25 best horror movies

The horror genre is home to a lot of low-budget schlock, making it hard for a viewer to determine what's good and what's a waste of time. Fortunately, your pals at Looper are here to help with a look at 15 of the best films the genre has to offer.

Though these movies are vastly different in subject matter and tone—some of them aren't even all that scary, relative to others on the list—there are a few factors that tend to tie them together. Smart protagonists that feel like real people populate almost every entry, making it easier to relate to the action and sympathize with characters' success or failure. Unique production design plays a role as well; part of what makes these movies so exemplary is their tendency to do things that you've never seen before. As such, not all of these are for everybody. But they're all great films on their own terms, regardless of genre. It's horror you remember, with frights you might wish to forget.

The Descent (2005)

This one's scary before the monsters even show up. Claustrophobes be wary, if you've got a fear of being trapped in tight spaces, this is one of the scariest movies of all time: the unique story of a group of female cavers who get lost in the uncharted depths beneath America. By the time it takes an us-vs.-them turn toward the midway point, you're already thoroughly freaked out by the terror of the tunnels. It's a top-notch horror experience that gets taken to the next level when the heroes stop spelunking and have to start caving in monsters' skulls, fighting for survival (and sometimes fighting each other) while wading through surrealistic lakes of blood. Be sure to catch the version with the original ending, which was deemed too dark for U.S. audiences and cut from the theatrical release.

Martyrs (2008)

Profoundly disturbing to the point of being unwatchable, this French film was one of the progenitors of the French "extreme horror" movement, and earned that distinction in every single way. From the opening sequence, which depicts the absolutely brutal, chillingly merciless shotgun murder of an entire family, the movie only gets harder to watch, taking unpredictable, screaming left turns into realms of physical and psychological torment. There are stretches, including scenes involving relentless dispassionate harm inflicted on a kidnapped woman, that you can only watch in disbelief, with your jaw hanging open—if you can even watch them at all. A "curiosity killed the cat" parable about revenge, mercy, and humanity's search for meaning, it's unlike anything you've ever seen, because parts of it are so unpleasant that most filmmakers would never dare to go there. We're not messing around with this one—it's one of the greatest horror movies of all time because it taps into a vein of true, visceral fear, challenging you to keep watching right up to the cruel and bitter end.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Existing at the perfect intersection of art and schlock, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a tangibly dirty, grungy movie, the kind that's best experienced at 2AM in an old, dark theater with rickety seats and sticky floors. Launching sequels and a remake franchise that are by turns too loud and too trashy, the movie that started it all is an exercise in unpleasantness. Its characters are largely unlikable, its villains the perfect version of incomprehensible hillbilly cruelty. The plot, essentially about a Texas road trip that goes south fast, will remind you why they tell you not to ever talk to strangers, pick up hitchhikers, or ask questions about what's going on in the rickety old house at the edge of town. Brutal and brilliant, this is the movie that countless otherwise forgettable slashers aspire to be. Essential.

Possession (1981)

On a list of movies about the macabre and repulsive, the fact that any entry manages to stand out as the weirdest is definitely an achievement. In other words, this movie is bonkers. Directed by the Ukranian filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski and starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, Possession is a strange and disturbing creature feature that is ultimately about the agony of divorce. It's a movie unlike any other, horror or otherwise—characters seem to do the exact opposite of what you would expect at any turn, and the scenes of body horror act as potent metaphors for miscarriage, or the pain of being cheated on. It's hard to determine, even while you're watching it, what's supposed to be "real," and it makes for a fever dream of a viewing experience. There's never been another movie like it. It's one of the most memorable, puzzling, and well-performed horror pieces ever made.

