From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to The Devil’s Backbone (2001), these are the 50 best horror movies of all time.
No other genre in cinema can best represent the strong impact of moving images like horror. Horror films can strangely disconnect us from the horrors of our life. And at times satiate our quench for adrenaline. I greatly respect this genre for its capacity to stir up haunting new experiences each time. So here are some of what I consider the best horror movies, ordered chronologically, that every fan needs to watch. I have combed through different eras of cinematic history to excavate these gems.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Robert Wiene’s iconic horror feature of the German Expressionist movement was also credited as the first film to introduce ‘twist ending’. The bizarre diagonals and slants in the frames plus the dreamlike logic provided depth to its central theme of fractured mental state. The deceptive, multi-layered nature of the screenplay could be savored in repeat viewings.
2. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
This proto-horror Swedish Silent film is an impressive parable of moral despair, grief, and redemption. Director Sjostrom’s visuals served as reference point for later era legendary filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. The use of double exposure and match cuts to represent ghostly illusion was one of cinema’s oldest special effects. But it also has spiritual depth apart from the unsettling visual trickery.
3. Haxan (1922)
Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan precedes Danish filmmaker Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in dealing with horrific reality of the middle ages. Haxan is a documentary-style horror film dealing with historical facts of black magic and the inquisition. Apart for the amazing visual flourishes, like the creation of demon, the film has stronger themes. It boldly dealt with themes of misogyny and sanctimonious behavior, in order to condemn the systematic slaughter and enslavement of women.
4. Nosferatu (1922)
Critics lauded Murnau’s expressionist horror as ‘the poetry of fear.’ The silent film doesn’t boast many scare tactics, but film lovers could appreciate the flawless design of the morbid atmosphere. Nosferatu is an unauthorized adaptation of immortal story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This movie opened the flood-gates in cinema for the vampire sub-genre. Max Schreck’s portrayal of the hideous Count Orloff still evokes a creepy feeling.
5. Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney’s silent classic Phantom in 1925 gave one of the foremost ‘jump scare’ moments for cinema viewers. This grand, gothic melodrama is about a crazy, disfigured, bereft musician, dwelling in the dungeons of a Paris Opera house. Despite the out-dated acting style of the other cast members, Lon Chaney as Phantom succeeds in bringing menace while evoking ineffable sadness.
6. A Page of Madness aka Kurutta Ippeji (1926)
This less seen avant-garde Japanese silent horror production was inspired by German Expressionist classic Dr. Caligari (1920). This legendary silent film is set in a mental asylum, where the stylized images alternate between saner and deranged perspective. Despite the lack of inter-titles, the haunting imagery and dedicated performances keep us intrigued throughout the 70 minutes.
7. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Paul Leni’s superb gothic horror is one of the last best works of German Expressionism era. Full of bewildering frames and unique production design, The Man Who Laughs is both touching and terrifying. Conrad Veidt’s sensitive performance as the man with a freakish grin is one of the finest piece of acting of the silent era. Even modern horror filmmakers can’t come close to director Leni’s eye for detailing.
8. Frankenstein (1931)
The psychological inquiries and existential questions of Mary Shelley’s monster story will resonate in human minds across different generations. James Whale’s adaptation brilliantly played with audience’s fears and sympathies for the flat-headed monster. Boris Karloff’s sad-eyed performance as Frankenstein’s monster plus the gothic sets remain some of the most iconic elements of horror genre.
9. Vampyr (1932)
Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s grim, strange vampire tale was one of the earliest films to transcend certain visual modes or rules of cinema. The power of suggestion employed here strongly influenced future filmmakers. Its disorienting visuals explored archetypal horror themes like madness, which became staple elements of modern horror.
10. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale’s gripping sequel to Frankenstein (1931) blended satirical humor and macabre factors. The result is a bit campy and a wholly heart-rending story. From a visual standpoint, this film seems even better than the original, thanks to more delightful impressionistic sets. The bride creation scene and the entire climax were astoundingly realized on screen.
