Everyone just wants to scream. And these days, there’s plenty to get people shrieking. But the horror genre, which has experienced a remarkable renaissance in the last five years thanks to the work of buzzy auteurs like Jordan Peele and M. Night Shyamalan, is full of super realistic CGI and blood and guts splattered in every color of the rainbow on screen. And while that’s all well and creepy, contemporary horror films with their gimmickry and gore are often no match for the classics.
There’s something startlingly horrific about black and white terrors from some of history’s most inventive and cunning filmmakers. So if you’re in the mood to have the living hell scared out of you, these classic films—from psycho killers to supernatural hauntings and the everlasting terror of the undead—are just as heart-stopping as anything that would hit streamers today. Here are our 45 favorite horror films of all time.
Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, assembled together from the parts of dead bodies, is one of the most famous monsters ever created. Author Mary Shelley came up with the idea of a reanimated corpse when she was just 18 years old, and he was made even more iconic as part of Universal Pictures’ monster pantheon.
An alien that can copy and take the form of the humans it encounters is thawed out of an icy prison by scientists at an arctic research stadium. Wow, what a plot. Starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter, the small crew has no idea what they’ve accidentally unleashed.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Vincent Price had such a gift for suspenseful storytelling that his voice was used in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” And roles in films like House on Haunted Hill, partly inspired by “The Haunting of Hill House,” first cemented the stage and television actor as a master.
Bunny Lake Is Missing is the absolutely terrifying story of a woman who, when she goes to her daughter’s school, can’t find her young one anywhere. Even worse, none of the teachers even remember seeing her. As she scours the surroundings, the town starts to question her sanity.
Vampyr is a Danish telling of vampire folklore, made in 1932 when sound films were still relatively new. The work also employed spooky shadows and visual effects.
Conrad Veidt’s performance in The Man Who Laughs was one of the strangest releases of the silent film era. When a corrupt surgeon carves a permanent smile onto a young boy’s face, he grows up mocked and loveless until he meets the beautiful Dea, who is blind.
A silent film classic, The Phantom Carriage retells the myth of the grim reaper. In this Swedish horror creation, the last person to die when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s must become Death himself.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre established the modern, gory slasher genre thanks to the titular killer, his chainsaw, and his mask made from human flesh. Even worse is that the group of terrorized friends stays at a farmhouse—a treasure trove of dangerous machines and tools.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon
Trying to think of ways to improve her business as a medium, a housewife sends her timid husband to kidnap a little girl so that she can use her “psychic powers” to aid the police in finding her.
Ingmar Bergman’s remote Swedish hour film follows an artistic couple’s island retreat and the demons that visit them at night. The ghoulish entities make their way into his art, and his wife worries after reading his troubled diary.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the French master of suspense, Diabolique‘s spooky boarding school- and murder-mystery helped inspire Hitchcock’s Psycho. (The two directors were quite fond of each other’s work and even competed for the rights to Diabolique‘s screenplay.)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The original film in the classic slasher franchise is just as chilling today as it was in 1984, with few villains as iconic and culturally significant as Freddy Krueger. In his formal introduction, the serial killer with the melted face and knives as fingers returns to Elm Street in the dreams of the children of those who killed him years ago. Although he only stalks the youngsters as they sleep, what happens there can have fatal consequences in reality.
For his debut feature, David Lynch dove deep into a surrealist style that would soon become his calling card. Jack Nance plays a man living in a desolate industrial wasteland who is just like any other guy: he has a thing for his attractive neighbor but finds out her deformed baby is somehow his child. To make matters worse, he’s also haunted by a woman living in his radiator and must maintain a semblance of sanity in a malevolent nightmare world.
Based on Henry James’s classic novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as an impressionable young governess who takes a position raising two young children in the English countryside. As she learns to handle the troublemaking kids’ quirkiness, she also begins to suspect they are under the control of the former governess and her lover, who both died before her arrival.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
New horror movies are always trying to push the line of acceptability, often to off-putting results. The oldest examples of the genre, however, are actually some of the most mesmerizing, particularly this 1920 German expressionist gem about a murderous hypnotist, which essentially invented the serial-killer movie.
Director Tod Browning dared to imagine a revenge fantasy from the perspective of a group of circus “freaks”—and contemporary critics hated him for it, as the film got horrible reviews upon its release (and was censored heavily from its original version). Years later, however, it has gained a critical appreciation for its unsettling and unflinching plot.
After surviving a car accident, a disoriented woman wanders into an abandoned carnival pavilion, drawn in by its eerie music. There, she discovers a ghastly group of beings, seemingly lost and bewildered, led by a pale-faced man who haunts the heroine’s waking dreams.
In the very literally titled French art-horror classic, a famous and unhinged surgeon kidnaps beautiful women and tries to transplant their faces onto his daughter who is, yes, missing a face. Inspiring everything from Face/Off to the Billy Idol song, its visuals remain some of the most disturbing ever put to film.
Based on Shirley Jackson’s brilliant novel The Haunting of Hill House, this film finds a small group of guests participating in a paranormal study of a supposedly haunted mansion. There are horrifying bumps in the night, but it may not just be ghosts who are the cause of the guests’ frights—but the spirit of the house itself.
All of Hitchcock’s movies are worth watching, and nearly all of them fit squarely into the thriller category. While they’re generally light on horrific elements, he took a hard turn with Psycho, which scared the living hell out of everyone who watched it in 1960. Today, though, it’s relatively low-key. The most terrifying part is Anthony Perkins’s superb, understated performance as a troubled man with serious mommy issues.
George Romero essentially created the modern zombie film as we know it with this iconic horror film. Shot on a shoestring budget (making it one of the greatest indie films ever made), the slow-moving undead who roam around suburban Pittsburgh searching for fresh human meat remain some of the most terrifying monsters in cinema history. Come for the terror, stay for the surprising social commentary that brilliantly taps into American racial and cultural tensions.
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