Halloween is fast approaching with a crucifix in one hand, a bag of pestilent rodents in the other and a hockey mask stuck to its face. To prepare, we've summoned up with the ultimate list of the greatest, scariest and most spine-rippingly horrific horror movies in cinema's long history. From Dr. Caligari to It Follows, this is a compendium of scary movies to span the ages. Abandon all hope all ye who enter here...
50. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes
The “male” companion piece to Guillermo del Toro’s later female-centric Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is a classic ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. Like Pan it’s explicitly political, and there’s a clever metaphor at work comparing ghosts to unexploded bombs (an example of which sits ticking in the orphanage’s courtyard). But it’s also less fantastical than its successor: an elegant supernatural yarn that compares favourably to the classic likes of The Innocents and The Haunting.
49. Kill List (2011)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring
Kill List begins like a fairly straightforward thriller. Two hit men take on an assignment. They have the kill list. They have to kill them. Bish bash bosh. But as you watch, small hints of the film’s true nature slowly appear. An odd symbol is scratched on a bathroom mirror. A doctor offers bizarre, medically dubious advice. The soundtrack broods like a rumbling storm cloud overhead. Ben Wheatley’s masterful grip on slow-building tension – informed by his love of 1970s Brit folk-horror – crescendos to an almost unbearable, shocking finale. Wheatley has never been better.
48. The Evil Dead (1981)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker
“The ultimate experience in gruelling horror” proclaimed the end credits. Hubris? Not really. Some commenters believed the remake wasn’t funny enough, but the laughs in the Evil Dead franchise only really arrive with the splatstick sequel. Here, first time out, what we have is an unrelenting and often genuinely frightening aural and visual assault, with only the occasional easy-to-miss quip to defuse the tension (“We can’t bury Shelly, she’s our friend,” muses a shellshocked Bruce Campbell, surveying a still twitching, dismembered corpse). The miniscule budget and claymation effects only add to the unsettling atmosphere.
47. Audition (1999)
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina
The film that broke director Takashi Miike internationally doesn’t initially seem like a horror film at all. We follow a widower’s attempts to get back in the dating game with a younger squeeze, via the rather dodgy and disingenuous audition process to which the title refers. And it’s only when we realise the object of his desire has literally been waiting by the phone for days – apparently in an apartment empty apart from something ominous in a sack – that we begin to realise something is very, very amiss. And then there’s the foot-sawing and the eye-needles. Kiri, kiri, kiri…
46. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Paul Eddington, Charles Gray, Rosalyn Landor
The Devil Rides Out marked a new direction for Hammer, swapping classic gothic horror/fantasy for a Dennis Wheatley occult potboiler. Richard Matheson’s cracking screenplay streamlines and improves the novel; the pacing and dialogue are sharp; and the performances, particularly from the incomparable Charles Gray and, as always, from Christopher Lee, are top notch. The studio would return to Wheatley with To The Devil A Daughter a couple of years later, but they missed a trick by never bringing back Lee’s Duc de Richleau: the paranormal investigator – who brings hell down on his unsuspecting friends here – featured in 11 of the author’s novels. His cases could have run and run.
45. Cat People (1942)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway
With Universal knocking out horror films like there was no tomorrow, RKO tasked producer Val Lewton with creating some similar action. The results were not what the studio expected. Far from the monster mash they’d asked for, Cat People – directed by Jacques Tourneur – opted for more psychological chills, and a still surprising concept centred on a woman who’s afraid to consummate her marriage because of her belief that sexual climax will turn her into a panther. Paul Schrader’s '80s remake took full advantage of the modern potential for FX and erotica, but Tourneur’s more subtle scares are all about stalking and shadows.
44. Day Of The Dead (1985)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Richard Liberty, Lori Cardille, Sherman Howard
George Romero originally conceived this as "the Gone With The Wind of horror movies" before slashed budgets swiftly torpedoed his dreams of a zombie epic. No matter, the doyen of the undead merely served up another chewy allegory for humanity's doom laden with gory moments enhanced by Tom Savini's majesterial make-up designs. Following on from Dawn Of The Dead with the world in the grip of a full-scale zombie infestation, the survivors head south (in practically every sense) to a bunker in a swampy corner of Florida. There, a crazed doctor tries to turn the shufflers ¬– including the iconic 'Bub' (Sherman Howard) – back into productive members of society. The subtext, again, is clear: the zombies are the least of our problems in a world driven by violence and greed.
43. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver
"You shaaaamed me!" rasps Hungarian gypsy (Raver) at Alison Lohman's bank employee who's made the unfortunate mistake of not granting her another extension on her mortgage. Cue a curse to end all curses: visitations from a demon called the Lamia. While the punishment doesn't seem entirely proportionate, the results offer a wild, raw and wickedly entertaining ride with Sam Raimi at his funhouse best throughout. Justin Long, the loyal hubbie on the other side of Lohman's hellish bubble, takes on the horror staple role of disbelieving agnostic. You'll want to shake him by the end.
42. The Skin I Live In (2011)
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet
Something like a Frankenstein fable, The Skin I Live In is nevertheless fed through Pedro Almodovar’s idiosyncratic filter to become… something else. Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, it’s the story of a scientist’s illegal human experiments, ostensibly into an artificial skin to be used for burn victims. The upshot is kidnap and sexual reassignment, in a disturbing two hours described by the director as a “horror without screams or scares”. Plenty to keep you awake though. Also significant as the reunion of Almodovar with his frequent former star Antonio Banderas. The pair hadn’t worked together since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! 21 years earlier.
41. Dracula (1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough
Directed by the incomparable Terence Fisher, written by Jimmy Sangster, pairing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (with Lee getting actual lines for the first time), and going all out for colour, glamour, sex and blood, Hammer’s Dracula aligns the elements and distils the formula that powered the studio for the next two decades. Sangster’s bold screenplay at once eviscerates Bram Stoker’s novel and sets the narrative free. With the locations transposed and limited to Romania and half the dramatis personae excised, we’re left with a lean adventure. The Lugosi film is a creaky slow-burn, but Hammer’s is a swashbuckler. Lee, of course, gets to be urbane and darkly seductive, but there’s also genuine savagery to the moments when he gets to bare his teeth.
40. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Director: Eduardo Sánchez
Cast: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Josh Leonard
It wasn't the springboard its director and crew might have hoped after banking $250 million from their nano-budget horrow, but The Blair Witch Project's legacy continues apace. It's instructive to see how little Adam Wingard's surprise sequel deviates from the set-up and formula of the original (bunch of kids head into the Black Hills, record the results on the shakiest of shakycams) 17 years later. At the time, it sparked a revolution in the genre. Since then have come dozens of imitators, although even the best of them fall short of replicating Project's disorientating chills. Twigs and bits of foliage have never been so scary.
39. The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Slightly mis-sold by a trailer that made it look like a standard – though impressive – monster movie, The Babadook’s greatest trick is in not really being about the titular thing at all. Rather, it’s a film about a mentally unravelling mother’s difficult relationship with her young son. The ‘dook itself is just another spanner in the works. Subverting expectations, the film seems to set up Amblin-style hijinks from a resourceful kid, but those elements never come to pass, and his backpack of tricks is ultimately useless. The rules are right there in creepy storybook: you can’t get rid of the Babadook. The eventual solution for its defeat – but not eradication – is something like genius.
38. Bride Of Frankenstein (1935)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger
James Whale’s sequel to his own original Frankenstein reunites the director with Boris Karloff’s classic monster and with Colin Clive’s hapless scientist: this time tasked with creating a mate for the creature. As before, there’s immense pathos in the monster’s plight – ultimately rejected by his stunning, shock-haired “bride” Elsa Lanchester. But there’s more mischievous wit in the second outing, largely thanks to Ernest Thesiger’s cherishably waspish Doctor Pretorius. “Yes,” he observes dryly at the reveal that the monster can now speak. “There have been developments…”
37. Frankenstein (1931)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive
Jack Pierce created several iconic make-ups for Universal in the '30s and '40s, but by far the most indelible is the flat-headed, bolt-necked (they’re actually electrodes) Frankenstein’s Monster of a thousand subsequent parodies. It took Boris Karloff, however, to inhabit the make-up as a tangible character, acting his way out from behind the greasepaint and mortician’s wax to deliver a nuanced portrait of a child-like creature, prone to rage but also capable of great tenderness. You need only compare Karloff’s monster to the later versions attempted by Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi, to see the extent of Karloff’s achievement. The clumsily lurching caricature of popular misconception owes everything to those performances, and nothing at all to Karloff’s tragically bewildered victim.
