The phrase “art is subjective” really seems to hit home with the horror genre as much as any other type of movie. What makes a great horror movie? Is it the one that scares us the most? The one that has the best performances or best direction and cinematography? Is it the goriest or the one with the best practical effects? Or is it the best one at using horror elements to comment on the social issues of its time? The answer is simply yes. Yes to all because horror is subjective. We can count the beats, the number of jump scares and rate the overall quality of the film, but ultimately what makes a great horror movie is its effectiveness on the viewer.
So, to determine what I feel are the best of the best horror films of all time, I set a few rules for myself. Of course, critical reception, importance to and influence on the genre were part of the process. I also limited myself to only one movie from an original series so I wouldn’t put all the Friday the 13th films on here. I did allow myself to add remakes and a film from a rebooted series, however. The last and most important rule is simply my personal freakin preference.
This is the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time!
20. Poltergeist (1982)
Regardless of who did or did not direct Poltergeist, it gets the recognition of not only being one of the scariest PG movies ever but also helped create the PG-13 rating. It is home to some of the best horror set-pieces with the swimming pool full of corpses, the possessed tree, the face peeling and the clown doll that has haunted many people’s nightmares for years. Incredible practical effects and solid performance combined with some of the most iconic moments, shots and quotes make this easily one of the best horror movies ever made.
Horror fans or not, everyone has quoted a line or knows what this film is based on some of its images. “They’re here!” “This house is clean.” Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg were able to create one of the best-haunted house movies that all time.
19. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
If I could only watch one werewolf movie for the rest of my life it would be this one. An American Werewolf in London is the definitive werewolf movie mainly due to the stellar makeup effects by Rick Baker (who won an Academy Award for his work on the film) and the fact it is the most entertaining werewolf film in existence. Director John Landis masterfully blended horror, comedy, and tragedy while borrowing elements from previous werewolf films but managed to deliver something original and memorable.
I will forever talk about what impact the transformation sequence had on me as a kid. I had seen many horror movies before An American Werewolf in London and I just always knew it was a guy in a mask and the blood wasn’t real but here was different. This wasn’t some cool transition or cutting and showing the next phase each time. This looked so real that I remember inching closer to the tv to see what was happening. This looked like it hurt, and you could feel David’s pain. The suffering culminates in a brief yet awe-inspiring rampage through the streets of London that harken back to classic monster movies like King Kong.
18. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Not only is this my favorite zombie movie of all time but it is one of the most influential zombie films as well. We all know about a certain movie that created the zombie subgenre and what it meant to horror movies overall, however, The Return of the Living Dead would be a game-changer for the future of the genre. It would introduce fast movie zombies who could function outside the base animal instincts of just devouring people. ROTLD would also introduce one of the most iconic zombie traits that everyone and their momma have either imitated or at least seen someone act like a zombie and say “braaaaiinnsss!”
Writer/Director David O’bannon drew a lot of inspiration from Romero’s classic but added in some defining attributes of his own while plugging into the 80’s punk rock style perfectly. We got some tremendous performances, a fantastic soundtrack, gnarly practical effects and one of the best horror comedies of all time. Combine all that with its influences on the next generation of zombie films and you have one of the best horror movies ever. Oh, and let’s not forget that it also gave us one of the greatest horror characters in Trash.
17. Let the Right One In (2008)
The story focuses on an outcast and disturbed 12-year-old boy Oskar, who bonds with his new neighbor, Eli, an enchanting immortal in a child’s body with an unquenchable thirst for human blood. The oddball duo learns to trust and love each other over macabre obsessions and sharing deep secrets. With this devotion comes complications and its beauty comes from the emotions it evokes between tenderness and horror.
The adaptation from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is a mature and intellectual spin on immortality, bloodlust and the need to belong. Director Thomas Alfredson‘s 2008 masterpiece a vampire film unlike any before it, Let the Right One In is one of those rare horror movies that push the boundaries of genre and escalates it to new heights. The movie is gorgeous as we see shots of snow-covered Stockholm with incredible performances from the young leads Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. Be sure to check out Matt Reeves’ 2011 remake if you haven’t already. It’s a surprisingly great adaptation of the story.
16. Scream (1996)
It’s safe to say that the horror genre needed a real shot in the arm by the time the mid-’90s rolled around. Veteran scare lord Wes Craven had already reinvented the slasher film years earlier with the brilliant A Nightmare on Elm Street, and now he’d all but destroy the sub-genre with a knowing, winking, and consistently clever horror-comedy smash entitled Scream. Not only is the film legitimately scary, but it’s also unexpectedly funny, and of course it’s a massive treat for anyone who has seen enough slasher flicks to know the “unwritten rules” by heart.
