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!
40. Phantasm (1979)
This is one of the most original and creative horror films there is out there. Don Coscarelli gives us his unique vision of horror with an iconic villain in the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), flying spheres of death and destruction, and a relationship between brothers that we can all connect with. When seemingly every horror director was trying to come up with their own take on the slasher, Coscarelli delivered something out of the box.
The film starts off pretty normal, then delves into one nightmarish sequence after another that just keeps getting weirder and weirder. It’s a coming of age story where the two brothers find out their local mortuary is more than what it seems. The malevolent Tall Man turns the dead into hooded dwarf zombies to be sent to his planet as slaves. Yea, it’s out there.
39. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Grief can be a more unsettling horror narrative than any lunatic in a mask trying to slice people up. Don’t Look Now is saturated in grief as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy) attempt to reconcile over the accidental death of their daughter all while there is a serial killer stalking the streets. Director Nicholas Roeg does a wonderful job of using the unique style of intercutting scenes from the past, present, and future together. Sutherland delivers a standout performance and the film’s climax, in which John comes face to face with his mortality, stands out as one of the most shocking scenes in film history.
38. Ringu (1998)
Hideo Nakata’s Ringu could be seen as the film that single-handedly jump-started the J-horror craze of the early 2000s. Nakato fills the film with plenty of nightmarish imagery, creating a spooky atmosphere that permeates every frame. The film blends old-school paranoia with modern fears of technology to marvelous effect, leading to one of the most surprising finales in horror history.
Who would ever think that a story about a mysterious and unlabeled VHS that leaves you with only seven days to live after you watched could drip with so much unbearable dread? Ringu does a masterful job of holding the viewer’s attention while they are holding their breath until it unleashes its skin-crawling finale. It also has one of the few American remakes that did justice to the original and is worth seeing.
37. Sinister (2012)
Being a horror fan pretty much all my life, there isn’t much that gets under my skin until it comes to kids being harmed. Director Scott Derrickson sets an eerie tone with the opening shot of this by showing us a murder of an entire family in Super 8 home video fashion. Ethan Hawke gives a fantastic performance as a true-crime writer who is looking for his next bestseller as he moves his family into the house where the opening scene murders took place. As weird things start to take place in the house, he discovers a box full of Super 8 reels and discovers other families being murdered in brutal fashion.
The realistic and almost grindhouse feel of the murders from the home movies combined the haunting score makes this one of the most unsettling recent horror movies. The boogeyman Bughuul is extremely effective given the minimal amount of screen time. It does a stellar job of creating a disturbing atmosphere with one of the best jump scares.
36. Audition (1999)
Takashi Miike’s Audition is one of the most difficult films to watch on this list. Is it because it features a woman sawing off a man’s foot with piano wire? Or because she feeds another man a bowl of her own vomit? No, it’s because the first 90 minutes are a slow burn of an almost romantic film that abruptly changes into a full-fledged horror during it’s 20 or so minutes. Don’t take that as a bad thing though because it builds an unbearable tension leading up to the moment all hell breaks loose. It is such a great movie but is one you will only want to watch once.
35. Near Dark (1987)
Long before Katheryn Bigelow was churning out Oscar-worthy films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, she made one of the best vampire movies of all time. The late ‘80s saw a revival of sorts for vampires going from more comedic and the stereotypical Dracula type to a grittier and more serious creature of the night. Bigelow’s Near Dark would be a key factor with a film that would mix genres of vampire, biker, and westerns.
A roaming band of vampires travel across the American West in search of human blood and ends up kidnapping a farm boy. As he struggles with being turn into a killer, the nomadic clan causes trouble most notably a fantastic bar scene where they terrorize and burnt the place down. This is a darkly amusing, completely engaging, and undeniably creepy tale of a vampire clan that finally comes up against a victim who fights back. It is beautifully shot, and Bill Paxton’s performance is worth the watch alone.
34. I Saw the Devil (2010)
I Saw the Devil is a brutal and rip out your heart cat-and-mouse game between a sadistic serial killer and an unhinged secret agent hell-bent on revenge. A serial killer, Kyung-Chul, viciously slaughters the love of Kim’s life (and mother of his unborn child) so Kim sets out on an elaborate quest for vengeance. Kim would be there at every turn to thwart Kyung-Chul’s attempt to carry out his next sadistic deed. The film is relentless and grueling, and the roles of predator and prey are in a constant state of evolution as the two find new ways to inflict pain and sabotage one another’s life.
In his sixth film, Kim Jee-Woon proves himself a master of violence, setting the film in a slightly fantastical version of real-world where killers, cannibals, and rapists lie around every corner, and where a body can withstand an ungodly onslaught of violence, if only so that violence can continue. Gorgeously shot in a palette of red and cold blue with incredible acting, I Saw the Devil is an unwavering look at the darkest depths of the human heart.
33. The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
I will argue to the death that this is not only one of the best grindhouse films but also that Rob Zombie’s masterpiece is one of the best horror films of this century. He was able to take his less than stellar Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off with cartoonish characters and transform that story into a gritty horror film of reprehensible violence with three villains that have depth.
Part Western and part road trip movie, The Devil’s Rejects follows the carnage that the Firefly Family leaves across the Texas countryside as they try to stay ahead of the Sheriff hell-bent catching them to seek vengeance for them killing his brother. This film grabs you by the throat while kicking in the balls and doesn’t let go till the climatic end.
32. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary is raped by Satan and becomes pregnant after moving into a new apartment with her husband, a struggling actor. That’s the bare bones of Rosemary’s Baby’s plot but that is basically all you need to know. The rest is filled with unbearable tension and a subdued sense of paranoia that causes the viewer to have an uneasy feeling up until the horrific conclusion.
No jump scares or gore, but just a heavy atmospheric dread with an incredible score combined with fantastic performances by all involved. Ruth Gordon even won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Satan-worshiping neighbor Minnie Castevet. Simply one of the greatest horror tales about pregnancy ever told.
31. Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark’s slasher masterpiece Black Christmas should not be forgotten when it comes to its influence on horror and it gets overlooked quite a bit. Made just 4 years prior to Halloween, Black Christmas is another example of a film that received a mixed reception upon its initial release but has since become a cult classic. Clark’s film, about a mysterious assailant who stalks a bunch of sorority girls in their house, sports two wonderful lead performances from Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder (not to mention Difficult People actress Andrea Martin, in her third film role) and, like many other well-respected horror films at the time, is mostly gore-free.
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!