From creature features to haunted house capers, the horror genre has been giving audiences the willies since the dawn of film. Here are our picks for the 20 best of all time. (If you’re bemoaning the lack of, say, Alien or The Fly, check out our list of the Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time first—there are just too many excellent films to justify any duplicate entries.)
1. FREAKS (1932)
Director Tod Browning’s best-known work of horror is doubtless Dracula—but his best is Freaks, about a group of sideshow performers who vow vengeance on the beautiful trapeze artist who’s married to one of their own for his money. The film was controversial upon its release, due in large part to Browning’s casting of actual “freaks”(credited in the film as “Siamese Twin,” “Half Woman-Half Man,” “Human Skeleton,” “The Living Torso,” “Human Skeleton” etc). MGM demanded extensive cuts to the film, which were insufficient to keep it from being banned in the U.K. until 1963. According to Freaks’s production manager, a woman “tried to sue the studio, claiming the film had induced a miscarriage.”
2. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Universal, under the guidance of producer Carl Laemmle Jr., had a whole raft of brilliant horror films in the 1930s: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Old Dark House. The list goes on. But raised high up above its companions—as high as its eponymous character’s hair—is James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Whale was initially reluctant to direct a sequel to his blockbuster success but was convinced by the promise of increased creative freedom. It was a good thing, too; if Whale hadn’t been able to tell his superiors at Universal what was what, we may have ended up with something like an early treatment for the film, where Dr. Frankenstein and his wife Elizabeth literally run off and join the circus. Frankenstein’s Monster finds them, demands a bride, and is later eaten by circus lions.
3. CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Producer Val Lewton, who worked at RKO throughout the 1940s, is famed for a style of horror film that prizes atmosphere over spectacle. You rarely see the monsters in films like The Leopard Man or Isle of the Dead, because Lewton just plain didn’t have the budget for it. The first—and best—of the films Lewton produced is director Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, in which a woman (Simone Simon) is subject to a family curse where strong feelings of anger or sexual arousal turn her into, well, a Cat Person. A classy and subtle (as per Lewton’s style) look at the way society villainizes female sexuality, the film was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader, who abandoned the previous film’s nuance for BDSM, incest, and a scenery-chewing Malcolm McDowell.
4. DIABOLIQUE (1955)
Psycho is to showers as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece Diabolique is to bathtubs. The film, about the goings-on in a rundown French boarding school, is widely cited as having influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho. Certainly, Psycho’s “no late admittance” policy—unusual at the time—had been applied to Diabolique years before. In addition, Hitchcock tried to get his hands on the rights to Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Celle Qui n’etait Plus (She Who Was No More), which would become Diabolique, but Clouzot beat them to the punch and proceeded to “[block] those rights for a year, thus effectively preventing Alfred Hitchcock from getting his hands on the story.” Hitchcock instead acquired the rights to later novel by the pair, D’entre les morts (From the Dead), which would become Vertigo.
5. PSYCHO (1960)
With Psycho, Hitchcock broke new ground in a lot of ways. For one, he changed the way film was exhibited. Prior to Psycho, it was a generally accepted practice that moviegoers could enter a theater at any point during a screening. Hitch, determined that people wouldn’t wander in halfway into the movie and wonder where mega-star Janet Leigh (killed off in the famous shower sequence in the film’s first third) was, had theaters put up notices to the effect that late admittance was not allowed. And speaking of: In Alexandre O. Philippe’s doc 78/52, which is all about Psycho’s shower scene, horror director Richard Stanley posits that the film “might have also started the rather negative trend of victims undressing before they’re butchered, which is something that’s haunted slasher cinema throughout the ’70s.”
6. BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Icon of the Italian giallo movement Mario Bava made his official feature debut (he’d done uncredited work saving other people’s pictures before) with Black Sunday, loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story Viy. Barbara Steele starred in two roles: Asa, a witch killed in the 17th century, and her descendent Katia, whose life Aja plans to take for herself from beyond the grave. Following her work on Black Sunday, Steele made other horror films and became an icon of the genre … which got her some pretty wicked admirers.
Per a Diabolique Magazine profile, “When she was at the height of her fame in Italy an invitation arrived by messenger from the newly appointed dictator of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi to join him for an informal brunch. Barbara recalled that the entire affair was lavish but a bit off-putting since each chair had an armed guard stationed by it fully equipped with submachine guns.” Years later, she received a request for a signed photograph (which she consented to) from a young man named Jeffrey Dahmer.
7. EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who penned the books upon which Diabolique and Vertigo are based, were hired by director Georges Franju to adapt a novel by Jean Redon for the big screen. The film was developed by producer Jules Borkon specifically as a way to get into the horror genre that French audiences liked so much when it was American films—specifically, the Gothic horror films of the late ‘50s—being imported. A practical man, Borkon advised Franju to avoid excessive blood and animal torture, which the English and French censors, respectively, did not like. Ditto mad scientists, because, wrote David Kalat in his Criterion Collection essay on the film, “the Germans are touchy on about the whole Nazi doctor thing. This Borkon said while handing Franju a project about a mad doctor who tortures animals while cutting off women’s faces.”
Boileau and Narcejac got around this potentially very thorny (and bloody) problem by focusing the story on the mad doctor’s daughter, Christiane—though a moment near the end of the film was still shocking enough that it reportedly caused seven viewers at the Edinburgh Film Festival to faint and many others to leave the theater early. (Franju’s response: “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”)
In the United States, Eyes Without a Face was given the campy title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and paired in a double bill with The Manster (“Half Man – Half Monster – All Terror!”), which might explain why it took several years for American audiences to discover it for the haunting arthouse horror masterpiece it is.
8. THE HAUNTING (1963)
The gold standard in haunted house movies, Robert Wise’s The Haunting is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, in which a paranormal investigator enlists a team of strangers to document their experiences living in a purportedly haunted mansion. (Not to be confused with the Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill.) The favorite horror film of no less than Martin Scorsese, The Haunting adopts the show-don’t-tell ethos of Wise’s mentor, Val Lewton, who was famous for his highly atmospheric, low-budget horror movies where you frequently don’t see the monster in question. To that end, the supernatural forces in The Haunting are rarely visualized, with the emphasis more on the deteriorating mental state of the fragile, frazzled Eleanor (Julie Harris). Harris suffered from depression on-set and isolated herself from her co-stars, the result of not feeling that they took the film as seriously as she did. Wise followed up The Haunting with a decidedly more peppy film: 1965’s The Sound of Music.
9. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
One of the reasons that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead became such a touchstone of the horror genre is, well, it’s a damn good movie. But a more minor reason has to do with a copyright fluke that put the film in the public domain. (The theatrical distributor changed the title prior to the film’s release, but when they updated the title card, they forgot to add the required copyright notice.) No copyright means no royalty fees, which in turn meant that Night of the Living Dead got more play on TV and a larger home video release than it would have had otherwise. It also meant that other filmmakers could create their own twists on Romero’s zombie classic without having to pay the man for the privilege, helping to give rise to the robust zombie sub-genre that’s been eating brains ever since.
10. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
Though directed by one film legend, Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby was at one point going to be helmed by a director of a different sort: William Castle. An icon of B-movie, gimmick-heavy horror—his most famous film is House on Haunted Hill, in which Vincent Price kills someone using an elaborate skeleton puppet, and for another of his movies, The Tingler, buzzers were installed in theater seats to gently zap moviegoers—Castle bought the rights to Ira Levin’s unpublished novel with an eye toward rehabilitating his image. (“We used to sit around our dining room table at night and instead of saying grace, my father would practice his Academy Award acceptance speech,” his daughter, Terry Castle, remembered.) Alas, it was not to be: Paramount, which co-financed Rosemary’s Baby with Castle, insisted that the film be directed by the more respectable Polanski, who was fresh off the success of his Euro horror hit Repulsion.
Though he initially found Polanski “cocky and vain,” Castle was won over by the younger director’s vision for the film, which basically boiled down to “Do it exactly like the book. Barely change anything.” Paramount won the fight, and Polanski signed on as Rosemary’s Baby’s director, with Castle producing. Some other Hollywood icons were involved behind the scenes, as well; Tony Curtis has an uncredited cameo as the voice of Donald Baumgart, and a cameo with Joan Crawford and Van Johnson playing themselves was filmed but later cut. (Johnson calling Polanski “Pinocchio” probably didn’t help.)
11. THE EXORCIST (1973)
The Silence of the Lambs’s route to Oscar success was paved by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It received nine other nominations, too, including one for teenaged Linda Blair, playing the possessed Regan MacNeil. The nomination was met with controversy at the time, given the fact that Regan’s “possessed” voice was actually another actress: Mercedes McCambridge, who had to fight to receive on-screen credit. The Exorcist eventually won two Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound.
12. CARRIE (1976)
Between film and TV, there have been over 100 adaptations of the work of Stephen King—but Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, was the first. Sissy Spacek got a rare-for-horror Oscar nomination for playing the title character, a telekinetic teen bullied by her fellow students and her mother. De Palma initially thought that Spacek, at 25, was too old to play the teenage Carrie, even going so far as to encourage her to skip her final screen test in favor of a big commercial she had booked. Thankfully, Spacek ignored the director’s advice; she showed up to the screen test with Vaseline rubbed into her hair “to make it all greasy and yucky. I didn’t brush my teeth … I had a little dress since junior high school that was all ratty and old, and when the hair and make up people saw me coming, they raced to me to fix me up and I was like, ‘No! Stay away!’ Then I raced over to a corner and sulked and got ready for my screen test.” Recalled De Palma: “she made everyone else look silly.”
