlike other horror movies about serial killers, this one is from the point of view of the killer.
Maniac was remade in 2011 with Elijah Wood taking on the main role of Frank Zito. While the remake isn’t as great as the original, it is well worth watching.
7. Silence Of The Lambs
Horror movies don’t get much love when it comes to awards, but every now and again, one of them will be so amazing that the Academy can’t ignore it. With Jonathan Demme‘s Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and Ted Levine, that is exactly what happened.
Based on Thomas Harris’ novel, Silence of the Lambs tells the intense story of FBI agent Clarice Starling as she hunts down the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. To help her better understand the man she is hunting, Clarice meets with jailed serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter to get a better understanding of the mind of a killer.
If you think about it, Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott‘s Alien shouldn’t keep us up at night fearing for our lives, what with it taking place both in the future and in space, and yet the movie’s titular character – designed by Swiss artist H. R. Giger – is so creepy that you can’t get it out of your mind.
Alien plays so well on the fear we all feel over the unknown that from the second the crew of the Nostromo makes a quick stop on LV-426, we all get the wiggins. Once the facehugger shows up, the idea of sleeping soundly is out the door. As we watch Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, and the rest of the crew deal with not only a crazy killer alien but also an android with the express direction of his masters to get a living alien back to Earth, we can’t help but get freaked out way more than we probably should.
5. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer
While he is best known for playing Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy, Michael Rooker first made his mark playing Henry in the shockingly brutal cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
John McNaughton’s movie, loosely based on real life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, is so violent and so unrelenting in its brutality that the MPAA gave the film an X rating and made it clear that no amount of editing would get the picture down to an R. Along with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer lead to the MPAA creating a new rating – NC-17 – for movies that were not of the X-rated adult fare, but were still too much for an R.
The sheer horrors on display in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer will embed themselves into your brain, refusing to leave. You’ll mark your life in terms of BH and AH – Before Henry and After Henry.
4. We Need To Talk About Kevin
Starring Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a dark, nearly unbearable film about the mother of a boy who killed multiple people at his school.
The movie, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver and directed by Lynne Ramsay is not easy to sit through. The movie isn’t filled with blood and gore, so that isn’t the issue here – it is that it takes a look at a woman who, in dealing with the horrors her son has committed, looks back at how she raised him and the mistakes she made. While the story isn’t based on any true events, it is hard to separate it from the reality of school shootings that have plagued the US in recent years. To focus on the parents of the child or children responsible puts the viewer in an odd position where we are both empathetic towards them and at the same time filled with rage that they did nothing to stop the horror that ensued.
Loosely based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, Gus Van Sant‘s Elephant follows the lives of multiple high school students going about their day, completely unaware of the horrors they are about to face. The movie was praised by critics for its handling of the events – Van Sant chose to keep away from the more normal Hollywood format for showing violence and instead focused on the reactions of those in the school.
For a brief period, the film was blamed for the 2005 Red Lake shootings committed by 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise. Weise had watched Elephant a few weeks before he murdered seven people and wounded five more before taking his own life.
Elephant is the second in Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” which includes the films Gerry and Last Days, the latter of which is based on the life and death of Kurt Cobain.
2. The Strangers
Starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, The Strangers is loosely based on two events – the Manson murders and a series of break-ins that occurred in the neighborhood of writer/director Bryan Bertino when he was a child.
The movie, about a couple who are terrorized by three masked killers, is filled with so much tension and straight up horror that it is nearly impossible to watch at times. Adding to the massive amounts of fright built up by the creepy masks and evil events is the reason the three killers give as to why they chose the couple: “You were home.”
The Strangers is the kind of movie that, if you watch it home alone at night, the chances of getting any sleep goes out the window. The idea of three random people showing up at your home and torturing you is unlikely, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening.
1. The Exorcist
When 12-year-old Regan becomes possessed by a demon called Pazuzu, it takes two priests to save her life and in the process they give up much of themselves.
William Friedkin’s film, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty (who also wrote the screenplay) is sure to be on any list of scary movies. The Exorcist, which turned Linda Blair into a horror icon, also starred Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother along with Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller as the priests who come to save the child.
When it was first released, some theater owners supplied barf bags for the audience, fearing that the images of the film would make people physically ill. While there is little documentation to prove the stories as true, it is said that multiple people suffered heart attacks while watching the movie during its original theatrical release.
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