The horror genre is arguably the hardest to get right. Even tougher than attempting to garner laughs in comedy films, horror filmmakers not only have to perfect the art of pacing and building tension, but they often need to locate something that sets them apart. This could be a variety of things — knowing their audience about the myriad subgenres within horror and really specializing in one; reflecting the neuroses and fears at the heart of the human subject through allegory; or, perhaps most crucially, having their finger on the pulse of contemporary sociopolitical issues and commentary, whether timeless or topical. This latter classification is often what makes scary movies truly important.
Whether they’re seeing slasher, supernatural, psychological, or body horror films, horror audiences are extremely well-informed and often overly critical of genre clichés. Alongside this, culture, morality, politics, and special effects technology are all changing constantly. As such, horror continuously has to reinvent itself, both for its audience and to keep up with the times. Some films have navigated this constant fluctuation extremely well and have become not just scary but utterly important in the process. Whether for their allegorical messages and theories, for their cultural impact, or just for being damn terrifying and visually stunning, these are 55 of not just the best horror movies ever made but the most important, too.
Updated on October 14th, 2023, by Ben Hathaway: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
65 Christine (1983)
After 1978’s Halloween, 1980’s The Fog, 1981’s Escape from New York, and, even with the lack of critical and commercial appreciation at the time, 1982’s The Thing, it seemed as though John Carpenter couldn’t miss. But adapting Christine, a Stephen King novel about a killer car, was a tall order.
Thankfully, the potentially silly concept translated sublimely to the screen, allowing Christine to work just as well as a film as it did a novel. This is partially thanks to Carpenter’s adherence to King’s complicated teen characters. But there’s also the director’s incredible score and a cast of performers perfectly suited for their respective roles. This is especially true of Keith Gordon’s masterful take on the sheepish-turned-sinister Arnie Cunningham.
64 Day of the Dead (1985)
Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are both universally deemed A-list horror ventures that are as effective now as they were in the 1960s and ’70s. But the trilogy capper, Day of the Dead, receives almost none of the same accolades. And that’s a shame, because just as the racism seen in Night of the Living Dead is still sadly very present in today’s real world (as is the consumerism seen in Dawn of the Dead), so too are the paranoia and infighting that populate Day of the Dead.
It also starts and ends with a terrific dream sequence, which often feels like a cheat but works entirely here. Not to mention, when performers and characters are as likable as Lori Cardille’s Sarah, Jarlath Conroy’s Bill, and Terry Alexander’s John, the audience would rather leave them on an island than be torn apart. Furthermore, there’s an argument to be made that Joseph Pilato’s work as Rhodes is the best to ever grace the Dead franchise.
63 Child’s Play (1988)
Killer dolls have been a staple of horror for quite some time now, and if there’s any reason for this (outside a particularly memorable The Twilight Zone with Telly Savalas), it’s Don Mancini’s Chucky of the Child’s Play franchise. It’s an IP that’s undergone several reinventions to stay alive, and unlike most A-list horror franchises, it’s one that has managed to stay both solid (for the most part) and culturally relevant.
Is 1988’s Child’s Play even the best of the franchise? Opinions vary, with 1990’s Child’s Play 2, 1998’s Bride of Chucky, and Syfy’s Chucky all having their very devoted fans. But the original is certainly the scariest, carrying a somewhat serious (but not too serious) tone that would be decreased in intensity as the franchise progressed.
62 Creepshow (1982)
The result of George A. Romero and Stephen King putting their heads together (along with a shared love for classic EC Comics, of course), Creepshow is one of the smartest, funniest, and creepiest horror flicks of the ’80s. Or, really, of any decade.
Loaded with pre-fame stars, terrific practical effects from Tom Savini, and a lengthy segment basically just starring Stephen King himself, there’s much to love about Creepshow, especially for King aficionados. Savini was, per usual, a particularly great addition to the production, as it’s his ability to recreate a comic book vibe on the screen that sells the experience as much as the writing and acting.
61 Friday the 13th (1980)
With 12 films and a prequel series on the way, horror IPs rarely have more longevity than Friday the 13th. Maligned by critics initially—though they’ve softened a bit on the first four over the years—but widely accepted by audiences, Sean S. Cunningham’s classic is basically shooting in the dark and hitting every target.
