The obvious problem with any list of the 25 best horror movies of all time? 25 isn’t nearly enough. You could very easily fill those slots with movies released in the 21st century alone. Someone at Cultured Vultures already did that. I envy them. We’re working with a range that starts over a century ago. We also must keep in mind that virtually every decade since the dawn of film has something to say about the greatest horror films of all time. Even in the sense of making an argument for their contemporary merit, we can still talk about films like The Golem (1915) or Nosferatu (1922). If you haven’t, you should see those. The atmosphere and aesthetics of each film are as potent as ever.
I guess my point is this: No matter what, we’re going to have to leave a few all-time hits off the list. It has to be done. Not even 100 would be enough to tell the story of a genre that is limitless and ageless. Horror goes after what we’re afraid of. It goes deeper than that. Many of the greatest horror movies of all time are the ones that go after absolutely everything you hold dear, and then the things you didn’t know you were afraid of until just a few minutes ago.
At the same time, some of the best horror movies are pure schlock. Not a goddamn thing wrong with that. They aren’t particularly interested in your fears, but they will astonish you with their glorious audacity.
That covers most of the qualifications for this list, which will be done chronologically (this is not a ranking). This list was compiled entirely from my own preferences. While there are going to be some entries you can find on most best horror movie lists, I’m hoping at least some of my choices will surprise you.
Honestly, there are still more ways to judge the quality of a horror movie. No other genre has so much potential inherently in its DNA. No genre can surprise you in so many different ways.
25 Best Horror Movies Of All-Time
25. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Horror in general owes Germany a debt of gratitude. Many of the earliest influences on contemporary horror came from there. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the best of them all, featuring an atmosphere that still digs into the skin some 98 years after its release. Directed by Robert Wiene, the film also benefits from distinctive, unforgettable performances, a flawlessly-executed ending, and moments of madness that are as gripping now as they were almost a century ago.
Watch if: You want to know where Rob Zombie got a lot of his ideas. Avoid if: You have a strong distaste for cabinets in any form.
24. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
A sequel vastly superior to an iconic first film, Bride of Frankenstein is a creative high mark for Universal’s 1930s horror heyday. Director James Whale brings a necessary, singular amusement and love for the material, which also enjoys the presence of the great Boris Karloff as The Monster. Moments featuring the terrible, horrified shriek of The Bride (an incredible performance by Elsa Lancaster) have become legendary. Beyond such moments, you still have a gothic horror classic with beautiful visuals and a stellar supporting cast.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most entertaining, beautiful horror movies of all-time. Avoid if: You don’t care for movies where two weirdos try to romantically hash things out.
23. Cat People (1942)
One of the great horror directors of his day, Jacques Tourneur was perhaps at his best in this classic RKO film, produced by Val Lewton. It remains a masterclass in tension, and how to build that tension on a budget of next-to-nothing. Featuring a career-defining performance by Simone Simon, as a woman who may or may not be on the verge of transforming into a cat creature, Cat People is a pummeling reminder that even the most rational of us sometimes wonder if there’s something watching us from the shadows.
Watch if: You believe that our imaginations can fill in some pretty terrifying blanks. Avoid if: You hate going to your car in the middle of the night.
22. The Night of The Hunter (1955)
The only film directed by actor Charles Laughton (who was also married to Elsa Lancaster), The Night of the Hunter gets its disconcerting energy from two places. The first is the setting, a sprawling rural backdrop with a compelling element of the supernatural in every blade of grass and drop of rain. The second is an iconic performance by Robert Mitchum, who played a number of villains throughout his long career. As the Reverend Harry Powell, Mitchum created one of the most unwholesome, incredible portrayals of evil in film history. He is a riveting monster for the children of this story to endure.
Watch if: You want to see one of the greatest bad guys in movie history. Avoid if: Shelley Winters annoys the living shit out of you.
21. Black Sunday (1960)
Few scream queens stand taller than Barbara Steele. Her performance here, in one of Mario Bava’s best movies, is nothing short of essential. Her freewheeling, steely madness is a perfect match for Bava’s attention to hideous detail. Watching Black Sunday is a lot like watching someone living in a semi-waking fever dream.
Watch if: You love all things gothic in your horror movies. Avoid if: You have ever been accused of sorcery.
20. Theater of Blood (1973)
Although Vincent Price made many films more well-known than this one, Theater of Blood is nonetheless the best performance by one of horror’s greatest actors. Theater of Blood is a hysterical horror comedy with some impressive savagery behind Price’s rambling, pretentious Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart. The movie has dry humor for miles, which goes well with Lionheart’s dedication to using Shakespeare-inspired methods to murder the theatre critics who wronged him. The greatness that is Diana Rigg also makes this essential viewing.
Watch if: You love Shakespeare. Avoid if: You love tiny dogs.
19. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Anchored by strong performances from Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, Don’t Look Now is a masterpiece of bewilderment and constant dread. Nicolas Roeg had a remarkable talent as a director for escalation. Everything in this movie means something. Everything builds towards one of the bleakest, most intense conclusions in horror history. Few films will scare you more effectively with their endings than Don’t Look Now.
Watch if: You want to feel uncomfortable in your own home. Avoid if: You like happy endings.
18. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Despite having very little actual gore, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre retains a decades-old reputation for being one of the most brutal horror movies ever made. That comes down to Tobe Hooper’s dedication to smart edits and mounting terror. Marilyn Burns is also one of the all-time greats in the category of final girls in horror. Very few films can touch the relatable madness the poor woman conveys in the final moments.
Watch if: You want something to assault your senses on every level. Avoid if: You don’t really like family dinners.
17. Suspiria (1977)
The recent Suspiria remake is an incredible film on several levels. However, it doesn’t quite have the supernatural strangeness that dominates Dario Argento’s most famous film. Jessica Harper as the American ballet student studying in Munich is the element of relatable humanity that can be found in Argento’s wildest, oddest works. From the moment the Goblin soundtrack takes us into a sinister, overwhelming thunder storm, we know that Suzy is walking into something ancient, all-powerful, and intensely evil.
Watch if: You want to see an absolute nightmare of a fairytale. Avoid if: You’re planning to study ballet in Germany.
16. Dawn of The Dead (1978)
Arguably the best zombie movie of all-time, Romero upped the stakes considerably for the second film in his The Dead series. This time, the zombie apocalypse is everywhere. The survivors we meet here barricade themselves in a shopping mall, as the world around them disintegrates. Even if you don’t care about the characters, or Romero’s blistering social commentary, you still have a masterpiece of gore and zombie madness.
Watch if: You want to see a zombie movie that doesn’t mess around. Avoid if: You have PTSD from one or several Black Friday spectaculars.
15. Halloween (1978)
Stories don’t get much more straightforward than they do in John Carpenter’s Halloween. We have a heavy-breathing fun seeker in a Halloween mask. We have some babysitters (including Jamie Lee Curtis in her first and perhaps most famous role). We also have a small town, a haunted psychiatrist (the bug-eyed glory that is Donald Pleasance), and a body count that doesn’t really get going until around the midway mark. Halloween remains a classic because it takes its time. When things finally take off, we’re completely absorbed.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Avoid if: William Shatner haunts your very soul.
14. Alien (1979)
The sequel to this (Aliens) is probably the best of the franchise overall. Yet in terms of pure horror, not even Ridley Scott can top what we pulled off here. Alien takes full advantage of its claustrophobic outer space setting. It also takes advantage of a pitch-perfect ensemble, led by a determined Sigourney Weaver. The beauty of this movie is in how it refuses to let up for even a second.
Watch if: You want to see a truly scary story of survival. Avoid if: You have a weak stomach or can’t stand the thought of John Hurt’s weak stomach.
13. The Shining (1980)
It’s not a great adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I don’t think anyone actually disputes that. As a haunted (probably?) house story, and as a depiction of one man’s unforgettable descent into madness (Jack Nicholson), The Shining is a classic. It digs deep on our feelings of isolation. It also forces us to endure the palpable tension of a terrified, psychic child (Danny Lloyd), and an exhausted, confused mother (Shelley Duvall).
Watch if: You want to see Jack Nicholson go absolutely nuts. Avoid if: You’re trapped in the house during a snowstorm.
12. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Without the benefit of a real budget, Wes Craven focused on atmosphere and performances to help make A Nightmare on Elm Street a classic. As Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund is the perfect physical manifestation of helplessness. We are never more helpless than we are in our dreams. Heather Langenkamp as Nancy remains a fan favorite because she’s exactly how any of us would want to be, if faced with a supernatural dream demon.
Watch if: You want to see Robert Englund as one of the most iconic horror villains in history. Avoid if: You’re pretty sure something is already planning to suck you into your bed and kill you.
11. Evil Dead II (1987)
To date, this is probably still Sam Raimi’s best directing. That’s not on a knock on him. He’s made a lot of good-to-great movies over the years. Yet for violence, comedy, energy, and Bruce Campbell, nothing he has done quite tops the second entry in the Evil Dead trilogy. Evil Dead II is a blast. Watch it in the middle of the night.
Watch if: You want to better understand why Bruce Campbell is a legitimate American treasure. Avoid if: Blending horror with slapstick doesn’t strike you as a good time.
10. Hellraiser (1987)
Doug Bradley’s first turn as Pinhead is a big reason why you need to see this. Just keep in mind that Pinhead only makes up a small portion of this ferocious movie’s relentless, pulse-pounding running time. The bulk of the movie belongs to flawless performances by Andrew Robinson, Claire Higgins, and Ashley Laurence. Hellraiser is a brutal psychological horror story.
