The quality of any film is subjective, and it’s especially true of horror. For one thing, the core concept of a film intended to scare its own audience is so precarious that many people avoid the genre altogether. Plus, just as comedic tastes vary wildly from person to person, our life experiences differ in such a way that what shakes one viewer to the very core of their being may disappear from another viewer’s memory the moment the lights go up.
That’s why in conceiving this breakdown of the greatest horror films of all time, I’m shedding any pretense of objectivity or balance. That doesn’t mean the list lacks variety, though. From iconic classics to under-the-radar gems, here are the best movies to watch when you’re looking for spooks, scares, and just a damn good movie.
10. Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Starring Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, and Imogen Poots
“Nazi punks fuck off!” Jello Biafra sang on the Dead Kennedys song of the same name. It may as well be the title of this nail-biting horror-thriller that’s structured like a haunted house movie, if the house was haunted by neo-nazis rather than ghosts.
Green Room is the story of a struggling hardcore punk band that unwittingly plays a show at a remote venue run by skinheads. To make matters worse, they witness a murder after their show, finding themselves trapped in their green room as bloodthirsty white supremacists (led by an against-type Patrick Stewart) wait outside. Equal parts bleak and cathartic, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier balances the movie's intensity with a dry sense of humor that should be particularly gratifying for punk fans.
9. Jacob’s Ladder (1990, dir. Adrian Lyne)
Starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, and Danny Aiello
It’s rare for a scary movie to end on a warm and fuzzy note after thoroughly terrifying the audience, but this richly emotional psychological horror classic earns its bittersweet ending.
Jacob’s Ladder follows Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), an American veteran who returns home from Vietnam in the early 1970s to experience a series of surreal hallucinations, soon becoming convinced that they're the result of an insidious government conspiracy. As the mystery unravels, Singer’s trauma and heartbreak are emphasized as much as his fear… but that only serves to make the horror more potent.
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986, dir. John McNaughton)
Starring Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, and Tracy Arnold
Henry wouldn’t be on this list if I didn’t think it was great, but that doesn’t make it easy to recommend. Almost every horror film deserves a content warning just by virtue of its genre, but seriously, please don’t watch this one if you’re sensitive to realistic depictions of violence, including sexual assault and incest. John McNaughton’s grounded 'portrait' of Henry (Michael Rooker), loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, combines a grimey aesthetic with an uncompromisingly bleak story and unflinching violence. It’s as believable as horror movies get, which means it’s absolutely not for everyone.
For audiences who can handle it though, Henry is a rewarding, if harrowing experience. In telling a recognizably horrific story about an already-dangerous man who develops a taste for murder without the stylization that characterizes the vast majority of horror movie violence, McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire’s script works as a condemnation of our societal obsession with serial killers. The chilling psychological profile of Henry allows us to empathize with him, but never sympathize. Right up until the unforgettable finale, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer reminds us that there’s nothing glamorous or romantic about people like him.
7. Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, and Vera Miles
All these decades later, after endless analyses, homages, and parodies, that shower scene is still utterly terrifying for audiences who can commit to actually sitting down and watching Psycho from front to back. That’s because the rest of the film surrounding that kill (and the iconic Bernard Herrmann score that punctuates it) is such a finely-crafted exercise in suspense. Generations of horror films, especially slashers, would build upon what Hitchcock pioneered, but few live up to the nigh-mathematical perfection with which the Master of Suspense constructed each of Psycho's scares.
If you’re lucky enough to watch Psycho for the first time, go in as blind as possible. All I’ll tell you is that it’s about a woman (Janet Leigh) who tries to escape from some bad trouble she got herself into, and makes the unfortunate mistake of checking into the Bates Motel. Other than that, just sit back and enjoy the frightening ride.
6. Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and Harry Dean Stanton
People talk a lot about movies that “can’t be made today,” and while that’s generally a useless way to talk about art, I remain convinced that if Alien had somehow been locked in a vault before its 1979 premier and hadn’t see the light of day until this year, it would still be a massive hit. Almost half a century after H.R. Giger designed the iconic Xenomorph (which I prefer to call “the alien from Alien”), this masterpiece of extraterrestrial terror has hardly aged a day.
