From under-seen Laird Cregar vehicles to a Russian chiller based on a Nikolai Gogol story, from J-Horror to the Mexican gem “Alucarda,” these are the best horror movies the genre has to offer.
Why does it feel like horror movies are always undervalued? One thing’s for sure: In this age of geekery reigning supreme and critics, academics no longer dismiss the genre as disreputable with the knee-jerk regularity some once did. But even now, there’s talk of “elevated horror,” of artier explorations of dread and terror — Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” being two very recent examples of movies that are clearly distinguished from the section of well and non-elevated horror. The idea is that they engage your brain more than just showing brains being splattered against the wall.
You may disagree that The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever, but it probably isn’t a surprise to see it at the top of our list — with a whopping 19% of all the votes cast. William Friedkin’s adaptation of the eponymous novel about a demon-possessed child and the attempts to banish it led to the creation of a movie that became the highest-grossing R-rated horror film ever created and the first to be nominated for The Best Picture at the Oscars (it earned nine other nominations and took home two trophies).
But outside of its critical and commercial bona fides, the film is well-known for the mass hysteria it inspired across the country, from protests over its controversial subject matter to widespread nausea and fainting reports in the audience. Its dramatic pacing and somewhat dated effects may seem quaint compared to some contemporary horror, but there’s no denying in the fact that the film continues to have over those who still see it for the first time.
James Wan has staked out a place among the modern masters of horror, directing films like Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious, and The Weeping Women. This film is inspired by-true-events and its story is based upon the experiences of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens, best known for their work on the strange case that inspired the Amityville Horror movies (which played a part in The Conjuring 2), were portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who grounded the effective jump scares and freak-out moments with a believable world-weariness. Together, Wan and his co-leads found fresh terror in familiar genre tropes, and the result is a sprawling cinematic universe that only continues to grow.
James Wan has already shown up higher on the list, but before he and Patrick Wilson made The Conjuring, they worked together on this supernatural thriller about a young boy who falls into a coma and begins to channel a malevolent spirit. The stories bare-bones weren’t the most groundbreaking, but frequent Wan collaborator Leigh Whannell infused it with a compelling enough mythology that spawned three more installments. Wan also stated that Insidious was meant to be something of a corrective to the outright violence of Saw, which compelled him to craft something on a more spiritual level, and the result is an effective chiller featuring what is frequently regarded as one of the best jumps scares ever put on screen.
A classic scare film, the original Halloween was far less bloody and graphic than some of its endless sequels and reboots. The story follows Michael Myers, who kills his parents as a child and is institutionalized. He escapes as an adult and continues his killing spree. What makes the original Halloween scarier than its contemporaries is its blend of realism and the supernatural. Myers is undoubtedly human, yet he lacks anything that could be considered human. He seems unstoppable, yet his only “superpower” seems to be sociopathy. The expressionless mask and creepy, simple score by director John Carpenter make the already scary villain seem genuinely out of this world.
Nightmare on Elm Street
The opposite of Michael Myers in almost every way, Freddy Krueger is chatty and expressive. As the sequels go on, he gets more and more ridiculous, but in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, he was appropriately menacing with a burned visage based on cheese pizza. The child molester and murderer, set free due to a technicality, were killed by local parents’ mob justice. But when the undead Freddy reaches their children through dreams, continuing his rampage under cover of darkness, the joke is on them.