Screamers, Slashers and Laughers: the Best Horror Movies of All Time

When it comes to the horror genre, ascertaining which films are best can prove difficult to some. Are we asking which are most frightening, which at the end of the day is a subjective issue, or which are technically best, in a genre not generally known for producing quality flicks (Leprechaun: In The Hood, anyone)? If one looks close enough however, the American horror canon does in fact contain a number of film gems that are at once genuinely and indisputably scary, imaginative, and well told. Indeed, in that rare instance where a horror movie achieves its full potential, it can haunt you for life. Here are five such films.

5 A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)

The best entry in the series and probably the greatest of all horror sequels, the Freddy Krueger saga bounced back from a dismal second installment to bring this imaginative and funny sequel set in a youth psych ward. Robert Englund’s Freddy is at his loathsome, punning best, scoring many of the best and most memorable kills in the series (WELCOME TO PRIMETIME, BITCH!) as he whittles down the ranks of the teenaged patients. A young Patricia Arquette stars as a girl sent to the facility, when some cuts received from the dream haunting madman are mistaken by her mother for a suicide attempt. There she meets some deeply troubled kids who soon also fall prey to Freddy and his artful deathtrap dreamscapes. All this, and a theme song by hair metal group Dokken, make this flick quintessential crowd pleasing 80s horror.

4 28 Days Later (2002)

The film that gave us the swift moving zombie in its rage virus suffering maniacs, 28 Days Later builds an atmosphere of believable apocalyptic horror right from its opening clips of real life violent unrest from around the globe. Never-missing director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 127 Hours) helms with a script from Alex Garland and a cast comprised of serious UK talent (the likes of Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, and Christopher Eccleston). A fully modern and socially relevant take that breathed new life into the zombie genre, the film concerns a group of survivors, among them Murphy’s recently re-awakened coma patient, coping with societal collapse wreaked across Europe by the rapidly spreading infection. Pile some truly brutal gore and carnage onto that foundation, and you’ve got a standout entry in the horror canon.

3 Hellraiser (1986)

Clive Barker’s terrifying and unique genre classic, which features some truly great gore and make-up effects, not to mention the venerable presence of the Cenobites and their eloquent, aptly-named leader Pinhead (Doug Bradley). The story concerns a man previously dragged you-know-where by the agony-dealing crew of demons, slowly reassembling (he spends much of the movie a skinless, bloody mass) via the blood of men lured to his home by his less than ethical girlfriend (who also happens to be his brother’s wife). Hellraiser creates an atmosphere soaked deeply in the fear of pain and the aesthetic of S&M fetish that provided the truest and richest scares of the 80s.

2 Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper’s seminal low budget classic make shows some age in its aesthetic, but absolutely none in its scares. From the very first frame a palpable sense of dread hangs all over this trip to a very dark corner of the Lone Star State. Gunnar Hansen portrays the mentally challenged, corpse flesh-masked Leatherface, who as we know is partial to use of a particular motorized arborist tool. Equally disturbing are the rest of the depraved and cannibalistic Sawyer family who inhabits the creaky farmhouse cum slaughterhouse on the prairie. Banned in several countries upon its original released, this is an influential landmark that gave birth to an entire subgenre dedicated to the dismemberment of our young folk.

1 The Exorcist (1973)

Wall crawling. Bile-spewing. Head spinning. Demonically issued “Yo Mama” slams. These are the hallmarks of a satanic possession as seen in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the first horror film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) is the expert referenced in the film’s title, called to Georgetown to hndle a particularly nasty case. Linda Blair gives the performance of a lifetime as 12 year-old Regan, who, among other things, makes memorable creative use of a crucifix at the height of her affliction, providing one of the films most controversial bits. Blair won many awards, and was nominated for an Oscar along with Ellen Burstyn, who portrays her distraught actress mother, along with director William Friedkin and nominations in several other categories.

Honorable Mention

Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic is more intimate and spooky than James Cameron’s more action oriented sequel, and still visually stunning/stomach churning today.

Halloween (1978) – A seminal slasher masterwork, and a model of effective simplicity, Michael Meyers’ first romp serves to reinforce long dormant fears of dark rooms and streets.

The Shining (1980) – Kubrick’s imagistic chiller from Stephen King’s novel, is more creepy and admirable these days than it is actually frightening, but it is a horror film from Stanley Kubrick, putting it heads above most of the genre.

Candyman (1992) – A haunting, visceral and well-directed story about the power of myths, with Tony Todd’s genuinely eerie presence as the titular vengeful spirit and a compelling lead in Virginia Madsen help elevate this Clive Barker adaptation.

The Thing (1982) – some truly outstanding effects and makeup combined with a grippingly tense atmosphere create some sickening scares in John Carpenter’s remake of the 1958 classic.

Dead Alive (1992) – This outrageous and hilarious gore-fest from New Zealand’s Peter Jackson, of future Lord of the Rings fame, is a paramount of kinetic inventiveness and ingenuity.

Cabin In The Woods (2012) – Joss Whedon’s awesome comedic dissection of the entire genre and its well-worn conventions is a surprising and rewarding viewing for both die hard horror fans and people plain fed up with the played-out antics of psychotic slashers and ghost children.

Night Of The Living Dead (1968) – Just plain unsettling, George Romero’s black and white classic is packed with creepy atmosphere and droves of the pasty recently dead.

That’s the story on the best horror films. If you’d like to lobby on why the first Nightmare is best or gripe about your favorite obscure J-Horror flick being so egregiously left out, feel free to make your own list.

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