36. Dracula (1931)
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Creaky by today’s standards, Tod Browning’s Dracula remains seminal for its place in horror history, as well as for its eerie central performance by Bela Lugosi and the scene-stealing of Dwight Frye. The film is strongest in its opening stretch, as Frye’s Renfield visits the stunning, colossal set of Dracula's castle, meets the sombre count – dwarfed by his cobwebbed surroundings – and falls foul of the vampire’s ethereal brides: a sequence of exquisite beauty. Subsequently it’s a bit more plodding, and the ending is oddly rushed. But there are still unforgettable elements along the way. Well worth watching with Philip Glass’ 1999 score – unless you prefer the almost-silence of the orginal.
35. Poltergeist (1982)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke
Moving into a family home on an ancient burial ground presents the kind of real estate connundrum even Kirstie and Phil would be hard-pressed to help with. The problems faced by the Freeling clan in this much-mimicked Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg horror involve supernatural beasties, vortexes in the landing, floating objects and some major interdimensional childnapping. That's just about every supernatural domestic catastrophe in the handbook, short of finding the Dyson is haunted and the guinea pig is Satan. Despite the restriction of its PG rating (it was initially R-rated but changed on appeal), the result remains a refreshingly scary brew.
34. [•REC] (2007)
Directors: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Cast: Manuela Velasco, Pablo Rosso, Ferrán Terraza
Found footage as a concept was already feeling tired and gimmicky by the late noughties. Then [•REC] came along and gave it a hell of a jolt. Two documentary filmmakers find themselves on the night shift for the TV show While You’re Sleeping, following a Barcelona fire brigade, when they sleepily stumble on an old lady infected with a zombie virus. Like many before it, [•REC]’s marked-down budget and indie sensibility works entirely in its favour: a fresh take on an old template that feels intimate, visceral, and real. As one character observes: ¡Qué rucus!
33. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland
Nic Roeg's hugely influential take on Daphne du Maurier's short story is more than just a simple horror movie. It's also a moving and insightful study of marriage, particularly the way it creaks like the hull of a ship under the duress of loss and grief. But, yes, ultimately it's scary in a way that's cranked up several notches by its eerie backdrop of Venice in off-season, weird encounters with seers and that red-coated hobgoblin. Julie Christie (lost in her grief for her drowned daughter) and Donald Sutherland (adrift in his) are note-perfect as the central couple, but Roeg's direction and editing – particularly in that central sex scene – lend the movie the feel of a beautiful but shattered mosaic.
32. Let The Right One In (2008)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar
We all know children are terrifying, but Let The Right One In takes spooky kids and made them almost too relatable for comfort. Simply trying to survive like countless vampires before her, Eli (Leandersson) strikes up a bittersweet friendship with social pariah Oskar (Hedebrant), offering him salvation from his less-than-ideal home situation. Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s bestseller and set in Stockholm, it’s not just the threat of being offed by a vampire that make this an incredibly effective Scandi scarefest, with themes of loneliness, anxiety and alcoholism helping it slip effortlessly into your bloodstream. It’s no surprise Hollywood clamoured for a remake.
31. The Innocents (1961)
Director: Jack Clayton
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin
The title’s different, but The Innocents is otherwise an elegant and extremely faithful adaptation of Henry James’ perennial classic The Turn Of The Screw. A governess takes charge of two creepy children who appear to be being haunted by previous incumbents of their rackety estate. But the film preserves James’ crucial ambiguity: are the children really in danger from ghosts, or from a sort of supernatural Munchausen-by-proxy stemming from their hysterical guardian? The answer’s up to you.
30. It Follows (2014)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto
A strong contender for the best horror film of 2014, It Follows runs with its brilliant central concept and never drops the ball. We never really learn what the ‘It’ is, except that it’s a mysterious entity that’s somehow sexually transmitted, manifesting as a variety of shuffling injured strangers, or sometimes as people known to the victims it inexorably pursues. It’s an interesting twist on the slasher movie "promiscuous teens get killed" trope, with the wrinkle that if you find yourself affected, you can just shag someone else and get rid of it, like a chain letter. That rule takes the film to some very dark places.
29. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
Whenever you watch an episode of The Walking Dead or read a Max Brooks novel or even fiddle with your smartphone on Plants vs Zombies, you have George A. Romero to thank. Nobody else has contributed more to the modern conception of zombies than the bearded genius from the Bronx, and no film has kickstarted a subgenre so enduring or fruitful. Night Of The Living Dead is scary, sure (its violence caught audiences by surprise at the time) but it’s also surprisingly witty: a socially cognisant satire from a politically loaded time. Little wonder that Quentin Tarantino once claimed the “A” in George A. Romero stood for “A Fucking Genius".
28. The Descent (2005)
Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, MyAnna Buring
Somewhat like Aliens, Neil Marshall’s masterstroke here is in keeping the monsters off screen for a good hour. And after the almost unendurable cave-bound claustrophobia of the first half, it’s almost a relief when they finally show up to provide a more solid, familiar focus for the audience’s fear. Before that, it’s been an unbearably tense series of character clashes and potholing injuries: a pressure-cooker building to a head of steam that brutally climaxes with a shocking accident and the full reveal of FX guru Paul Hyett’s blind, albino gollums. From then on it’s intense action all the way to the devastating conclusion. American audiences got an upbeat ending from which the sequel continues. Here in the UK, the final moments are horrifyingly bleak.
27. Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Jim Siedow
Five years after Scooby-Doo first aired, Tobe Hooper similarly put some teenagers in a van to endure a scary mystery. Their experience was rather different. Maybe they should’ve brought a dog, although it’s doubtful it would have helped them. Actually quite light on gore, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre nevertheless remains a uniquely gnarly, punishing experience, from its grotesque production design to its family of cannibal freaks and its stand-out villain Leatherface. Some have suggested an intriguing Vietnam-era subtext about America eating its young, but the film functions perfectly well without it on a pure, primal level. Burns’ screams ring in your ears long after the exhausting last act is over. The final shot of Leatherface dancing with his saw is an indelible image.
26. The Others (2001)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, James Bentley
A classical ghost story in the, ahem, spirit of The Innocentsand Robert Wise's The Haunting, The Others is lent added poignancy for the relatable, touching presence at its heart. Protective mum (Kidman) just wants to shield her two photo-sensitive wee'uns from the bright, unforgiving world outside their creaking country pile. It's a task that's made increasingly difficult for all the eerie goings-on within it. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar conjures icy atmospherics from the gothic scenario, proving that less is definitely more when it comes to scares.
25. 28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston
Debates raged about whether the fast-moving “infected” were zombies or not, but that’s not the meat of why Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s tale of a destroyed society is so effective. Like all great horror movies, it’s about us rather than “the other”, and peers into the dark heart of humanity. How far would you go faced with such a situation? You may not love the answer. And there’s so much to admire visually, with a Day Of The Triffids-esque emptied London, shot guerrilla-style in early mornings.
24. The Omen (1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Harvey Spencer Stephens
Boys, eh? Muddy-kneed, conker-smashing little blighters... all running around and falling over and, in Richard Donner's timeless chiller, turning out to be the Antichrist. The unwitting adoption of devil child Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) has horrifying consequences for parents Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in one of the bleakest collisions of faith, religion and superstition in the genre. It's not held in quite the same critical esteem as The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby these days, but make no mistake, The Omen is still a powerful potion.
23. Suspiria (1977)
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci
Nobody makes horrors quite like Dario Argento. With Suspiria, the Italian genio set the Video Nasties era of censorship and moral panic ablaze, and set the template for his “Three Mothers” trilogy. All his hallmarks are there: dark supernatural elements at play; bravura camera acrobatics; bloody, extreme violence; themes of obsession and sexual aberration; and a vibrant, hyperreal technicolour palette. Think The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but with witch-demons instead of umbrellas.
22. Eyes Without A Face (1960)
Director: Georges Franju
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli
Horror movies love a mad scientist and they don't come much madder than Pierre Brasseur's boffin, Dr. Génessier, in this quietly insidious spooker. He attempts to make amends for causing the car accident that's ruined his daughter's face by grafting the visages of other women onto it. You don't need to be au fait with the plot of Face/Off to see where this could go wrong. Georges Franju's capacity to eke pathos as well as icks from premise makes it an enduring classic and more than worthy of Pedro Almodóvar's 2011 homage, The Skin I Live In.