The Shining (1980)

With brilliant performances from its cast, quotable lines, unmatched cinematography, and those awful twins, The Shining is an absolute masterpiece, irrespective of genre. It worms its way into your head with beautiful imagery and a hypnotic pace, showing the dissolution of one man's sanity over the course of an isolated winter at the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel. It's arguably the best movie Stanley Kubrick directed—everything is so deliberate, each frame seemingly packed with tension and mystery, that it stays fresh no matter how many times you rewatch it. It continues to drive discussion and lively debate about its true meanings, and if you've yet to join the conversation, you're simply missing out. It's not to be missed by anybody.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

This quiet character study follows Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam veteran and postal service worker who slowly comes to believe that either his sanity or reality itself is falling apart. The film is notable for standout sequences, like a long gurney ride through a hellish hospital littered with body parts, blood and inhuman monsters gone mad, that influenced horror media for decades afterward, heavily inspiring the Japanese horror video game series Silent Hill. In the decades since its release, it's developed into a noted cult classic, lauded for its indelible imagery as much as the deep melancholy at its core.

The Exorcist (1973)

Stories about The Exorcist have become the stuff of horror legend. Depending on whom you ask, audiences were throwing up and passing out, the production was haunted, and the director violently terrorized his cast. But none of these stories would have any weight if the movie at the center of it all wasn't any good, and it's not just good—it's incredible. Just as much about medical horror as religious horror, The Exorcist wouldn't work nearly as well as it does if it weren't superbly created in every way. An air of dread hangs over every scene; its characters are haunted, not by ghosts, but by their own mistakes. Regan, the possessed girl at the center of it all, is an innocent who turns into a murderous, bedridden monster, spewing curses and pea soup, throwing furniture and profane insults at anyone who dares challenge the might of the Devil. It's the possession and exorcism movie against which all others are still judged—and more often than not, they're found wanting. Nearly 50 years later, it remains a perfect, grotesque tour de force that goes places films today would rarely dare.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

This is the most horrifying movie on this list—beautifully shot, but borderline unwatchable. It was banned in several countries for decades. If you watch it, you may well not finish it; if you do, you might never want to see it again. A loose parable about fascism in which a castle full of aristocrats kidnaps teenagers for months of torment, it really cannot be emphasized enough just how emotionally brutal this movie is. It's not a movie about jump scares or swamp things—its monsters are bland and human. It's a story about people versus people, the strong systematically inflicting the worst acts imaginable upon the weak and powerless. And we do mean the worst acts imaginable—there's a reason this film was outright banned in places like Australia and the U.K. Though it's an important film that still resonates (and has been preserved in the Criterion Collection), it's also gross, it's horrid, and it will stick with you forever. Don't put it on at a Halloween party unless you want some seriously questioning looks.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The found-footage project that started it all, launching a thousand copycat projects (and a couple of sequels) that never got anywhere close to the haunted, pine-scented quality of the original. The forest becomes the monster in this ultra low-budget camcorder picture, where every tangle of twigs and leaves takes on eerie suspicion. Following a group of hapless young filmmakers as they circle the wilderness, lost and increasingly certain they're being hunted, the film can be read in a number of ways—as a story about madness, hubris, isolation and distrust—at the same time that it's a straight-up classic ghost story. The Blair Witch is an enigma, never appearing onscreen, perhaps not even real. It's an uncertainty that gets to the heart of what horror is—fear, and a sense of helplessness, in the face of the unknown.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

This movie kicks ass. An offshoot of the George Romero Living Dead films, this spiritual cousin is easily one of the most goofily enjoyable zombie movies ever, though it never goes so far into camp territory that you can't take it seriously. Following a group of dirtbag ravers whose graveyard party gets upset by a zombie uprising caused by acid rain, Return takes a lively approach to its material that still feels fresh, even if the hilariously dated fashion of the characters decidedly does not. One of the major gripes in horror is characters behaving in unrealistic ways that take you out of the movie, making bad mistakes that get them killed—and it's in that regard that this film excels. Everyone behaves more or less the way you'd like to think you would, freaking out appropriately and taking sound measures to defend against a monstrously overwhelming threat. They run, hide, barricade and strategize on the fly while barely being able to contain their shock. Being too self-serious about the material is a trap that lots of zombie stories fall into, from Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, and it's one that Return sidesteps with aplomb. It's not a parody, just a great ride.

