10- Psycho ( 1960 )
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic was highly controversial at its debut. The story, about a lonely motel owner who had a tendency to kill his customers, dealt with gender dysmorphia, dissociative identity disorder, and the first toilet on American screens. The twists and turns are some of the best and most famous in the film, which led to Hitchcock insisting that theaters not let in anyone in after the movie started. Psycho isn’t just one of the greatest pieces of horror ever made, it’s the film that defined the modern conception of showtimes in the U.S.
09- Freaks ( 1932 )
A lot of classic films don’t have the same scares that they had when they were originally released. But there is something about 1932’s Freaks that still makes it chilling to this day. The film follows an acrobat who marries a sideshow dwarf, then conspires with her strongman boyfriend to kill him and take his money. When the circus entertainers discover her plan, their vengeance is worse than just murder. The controversial – perhaps exploitative – film cost Tod Browning (best known for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula) his career but is an unforgettable piece of cinema.
08- Scream ( 1996 )
Scream redefined the slasher film. Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s meta script brought both senses of humor and scare to the subgenre by having its self-aware victims understand the “rules” of horror movies when a killer stalks their small California town, turning their murder into a game. They know who the first to die is, what to do, and what not to do. It’s fun, it’s scary, and it has one of the best early twists of any horror film: killing off the biggest name in the cast, Drew Barrymore, in the first few minutes of the film. Priceless.
07- Saw ( 2004 )
Saw received mixed reviews when it was first released. Many critics saw it as just another cheap, gory entry into the horror market, but the film overcame its “torture porn” subgenre and secured James Wan as a creative master of simple horror. Two men find themselves chained up in a dilapidated bathroom with instructions on how they can escape. It sets up a dangerous game that requires various captives to partake in games that pit their own selfish needs against consideration for others. Without Saw, we may not have had any of the Saw sequels – but wouldn’t have Insidious or The Conjuring either.
06- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ( 1974 )
Tobe Hooper’s first feature film, Texas Chain Saw Massacre (yes, the proper way to spell the original film’s title is with “chainsaw” as two words) is a grimy piece of horror history. In TCM, a group’s car breaks down on a trip across Texas and they’re terrorized by Leatherface, a psychopath wearing human skin, who eats the flesh of his victims and uses their bones as accessories. Brutal, raw, and controversial, Hooper had every death takes place offscreen thanks to clever editing and sound design. But the sheer off-puttingness of the film’s powerful sense of dread and place secured it an R rating anyway. We totally understand.
05- Suspiria ( 1977 )
Suspiria was not Dario Argento’s first film, but it’s certainly his best known – and one of his most beautiful. An American travels to Germany to attend a prestigious ballet academy but soon discovers the school is run by witches. Murders, maggots, and mayhem follow. Drenched in gorgeous, vibrant colors (most significantly red), the film has one of the most magnificent death scenes in modern cinema, where a woman is attacked multiple times before finally being hung from a noose and thrown through a stained-glass skylight. The huge shards of glass impale her friend on the floor below. Visually stunning gore. With a score by Italian band Goblin, Suspiria is a pulsating, haunting, insane piece of filmmaking.
04- The Exorcist ( 1973 )
The Exorcist is considered by many to be the scariest film ever made. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, the film follows a possessed child, and the dual priest team sent to exorcise her. The film received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, marking it as the first (and still one of the few) horror films to be nominated for Best Picture. The intense acting and terrifying special effects created such an effective film that the production itself was rumored to be cursed. Nearly everyone associated with the film was injured, fell ill, or suffered a death in the family – and the whole set almost burned to the ground. Where’d we leave the holy water?
03- Night of the Living Dead ( 1968 )
The film that launched the modern zombie genre never calls it’s undead “zombies.” In his script, George Romero referred to them as “ghouls.” Romero raised $6,000 to shoot his first feature film – and one that would forever change the horror landscape. The plot is very simple: a pair of siblings are visiting their father’s grave when they are set upon by those that should be dead. They seek shelter with a group of survivors in an old farmhouse to wait out the invasion. The film is often seen as being a commentary on race relations in the United States and an indictment against the Vietnam War, but like the best horror, it blends its commentary with a heaping helping of terror.
02- Nightmare on Elm Street ( 1984 )
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, was killed by the mob justice of local parents. But when the undead Freddy reaches their children through dreams, continuing his rampage under cover of darkness, the joke is on them.
01- Halloween ( 1978 )
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 truly out of this world.