21. The Fog (1980)
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, John Houseman
A chilly yarn about ghost pirates exacting their revenge on a small coastal town, The Fog is so explicitly a campfire tale that it even begins with a scout troop sitting around a seaside blaze, with time for just one more story. Carpenter’s follow-up to the classic Halloween saw some post-production tinkering to make the scares more explicit, and when you know that you can definitely spot the reshoot joins. But it doesn’t affect what remains perhaps Carpenter’s most purely atmospheric film.
20. Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Imagine a trip to see Psycho in 1960. Its deliberately oblique marketing, fronted by Hitchcock himself, would have prepared you for a motel to feature prominently but not much else. The opening 20-odd minutes must have seemed like a pretty standard noir set-up, with Janet Leigh eloping with a bunch of money and the tantalising possibility of a new life that lasts precisely as long as her next trip to the shower. Then came the full-bore shock of that brutal knifing, each stab driven home by Bernard Herrmann's jarring score, unexpected and almost entirely without precedent. Audiences must have wondered if it wasn't Hitch himself who, in the nicest possible way, was the real psycho here.
19. An American Werewolf In London (1981)
Director: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine
A comedy-horror that skimps on neither, American Werewolf manages to be properly scary, blackly funny, and, in the relationship between lycanthrope Naughton and nurse Agutter, genuinely moving. It’s a deft juggling act, confidently performed by director Landis who, while he remains immensely likeable, was arguably never this good again. An American director in England, his sense of the country never descends into twee American En-ger-land clichés, and even the stock lines and characters – “Stay off the moors”; “That’s enough!” – are performed in such a way that they never grate. It’s a loving homage to bygone scares that nevertheless feels entirely modern, even 35 years later.
18. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Friedrich Feher
Arguably the first great horror film, Robert Wiene's nightmarish German Expressionist vision is all sharp edges and jutting angles. It remains a towering benchmark for those that followed, setting its playful story structure against a shadowy backdrop of duplicity, red herrings and murder most foul. The story sees Werner Krauss' seemingly avuncular doc touting out a fortune-telling sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt) at a town fair, where the ensuing death count hints that his career as Germany's answer to Mystic Meg may be short-lived. Boasting the first twist ending in cinema history, what follows offers a dark glimpse into a country's soul.
17. Ring 2 (1998)
Director: Hideo Nakata
Cast: Nanako Matsushuma, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rie Inō
Not the first adaptation of Kōji Suzuki’s novel, but the one that brought the terrifying Sadako Yamamura to international attention. Suzuki’s more sci-fi tinged material is jettisoned in favour of more horrifying ambiguity, and Nakata’s film is an intriguing collision of Japanese folk horror (the well-dwelling, black-haired, chalk-skinned Sadako is clearly a descended from the onryō ghouls of Japanese tradition) and more modern concerns about viral media and moral panic. It’s a slow burn, but worth the unsettling journey to its most famous setpiece.
16. Carrie (1976)
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen
Carrie was among the first films to utilise that most terrifying supernatural force: puberty. Stephen King’s novel recognised the trials of adolescence as ripe ground for horror, and found a worthy suitor for his first cinematic adaptation in director Brian De Palma, who brings the tale to life with sadistic relish and intelligent, daring camerawork. Sissy Spacek, meanwhile, imbues Carrie with childlike innocence and genuine pathos, blotted only by mild bouts of, erm, telekinetic murder. It’s a testament to her range that, come that prom finale, you find yourself feeling simultaneously sympathetic and scared shitless.
15. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
Like a twisted cross between The Exorcist and What To Expect When You're Expecting, this occult classic is no movie to watch when you're considering settling down to family life or planning a foray into the property market. Neighbours, quite literally, are a hellish proposition for Farrow and Cassavetes' newly-weds as they settle into their new Manhattan brownstone. Outside their four walls, dark forces swirl – and we're not talking about the velour furniture. Polanski's command of tight interior scenes and a mood of slowly building paranoia make what follows claustrophobic and endlessly creepy.