Some bash the acting, but the majority of the performances in the original film (including Kevin Bacon’s, of course) are from theater actors, and their work feels so organic it’s even harder to watch them die. It’s also a film loaded with eerie cinematography, effective music, and a handful of legitimately tense scenes, e.g. Annie temporarily evading Mrs. Voorhees, Ned entering the cabin, Jack’s death, and Alice’s discovery of Bill.
60 Jigoku (1960)
A tour de force of horror, Jigoku embodies the theme of unatoned wickedness, dealing with it with a sense of poetic justice. Nobuo Nakagawa’s film paints a horrific picture of infernal desires that tempt us during our existence and the cost they come at in the agonies of the afterlife.
The plot follows a young student who kills a yakuza member in a car crash and flees the scene instead of helping the man. After being ridden by guilt and the corruption of his conscience, the young man starts witnessing eerie happenings along with the emergence of a diabolical doppelgänger, all trying to drag him back down to hell.
59 Cure (1997)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s deep dive into the darkness of the human psyche is part atmospheric and part philosophical in nature. Operating on a twisted premise, the film plays out as a mystery with an eerie sense of the supernatural that can’t be explained by science, logic, or reason.
Cure picks up on the wave of a few gruesome murders that have rocked Tokyo and left everybody befuddled. The only connection the victims have is that there’s a bloody X carved into the victim’s neck along with the murderer being found right next to the victim, unable to remember anything about the crime. As Detective Takabe and psychologist Sakuma team up to solve the case, horrors beyond their comprehension rise to the surface.
58 The Lighthouse (2019)
Set against the backdrop of a remote island in the 1890s, two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) slowly find themselves losing their minds, succumbing to strange visions and weird happenings. Directed by the poster boy of gothic horror, Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse is one of the most visually stunning horror films of recent times.
Shot in black and white, the film captures the vast expanses of an isolated lighthouse, thoroughly at the mercy of a relentlessly wild ocean. Apart from great visuals and a taut script, the film also serves as a watershed moment in Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s careers as they play the role of two men who are on the cusp of insanity.
57 Rec (2007)
Rec is probably one of the most underrated horror films to come out of Spain in recent times. A cult classic of the found footage genre, Rec manages to leverage the tropes of the genre to add to the narrative, rather than just spook the viewer momentarily.
Directed by Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró, Rec does a brilliant job of building tension as it follows a TV host and her cinematographer accompanying a few firefighters on an emergency call. As the crew reaches the location and enters the apartment building, they come face to face with a barrage of bloodthirsty monsters with superhuman strength. Nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, the crew find themselves in a battle royale situation with the monsters, with their lives being on the line.
56 The Omen (1976)
When US diplomat Robert Thorn and his wife suffer from a miscarriage, Thorn adopts a newborn son without informing his wife. As the days progress, the couple begins to notice strange signs about their little boy before finally realizing that their new son, is the son of the devil.
Richard Donner’s 1976 classic features one of cinema’s creepiest children, masking a pure face behind a simmering sense of evil. Despite not being as terrifying as The Exorcist, or as tense as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen still holds up as one of the most sinister horror films to come out of the ’70s.
55 The Blob (1958)
The Blob remains the paragon of teen horror B-movies (even if Steve McQueen doesn’t pass as a teen, at almost 30). It’s a vibrantly colorful movie about hot rod youth and ineffective adults in a small town invaded by an extraterrestrial blob that grows bigger and bigger with everything it absorbs.
In all its cheesy glory, The Blob is a blast, but it’s also a surprisingly effective allegory for the American fear of Communism during the Cold War, or perhaps a critique of consumerist society. Either way, it’s a gooey, perfectly paced, schlocky delight. The 1988 remake is very good as well.
54 The Conjuring (2013)
Inspired by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring weaves a spellbinding tale of demonic possession. The Warrens face their most harrowing case, as they confront a malevolent presence that infests a secluded farmhouse. They must unravel the secrets hidden within the haunted walls and protect the innocent from unholy wrath.
With each spine-tingling encounter, the film heightens the suspense, immersing viewers in a realm of relentless fear. The movie’s plot serves as a reminder that sometimes the most terrifying monsters are the ones no one can see. The Conjuring captures the essence of supernatural horror, leaving audiences gripping their seats in anticipation (and jumping out of them from time to time).