Goodnight Mommy (2014)

This Austrian feature from 2014 is a master class in making the audience feel very bad. Two twins develop what is known in real life as Capgras syndrome, believing their mother, long lost in depression after being disfigured in an accident, to have been replaced by an impostor. The story unfolds with trainwreck inevitability, as their investigation turns from curious to cruel, playing with the allegiances of the audience in an excruciating way. The story is told conservatively, with more blank spaces and patches of silence where a lesser film would stoop to exposition, letting the audience do the legwork on inferring the larger plot. So the film is not so much about surprises, or a twisty-turny story, as it is about the pure horror of watching innocent children do unspeakable things. Boy, does it make you feel uncomfortable. A great watch for new moms.

The Witch (2015)

Let's start here: is there a witch? Yes. Is she metaphorical? No. So set aside any expectations of a twist. Everything is exactly as it appears in director Robert Eggers' The Witch, a perfectly-paced picture of one family's dissolution, cast out of their village, at the edge of the lonesome New England woods in the early 1600s. There's no period corniness here, a la the superficially similar fright flick The Village; here the dialogue feels authentic, and the child actors, usually a low point in movies like this, truly impress, not only with their grasp of the language, but the maturity of their performances. Writers often talk about the climaxes of horror films, when all the cards are finally played, and all hell breaks loose. The climax of this film is an emotional hell. A lot hinges on the endings of horror movies, and this one sticks the landing with a confidence unearthly for a first-time feature director. It's an unsparing picture, the very meaning of dreadful, and a modern classic. It will be talked about for years.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The very definition of a time-worn tale in cinema, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a story that has been remade over and over again. Partly, this speaks to the strength of the premise—the feeling of being overwhelmed, of helplessness, the feeling of no one believing you after everyone around you is inexplicably replaced by evil duplicates. These are scary concepts in real life, and they're put to brilliant use in the late '70s version of the story, which remains the best. It begins at a slow burn, with only some weird sightings in the sides of the frame—one weirdo here, one out of place look there. But by the midway mark, the movie becomes a full-on non-stop chase sequence in which no one can be trusted, following our heroes as they try to stay awake, and stay alive, against an organized and seemingly unstoppable threat. Thrilling to the final frame, it's a story that stays with you, anchored by an excellent cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, and a young Jeff Goldblum. They're smart, unique characters that you root for, making it hurt all the more when they fail. It's the best and most entertaining version of a timeless and resonant story.

Alien (1979)

Alien continues to resonate because it has a lot of unique qualities—a female protagonist who's just as strong and capable as anybody else, a profound sense of isolation, and an enemy that cannot be reasoned with, that operates in ways never encountered before by humankind. The characters are constantly under the gun, tasked with identifying their threat at the same time they desperately struggle to survive against it. Unlike many entries on this list, most of the franchise is worth watching, too, filled with creativity and reinvention. Its sequel, the James Cameron-directed Aliens, is a masterwork in its own right—but more of an action movie.

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter is considered the Master of Horror, and this may well be his best effort in the genre. Taking creature feature elements and combining them with the who's-who paranoia of a Body Snatchers remake, this movie (based on John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella Who Goes There?, previously brought to the big screen in the 1951 film The Thing from Another World) plants its characters in one of the most isolated places on Earth, Antarctica, and tasks them with surviving against an alien lifeform that can assume their likenesses. It's a rich premise that combines subtle, character-based interplay with full-blown body horror, like a human head scuttling around with spider legs. With a cast to root for and a villain to fear, The Thing is Exhibit A in the argument for John Carpenter's primacy among horror engineers, a remake that runs laps around its source material and bests any modern attempts to do better.

Audition (1999)

Back in the days before OkCupid or eHarmony, a widowed middle-aged businessman had to get creative when it came to finding a date… or at least, that's the premise of Takashi Miike's Audition. This Japanese horror film made by the same studio that delivered the original The Ring is a slow burn with a scream-worthy finale, as poor lovelorn Shigeharu Aoyama realizes that Asami, the young lady he's auditioned to be his new bride, comes with a checkered past and some disturbing baggage. (No, seriously: there is literally a bag in her apartment filled with a horror beyond imagination.) In addition to boasting stellar performances and a creative, scary script, Audition has the added benefit of making your worst Tinder date look like a great time by comparison.