14. The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
Cast: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Christopher Lee
The Wicker Man shouldn’t really work. An outsider’s view of a mythical Scotland, written and directed by Englishmen and scored by an American, and replete with songs to the extent that it’s practically a musical, it’s a minefield of elements that could all have gone horribly wrong. And yet, it’s all so right: that weirdness a crucial part of the unsettling whole; Woodward’s hapless investigations leading inexorably to that final, devastating reveal. There’s plenty of humour, but it never feels like Woodward isn’t in real, frightening trouble. The climax is as inevitable as it’s horrifying. It’s easy to laugh at the remake but even Hardy himself failed to recapture the dark magic with his belated Wicker Tree. The Wicker Man is unrepeatable.
13. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
Director: Drew Goddard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz
A “loving hate letter” to the genre, as co-writer Joss Whedon called it, The Cabin In The Woods successfully manages to skewer every conceivable horror trope even as it utilises them for its own narrative gains. The fiendishly clever twist and self-reflexive perspective might dampen the scares for some, but this is still the most ingenious meta-horror ever created. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s desk-jockeys-of-the-damned are a particular highlight, while the final showdown, playing like a Horror Hall of Fame, quite literally bursts with pause-or-you’ll-miss-it moments of gory glee.
12. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp
There have been, at time of writing, nine entries in the Nightmare On Elm Street series, including a reboot, a crossover, and a sequel rather prematurely titled The Final Nightmare. (It was not, obviously.) None quite compare to Wes Craven’s remarkable original. Taut, witty, and nightmarish (clue’s in the title), Elm Street stands out on the map during a decade hardly short of horror hits, and, in Freddy Krueger, presented the most terrifying boogeyman ever to wear knitwear.
11. The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair
There are horror movies with infamous reputations. And then there’s The Exorcist. This is a film which prompted cinema exhibitors to routinely offer ‘barf bags’ for queasy patrons; which had St John’s Ambulance on standby at screenings to aid the regular fainters; which was accused of corrupting young minds with subliminal imagery. Amid the noise and furore, William Friedkin’s achievements were almost ignored – how he deftly blended the religious and psychological with themes of unconditional faith and maternal love. And yes, it’s head-spinningly scary. Don’t forget your barf bag.
10. Jaws (1975)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
It followed his shorts work, TV movie Duel and The Sugarland Express, but Jaws truly announced the arrival of Steven Spielberg as a major talent. Massive production issues became the mother of real invention and needing to keep the toothy villain off screen as much as possible just ratcheted up the tension that much more. Primal fears fuel a thriller that also feels human thanks to Scheider, Shaw, Dreyfuss and the rest. Not forgetting John Williams’ iconic, simple and terrifying score. Jaws sticks in the brain and makes the heart beat that much faster.
9. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones
Still Guillermo del Toro’s deepest and most personal work, his “feminine” companion piece to The Devil’s Backbone is a fairy tale that doesn’t stint on the grim(m). Set in early Francoist Spain in 1944, it’s as much about the after-effects of the Spanish Civil War and the continuing nightmare of World War II as it is about our heroine’s heroic underworld questing, and, crucially, most of the real horror is above ground. But there are nightmarish encounters with a giant toad and an eyeless Pale Man to make the point that Ofelia’s escape into fantasy is anything but safe. The ingratiating, twitchy Faun too (the Pan of the English title) is clearly not her friend.
8. Nosferatu (1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck
Roger Ebert once said, “To watch Nosferatu is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself.” This is Dracula before it became cinematic legend; before Christopher Lee, before Gary Oldman, before Count Duckula. Though technically not Dracula at all – Bram Stoker’s estate refused to grant the production rights – it’s perhaps the quintessential incarnation of the Transylvanian vampire. But its influence, from technical innovations to Expressionistic lighting style, spreads far beyond the horror genre. The imposing shadow of Max Schreck – whose surname means "fright" in German – is as iconic as movies are ever likely to get.
7. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis
You can argue until you’re zombiefied with exhaustion as to whether Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s first cinematic collaboration is a true horror. It is: the laughs are balanced by a keen understanding of the fear aesthetic, and it doesn’t skimp on either the scares or the gore. You only have to look to the Night Of The Living Dead-homaging final siege to understand that. Plus, Wright and his cast add such real emotional depth to the characters that they come across as more nuanced than many a scary movie can boast.