The opening scene alone is enough to help Scream make any top 100 horror list combined with the use of cell phones, some great kills, and gore, the who is the killer mystery, one of the best final girls of all time and you get a fantastic horror movie. Scream would be game-changer as it would reenergize the slasher subgenre and usher in meta-horror while creating numerous copycats. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s sixth film is a gorgeous dark fairy tale about a little girl named Ofelia who escapes into a mythical world she has created because of the real-life terrors brought upon her and her mother because of her evil stepfather. She befriends a faun as she dives deeper into the fantastical world until she meets the Pale Man, who is the stuff of nightmares. The amount of detail poured into every frame is insane. From the set design to the costumes and even to the CGI (which still looks convincing today), Pan’s Labyrinth is a visual spectacle of the highest order. Viewers expecting a straightforward horror film may find themselves disappointed, but those with their expectations in check will find a film as close to a masterpiece as they come.
14. The Evil Dead (1981)/Evil Dead II (1987)
Okay, this is the last cheat I promise. These two just complement one another so well with sequel essentially being a remake of an already great film but given a comedic makeover. It is difficult to say which one is better because they are different beasts. Both created a horror icon in Bruce Campbell’s Ash, and both have Sam Raimi’s incredible and unique directing style.
The original is a standout horror film because of what it was able to accomplish on a shoestring budget, launching Raimi’s career and establishing Campbell’s horror status as a cult icon and being one of the goriest films ever made at that time. Raimi’s unique signature style combined with a genuinely creepy film that Stephen King dubbed it as “the most ferociously original horror movie of the year,” (a quote The Evil Dead‘s poster proudly wore as a badge of honor) helps make this one of the greatest of all time.
The sequel is more of a remake but given a comedic makeover and is simply glorious. It’s difficult to say that it’s a better film than The Evil Dead, if only because it’s an entirely different beast. With a run time of only 84 minutes, Evil Dead II manages to cram in more gore, jokes and quotable lines than you can imagine. It is a hilariously good time anchored by a triumphant performance from Bruce Campbell, who takes physical comedy to a whole new level. Sam Raimi’s playful directing style shouldn’t go unnoticed either, as he perfects his technique that he masterfully showed off the first time around.
13. The Wailing (2016)
If I could shout about the greatness of The Wailing from the top of a mountain for all to hear I would. It is an absolute masterpiece and in my humble opinion, the best foreign horror film of all time. Director Na Hong-jin creates an incredible atmosphere of dread about South Korean folklore that delivers laughs, gore, and terror. As a small South Korean village experiences frightening occurrences and a series of possessions, all signs point to the presence of a demon. The gorgeous cinematography combined with a goofball police officer who investigates the happenings helps give the movie a horror noir type feeling.
The Wailing is mostly overlooked because of its run time (and being foreign) but it has a steady pace that is able to throw things at you constantly and still build a dreadful atmosphere without dragging or feeling like a slow burn like most two and half-hour horror films. It is one of the most entertaining and frightening films that will keep you on the edge on your scene the whole time. If The Wailing was more widely seen, it would be hard for anyone not to consider it as one of the best horror movies of all time.
12. The Exorcist (1973)
The end all be all of possession movies that is considered (by some) the scariest more of all time. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is not just considered one of the scariest films ever made: it’s also one of the most well-constructed horror movies of all time. It is grounded in the more horrific and fantastical elements of the horror genre that deal with issues of faith, doubt and a mother and daughter relationship. The film is also a compelling and relatable family drama that showed the horror genre could be taken seriously by general audiences and critics alike.
After young Regan descends into disturbing behavior that can’t be medically explained, her mother gets help from two priests. What happens next is an unholy combination of psychological horror and incredible set pieces as we witness the thought and faith provoking exorcism that includes vulgar insults, pain, and puke with the actors create realistic, believable characters who are worthy of our empathy. It received critical acclaim, becoming the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (it didn’t win, but it did win for Best Adapted Screenplay).
11. The Shining (1980)
* Insert obligatory comment about Stephen King not liking The Shining* This is simply a two-hour study in claustrophobia and cabin fever that has a hypnotic quality. Stanley Kubrick is the star behind the camera with his incredible shots of desolate hallways, the iconic scene of gallons of blood pouring out of an elevator and other horrendous sights whose purpose was to send chills up your spine rather than straight-up scare you. Jack Nicholson is the star in front of the camera as he takes center stage in a riveting performance that would go down as one of the best performances of all time in any genre.
Kubrick’s masterpiece would go on to inspire countless imitators, documentaries, and homages with enough iconic imagery and quotes stuffed in one film that most franchises couldn’t handle. Everyone has done an imitation of “Here’s Johnny!” with other quotes and images that are instantly recognizable by even those who haven’t seen the film.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite horror films? Maybe they will show up further on the list!