The horror genre has existed for virtually as long as cinema itself has, producing numerous classics during its many evolutions and regenerations.
The advent of the horror genre was at a time when cinema was in its infancy, around the end of the 19th century, but some horror movies have withstood the test of time to be the scariest of all. With myriad popular, contemporary Gothic literature to draw its inspiration from – alongside a growing interest in the supernatural – horror was pioneered throughout the silent era by European filmmakers like Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, and Rupert Julian. The genre was revolutionized in the 1960s by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which popularized psychological horror, while at the same time, low-budget indie horror flicks were on the rise, spearheaded by George A. Romero with his zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968).
What was left of the 20th century saw a surge in popularity for the genre and increased Americanization. Slasher films with memorable villains became forever a part of popular culture, with new levels of iconography that drew in younger audiences and dominated the medium despite the growing popularity of science fiction. Self-aware, subgenre pieces followed in the ‘90s, with a growing demand for found-footage, hyperrealist takes on horror. Yet even in the 21st century, the genre continues to diversify and expand, with no real signs that it’s beginning to stagnate or even saturate. With that in mind, here are the twenty-five scariest films of all time.
The Skin I Live In (2011)
Director Pedro Almodóvar once described his Spanish language melodrama The Skin I Live In as a horror story without screams or frights, yet that does not detract from the sheer discomfort that audiences will feel when watching it. Antonio Banderas plays an obsessive, grieving plastic surgeon whose proclivities for violence and vigilantism lead him to chilling acts of bodily harm upon those he deems deserving of it. The Skin I Live In certainly lacks the electric romance of Almodóvar’s other films, but his first collaboration with Banderas in 21 years makes up for it with its underlying sense of dread, numerous twists, and disquieting implications.
The Babadook (2014)
Essie Davis’s quintessentially human performance in The Babadook is what stirs fear as much as the malevolent, titular phantom that terrorizes suburban mother Amelia and her young son Samuel. It’s a film that might draw inspiration from Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or David Lynch’s Eraserhead in its status as a horror movie about motherhood, only where Eraserhead is odd and unsettling, The Babadook is downright terrifying. Clocking in at only ninety-four minutes, it takes little time in getting to the point, and yet at no point does it feel rushed or contrived. It’s sickeningly real in his depictions of motherhood and insanity, and it remains one of Australia’s best contributions to the genre.
The House With Laughing Windows (1976)
Italian horrors experienced an explosion of popularity in the 1970s, just as Italian Westerns had done in the previous decade. Pupi Avati was one of its pioneering directors, developing numerous films that explored the Giallo horror subgenre, which typically portrayed slasher and sexploitation elements. The House With Laughing Windows follows an art restorer as he becomes aware of the dark secrets involved with a graphic fresco painting. It’s tormenting and sometimes hallucinatory, and its familiar explorations of obsession are as potent as any. The House With Laughing Windows received mixed reviews upon its release but has since gained notoriety for its atmosphere and nuanced filmmaking.
Eyes Without A Face (1960)
The second feature on this list to follow the misadventures of a brilliant but disturbed surgeon is Georges Franju’s French horror Eyes Without A Face. At a time when French cinema was leading the medium’s evolution with the New Wave, Franju encapsulated the most enthralling elements of a new movement that did not much venture into the horror genre. It’s lyrical and dreamlike, driven by its atmospheric cinematography and thematic resonance. Eyes Without A Face is a film about how ambition can result in dire consequences, but also what lengths humanity will go to in order to retain physical beauty.
The Witch (2015)
It’s rare to see a film commit to historical authenticity quite like Robert Eggers’s The Witch, which follows a Puritan New England family in the 1600s, banished from their community to live alone on the edge of a forest. It’s certainly no advert for colonial life, instead exploring the suspicions and paranoias that the family develops with one another as their religious beliefs begin to engulf them, bringing their story to a bloody climax. While it might be remembered as Anya Taylor-Joy’s breakout role, the other performances are remarkable, particularly with how each actor had to remember lines made of archaic English.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Not many horror films are quite as seminal as Tobe Hooper’s slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, based loosely on the killings of Ed Gein. It’s intense and graphic and yet somehow avoids the gratuitous gore that others of the subgenre might be tempted into. It’s earthy and raw, adopting a low-budget guise that heightens its sense of realism, which itself cultivates a feeling of dread that pervades the runtime. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre established the unmissable tropes of the slasher genre (which it pioneered), inspiring numerous filmmakers for decades to come. Its impact on horror simply cannot be overestimated.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The advent of psychological horror films in the 1960s spawned a wave of essential classics that continue to hold sway in cinema today. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, based on the novel of the same name by Ira Levin, follows a young pregnant woman as she comes to fear that her neighbors are conspiring to do something malevolent with her unborn child. It’s slow-burning, uneasy, and troublesome, and deftly blends its horror elements with social commentary to create something, the quality of which Polanski would not match until The Pianist (2002). Mia Farrow is sublime in the titular role, helping to establish the title as one of the psychological subgenre trailblazers.