6. Evil Dead II (1987)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks
Sam Raimi’s eternally groovy cult favourite has an energy and a spirit that is entirely its own. After a reported rights kerfuffle from his original film, Raimi set about to half-retell the ‘Book of the Dead’ legend, revisiting Ash (Campbell) and his cabin in the woods – this time with a sparkier tone and more opportunity for Raimi’s hyper-kinetic camera-gymnastics. The tightrope between supernatural horror, badass action and genuine spooks has never been walked so confidently, and it forever cemented Campbell as a cult hero. Good...bad...he’s the guy with the chainsaw for a hand.
5. Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles
Many have tried to imitate John Carpenter’s style and mood in the years since he carved his way into the horror pantheon, but few, if any, can match him. Inspired by Hitchcock, he found the scares lurking within suburbia, making them instantly relatable to the audience. And he’s helped by a combination of the simple horror of Michael Myers and the naive-yet-tough charm of Jamie Lee Curtis’ heroine. You can largely ignore the sequels (we’ve a soft spot for the third) and reboot: stick to the original to see a true master of the creepy, tension-building story at work.
4. The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Keith David, David Clennon, T.K. Carter
Who can you trust? And when you rely on other people to survive, what does that do to the paranoia levels? That’s the key to John Carpenter’s chilly chiller, set at a remote Antarctic research station. An otherworldly discovery brings blood, guts, body horror and twisty storytelling, all anchored by Kurt Russell’s charisma and Rob Bottin’s exemplary effects work. It’ll make you itch with suspicion and recoil at the more gruesome scenes. The Thing deserved a fairer shot on release ¬– thank goodness it has long since earned cult status.
3. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan
Genre deconstruction had been done before but Kevin Williamson’s canny, clever, extra-meta screenplay in the hands of Wes Craven made Scream that much more special. Taking the slasher film apart didn’t stop the bloody tide of rip-offs and spoofs that followed, but it gave audiences a fresh eye with which to view them. Added to that, great work from the likes of Campbell, Cox, David Arquette and scary phone voice maestro Roger L. Jackson means that it functions as an effective chiller within its own self-referential trappings.
2. Alien (1979)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright
It's not easy to make a film that can rank among the best in both the horror genre and the world of science fiction, but Scott and writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett make it look easy. It wasn't simple to wrangle everything together on a relatively tight budget, but the results are all up there on the screen. The sterile environment of the Nostromo might not seem like the most inviting place for terror, but space is dark, cold and horrifying and H.R. Giger's icky creation upped the fright levels. And then there's that cast, topped by Weaver as Ellen Ripley, one of the best creations in cinema history. In the cinema, or at home, everyone will hear you scream.
1. The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd
Stephen King hates it, of course. Contemporary critics were lukewarm. Initial box-office returns were middling. The Academy Awards flatly ignored it. Stanley Kubrick, unbelievably, was even nominated for a ‘Worst Director’ award at the inaugural Razzies. (He ‘lost’ to Xanadu’s Robert Greenwald.)
It wasn’t a fun shoot either, by all accounts. Kubrick forced Shelley Duvall to do 127 takes of one scene, a record according to The Guinness Book Of Records. Jack Nicholson was made to eat his least favourite food – cheese sandwiches – to keep him in an “agitated state”. The infamous “Here’s Johnny!” scene took three days and 60 doors. Both lead actors left the shoot exhausted and resentful.
What a difference a bit of hindsight makes. As with a lot of Kubrick’s work, time has been kind, and it now seems blindingly obvious that The Shining is a masterpiece without parallel: precise, meticulous, surreal, visually astonishing, a shimmering study of a descent into madness. The ultimate horror movie.
King continues to grumble, but it’s his blind spot. His novel was too on-the-nose for the director's metaphysical sensibilities. The book is slashed, cruelly but correctly, into a leaner script. With Kubrick, it’s always about reading between the lines – or in this case, the corridors. The imposing Overlook Hotel – its labyrinthine interiors built entirely in London’s Elstree Studios – serve as the physical embodiment of Jack’s psychological degeneration. The newly-invented steadicam gives it an extra geographical depth.
It might not be a conventional horror – Kubrick was hardly going to lump for genre tropes, was he? – but that undercurrent of menace throughout is far scarier than any jump cut or shadowy ghoul. It's all about that bubbling sense of unease under the surface, an unease that could infect any one of us. “Some places are like people,” as Scatman Crothers’ cook, Dick Hallorann, puts it. “Some shine... and some don't.”