53 Train to Busan (2016)
This South Korean masterpiece frenetically unravels a chilling tale of survival. A group of passengers (with a father and son at the center) finds themselves trapped on a speeding train amidst a merciless zombie outbreak. As chaos erupts, the passengers must band together to fight for their lives, navigating treacherous compartments filled with suspense.
Train to Busan splendidly utilizes its claustrophobic setting, as each carriage becomes a battleground for survival. With heart-pounding chase sequences, visceral zombie encounters, and heart-wrenching sacrifices, Train to Busan delivers a rollercoaster of emotions.
52 Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Of the eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by the great Roger Corman (and of the seven which starred Vincent Price), Masque of the Red Death may be the finest. It’s certainly the most cinematic and artistic, using a bold color palette explored in a series of ornate rooms throughout a castle in which a party is being held.
Price plays Satanist Prince Prospero, who stages an elaborate shindig while the bubonic plague rages outside his estate. A surprisingly lugubrious film that’s contrasted by its incredible production design, Masque of the Red Death remains one of the most underrated horror films of all time.
51 The Wailing (2016)
Set in a small village in South Korea, The Wailing follows the unsettling chain of events that unfold when a mysterious sickness befalls the community, which leads to suspicion and paranoia among all. After the series of gruesome murders, the village descends into chaos, and evil forces tighten their grip.
The Wailing expertly crafts an atmosphere of unease and confusion, blurring the lines between reality and the supernatural. It challenges the viewers’ perceptions and constantly keeps them on edge. The movie skillfully combines elements of horror, mystery, and psychological thriller, creating an experience that lingers long after the credits roll.
50 Host (2020)
One of the most recent horror masterpieces was also one of the very first films to emerge after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. A ‘right place, right time’ film, Host is an airtight, efficient little terror that reflected society’s collective fears and manifested them into some legitimately perfect jump scares.
Host follows a group of friends who hold a séance over Zoom, and with just gallery and speaker view, Rob Savage’s low-budget screen life film manages to be scarier than just about anything this decade. Host is COVID horror at its finest.
49 Gonjiam: The Haunted Asylum (2018)
In Gonjiam: The Haunted Asylum, a YouTube channel run by amateurs sends a team of investigators to the titular asylum in search of excitement and adventure (and the place does exist in real life). The team plans to conduct a live feed broadcast to check the veracity of the haunting rumors — which turn out to be all too true.
From its chilling atmosphere to its expertly crafted scares, Gonjiam: The Haunted Asylum grips viewers from the first haunting note and never lets them go. The found footage concept, while tired by this point in film history, is utilized wonderfully here, with some genuine jump scares and a horrific sense of escalating dread.
48 It (2017)
In the unlikely scenario of the student surpassing the teacher, this recreation of It brought a Stephen King classic (and the freaky clown that came with it) back to life when it premiered in 2017. A new set of outcasts faced the horrifying Pennywise, brought back from his watery grave by Bill Skarsgård.
While the shoes of Tim Curry were certainly heavy to fill, Skarsgård’s performance as The Dancing Clown was not to be outmatched. This love letter to the 1990 original was fiendishly frightening, and it single-handedly put the fictitious town of Derry, Maine, back on the map, inspiring many a cosplay in its wake. The massive success of the movie led to it becoming the highest-grossing horror film of all time.
47 The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is both a brilliant early American period piece and one of the creepiest movies of the last 10 years. It centers on a Puritan family who have been exiled from their early American settlement for an unnamed religious heresy and settled on a plot of untamed wilderness. Unfortunately for them, it soon becomes clear that witches haunt the woods surrounding their home.
The Witch begins with an incredibly spooky opening scene and becomes progressively deranged as it builds towards a truly bone-chilling ending. The entire thing is a fascinating, intellectual look at how women threatened religious and patriarchal values and how there is no way to start anew in America, even 400 years ago. If you want horror blended with history, The Witch should be of special appeal to you.
46 The Nightmare (2015)
A horror documentary and it’s actually scary? That’s right, The Nightmare is a rarity in the field of horror cinema. Unlike the many documentaries about aliens, bigfoot, and other creatures that try to creep you out with questionable evidence but lack any real cinematic qualities, The Nightmare is a visually stunning study of something real, namely sleep paralysis.
Through highly disturbing dramatic reenactments and moody interviews that are darkly lit and filled with dread, director Rodney Ascher (who so expertly deconstructed The Shining in his documentary Room 237) creates an informative and emotional documentary that legitimately functions as a superb horror film.