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 which sets them apart.
This could be a variety of things — knowing their audience in relation to 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.
Updated August 6th, 2023: To keep this article fresh and relevant by adding more information and entries, this article has been updated to truly represent the best horror movies ever made and features the opinions and input of several MovieWeb writers.
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.
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 actually 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 screenlife 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 really 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 horribly 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 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.
46 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 the ways in which 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.
45 The Ring (1998)
The Ring, also known as Ringu, is a Japanese supernatural horror movie based on the novel by Koji Suzuki. Not to be confused with the excellent 2002 remake starring Naomi Watts, this film starred Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, and Hiroyuki Sanada and almost single-handedly kickstarted the American craze of remaking J-horror films.
The Ring (and, technically, its remakes) are unique in that they inspired fear long before viewers sat down to watch thanks to clever viral marketing. The concept was simple – watch this cursed film, and, in doing so, become cursed yourself. Not just cursed, in fact, but doomed to die within the week. This begged the question… would watching this haunted VHS, even vicariously, lead to the death of its audience? Thankfully, the answer was a resounding no. Still, it helped introduce a whole new generation to horror and was an iconic way to mark the turn of the century and the many technological changes humanity endured.
44 Antichrist (2009)
Lars Von Trier has been through more phases than a teenager, but it was his later Depression Trilogy that brought out the infamous director’s most stylized and haunting work. Antichrist is a visually gorgeous slow-burn with powerhouse performances from its only two stars, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. They play a therapist and his wife who are mourning the loss of their young child.
Deciding to get away from it all at a cabin in the woods (never a good choice in horror), the therapist makes the mistake of attempting to heal his wife. But there is something very dark lurking within that cabin, and maybe within her. Not for the squeamish, Antichrist‘s morbid atmosphere builds to a crescendo of visceral violence that’s as shocking as anything seen in great arthouse cinema.
43 Re-Animator (1985)
The great Stuart Gordon spent his career trying to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories for the big screen, and succeeded the most with his laugh-out-loud, disgusting, over-the-top masterpiece, Re-Animator. Starring Jeffrey Combs at his all-time manic best as Herbert West, this gory take on the mad scientist film finds the good doctor experimenting on resurrecting the dead, with horrific and hilarious results. Check out the kooky sequel, Bride of Re-Animator, too.
42 Evil Dead 2 (1987)
While the original Evil Dead is a groundbreaking classic, it’s Evil Dead 2 that remains the best film of the franchise, and is also the best introduction to it. Half reboot, half sequel, Sam Raimi’s follow-up recounts the events that led to Ash being trapped in a creepy cabin, surrounded by demonic spirits.
Bruce Campbell’s unhinged performance is a delight, and he masters the slapstick horror of it all before the franchise got a bit too silly with Army of Darkness. Still super cool and a blast to this day, Evil Dead 2 is one of the greatest films to watch with friends.
41 Cat People (1942)
In many ways the progenitor of feminist horror cinema, the ways in which Cat People addresses female desire and social structures seems shocking for its early 1940s settings. Featuring a sublime performance from the downright feline Simone Simon, the film follows a recently married woman who begins to believe that she’s inherited a peculiar trait — she thinks she’ll turn into a black panther if she’s turned on.
It’s a premise that could be played for laughs or just pure cheesy ridiculousness, and yet, like nearly every horror film from producer Val Lewton, it’s deadly serious and very sophisticated. Master craftsman Jacques Tourneur directs his heart out, implementing film noir qualities and finding magical ways to evoke sensuality, arousal, and fear. While it’s hardly a scary film, it has a vibe all its own. The Paul Schrader remake 40 years later fails to reach the same cinematic heights, but it’s good nonetheless.
40 Pulse (2001)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation) is one of the best yet most underrated filmmakers of our time, and in the ’90s and early 2000s, he had a string of utter masterpieces, back to back. Cure, Charisma, Bright Future, and perhaps above all, Pulse, were some of the most original and intellectual Japanese films of the period, though they often get overlooked. Pulse may be Kurosawa’s best outright horror film, a deeply pessimistic study of loneliness and alienation in the technological world.