Alien is one of Ridley Scott’s many masterpieces and effectively built upon the blending of horror and science-fiction that was so subtly done in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from ten years prior. It’s the film that established Sigourney Weaver’s rip-roaring career as an action hero, while also spawning a franchise that is set to continue in the future with Noah Hawley’s FX series (which will not feature Weaver’s Ripley character). It’s a film full of visceral thrills and frights, claustrophobic isolation, and a fun commentary on corporate greed, which is in fact one of the driving factors behind the franchise’s narratives.
Takashi Mike is a revered Japanese filmmaker who has explored numerous genres and to great acclaim, but Audition is probably his greatest achievement. Based on the novel by Ryu Murakami, it follows Shigeharu, a widower persuaded by a friend to audition women to be his new wife. However, the allure of the younger candidate Asami leads Aoyama into a web of lies that results in madness and violence. Its focus on secret trauma and the consequences of it are deft and nuanced, which contrasts with scenes of brutal gore – a juxtaposition that forms the essence of the film. Its finale is one of the most unforgettable in the genre.
The last five years of American horror have been dominated by directors Robert Eggers, Jordan Peel, and Ari Aster. Each has (as of 2023) released three films, and each of those nine total has been released to critical acclaim. Hereditary is probably Aster’s finest work, and certainly the most terrifying of his trilogy, with an oppressive, slow-burning tension that gradually unwinds among unsettling revelations. Hereditary is an exceptional meditation on grief and inherited trauma, while also incorporating elements of folk horror that trace their routes back to the 1970s. It’s Toni Collette’s finest performance despite coming nearly thirty years into her career, and hers is one among many in a film full of tragedy and melodrama.
Instantly iconic thanks to a timeless premise that will forever haunt its audiences, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu created a widespread demand for horror films in Japan after its release. The ‘cursed media’ trope is now a mainstay in the genre, which is in no small part thanks to the unforgettable image of Sadako’s dark hair falling over her face as she stands motionlessly, revealing to those watching that their deaths are days away. The franchise that stems from it seems unending, brimming with sequels prequels, spin-offs, and adaptations in other languages, cementing its place high up in the genre’s vast canon.
The Omen (1976)
Religious symbolism in horror films is a notoriously difficult avenue to explore. Still, the successful exploration of biblical themes in the 1970s was well-exemplified by Richard Donner’s The Omen starring Gregory Peck. Peck plays an American ambassador who adopts young Damien after the death of his own newborn son but soon begins to question the sinister occurrences around Damien. It ultimately leads him to believe that the child is the Antichrist, which naturally comes with implications of Armageddon. The Omen’s themes of good and evil, destiny, and the fall from grace are expertly explored, while its lore has since been explored in numerous sequels and spin-offs.
Get Out (2017)
It is difficult to imagine how a comedy actor’s directorial debut could be such a tense, implicit, and well-crafted horror film as Jordan Peele’s Get Out. It’s one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the 2010s and for good reason. At a time of great upheaval in race relations in the United States and worldwide, Get Out delivered a significant commentary that demanded the self-reflection of its viewers, drew attention to the commodification of Black bodies in contemporary society, and turned Peele into one of the best orators in cinema. It won a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and proved how effective a vehicle the genre can be for articulating real-world issues.
The popularity of the found-footage subgenre of horror exploded in the late 1990s with the release of The Blair Witch Project, whose marketing campaign was built around the notion that the film was not fictitious. Blair Witch is not the gold standard, however, as that title belongs to Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza’s Spanish picture [REC], which follows numerous characters trapped inside an apartment building during the outbreak of a dangerous virus. Its shrouding and overwhelming use of darkness might remind viewers of the climax of Silence of the Lambs, but [REC] maintains its originality through its visceral portrayal of panic and claustrophobia.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
When George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in plaintive black-and-white in 1968, American audiences were dumbfounded by the refined maturity of Romero’s social commentary. Though Night probably remains a more precise attack on the many unresolved issues of contemporary culture, cult classic Dawn of the Dead upped the ante when it came to frights and helped keep Romero at the top of the pile when it came to making films about the undead. It’s a satire like its predecessor, only Tom Savini’s special effects take the dismemberment to new heights, where it remains to this day a genuine classic.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Being a pioneer of a certain genre or subgenre does not necessitate that a film will maintain a quality close to those that follow it. The Wicker Man does, however. Being one of British folk horror’s earliest exemplars, it explores ancient rituals, pagan practices, and supernatural forces at play within rural communities. Its set design, unnerving score, and acclaimed performances from Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee were not enough to garner general positivity or a good box office return at the time of its release, but its atmospheric storytelling and artistic direction can be seen in Hollywood today. Without it, it’s unlikely that Kill List (2011), The Witch (2015), and Midsommar (2019) would ever have been made.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Freddy Krueger is arguably the most recognizable name in the long list of legendary horror characters – and for good reason. Genre maverick Wes Craven – known also for The Hills Have Eyes and Scream – created a film whose impact still resonates today, particularly with the iconography associated with Kreuger, portrayed by Robert Englund. The supernatural Krueger enters into the dreams of teenagers and kills them there, meaning that they die in real life. It’s so simple and yet the dreamscape was never quite so masterfully explored, although recent installments have saturated the franchise. All the same, Nightmare remains one of the best films of the 1980s, and Krueger one of its best villains.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The aftermath of the First World War saw the genesis of German Expressionist cinema, which arguably laid the groundwork for future movements and genres like film noir and fantasy. Its relation to the burgeoning horror category is clear as day in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which follows Francis as he attempts to unravel the dark mysteries of the titular showman. The film is over-stylized, abrasive, and indulgent, but it is also revolutionary. The use of chiaroscuro lighting (the most notable in early cinema), angular sets, and striking contrast make Dr. Caligari one of the most pioneering works in the genre.
