Because of its intense and often visceral content, it’s rare for the horror genre to produce a critical favourite. Even when low key and lacking gore, like John Carpenter’s Halloween (will it appear on this list? Read on and find out! Oooh, the suspense!), the success of a horror movie can be heavily dependent on the viewers’ tastes: what scares one person might make another yawn. The horror films that do win over both audiences and reviewers at large tend to be few and far between, at times occurring only once a decade.
But when they happen, these favourites make a big splash, occasionally altering the landscape of their very genre and inspiring trends that can last for years. The kind folks at Rotten Tomatoes, a site which catalogues films based on how well they’re received by critics and the public, have provided us with the data needed to determine which movies in the history of horror cinema have been the most critically successful. To those unfamiliar with how the site works, Rotten Tomatoes compiles reviews by professional critics and calculates a “Freshness” rating based on how many of them have been positive. The higher the percentage, the more acclaimed the movie is.
10 The Blair Witch Project, 1999, 87% Fresh
Blair Witch was a massive success upon its 1999 release, making over $240 million to its $22,000 budget. It was largely the basis for the “found footage” subgenre that would emerge in its wake, most notably through the Spanish movie [REC] and its two sequels (three, as of later this year) and, of course, the entire Paranormal Activity franchise. Though the handheld cinematography prompted some motion sickness in its audiences, it was widely praised by critics, Roger Ebert chief among them. It was also one of the first films to be promoted virally, with trailers, posters and TV spots advertising the movie as something that actually happened and listing its stars as missing persons on IMDb until it hit theatres. It spawned a sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which was filmed in a more traditional fashion and received generally poor reviews (it’s 13% “Rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes).
9 The Exorcist, 1973, 88% Fresh
Considered the scariest movie by many even to this day, The Exorcist has shocked audiences since 1973. During its original run, some theatres provided the audience with barf bags in case they didn’t react too well to some of its scenes, which include unsettling noise, contortionism and… other things we won’t mention here. Though some decried its grotesquery, such as Vincent Canby of The New York Times, others applauded it—Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic said it would “scare the @#!*%” out of viewers. It won Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Editing, and received a host of nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Friedkin) and acting nods for Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller.
8 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974, 91%
Despite what its title might lead you to think, Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a gory film. Disturbing, yes. Intense, most definitely. But in terms of violence, this low budget film might seem tame to those used to splatter flicks like Saw or even the plethora of slasher films of the ’80s, relying more on implication than an abundance of blood and gore (SPOILER: only one character is killed by a chainsaw). While its initial critical reaction was mixed—Roger Ebert gave it two stars, saying that while it was well made it was nonetheless too gruesome—it has more recently been praised for its realism and nightmarishness.
7 The Fly, 1986, 91%
As emotional as it is disturbing, David Cronenberg’s creative retelling of The Fly portrayed the gradual and tragic transformation of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) after accidentally incorporating a housefly into his DNA during a teleportation experiment. One of the most famous “body horror” films, a niche genre that Cronenberg helped to popularize, it utilized heavy makeup, including full body prosthetics, to portray Brundle’s evolution from human to disgusting fly-man-hybrid. Goldblum’s performance was not inhibited by his makeup, and he earned widespread critical respect, though unfortunately it did not manifest in a Best Actor Oscar or even a nomination.
6 The Shining, 1980, 92% Fresh
Perhaps the movie industry’s biggest iconoclast, Stanley Kubrick tackled many genres over the course of his decades-long career, including war films (Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket), historical fiction (Barry Lyndon), sci fi (2001: A Space Odyssey) and… weird stuff (Lolita). He ventured into horror territory with his 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining—though King has repeatedly voiced his qualms about the accuracy of said translation. Regardless of how the author feels, not to mention a mixed early reception, Kubrick’s take on The Shining is now regarded as a seminal horror movie, appearing on various American Film Institute lists that catalogue villains, quotes and scares. In fact, in 2004 mathematicians at King’s College in London named it the perfect scary movie based on its equilibrium of realism, gore, number of people, among other factors.
5 Halloween, 1978, 94% Fresh
Though some credit should be given to the Canadian movie Black Christmas, released four years prior, John Carpenter’s Halloween for all intense and porpoises created the slasher genre, pitting a group of young women against a mute, masked killer. In this case, the antagonist in question was the eerie Michael Myers, whose almost subliminal appearances early on in the movie foreshadow his stealthy, deadly manner at its climax. Roger Ebert gave it a full four stars in his original review, comparing it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Others, like The Village Voice’s Tom Allen, praised Carpenter’s point-of-view camerawork. Unlike its imitators, such as Friday the 13th and its numerous sequels, Halloween avoided explicit depictions of violence and, relying on tension and atmosphere, is less of a slasher than the slasher films it inspired.
4 Dawn of the Dead, 1978, 95% Fresh
George A. Romero’s second entry in his Living Dead series might not have be as recognized as its predecessor, Night of the Living Dead, but from its 1978 release until now it was received a large amount of acclaim for its surprisingly satirical content, using the mindlessness of its zombie antagonists to lampoon American culture, consumerism especially. All this from one of the most disturbingly gory films of its time.
3 The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, 95% Fresh
While Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel didn’t actually introduce audiences to Hannibal Lecter (Michael Mann’s Manhunter did that in 1986 with Brian Cox in the part), it certainly made him a household name and earned Anthony Hopkins his first Oscar. It also netted Jodie Foster a Best Actress Academy Award, plus Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was pretty well received, all in all. Apart from its top notch performances, Demme’s intimate choice of framing and a—then—realistic depiction of serial killers, it also ruined Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” for everyone.
2 A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984, 96% Fresh
Released when the slasher craze was at its height, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street infused the subgenre with fantastical elements. It introduced to the horror pantheon Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a spectral murderer who pursues and kills his victims in their dreams. Apart from getting good grades all around, it introduced a young Johnny Depp to movie audiences. Nightmare was followed by numerous sequels, including a crossover with Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th series and a remake.
1 Alien, 1979, 97% Fresh
Though sci fi in its setting and premise, Alien owes far more to movies like Halloween or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than it does to Star Trek or Forbidden Planet. The 1979 film, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator), was unprecedented in its gritty depiction of space travel, and utilized a small cast, claustrophobic environments and a creature with a violent lifecycle to wow audiences and critics worldwide. Even 35 years after its release, the film’s gory “chestburster” scene still shocks audiences. The movie made extensive use of the artwork of H.R. Giger, who won an Oscar for Visual Effects for his contributions, and propelled Sigourney Weaver to stardom (she would later be nominated for Best Actress in Alien’s 1986 sequel, Aliens).