Set at the dawn of this new millennium, Pulse follows a disconnected set of people whose paths cross due to a series of disappearances and suicides. The internet is literally haunted in this film, and the result is apocalyptic. A truly brooding feature, Pulse remains one of the best (and spookiest) critiques of the post-digital era. Avoid the American remake at all costs.
39 Get Out (2017)
There’s not much that hasn’t already been said about this Blumhouse classic. An easy Oscar contender, Get Out was a crash course in low-budget movie-making, having been filmed over the course of 23 days with a measly $5 million budget. That being said, audiences didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it earned nearly $250 million worldwide. As a first-time director, Jordan Peele, who also served as writer and producer on the film, was the first African-American in those roles to earn more than $100,000 in a debut film. Not only that, he also picked up the 2018 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in the process.
What makes this a fantastic atmospheric horror movie is the general sense of unease throughout. Meeting the parents is always hard, but this is quite possibly the worst outcome imaginable. Inspired by films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, its ability to socially critique and inspire conversations about race relations will forever cement its status as a must-see film.
38 Let the Right One In (2008)
Bullies, beware! Let the Right One In is a Swedish horror film that reinvigorated the tired vampire genre upon its release in 2008. In it, a bullied young boy befriends a strange girl who shares with him her secret, one that just might have something to do with a murdered townsfolk or two. Will he become her Renfield as a result?
This film is based on the 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also served as the sole screenwriter for the film. Even with, or perhaps because of, the language barrier, this movie is absolutely unsettling. Its focus on the dark side of humanity, as told through mere ‘children,’ is what makes this film truly terrifying to watch.
37 Häxan (1922)
A truly special silent film unlike any other, Häxan feels like a secret home movie discovered from a group of ancient witches and devil worshipers. As such, it’s an anomaly among silent cinema, and feels actually authentic and creepy. The film is a quasi-documentary using the Malleus Maleficarum, the handbook used by Inquisitors to detect and try ‘witches,’ as its north star. It’s an anthology of sorts, dramatizing the use of witchcraft and Satanic activity throughout Western history.
In 1968, capitalizing on the counterculture, the Swedish silent film was re-edited with a captivating voiceover narration from the one and only William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junkie), and released as Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. It’s a very different film, and also an excellent one, though it lacks the mystery of the original masterpiece.
36 28 Days Later (2002)
The zombie genre had somewhat dried up by the turn of the 21st century, but 28 Days Later resurrected it from the dead, leading to a whole new zombie craze with films like Shaun of the Dead and series like The Walking Dead. The legendary Danny Boyle film emptied out London to create a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and used state-of-the-art digital cameras to capture every minute detail, resulting in a gorgeously washed out look that gets frenetic and intimate when it wants to.
Cillian Murphy stars as a man who wakes up in a hospital bed, having slept through the apocalypse. A viral outbreak has infected people with almost literal rage, and thus the ‘fast zombie’ was born. With an incredible soundtrack, a heartbreaking performance from Brendan Gleeson, and great work from Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Christopher Eccleston, 28 Days Later is a gritty, realistic, and emotional classic.
In conclusion, this film has captivated audiences with its mesmerizing storytelling, compelling performances, and stunning visuals. It has transported us to worlds both familiar and unknown, evoking a range of emotions that have left a lasting impact. The director’s artistic vision and the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew have brought this story to life in a truly extraordinary way. From the gripping plot twists to the heartfelt moments of connection, this film has reminded us of the power of cinema to inspire, entertain, and provoke thought.
Whether you’re a fan of the genre or simply a lover of great storytelling , this film is not to be missed. It’s a testament to the magic of filmmaking and serves as a reminder of the profound impact that movies can have on our lives. So grab your popcorn, sit back, and immerse yourself in this cinematic masterpiece.