One of the greatest achievements in cinema history is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same. Not much more can be said about it, for it’s revered the world over as an enduring masterclass in craftsmanship that has stood the test of time to continue subverting audience expectations even now. A first viewing of Psycho will never be without its twists and turns, and such is the enduring admiration for it that its franchisement has continued into the 21st century. It’s an auteur’s showpiece which at once revolutionized psychological horror, while arguably laying the groundwork for the birth of the slasher subgenre in the 1970s.
The first of two films by Italian director Dario Argento on this list, Suspiria follows Jessica Harper’s Suzi Bannion during her time at a dance academy in Germany. Her investigations into the vibrant school lead her to uncover sinister forces of the occult. What’s immediately striking about Argento’s film is the dramatic, vivid use of color and lighting atop almost fantastical sets to create an instant sense of discomfort. Coupled with a haunting score by Italian prog rock band Goblin, it’s doubtful that Suspiria would ever have needed its sickeningly scary makeup and prosthetics, but it utilizes them anyway. It’s also a nuanced musing on female empowerment and beauty.
The Wolf House (2018)
The only stop-motion film to make it onto this list is Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s unsettling Chilean masterpiece The Wolf House, which took five years to develop before it was released. It’s disorienting and dizzying as it takes audiences on the journey of Maria, an irresponsible young girl seeking refuge in a house after escaping an isolated German sect in Chile. As the house morphs into a malevolent being, the film indulges in its fluid environments, dazzling animation, and nightmarish sets to create one of the most disturbing things ever put to film. Its folklore and historical inspirations are clear to see but rarely have such elements been so deftly transposed into a narrative.
Deep Red (1975)
Before Suspiria was arguably Dario Argento’s magnum opus: Deep Red. It’s as significant a contribution to the Giallo subgenre as any and was lauded for its inventiveness, intense suspense, and horrifying murder scenes. Though there have been numerous different cuts over the years, the definitive remains the original and is best aligned with Argento’s vision. It’s as visually striking – if not more – than Suspiria would come to be two years later, utilizing ingenious and experimental camera work to help build its engulfing atmosphere of tension and dread. It’s the great masterpiece of one of the finest contributors to the horror genre and is simply a must-watch for its fans.
The Shining (1980)
Long tracking shots, slow zooms, and famously symmetrical compositions serve to make Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining one of the most visually memorable films of all time, while also being meticulously manipulated by the director to make his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel one of the most frightening films of all time. Though King himself has expressed displeasure at it (due to a perceived lack of fidelity) over the years, it remains one of the most beloved films in cinema history. Jack Nicholson’s intense performance as Jack Torrance is his greatest, while negative feelings about Shelley Duvall’s infamous take on Wendy Torrance have recently softened.
The Exorcist (1973)
Horror films have never quite lived up to the cultural phenomenon that was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which had audiences lining up for hours to embark on its terrifying journey, brought together by groundbreaking special effects, horrifying scenes, and some of the most iconic moments ever put to screen. Its possession-oriented story paved the way for a new era of horror films, while its own franchise is set to continue well into the late 2020s with a new reboot. The head-spinning and levitation scenes remain some of the most frightening images in cinema history, while Father Karras’s tragic subplot serves to exacerbate feelings of dread.
F. W. Murnau’s silent magnum opus Nosferatu is simply a landmark in German Expressionism and cinema more broadly. This unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel utilizes the vampire mythos – as well as angular set designs, shadow play, and atmosphere lighting – to create a film that is truly unique and terrifying. Its haunting tone pervades every moment of its duration and every inch of the screen, while Max Schreck’s portrayal of the reclusive Count Orlok is a performance for the ages. Nosferatu does not try to say too much (literally or figuratively), but it’s strikingly eerie, sickeningly scary, and one of the greatest films ever made.