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!
30. 28 Days Later (2002)
What sets Danny Boyle’s zombie feature apart from the rest is its focus on the characters and making sure the viewer understands the state of the world around those characters. The opening shot of our main protagonist and his unsure stroll through desolated London is haunting. The zombies are scary fast with raises the stakes in the heart-pounding chase scenes unlike the slow creeping dread of the yesteryear dead. This felt very real which made the whole movie even more unsettling and like most quality zombie flicks there is a healthy amount of social commentary scattered throughout.
29. The Descent (2005)
This is a film that I will always appreciate and recommend first-time viewers to go in as blind as possible. Without getting too specific the film is an adventure horror revolving around a group of women who are coming together to go on a cave diving expedition for the first time since Sarah suffered a tragedy a year earlier. That’s where I am going to stop. Director Neil Marshall does a great job of giving all six women depth and their own personality that makes you really care for each one. Being set in a cave system, there is a claustrophobic feel, unlike no other and frenetic pace that leaves you breathless.
28. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Every now and then, there is a film that comes along in horror that helps define the genre and set a new trend. This may only happen once or twice a decade and the fact that The Blair Witch Project is one of those films helps solidify its place as one of the genre’s most definitive films. The marketing alone is the stuff of movie legend as it had people thinking this “found footage” could have been real. Many will look back claim the film to be boring or not that good, but regardless of your feelings on the actual delivery of the film, everything around it from its legacy, marketing, and trendsetting ways are undeniable.
The story follows three students doing a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. After interviewing several locals, they venture out to the woods of Burkittsville in order to research the legend. As the group begins to fall into hysteria and unable to find their way out of the dense woods, the director’s most effective tool was to leave everything up to the viewer’s imagination. Some of the best horror movies are ones where you can put yourself in the character’s place and imagine how you would handle the situation and I feel The Blair Witch Project is one of the best at doing just that.
27. The Fly (1986)
A gory and oozing remake of a classic follows the simple premise of an eccentric scientist’s experiment going wrong and watching him slowly turn into a fly-hybrid creature. David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a deeply unsettling Greek tragedy about what it is like to witness a loved succumb to disease, addiction or obsession.
Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis give remarkable performances as the doomed couple combined with Cronenberg’s incredible direction and stellar practical effects that will haunt your minds for a long time after the final frame. There are not too many horror films are that end up on best movies of the year lists, however, The Fly is one of the few that is not only a great horror movie but is a great film in general.
26. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
There are few sequels where you can argue the merits of it being better than the original. Movies such as The Godfather 2 or Terminator 2 are rare examples of that feat. Director James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Following the moments of Frankenstein, Bride continues the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his misunderstood creature. Frankenstein is willing to forget his devious crime of reanimating the dead, but his old mentor Doctor Septimus Pretorius has other plans in mind. He wants to continue Frankenstein’s work and create a Bride for Frankenstein’s creature. Bride of Frankenstein hits many of the same notes as the original but continues the story in an organic way that makes a ton of sense. It stands as the crown jewel of the Universal Monsters movies and an ingenious sequel.
The film, while still very much a horror picture, is injected with a healthy dose of camp to lighten up the proceedings. Much of the film’s success is due to Karloff’s superb return performance as the monster, but the film belongs to Whale. He manages to make the film creepy, humorous, enthralling and heartwarming all at the same time, up until the finale, which is heart-wrenching.
25. Train to Busan (2016)
Zombies have been done to death especially over the past couple of decades, so it is tough to get excited over yet another film where a horde of undead attack a group of people. Well, until writer-director Sang-Ho Yeon brought us his glorious Train to Busan. Sometimes the best concepts are the simplest. Let’s take zombies and put them on a bullet train with helpless passengers. It doesn’t sound like anything special till you witness the quick change to zombies ferociously moving toward other passengers with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. It is a pulse-pounding film that barely gives you time to catch your breath.
The story revolves around a selfish business man traveling with his daughter to her mother’s when an infected person comes aboard the train they are on and all hell breaks loose. Yeon is able to help us connect to the main players as they have to band together to fight for survival. We are given one of the best protagonist side characters of all time in Sang Hwa. You can’t help but love this big guy. There is some real heart to this story, and it is beautifully shot.
24. Get Out (2017)
Who would have ever thought that one of the best horror films of all-time would have been written and directed by comedian Jordan Peele? You know, the guy that gave us “noice!” Get Out would take the horror world by storm in 2017 for not only how well it was made and its social commentary but for its divisiveness as well. Get Out is a horror film with multiple things to say. Peele would touch on multiple themes with Get Out including but not limited to: slavery, race envy and neglect for minority missing persons. Even with these tough questions raised and whether you agree with them or not, Peele still manages to make a smart, strange, unpredictable thriller that doesn’t skimp on what horror fans want.
23. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted numerous times but perhaps none are as famous or iconic as the 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. With an incredible cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy, it blends sci-fi thrills, horror and harrowing sense of dread and anxiety. Philip Kaufman is able to blend an excellent horror story that permeates with social commentary revolving around the paranoia of post-Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal. This film gives credibility to the concept of remakes.
The story is already enough to frighten as friends and neighbors are essentially xeroxed and discarded like trash with hollow replicas taking their place, and themes of conformity and group-think double down on the terror leading to one of the genre’s great endings. Who do you turn to when you can only trust yourself?
22. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
There are scary movies and there a horror movies. Then, every once in awhile, you get a film that feels so real it’s like you are sitting there in person watching these horrific acts being played out. That is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. John McNaughton shoots this as if it were a documentary of the real-life killing sprees of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. It is grimy and filthy to the point you want to take a shower afterward. The film took years to find a distributor because the MPAA slapped it with the dreadful X rating due to its highly disturbing nature including a multiple murder scene being shot in one long take.
Henry is driven by a menacing and fractured performance from Michael Rooker who plays the titular character who would murder innocent victims with his roommate Otis. This came along during the slasher explosion of the ‘80s where the characters were becoming more outlandish but the more somber and realistic tone by Naughton would set Henry apart receiving critical acclaim and controversy at the same time.
21. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
A worn-out war veteran’s mind begins to fragment as he seems stuck in between reality and horrific hallucinations. Is he going crazy, or are there darker forces at work? This freaky psychological horror plays with the viewer’s minds as well by being filled with strange and surreal imagery that creates an uneasy feeling. Tim Robbins turns in one of my favorite performances of his as the tortured Jacob while having incredible chemistry with Elizabeth Pena whose relationship helps us stay invested throughout these horrid happenings. In the middle of the overused Vietnam War narrative during the ’80s, director Adrian Lyne was able to create something fresh that was emotionally poignant and surprisingly powerful.
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!