Scream (1996)

The first film ever to kick off the self-aware horror trend is also still the best. Wes Craven, who was already horror royalty thanks to The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs, and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, straight up outdid himself with this funny, freaky slasher flick from 1996, which subverted every trope in the book and roundly mocked the horror genre at large, while still scaring the hell out of its audience. The then-hot young stars of the trilogy have gone on to varied degrees of success in Hollywood (hey, when was the last time anyone saw Skeet Ulrich?), but 20 years after the original Scream trilogy hit theaters, it still feels fresh on rewatch.

Psycho (1960)

The only bad thing about Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, one of very few in the director's oeuvre that truly qualifies as horror, is that there's not a person alive on earth who doesn't know how it ends. (Although if you've somehow gotten this far without getting spoiled, for the love of everything, get off the internet and go watch it immediately.) But even when its shocking twist is more like a foregone conclusion, this masterful thriller is still a standout that can't be improved upon… which is probably why the so-called mid-1990s "remake" was a literal shot-for-shot recreation of the original. Come for the premise that launched an entire genre of motel-set horror films; stay for the Oscar-nominated performance by Janet Leigh as an embezzling secretary on the run. Fun fact: You know original retro scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis? Leigh is her mother. (Oh God, Mother!)

Insidious (2010)

Blumhouse Productions has breathed new life into the horror genre since 2007, when they took a chance on the now-multi-film-franchise Paranormal Activity (whose inaugural movie is also on our list). But the studio's most stylish scares have been dished up by Insidious, a twisty take on traditional haunting stories that boasts a great cast (including the criminally underrated Lin Shaye as a psychic senior citizen), expert tension-building, and some incredibly creepy antagonists. The first in the series is the best, introducing viewers to a family in which the dad (Patrick Wilson) has passed his habit of psychic sleepwalking on to his son, who then runs afoul of an otherworldly demon with terrible taste in music. But if you dig it—and you should—then the sequels hold up nicely.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Skip the regrettable American remake and go straight for the source on this one: a vampire film from snowy Sweden, where boxy modern buildings and vast sterile landscapes make the perfect setting for a horror story that's kind of sweet at the same time. Bullied tween Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) makes friends with an unusual new neighbor (Lina Leandersson) who only comes out at night because of… well, reasons. Let the Right One In is equal parts vampire flick and coming-of-age story, with interesting things to say about the loneliness of the human condition—that is, when people aren't being drained of blood, bursting into flame, or having their heads ripped violently from their bodies.

Get Out (2017)

A meet-the-parents situation goes terribly awry in Jordan Peele's directorial debut Get Out, which hit theaters in 2017 on the crest of a massive wave of well-deserved buzz. The movie follows interracial couple Rose (white) and Chris (black), who are visiting for a weekend at Rose's parents' estate—a classy enclave where the polished veneer of white liberal tolerance turns out to be masking some deep, dark, terrifying secrets about why there aren't more black folks in town. Get Out fully lives up to the hype, delivering suspense and scares while also tackling complex and uncomfortable racial issues with incisive wit. If it doesn't make you scream, it'll definitely make you squirm.

The Mist (2007)

It's a truth universally acknowledged that Stephen King's books and stories make for terrifying reading material—but as movies, they have an unfortunate tendency to be hit-or-miss. The Mist, however, is a hit, thanks to the deft touch of Frank Darabont (a.k.a. the one man in Hollywood who can reliably translate King's masterful horror from page to screen). Based on King's novella of the same name, Darabont's film tells the story of a New England town beset by unspeakable, otherworldly horrors that descend under the cover of an impenetrable, mysterious mist. (Note: This film is not to be confused with the one in which a New England town is beset by otherworldly horrors that descend under cover of an impenetrable, mysterious fog, which is not the same thing as a mist. If you want to see that movie, it's called…wait for it…The Fog.)

The Mist is a solid monster movie, but its scariest moments are the ones that reveal the dark tribalism of human beings who believe they're witnessing the end of the world, and it pulls no punches on that front; King even famously said that Darabont's gut-wrenching twist ending for the film is the one he wishes he'd written himself.

