The most terrifying horror films cover decades and themes, but they all share one thing in common: the opportunity to dig into the darkest fears. Horror movies are so disturbing to watch, and they play the same stuff you’d like to stop in real life. Vampires, huh? You wouldn’t like to see either of them! A haunted house, huh? No, thank you. A sick serial murderer who’s probably not going to quit? Yeah, well that’s a rough throw from me.
I figured it would be a cool, freaky idea to list the best horror movies of all time. And then I gathered about 14 names, tried to whit the list down, and almost went nuts at least three times. Then after learning how many people would brand me a moron to keep their beloved horror movie off the list, I had a few anxiety attacks, passed out for two days, woke up, and finished writing. After an initial attempt to make a total of 50 movies, I bumped the number up. Maybe someday there’s going to be some more. Please don’t dwell too hard on the individual lists, but it’s always interesting to debate the top ten on a list like this. As usual, the feedback box is open whether you think I got it terribly wrong or horribly right.
1. Shaun of the Dead
If Scream has reintroduced the joys of a teen slasher flick, the return of decent zombies to our screens is all the fault of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The first in Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Shaun of the Dead follows Shaun as he sails his way through London’s dreary life, only to learn (beautifully late) that the bulk of the population has been turned into broken cannibals while sleeping. Suddenly remembering that he wants to be the hero that everyone deserves, it’s time to save his wife, bring his girlfriend back, and make sure they’re all fine in time for tea. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be a completely updated strategy. Though it slickly plays for amusement, Shaun of the Dead is a nightmare in her beautiful heart. It plays Romero’s rules with a sluggish zombie horde, which ensures that their spectacular implacability is a relentless terror if one offset by a genius comic script. And these are not all interchangeable characters made to be ripped to bits in an eruption of O-negative. Everyone matters here which means that any zombie experience is the same. Throw on a great soundtrack, outstanding acting, and redder than you can throw a cricket bat, and Shaun of the Dead is a comedy horror masterpiece.
2. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The film was put on the shelf several years before the audience actually came, so you can still get to know Director Oz Perkins from the chilling house I am the pretty thing that lives in the House last year, provided that his directory debut was technically The Blackcoat’s Daughter. In his first film, Perkins displayed the same hypnotic terrific ability, an iconic supernatural thriller who conjured in the Satanic Threat’s spellbound, nightmarish thrill. In the midst of the bizarre, slowly burning, and punctuating moment of violence, the film is packed with melancholy loneliness and remorse. The daughter of Blackcoat is elusive and methodical, but it retains its inertia every instant of subdued movement before the final blow comes, and even if not entirely surprising, it is a squeezing blow to the solar plexus that makes you tremble.
Few young filmmakers have created the technical ability and emotional wildness of the first two films that Ari Aster punched. First with Inherited, and now with Midsommar, his sun-drenched folk horror ode to the classical ones, such as The Wickerman, who takes the audience to a wonderful hellscape of sorrow, fear, and codependence in the summer solstice. Florence Pugh participates in knuckling as a young woman in the midst of a horrific pagan rite, facing a traumatic incident while traveling abroad with her check-out boyfriend and friends. Midsommar is not only a deviously elegant twist on a classic horror subgenre, it also embraces the wicked sense of humor and a pitch-black comedy, fired, scored, performed, etc.
We knew it was on the way, but the post-Pandemic terror had already come in the form of a Zoom call that had gone very very wrong. Desperately on the search for something else to do besides never-ending lockdown quizzes – we feel like this – a group of friends is coming together for an online mid-lockdown seance. The host is not the first horror to take place on a computer screen, taking a disturbing cue from the REC, Blair Witch Project, and Ghost Activities, but delivering a dangerously important scarecrow. Good little cookies. Thanks to quarantine, we’re all chatting fluently about Zoom, and every conversation – every joke about parents refusing to stay in and the agony of lockout – is painfully relatable. So when this group of women lights candles and something happens where they’re supposed to be safe, we can’t help but be pulled along for the ride. Any incredibly creative applications of digital technologies offer ideal 2020 scares and brilliant performances that turn suspense into unbearably scary territory. If this is what director Rob Savage can do in a lockdown without any real face-to-face contact with his cast, it’s going to be very exciting to see what he’s doing next.
5. The Babadook
The Babadook is a masterpiece of horror. The Babadook boasts one of the most unforgettable villains in modern history with a striking look, a chilling bellow, and a catchy nursery rhyme to boot. But what makes The Babadook special is that it is not just any dark being that has to be conquered. It’s a character who haunts and torments with intent, investigating how people cope with their own inner demons. Director Jennifer Kent put herself on the map with this one, demonstrating a deep ability to merge realism with a fairytale-like feel by top-notch acting, beautiful sets, and excellent shot range. First, you’re going to be caught up in the environment, then the pure fear is going to take over, and finally, the thoughtful, perverse conclusion is going to make sure you can’t get out of the Babadook, right after the credits roll.
Natalie Erika James. In her feature film debut, the Australian director delivers a scary contestant for the best horror movie of the year with Relic, a monster-meet-domestic drama that turns tenderness into the most frightening thing of all. Driven from her own experience of seeing her grandma struggle through Alzheimer’s, James’ horror story is so strong because it comes from a place of love—and the terror of watching those you love to become what terrifies you. Robin Nevin, Emily Mortimer, and Bella Heathcote appear as a three-generation mother-daughter trio who ends up in their old family home in troubled situations after Edna (Nevin) goes missing and her daughter (Mortimer) and granddaughter (Heathcote) discover her somehow transformed when she’s found out. As Edna’s disease worsens, James walks a fine line between the already horrible truth of watching a loved one fall into degradation and the suggestion of something more.