Plotwise, what struck me most about Alien in my most recent viewing is that before we get to the killer alien on the loose, it’s essentially a futuristic workplace drama. The crew of the Nostromo aren’t family, friends, lovers, or even loyal soldiers like the cast of James Cameron’s equally beloved 1986 sequel Aliens. They’re just coworkers, who aren’t particularly close with one another, and just want to do their job well enough so they can get paid and go home. Come for the scares, stay for the social commentary on capitalism and corporate exploitation.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, and Maribel Verdú
All of Guillermo Del Toro’s films explore the 'man is the real monster' theme, and all but one (the imaginative yet clumsy Mimic) are very-good-to-great. Yet it’s Pan’s Labyrinth where his greatest talents come together most elegantly, from the beautifully grotesque creature design (shepherded by Del Toro’s go-to creature performer, Doug Jones), to the gut-wrenching yet big-hearted story of hapless victims of fascism desperately holding on to what little they have.
Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in Francoist Spain shortly after the Spanish Civil War, where a girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) becomes convinced that her evil stepfather’s (Sergi López) home is surrounded by fantastical, dangerous creatures. It’s actually a very loose sequel to Del Toro’s earlier film about the Spanish Civil War, the similarly excellent The Devil’s Backbone (two characters make blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos in Labyrinth), so watch that first to get the most out of Pan, but they can be watched in any order.
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski)
Starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon
I don’t begrudge anyone for whom Polankski’s disturbing criminal history keeps them away from his films, but judged on its own merits, Rosemary’s Baby is still a masterclass in understated horror. The script is a tight expression of paranoia and betrayal, Mia Farrow gives the horror genre one of its all-time greatest performances, and even (especially?) with most of the terror taking place offscreen in the audience’s imagination, the oppressively creepy atmosphere makes for an unforgettably haunting experience.
Based on Ira Levin’s 1967 novel of the same name, Rosemary’s Baby is about a young housewife (Farrow) who is unwittingly manipulated into becoming impregnated by The Devil himself. If you’ve ever had the sneaking suspicion that dark forces (including those you thought you could trust) are conspiring against you, it’s more relatable than many of us may care to admit.
3. Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele)
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, and Bradley Whitford
Perhaps the most iconic horror film of the 21st century so far, Get Out isn’t just a cultural phenomenon as a blockbuster commentary on American racism, but a masterclass in horror’s potential for razor-sharp, nuanced political satire. With his directorial debut, erstwhile Key and Peele comedian Jordan Peele instantly shed any supposed baggage of his funnyman reputation making a drastic shift in genre… while maintaining a twisted sense of humor.
Even if you already think you know all of Get Out’s themes and story beats through cultural osmosis, you still owe it to yourself to see how it all plays out if you haven’t yet. You probably know that it’s about a young Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who discovers a terrifying secret while visiting his white girlfriend’s (Alison Williams) family for the first time, but Peele’s Academy Award-winning screenplay is a dense puzzlebox that rewards multiple viewings.
2. The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers)
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, and Kate Dickie
Most folks today probably know that the Salem Witch Trials and similar practices were a load of BS that mostly served to suppress dissent, especially among women, in Puritan society. But what if there actually were witches on the fringes of these communities? Why would a Puritan woman choose to become a witch? Writer-director Robert Eggers’ painstakingly-researched and challenging debut feature can be interpreted many different ways, but for this critic, that’s the most fascinating question
The Witch follows a Puritan family who is forced to live on their own in the wilderness after being banished from their New England community, quickly followed by the mysterious and sudden disappearance of baby Samuel. As accusations reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible fly, the slow-burn pace and period-accurate dialogue won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Yet for patient viewers, it’s not only one of the smartest horror films ever produced, but also one of the scariest. Fueled by oppressive dread and a dreary atmosphere rather than jump scares or cheap fake-outs, don’t skip this one if thou wish to live deliciously.
1. Hereditary (2018, dir. Ari Aster)
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro
The night I got home from the theater after seeing Hereditary for the first time, I sat upright on my bed for what felt like hours, trying to process what I just experienced. It’s not just that Hereditary is the most viscerally scary film I’ve ever seen, but its drama forces the audience to examine the relationship between fear and sadness. Ari Aster’s debut feature explores one of the most universal human fears: the death of a loved one. Characters lose loved ones in horror films all the time, of course, but no other horror film confronts grief as directly as Ari Aster does in exploring how loss can destroy a family.
Hereditary starts with the death of an elderly woman who proved unpopular within her family, soon followed by a far more shocking death, so don’t watch it if you recently lost a loved one or are otherwise not in the right emotional space. But if you’re ready to give into Hereditary's raw, uncompromising vision, it can be transformative. The most powerful horror films are the ones that allow you to come away with a new perspective on your greatest fears, which makes us better equipped to cope with them. Hereditary does that better than any film I’ve ever seen.