11. Dead of Night (1945)
Horror anthologies are hard to pull off. All it needs is one insipid story to lose viewers’ interest and the whole framework would look like a charade. But Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is one rare horror anthology which could be dubbed as a ‘masterpiece.’ The film is set in a beautiful country cottage, where the guests share terrible, bizarre stories. The final segment ‘The Ventriloquists Dummy’ is the most memorable one. It has influenced the later generations of horror filmmakers.
12. Les Diaboliques (1955)
The tangible sense of foreboding etched in French filmmaker H.G. Clouzot’s 1955 murder mystery is its greatest strength. Its visual construction and occasional scenes of terror are the pinnacle of cinematic suspense. The less learned about the plot, the more you’re likely to enjoy. Despite the contrived nature of the plot, Clouzot transforms it into a scarily believable scenario.
13. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel’s paranoid horror has a very simple premise. Aliens are replacing people of a peaceful community. From a metaphorical or allegorical point of view, the narrative offers no depth. But still it’s so much engaging and fun, coated with all vital ingredients for a good B-movie. Filmed in glorious black-and-white, it should be watched for the unnerving paranoid atmospherics. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake was also equally engaging.
14. Psycho (1960)
The way Hitchcock promoted Psycho tells a lot about audience’s ceaseless fascination for scary films. With a strict ‘no late admission’ policy, the great director even exerted control on how the viewers should experience his movie. As a result long queues formed outside the theaters, and relentless screams were heard during the famous ‘shower scene’. It’s a genuinely ground-breaking piece of work in the horror genre.
15. House of Usher (1960)
Roger Corman’s adaptation of gothic horror tale of Poe is enriched by lavish production and Vincent Price’s menacing presence. Some of the imagery to evoke suspense may seem dated now. But Corman excels in showcasing the claustrophobia of Usher mansion. Despite little diversions, the film’s mood preserves the spirit of Poe’s prose. Jean Epstein’s silent movie era adaptation in 1925 of the same tale was also a very decent version. I’d also strongly recommend Corman’s other adaptations of Poe’s stories.
16. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Georges Franju’s horror masterpiece’s story line may make it seem like a campy, disreputable feature. But the lyrical visuals turn the banal elements into one of the most haunting, unique vision of love and insanity. From the eerie mask of frail Christiane to the perturbing musical score, the film’s aura elevates the basic, pulpy premise into a gothic art.
17. The Haunting (1963)
‘A house that was born bad…’ goes the description of Hillhouse in Robert Wise’s The Haunting. But unlike in most haunted house movies, the alleged ghost here doesn’t appear in full view. The film evoked more terror through repeating, dull thuds, door knobs turning and the women protagonists’ breakdown. The psychological twist adds extra, disturbing layers to the seemingly simple story line.
18. The Birds (1963)
Garden birds turn against mankind. A plot that verges on the banal is transformed into a genuinely terrifying film by the legend Alfred Hitchcock. Once the attack starts, we are treated to unique visual ideas, especially the unforgettable God shot. Hitchcock cleverly avoided using music for the film. The sound of birds rounding up was more frightening than a soundtrack.
19. Kaidan aka Kwaidan (1964)
Masaki Kobayashi’s visually enchanting psychological horror is full of expansive sets and complex painted backdrops. It tells four seemingly unrelated strange puzzles of stories which precede the eeriness later felt in Tales from the Crypt. The glacial pace may make some horror movie fans a bit restless, but those who appreciate German Expressionism would relish the movie’s extraordinary visual schemes.
20. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Right from the unsettling opening lullaby to the final remark, ‘the boy has his father’s eyes,’ Polanski maintains a potent mood of paranoia and eeriness. The film is one of the best slow-burn horrors ever made, gradually pulling the viewers into its doubtful, dreadful atmosphere. It also works as a satire on the corruption of high-society types and a commentary on the persistent dismissal of women’s concerns. Mia Farrow’s phenomenal performance adds much to the simmering nightmare.
21. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
One of the best movies to stream on Tubi right now, George Romero’s remarkable debut changed the face of independent horror movies. It set precedent for the unpredictable and more maniacal non-Hollywood tales, created by the likes of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hopper, etc. For modern zombie horror fans, the nightmarish vision may seem a bit dulled. Nevertheless, the embedded political and social commentary (from racial segregation to Vietnam War) still retains its sharpness.
22. The Exorcist (1973)
Few horror films shocked viewers like this one, when it first came out. This tale of a single mother with a possessed teenage daughter weaved an atmosphere of dread unlike anything seen onscreen. Friedkin’s adept direction, profound characterizations, excellent ensemble cast and genuine scares still boast the power to create a spine-chilling experience.
23. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece is stunningly photographed and edited with an uncanny rhythm which powers the visuals to reverberate in our minds. It tells the tale of tender parents (magnificently performed by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) of a dead child, who move to the pungent as well as beautiful atmosphere of Venice. A brilliant meditation on grief and death, the film’s power is fully experienced in repeat viewings.
24. The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy’s essential horror classic relied on the dreadful elements lurking inside a human psyche rather than some monster. The film is devoid of blood and gore and starts off as a simple, missing person drama. The desolate atmosphere and its humans, however, soon reveal the shocking layers beneath. Since humans will forever remain slaves to harsh perspectives and rigid beliefs, The Wicker Man won’t lose its relevance.
25. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The road trip of five youngsters descends to hell when their path crosses a monstrous clan living in rural Texas. Relentless and raw are the words that perfectly describe this aural-visual assault on our senses. Although the film has its share of bloodbaths, its disturbing factor lies in the implications of violence. Modern horror flicks, belonging to the same sub-genre, innovatively design violence but fail to conjure up tension and suspense of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
26. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s greatest blockbuster entertainment taps on our primordial sense of fear. The tricky editing and sudden looming of shock images create as much dread and tension as the great white shark. Spielberg’s superb orchestration of fear is perfectly balanced with the trio’s magnetic performances. It’s an impeccable mixture of set pieces and a well-defined story. John Williams’ unforgettable soundtrack soars up the menace and frenzy to unbearable levels.
27. Carrie (1976)
Based on Stephen King’s first novel, Brian de Palma’s Carrie tells the sad, hysterical tale of a late-blooming, telekinetic outcast girl. The narrative wouldn’t have been powerful if not for Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, who astoundingly conveys the characters’ yearning for acceptance. Despite an uneven script, this film reached the higher echelons of horror cinema because of Palma’s visual flamboyance. The climax prom scene was one of the most perfectly realized scenes in the history of horror films.
28. The Omen (1976)
Richard Donner’s satanic imagery in The Omen confirmed to the era’s obsession (in Hollywood) of weaving horror tales about demonic forces. Like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen too dwelt upon the Christian fear for chaos and ruination. Donner masterfully sets up the film’s menacing tone. The film’s impeccable score is yet another example for music being an unsettling psychological force.
29. Suspiria (1977)
Critics dubbed Dario Argento’s Suspiria a slasher film for art-house viewers. Eerie score, detailed color schemes, and impulsive set designs kept viewers on the edge, despite a pretty simple story line. Argento’s horror flicks belonged to a sub-genre called ‘giallo,’ in which the terror is created through masterfully constructed mood. Of course, the giallo movies were often criticized for its sexist set-ups. It’s a style-over-substance film that’s still capable of shocking us.
30. House (1977)
Group of girls on a vacation to a haunted house is a cliched plot line in the horror genre. This Japanese horror. although, is anything but clichéd and predictable. It has the overly bright frames of Dario Argento, punctuated with a goofy tone, later well-crafted by Sam Raimi (in Evil Dead). Director Obayashi who came from advertising and experimental film world concocts bizarre images that still have the energy to thoroughly baffle us.
31. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s ingenious sequel to Night of the Living Dead starts off with a chaotic, perfectly mounted scene at a TV station. From then on, it is a cynical and devastating detour into urban wastelands. The central piece set in a suburban mall still exudes lot of appeal. Apart from the excellent commentary on unrestrained consumerism, the film’s chief strength lies in its attempt to weave a dark satire than going for easy scare tactics.
32. Halloween (1978)
Hitchcock said, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it’. John Carpenter’s clever aesthetics stay true to the legendary director’s words. A whole hour passes away before we get a clear view of the monstrous killer in ‘Halloween.’ But the dreadful ambience from the first scene keeps us on the edge. Carpenter’s musical theme boosted the scary quotient. Michael Myers, like his cinematic predecessors Leatherface and Norman Bates, is a terrifying symbol of familial dysfunction.
33. Alien (1979)
‘Ridley Scott’s effective hybridization of sci-fi and horror genre works as a master-class in sustaining tension and evoking a chilling response. Right from the moment USCSS Nostromo cruises through silent space, we sense an ominous feeling that something very bad is going to happen. It is the flawless mixture of sci-fi, psychological thriller and classic horror genres.
34. The Shining (1980)
Legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film The Shining has often attracted viewers who aren’t very appreciative of horror genre. One of the greatest haunted house movies, it’s a terrifying study of madness and isolation. Kubrick’s great efficiency at creating a frightful aural-visual experience is matched by Jack Nicholson’s magnificent performance. The Overlook Hotel remains one of the scary movie places, up there with Bates mansion and Georgetown steps.
35. The Evil Dead (1981)
Eerie cabin in the woods, group of friends, a recording, and a mysterious book – these are the elements that bestowed a grueling horror movie experience. Sam Raimi’s quirky style, Bruce Campbell’s fun performance and the gore effects delved viewers into visceral thrills. Some of the effects and make-up haven’t aged well, yet it makes us appreciate the creativity behind the carnage (made on a minuscule budget).
36. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 sci-fi movie is best known for its bleak atmosphere and stomach-churning, gory visual effects. Set in a remote Antarctic base, a scientific crew stumbles upon and then falls prey to an alien with incredible shape-shifting qualities. The unfathomable details of the alien horror in The Thing rest on the territory of H.P. Lovecraft stories. The remarkable production values and the ambiguous climax still stand up well today.
37. Re-Animator (1985)
Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s splatter-fest story is filled with severed body parts and a macabre sense of humor. The perfect timing for sick humor and cheap practical effects may instantly engage you or provoke you to switch it off (of course midnight movies are not for all). The gory set pieces possess the power to arouse glee and distress in equal measures. Don’t forget to watch the extended version which runs 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version.
38. The Fly (1986)
Based on an obscure short story from 1957, David Crononberg’s body horror is one of the most stomach-churning movies ever made. It tells the story about a scientist’s pivotal experiment gone totally wrong. Jeff Goldblum’s central performance is huge part of the reason why the film is so disturbing. Under the grotesque make-up, Goldblum perfectly expresses his decaying humanity. Cronenberg’s visceral horror chills us more with gory details than with jumpscares.
39. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Cinema’s portrayal of serial killers and murderers often settles with the label ‘monster.’ Then there’s also the notion of viewers being mere spectators, witnessing mayhem as a form of entertainment. John McNaughton’s Henry twists these portrayals and ideas to plunge us deeper into an atmosphere of evil. He shows how the so-called ‘monstrous’ qualities rise from a surrounding of everlasting desolation. While the movie’s extreme violence and sexual imagery created censorship controversies, the palpable disturbing factor is the nonchalant eyes of Michael Rooker’s Henry.
