Much like comedy, horror is one of the most subjectively-received movie genres out there. Just as you can’t really argue what people think is or isn’t funny, it’s difficult to convince anyone that they’re not scared if they’re squeezing the blood right out of your closest thigh.
So take it with a grain of salt when I say that the two movies that most consistently get called the scariest movies of all time — Psycho and The Exorcist — never really freaked me out all that badly.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re both powerful movies for various reasons. Psycho‘s bifurcating shower scene changed forever the rules of who lives and who dies and when. And The Exorcist confirmed that there’s a mass audience willing to rubberneck high-minded incarnations of carnival funhouses.
But I can’t say either of them quite get as far under my skin as these 10 horror classics (and, in the case of a couple, new classics). Some are nostalgic picks, while others resonate more as I continue my path toward the graveyard. — Eric Henderson
(Dir: Dario Argento; 1977)
The tagline that accompanied this movie’s U.S. release — “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92” — was a little bit disingenuous. For starters, the U.S. cut was only 92 minutes to begin with, but aside from that, Suspiria‘s brand of scare appeal remains markedly out of step with your typical Stateside slice-n-dice. Italian giallo director Dario Argento took his atmospheric, architecture-obsessed vision and grafted it onto an a suggestively Disney-esque nightmare tale about an aspiring ballerina whose tenure at a rarified European academy becomes aggressively more gothic, especially when maggots start showering down from the ceiling.
(Dir: Tobe Hooper; 1982)
Poltergeist was the dark flip side to Steven Spielberg’s concurrent 1982 release E.T. Instead of friendly aliens dropping in to teach lost young boys the value of making friends, here we have incredibly unfriendly lost souls reaching out to young girls to snatch them over to the other side. The ghostly kidnapping of 5-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) and the desperate efforts of her parents to rescue her not only make this perhaps the greatest suburban haunted house tale, but also undoubtedly one of the most intense, terrifying PG-rated films ever made. Especially if you, like me, have a thing about clowns.
(Dir: Brian De Palma; 1976)
One of two Stephen King adaptations to land on my list, Brian De Palma’s sleeper hit Carrie was instrumental in making the bestselling horror author’s name. It also marks one of the only times to date a flat-out horror movie earned multiple Oscar nominations for acting. (The Exorcist earned a trio a few years earlier, and Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting Actress for her work in Rosemary’s Baby.) Sissy Spacek plays the title character, a maladroit teen whose life as a social outcast in high school is only marginally less preferable to her miserable home life at the hands of her religious, domineering mother (Piper Laurie). That is, until she discovers she has telekinetic powers. Carrie esonates strongly in the wake of both Columbine as well as the “It Gets Better” campaign.
07. Inland Empire
(Dir: David Lynch, 2006)
From his debut feature film Eraserhead on, David Lynch’s movies have almost always skirted the line between absurdist humor and panic-stricken terror. Though virtually none of them exactly qualify as out-and-out horror in the strictest definition of the genre, Lynch’s movies are nonetheless capable of reducing viewers to quivering wrecks. (Of course, they’re also capable of confusing other viewers to distraction or boring them to tears. Their loss.) His 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive was the warning shot for this, his ultimate Hollywood horror story, in which Laura Dern gets the part she always wanted only to find it ends her life. Maybe.
(Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa; 2001)
Remember that vague sense of dread Y2K instilled in us all? Remember when Prince partied like it was “1999,” and few realized we were dancing to the beat of a song describing the apocalypse? No movie captures that weird sense of malcontent better than Pulse, the most notable entry from a whole slew of Japanese horror films that flooded the marketplace at the turn of the millennium. Long before The Social Network was deemed the “of our moment” movie of the decade, Pulse cast a dark pall over the onset of social media interactions. To turn a phrase, people in this movie log in, but they never log out. Anyone who has ever been surprised at the amount of time that passed them by at a computer monitor will recognize themselves in Pulse‘s ghosts in the machine.