7. Black Christmas
Sometimes mischaracterized as the first slasher film (you’ll find it elsewhere on this list) yet rightly labeled as one of the finest of its genre, Black Christmas is classy and subtle, but an acutely powerful exercise in suspense. The film stars Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder as two sisters in a sorority house plagued by violent, lewd phone calls from a raspy rapist who unfurls as a murder mystery and encounters a house of fear. When an obscene phone call escalates to murder, Clark conducts aggression with a restraining hand, allowing his powerful imagery to do the heavy lifting with an occasional frantic indulgence in holiday traps—the favorite is when a band of carolers drowns out the sounds of Kidder’s death by an ornament. Black Christmas is also one of the few slashers that treat its victims with utter dignity, never openly sexualizing them, and never shaming them for their alleged sexuality.
8. It Follows
In the 1980s, Slasher films did their best to highlight some of the intense hazards of adolescent sex, and it was with great reverence and partial tribute to that specific decade of cinema that we received It Follows from David Robert Mitchell. Establishing a clever metaphor for STDs, the plot reveals that a teenage girl (Maika Monroe) has sex only to discover that it has significant repercussions. She has passed a condition that would see her continuously being hunted by a mysterious entity that A) can take on any human shape, and B) seeks to cripple and disfigure her body. It’s a beautifully imaginative show, packing more than just a fair share of major shocks and chills.
9. 28 Days Later
Okay, maybe they’re not even undead, instead, they’re just people afflicted with the Rage virus, but it won’t deter us from bringing Danny Boyle 28 days later. Credit for continuing to fully redefine the zombie subgenre in the 21st century. The crowd was relaxed with the shambolic, cannibalistic walking dead of Romero persuasion, but this one leaps 10000 percent of their adrenaline, and horror follows suit. It’s not a complicated or original premise—a man wakes up from a coma in a hospital when the world around him falls apart—but Boyle’s intense imagination and the tremendous character work of Cillian Murphy, Naomi Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns make this one of the best scare-fests of the modern age.
Mike Flanagan joins the nail-biting Hush again a clever horror movie that feels extra uncomfortable since the horror of the film seems like it might easily happen to anyone. Author Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) lives a quiet life in the wilderness with her cat—until a masked gunman (John Gallagher Jr.) kills Maddie’s closest neighbor and aims to knife Maddie next. What happens is a uniquely horrific cat-and-mouse mystery, where Maddie has to fight for her life against a mysterious madman, a feat that has made things ten times more difficult because Maddie is mute. Anything that the masked invader will eventually understand. With Hush, Flanagan flips the killer sub-genre on his back, delivering a film full of rapid-fire horror, both big and small, and a third act that will leave you locked to the edge of your couch.
11. It Comes at Night
In this post-apocalyptic nightmare-and-a-half, human nightmares, the burden of turbulent desires blew up in the name of life, blew from watchful eyes and wrinkled paws. The framework is blockbuster—it turns society back to the days of the American border, every single survivor fighting to defend their families and themselves—but the drama is mano-a-mano. Paul (Joel Edgerton) takes Will (Christopher Abbott) and his family in a haunted cabin in the woods, knowing full well that they could risk the lives of his family. All the while, the son of Paul, Trevor, is battling the bloody nightmares of or induced by?) contagion. The better we know, the more mystery he seems like our heads are like a noose, the more disturbing his remarks are. For this psychological thriller, Trey Edward Shults is directing the back of any slow-moving structure.
Here’s a funny case of mad research that went very very wrong. In Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley are Clive and Elsa, two genetic engineers who work for NERD (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development). Their regular practise involves splicing animal DNA to create cryptoid creatures for laboratory testing and protein collection, at least before the two geniuses have the idea of going behind their bosses’ backs and creating an animal-human hybrid. The experiment (Delphine Chanéac), whom they called Dren, continues to mature at an unprecedented rate, showing profound abilities such as the ability to breathe underwater. Worried about their scientific secrets, Clive and Elsa are moving Dren to a secluded farmhouse, where the film takes a more sinister turn. The second characteristic of Natali on our list is a nightmare-come-true science-fiction enthusiast. Both Brody and Polley are phenomenal as the morally challenged mad doctor duo, and Dren’s makeup effects are gorgeous.
13. The Mist
There are two kinds of adaptations of Stephen King: those that dishonor their source material, and those that lift the author’s novels and short stories to dazzling new heights. Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” like Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” is certainly one of the above. The action is limited to the barren confines of the Maine store, where local shoppers find themselves struggling to make sense of the dense fog that has consumed their town. As the suspense rises between Thomas Jane’s decent-hearted painter and Marcia Gay Harden’s insane doomsayer, the film coils into a uniquely harrowing portrait of optimism, and—in the incredible final scene that King himself sees as an advancement on his novel—the terror of losing it. With the fog of our own future rising by the day.
14. Gretel & Hansel
Drunk in mood and nightmare logic, Perkin’s first movies The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Are The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House were sleek, meditative reinventions of common genres (satanism and ghosts, respectively) that sneak on you and settle in. With Gretel & Hansel, Perkins revisits one of the best-known stories of all time, capturing a story that has scared children for decades with a sharp eye and an insightful tribute to the bleakness of the Original Grimms Fairy Tales. Perkins wanted to make a PG-13 horror movie that was almost too scary for kids, and while there’s a part of me that wants this to be tough-R and the necessary YA voiceover, there’s something extremely adorable about going to Extreme Esthetics in a horror movie for kids. And well this movie would have killed me in my youth, much as Perkins’ first two movies would have destroyed me as an adult. If you missed Gretel & Hansel over the first round of subpar feedback, but you’re a huge fan of ambient chill.