40. Evil Dead II (1987)
While the first Evil Dead is a straight horror, this equally good sequel is designed more for laughs. Of course, it doesn’t go soft on gore and jump scares. Sam Raimi’s manic energy, practical effects, and stop-motion demons look marvelous than the overly perfect CGI scare tactics. Campbell Ash cutting off his wrist with a chainsaw remains one of the most interesting moments in horror movie legend.
41. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In cinema’s hall of fame for legendary villains, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter will have a prominent presence. Silence of the Lambs is the story of a young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who investigates the killings of a serial killer by seeking help from an imprisoned, genius killer. Horror can stem from different aspects. In this film, it heightens from the intellectual tug-of-war between the FBI agent and the serial killer.
42. Cure (1997)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ambiguous serial-killer horror is so different from the cat-and-mouse game played in Hollywood movies. This film is more about the terrifying atmosphere than the neatly structured plot. It’s a meditation on the nature of identity in a constrained, alienated society.
43. The Ring (1998)
Hideo Nakata’s The Ring stands at the forefront of J-horror sub-genre. Although David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) dealt with malign force through video source, The Ring was a more visceral and chilling experience. Its visual techniques to induce high suspense and tension created a big impact among the post-modern horror features.
44. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Manoj Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a riveting psychological horror about death and its manifestations. The film’s glacial pace makes it more evocative and powerful (unlike the director’s later works). This is the tale of a little boy who lives in a constant of terror due to the tribulations caused by supernatural forces. Besides tension and thrills, there’s an abundance of genuine emotions.
45. Audition (1999)
The pangs of shock felt in Takashi Miike’s Audition are still fresh. The flawless non-linear screenplay, excellent performances, and Miike’s gentle pace punctuated with violent twists make this cult horror a great success. Like David Lynch’s masterful works, the film stays on the surface to begin with, only to later expose the profound filthiness lying beneath.
46. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
In this art-house horror, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro uses ‘ghost’ as a metaphor for the devastation created by war. The narrative unfolds in an isolated Spanish orphanage at the brink of the Spanish Civil War. It incites suspense through the environment rather than a complex story line. The brooding atmosphere reminds us of an Edgar Allan Poe story setting.
47. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is an altogether comedic take on Romero’s classic zombie territory. It has the perfect ‘loser’ characters. The humor arises from the characters’ reality and their baffled reactions to the extraordinary. While the director places tangible human emotions at the center, he also doesn’t shy away from bloody, graphic violence. Wright-Pegg duo perfectly knows when to push for laughs, pathos, and ghastliness.
48. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro once again verges into the Spanish Civil War period, providing a more potent story of a child surrounded by fascism. It’s an immensely moving story punctuated with phenomenal horror sequences. The horrors of the real world and a fantastical world have never been so beautifully merged. The Pale Man — the destroyer of fantasy — would forever linger in the memory of horror fans.
49. Let the Right One In (2008)
Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is a tale of adolescent friendship, littered with shocking bloodbaths and graphic violence. The protagonist is a 12-year old lonely outcast Oskar. He befriends Eli, who has been 12 years for quite some time (aka vampire). Alfredson’s flawless compositions subtly evoke an atmosphere of creepiness. Despite the bloody attacks, the film provokes more horror when it scares us with nuanced suggestions.
50. Kill List (2011)
There are two kinds of horror films. Those that lay out a concise and neatly tailored ending. And the other, that fascinate and frighten us ceaselessly without offering any explanations for the evil. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List belongs to the second kind. It’s a twisted piece of domestic drama, where an atmosphere of fear gradually heightens beyond the control of its characters. The film’s strength is in the way it keeps us baffled till the perturbing climax.
There we are! These are the greatest, the ultimate, the best horror movies ever made. And if you’re still with me, you’re quite clearly a voracious horror fan. Every list is of course, personal and hence, subjective. Which are your favourites of these? Tell me in the comments below.
Join us on Instagram for a new movie recommendation everyday.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’