Watch if: You want to see Claire Higgins as the real Hellraiser. Avoid if: You have a low threshold for watching other people enjoy pain.
9. Near Dark (1987)
I’m willing to call Near Dark the best vampire movie of all-time. The second film directed by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow depicts one of the most believable universes in which vampires exist that has ever been committed to film. There is also a powerful, constant element of the supernatural, which fits in naturally with a time and place that are not difficult to envision. Near Dark also features a cast that brings all of this to life, including Lance Henriksen, the late Bill Paxton, and the underappreciated Jenny Wright.
Watch if: You want to see why comparing Bill Paxton to Bill Pullman is stupid. Avoid if: You prefer European vampires.
8. The Blob (1988)
One of the grossest mainstream horror movies ever made, The Blob is glorious chaos from start to finish. The body count is as ridiculously over-the-top as the fact that this movie actually makes Jell-O threatening. The cast is fine, but the incredible thing about The Blob is how it never lets up. Given the subject matter, it’s impressive that this one of the fast-paced horror movies of all time. The Blob is dark comedy and the personification of tension.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best monster movies ever. Avoid if: You want to eat Jell-O again someday.
7. The Exorcist III (1990)
To be fair, The Exorcist III features a pretty disappointing exorcism. In every regard, the movie is a masterpiece superior to any other entry in the series. Yes, even the original. Although no one will ever top the actual exorcism in the movie. The Exorcist III has a style and energy that are truly singular. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the Exorcist novel (as well as Legion, which is the basis for this movie, never made a movie exactly like this. No one ever has.
The Exorcist III has memorable performances from the likes of George C. Scott, and it is one of the best atmospheres of tangible spiritual evil ever created in a film.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most original horror movies ever made. Avoid if: You’re already scared of little old ladies.
6. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
I honestly don’t know how you’re going to feel about the ending of Jacob’s Ladder. I can promise you nonetheless that at least in terms of the journey for that ending, prepare for an unwavering descent into hell. Tim Robbins is perfect as a man trying to make sense of reality, as it seemingly crumbles under the impending footsteps of what may or may not be actual demons. Jacob’s Ladder is a glorious mindfuck.
Watch if: You want to experience an overwhelming nightmare Avoid if: Nothing scares you more than Jason Alexander with hair.
5. Candyman (1992)
Candyman might be the most depressing entry on this list. It’s also a unique visual and emotional powerhouse, with distinctive performances by Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen. This is an unhappy story with an overwhelming amount of energy. It also feels like the cinematic equivalent of being beaten half to death while strapped to the top of a moving train. Candyman doesn’t slow down, which makes the ending all the more horrific. One of the best horror movies of the 90s.
Watch if: You want to watch a Faustian thriller with a truly grim backstory. Avoid if: You can’t handle downbeat endings.
4. Audition (1999)
If you want to get into Takashi Miike movies, this is as good a film as any to see what you can stand. Audition is such a gripping psychological thriller, its effects border on intoxicating. At the same time, it also features some of the most supremely disturbing visuals you will ever come across in a horror movie. You sit there, hoping it all leads somewhere. It does. It’s just not what you would expect, and it’s certainly not something you are ever going to forget.
Watch if: You want to be able to say you saw one of the most messed up movies of all time. Avoid if: You’re already apprehensive about online dating.
3. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive a horror movie? I certainly think so. It pounds you with a constant nightmare from start to finish, blending noir with fairytale visuals spiked with LSD. It has some of the most jarring jump scares you are ever going to find, as well. Mulholland Drive is a horror movie on every level. Some people may not categorize it as such, but those people would be wrong.
Watch if: You want to see David Lynch go completely off the rails in the best possible way. Avoid if: You prefer movies that make a lick of sense.
2. The Babadook (2014)
The award for weirdest sense of humor on this list should probably go to The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. To be sure, it offers a solid dose of nightmare fuel, particularly in the way it throws a story about grief and immense emotional struggle into a monster that lives in the basement. The Babadook is a wonder for simply combining so many different elements into what is at its heart a monster movie. The movie also has Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as a mother and her young son, trying to make sense of their present. They just don’t get the opportunity to do that as they would prefer. You know, monster-free.
Watch if: You want to see a creepy child movie that certainly delivers. Avoid if: You ever want to have kids.
1. Get Out (2017)
Some believe it is too early to call Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, a classic. Time will obviously tell. I just think the present has already told us where this movie is going to be in 30 years. More people will see it as the classic it already is. Get Out tells the story of an interracial couple and why you really can’t trust white chicks from the suburbs. Even if you don’t relate to the story, you will leave the movie with two feelings. Your empathy will be a little stronger, and you will have seen one of the scariest depictions of surrendering to overwhelming evil anyone will ever put to the screen.
Watch if: You want to see a contemporary classic. Avoid if: You haven’t met your spouse’s parents yet.