What are the best horror movies of all time? Courting controversy is exhausting, but sometimes a question comes along that makes the debate and drama worthwhile, just like being asked to compile a list of what I believe to be the top ten best horror movies of all time.
To assemble a list like this requires some explanation. To me, the best horror movies are the ones that are effective in scaring you and moving you to fear, but also have to be the kind of film that you can enjoy if not for the content, then for the craft. Some films are scary and have a great premise, but their execution fails them. On the other hand, films exist that are beautifully and elegantly made but are let down by their plot.
Cultural impact is important, but cultural longevity is better. Just because you like a film does not mean it’s good (so don’t worry, I didn’t put Jennifer’s Body at number one, no matter how much I really and truly wanted to). With all this in mind and my riot shields at the ready, let’s dive into what I deem to be the ten best horror movies ever made.
The best horror movies are:
- Dawn of the Dead
- An American Werewolf in London
- A Nightmare on Elm Street
- Get Out
- The Exorcist
10. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
I bumped Let the Right One In for this, and I think I’m okay with that choice. Almost a chamber piece, taking place nearly entirely within a shopping mall, Dawn of the Dead remains a classic of horror that truly deserves to be called a classic. Social commentary that seems almost too blatant to be allowed, wacky special effects, and gratuitous (albeit slightly aged) gore make Dawn of the Dead a film that you can still sit down and enjoy today. There was just no way that you can have a top ten without Romero, right?
9. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
My bias might be showing because An American Werewolf in London is one of my favourite films of all time, but it truly does deserve to be on this list, I promise. An American Werewolf in London proves that practical effects will always age and perform better than CGI ever could, and also that some stories do not need to have a happy ending. Horror comedy is the hardest genre of all to pull off, but Landis steers the ship perfectly with the infamous cinema scene being one of the best examples of this genre done right. An American Werewolf in London is a masterpiece, and if you are going to watch any of the films on this list, I really think it should be this one.
8. Midsommar (2019)
I switched this out with Hereditary about seven times before I settled, and I settled not just for Florence Pugh, but for the sun. Midsommar, as a concept, takes what can often be a pretty boring horror trope of cults, and turns it on its head. There are no dark woods and midnight bonfires, but instead a balmy sun and lots of flowers in this A24 horror movie. Terrifying, right? Absolutely powerhouse performances and one of my favourite closing scenes in cinema make Midsommar a wildly uncomfortable and utterly essential piece of modern horror cinema.
7. Ring (1998)
Japanese horror in and of itself deserves an entirely separate list, but Ring stands up as the champion of breaking into the mass media and mainstream. Perpetually terrifying and constantly unnerving, Ring proves that horror doesn’t need to be fast, frenetic, and full of hacking and slashing. The interplay of psychological horror and real threat dances around Ring and keeps you on your toes in a way that feels unique to Japanese filmmaking that even non-horror fans can get behind.
6. Carrie (1976)
I am aware of the amount of vitriol that may be levied against me for my Stephen King choices in this list (I stand by them, and I will forever), but to me Carrie was, at the time, a singular film in its dive into female adolescence and power, being unafraid to show a teenage girl as a terrifying force to be reckoned with, unapologetic for her destruction and somehow someone with whom a large number of us can relate (murder aside, perhaps). Carrie treads the line of the sympathetic villain so neatly, and is far too often overshadowed by other (much longer) Stephen King adaptations. Justice for Carrie.
5. Psycho (1960)
Psycho is a bastion of the horror genre, and has remained so in every list of this sort since its release in 1960. Hitchcock gave us the trop of killing off the famous lead in the first half hour, he gave us jarring and immediately recognisable scores, he gave us marketing tricks and he gave us villains that we still can’t move past. Psycho, even now, remains a horror film that stands the tests of time to scare us and entertain us in equal measure, while laying the groundwork for countless films to build upon.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It’s no secret that I’m a huge Wes Craven fan. A Nightmare on Elm Street carries all of Craven’s unique personality and filmmaking skill and wraps it up in the prettiest bows in horror. Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp are the perfect stars for an 80s horror fest, and Robert Englund gave us one of the best (and easiest to replicate at Halloween) horror villains of all – Freddie Kreuger. A Nightmare on Elm Street gives us the perfect mix of humour, tropes, and genuinely scary moments that mark Wes Craven and his work out as some of the best there is.
3. Get Out (2017)
Horror movies come in peaks and troughs, with tropes and themes coming and going as society shifts and evolves. Horror is the genre that unflinchingly holds a mirror up to society, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out held that mirror real close. Funny and uncomfortable, Get Out shook up the sleeping horror scene with a bang…and it must have been good because it even woke up the Oscars, which for a horror film is a particularly noteworthy accolade. Get Out does everything horror should do, and it did so at exactly the right time.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
The classics are classics for a reason, but it would be disingenuous to say that all the classics still make for compelling watching (I’m talking about you, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The Exorcist, though, puts a big, bold tick in both boxes. While some of the dialogue has admittedly lost its edge over time, there are few among us who are unsettled by The Exorcist almost 50 years later. The plot is a classic exorcism story, but one that brings into question the church and state, and American family values incredibly effectively. It would be remiss, however, not to mention the issues faced by Linda Blair on the set of the film. Also, categorically one of the most iconic horror film soundtracks out there.
1. Scream (1996)
Head back up to the top of the article, use my preamble like a checklist, then try to tell me that the original Scream isn’t the greatest horror film of all time. Scream has every base covered, from paying homage to its predecessors to riffing on their formulaic storytelling, from the campy to the cold-blooded. It was modern and it was brave, with its tongue firmly planted in its ghostly cheek for the duration. Scream takes the number one spot not just for being a perfectly crafted horror film, but for being the one among this list that I would gladly watch time and time again. Sequels be damned (except 2 and 4, they were pretty good) – the original Scream is, to me, my absolute favourite scary movie.
Well done, you made it to the end of our list of the best horror movies! Alright, let me have it. I know there are some films that aren’t here that people think should be shoe-ins (you can @ me on Twitter, if you feel the need).
That being said, I wanted to make a list that showcases horror that is enjoyable to watch, that keeps a grip on our imagination, and that proves that the genre is truly a force to be reckoned with to everyone outside of our spooky community. There are so many more films I adore and could talk about forever, but for our horror fans out there, I hope I’ve done our genre a little bit of justice.