13. HOUSE (1977)
In the 1970s, the Japanese movie market was being overtaken by fun, action-heavy Hollywood imports. Wanting a piece of the action themselves, Toho Studios hired Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, who had directed a series of experimental shorts and television commercials, to come up with a Japanese answer to Jaws. What they got was … er … not that. There wasn’t a human-eating piano in Jaws, or a demon cat, or a teenage girl who’s attacked by a bunch of futon mattresses. Ôbayashi’s psychedelic, bizarre horror comedy—about a group of seven teenage girls who go on vacation to one of the girl’s aunt’s house, only to realize the aunt is a witch and the house likes to eat people—proved a success among Japanese youth. It achieved cult status and was finally released in the United States in 2010.
14. SUSPIRIA (1977)
A surreal, gory, Technicolor extravaganza of witches, ballet, and murder, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is generally considered one of the finest examples—if not the finest example—of Italian horror. But one party involved in Suspiria wasn’t too keen on being associated with it: American distributor 20th Century Fox, which released the film under little-known subsidiary International Classics Inc. so as to avoid having its name attached to the film. Per Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ Suspiria, there were “concerns about the impact [Suspiria] might have to its recently boosted industry reputation on the back of the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars.”
15. HALLOWEEN (1978)
John Carpenter’s Halloween, which begins with a six-year-old Michael Myers stabbing his nude sister, remains the only slasher film to date on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Upon its 2006 induction, the Library of Congress’s Steve Leggett noted that the film “launched Carpenter’s career and started the slasher genre.”
Despite its status as the godfather of a particularly gory genre, Halloween is a film without any (literal) blood. That was intentional; writes David Konow in his book Reel Terror, it was Halloween cinematographer Dean Cundey’s belief that “even before the mad slasher craze, the feeling was that too much gore and special effects can call too much attention to itself, take the audience out of the movie, and make the story less realistic. ‘We actually spoke specifically about it,’ [said] Cundey. ‘I think part of what was so effective about Halloween is you could say any of this could happen.’”
16. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
John Landis’s horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London is a groundbreaking bit of filmmaking for, among other things, its werewolf makeup effects. Practical FX guru Rick Baker won the first-ever Best Makeup Oscar for his work on the film; he was subsequently nominated for 10 Best Makeup Oscars and won seven. Baker’s work on American Werewolf particularly impressed Michael Jackson who, after seeing the film, contacted Landis and Baker to direct and do makeup design, respectively, for the music video for “Thriller.”
17. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves its biopics and its period dramas … but horror movies? Not so much. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is to date the only horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. And it won a lot more than that: it’s only the third film in Oscar history to take home wins in the Big Five categories, a.k.a. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Adapted Screenplay, in Silence’s case), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress (Jodie Foster.) The other two Big Five victors are It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
18. SCREAM (1996)
Where Halloween invented the slasher genre, Scream reinvented it for a new generation, combining horror with meta comedy that skewers years of slasher movie tropes. Scream also revitalized the career of Wes Craven, a founding father of horror who made a name for himself with films like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Still, in the mid-‘90s Craven was trying to move away from the dark, violent cinema he was associated with in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed. As such, he initially turned Scream down.
“The turning point was when a kid came up to me at a film conference or a panel I was on,” Craven later recalled. “The kid said, ‘You know, you should really do a movie like The Last House on the Left again. You really kicked ass back then, and you haven’t done it since.’ I went home and I thought, ‘Am I getting soft?’ I’ve always had this ambivalence about doing violent films, and I’ve also had this other side that says, ‘This is your voice, this is what comes naturally to you. You do it really well, go do it.’ So I called Bob [Weinstein, producer] and off we went.”
19. RINGU (1998)
One of the most influential international horror films of all time, the success of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu helped Japanese horror “[break] out of its cult status” in the West, subsequently kicking off a wave of American remakes of Japanese horror films. Ringu was remade in 2002 by Gore Verbinski as The Ring, which made more money in Japan than its source material—though not much more; Ringu made approximately $13 million in Japan, compared to The Ring’s $14.1 million. Subsequent American remakes of Asian horror hits included The Grudge (originally Ju-On), Dark Water, and Pulse.
20. GET OUT (2017)
The most recent entry on this list, Get Out has already knocked out a few milestones. Two other horror films on this list, The Silence of the Lambs and The Exorcist, won the Oscar for Best Adapted screenplay, but Get Out is the only horror film to win for Best Original Screenplay; on top of that, writer/director Jordan Peele is to date the only black writer to win that award. Other Oscar noms for this scrappy horror underdog are Best Director (Peele), Best Lead Actor (Daniel Kaluuya) and Best Film.