You're Next (2011)

The home invasion thriller is a staple subgenre within the horror-film family, and You're Next is a perfect specimen of this oft-mishandled storyline. The basic plot is familiar fare: a dysfunctional family holding a mini-reunion at their remote country home is interrupted mid-spatting at the dinner table by a group of murderous intruders, setting off an all-night bloodbath from which few (if any) will emerge alive. But director Adam Wingard, working with a paltry $1 million budget, nailed every detail to make this a polished piece of cinema. An opening scene that sets just the right mood, a stylish execution (the killers wear masks that'll give you a permanent phobia of farm animals), and a bad-ass final girl who you'll be rooting for from the get-go—there's nothing about You're Next that isn't utterly on point, except perhaps that, alas, there is no sequel.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

In a world where zombies have made profitable fodder for dozens if not hundreds of films, there's still nothing like the original that started it all: George Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, which finds its human characters holed up at a remote farmhouse as they're assailed from all sides by hungry, ambulatory corpses. Shot on a miniscule budget and without the benefit of digital effects (or Greg Nicotero's makeup skills, for that matters), Night of the Living Dead doesn't look or feel like a zombie horror flick as they exist today, but still manages to be genuinely frightening—and relevant—nearly 50 years after its release.

Quarantine (2008)

An American remake of the Spanish film Rec, Quarantine is faithful to its source material down to practically every shot—but because reading subtitles can detract from the fear factor, it's your best bet if English is your first (or only) language. Starring the eminently likeable Jennifer Carpenter in her pre-Dexter days, this docu-horror follows a late-night news crew as they join a fire department on call to a building that isn't on fire, but is ground zero for a viral outbreak that turns human beings into bloodthirsty maniacs. Director John Erick Dowdle makes creative use of the news cameras, building to a terrifying, claustrophobic climax that plays out in green-tinged night vision.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Found footage horror got a fresh face with this 2007 movie, which proved that you don't need a gothic mansion or dilapidated cabin in the woods to make a highly effective haunting flick. All the action of Paranormal Activity takes place in the comfy, carpeted setting of a suburban townhome, as newlyweds Katie and Micah learn that they're not entirely alone in their house. Like its predecessor The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity is all about the slow burn; in the hands of director Oren Peli, banal occurrences like a door swinging shut or a hall light illuminating offscreen are imbued with foreboding, and the teeny-tiny cast does a convincing job of making the "found footage" premise feel real.

Freaks (1932)

Classic horror doesn't get more classic than this 1932 film, which managed to slip past Hollywood's censors in the brief period known as the Pre-Code years. Featuring a phenomenal cast of real-life sideshow performers and a seriously twisted tale of revenge, Freaks tells the story of Cleopatra, a cruel, beautiful trapeze artist who seeks to seduce Hans, a wealthy circus midget, in order to get her grubby hands on his fortune. (Without spoiling anything, suffice to say that the plot does not go off as planned.) Despite its age, Freaks is still one of the most disturbing horror films ever made—and you'll still see shades of it in the work of present-day producers, including Ryan Murphy, who borrowed heavily from the movie for his carnival-themed season of American Horror Story.

Happy Haunting

These are the 25 best horror films, not necessarily the scariest. Loud noises are scary. The horror of, say, a Blair Witch Project may not be obvious while you're watching it—but the next time you find yourself in some thick woods with the possibility that you might have gotten yourself lost, you'll feel that fear sink in. These are the movies you remember deep down in your gut—unlike, say, a Saw V. Horror is a wide, fascinating genre, with room for comedy, parody, social commentary, and truly disturbing material that tests the limits of decency. Check back often to find new classics on our list, and never stop looking for that next big scare.

Update 1/17: The Ring and Suspiria removed to make room for The Witch and Goodnight Mommy.

Update 3/17: Added Audition, Scream, Psycho, Insidious, Let the Right One In, Get Out, The Mist, You're Next, Night of the Living Dead, Quarantine, Paranormal Activity, and Freaks to bring our list to 25.

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