05. Rosemary’s Baby
(Dir: Roman Polanski; 1968)
If Repulsion was more raw and The Tenant ultimately more ornately disturbed, Roman Polanski’s unofficial apartment trilogy reached its apex with this psychological chiller. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, who struggles to rectify her stern, Catholic background with the fact that she’s reaching full bloom in the midst of the turbulent ’60s. (One telling detail: the cover of the Time Magazine issue Rosemary reads at one point screams the mostly rhetorical question, “Is God Dead?”) Rosemary’s quandary becomes full-blown dementia when she gets pregnant and starts to suspect her kindly neighbors (older, minding the generation gap) of being in a coven and wanting to sacrifice her baby. Of all the horror movies that deal with the dark side of religion, Rosemary’s Baby messes with your head the most.
04. The Brood
(Dir: David Cronenberg; 1979)
The only movie I can think of to rival Rosemary’s Baby in making brutal mockery of the human drive toward procreation is David Cronenberg’s simultaneously savage and chilly The Brood. Taking on both the burgeoning self-help craze and the Kramer vs. Kramer divorce that were all the rage in the late ’70s, The Brood features Oliver Reed as a pompous anger management guru whose experiments break up a family … oh, and also unleash an army of tiny tot manifestations of a jilted housewife’s raging id. The kids are not all right.
03. The Shining
(Dir: Stanley Kubrick; 1980)
The second theatrical adaptation of a Stephen King novel is also arguably one of the only ones that has totally and completely eclipsed the stature of its source novel (excepting only Carrie and maybe The Shawshank Redemption). Certainly no scene in the book — an effective if sometimes unfocused tome about a haunted hotel and its effects on the family of the winter caretaker who gets a mean case of cabin fever — is as memorable and instantly iconic as Jack Nicholson’s growl, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” King himself was no great fan of Stanley Kubrick’s take, but that’s probably because he made it completely his own. The book is about things that go bump in the night. Look beyond the blood pouring from out of those elevator doors, and you’ll see that the movie is about the wrath of a man coming to terms with his own miserable failures as a husband, father and self-made man. Positively unnerving.
02. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(Dir: Tobe Hooper; 1974)
Before Friday the 13th, before Halloween, Leatherface was making mincemeat of teens in Tobe Hooper’s trendsetting, grindhouse-swiping freak out. Bearing the most memorable title any movie likely ever had, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more than just a little touched in the head. And, unlike most of the stone-faced movies that have one-upped it in brutality and gore (the latter of which many are surprised to find is not all that copious), Chainsaw has one foot planted firmly in Looney Tunes territory, making it hysterical in every possible sense of the word. Its atmosphere of sweaty, grimy, bloody, skunky mayhem remains without peer.
01. Night of the Living Dead
(Dir: George A. Romero; 1968)
On the one hand, I can’t deny that my own autobiographical experience with this movie partially informs its placement at the top of the list. It was the first real horror movie I ever saw, the movie that broadened my horizons beyond the safe shivers of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. The movie that showed (even if in B&W) ghouls devouring body parts. The movie where survival was small comfort to the main characters. And I saw it when I was about 7 years old. But nostalgia isn’t the only reason that Night of the Living Dead resonates with me as the most powerful, most terrifying horror movie ever. The older I get, the more I recognize the movie’s metaphorical power as a portrait of civilization in flux (the whole thing reads as a parable for the social disorder of the latter ’60s). This jagged masterpiece is set to the rhythm of the Doomsday Clock.
10 Worthy Runners-Up
(in chronological order)
Nosferatu (Dir: F.W. Murnau; 1922)
The Seventh Victim (Dir: Mark Robson; 1943)
The Birds (Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; 1963)
Wait Until Dark (Dir: Terrence Young; 1967)
Deathdream (Dir: Bob Clark; 1972)
The Thing (Dir: John Carpenter; 1982)
Candyman (Dir: Bernard Rose; 1992)
Se7en (Dir: David Fincher; 1995)
Outer Space (Dir: Peter Tscherkassky; 1999)
Inside (Dir: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo; 2007)