Many of the best slasher movies of all time can be found in the 80s. It is hard not to be at least a little romantic about that decade. At the same time, you can find contenders for the greatest slasher movie of all time throughout the 70’s. There are examples before the term was coined, as well. You can go back decades before 1978’s Halloween came out.
Certainly, there are great examples of slasher movies from the 1990s, 2000s, and the present. There is a basic structure to their tropes and expectations that can be easily shaped to the entertainment demands of the times. In the 80s, they were so prolific, film critics like Roger Ebert made it a point to try and destroy them. In the 90s, we still wanted stories about some sort of masked/unseen killer, hacking idiots and tragic heroes to pieces. We just wanted them to be ironic, so that’s where these stories went for a while.
In the 2000s, others still wanted to prove slasher movies could be brutal, intense, and devoid of any winking into the camera.
Then we became nostalgic.
If you just want one opinion on the greatest slasher movies of all time, you will find that here. However, if you’re weird like me, you can also enjoy the way slasher movies often do a fascinatingly good job of reflecting what most people seem to want from these films. In addition to the complex thrill of watching people die in creative ways, and of watching others survive to live another day.
Unless they die in the sequel, obviously.
From incredible special effects, to brutal surprises, to other elements that can define a truly great slasher film, there is more versatility within any list of the best slasher movies than you might think.
There are also, in many cases, remarkable final girls (a famous slasher movie trope), extremely ambitious madmen (often men, yes), and people who simply exist in the film to be slaughtered. If you love slasher films, chances are you love all those things.
Note: the below is in a chronological order.
The 15 Best Slasher Movies Of All Time
1. Peeping Tom (1960)
Two movies on this list are frequently debated as to whether they belong on any list of the greatest slasher movies of all time. One of those movies is Peeping Tom, the movie that essentially destroyed director Michael Powell’s career.
Is this unforgettable, deeply affecting movie about a serial killer who uses a camera to capture the final moments of his victims, a slasher movie? Perhaps a proto-slasher. The debate goes on.
Obviously, I consider it to be a slasher, even if the genre didn’t really get started until Black Christmas and Halloween came along some years later. The elements of the slasher are certainly here, more often than not.
Watch if: You want to see an ancestor of the slasher genre, which also happens to be one of the most disturbing psychological horror movies of all time. Avoid if: You have very specific qualifications for what makes a slasher.
2. Psycho (1960)
The second of the two entries most frequently debated in terms of whether they qualify as slasher movies. Psycho, like the previous entry, has too many elements of the genre to be disregarded. I wouldn’t call it a pure slasher, but there’s enough to justify its inclusion here. If nothing else, Norman Bates paved the way for not only a slew of slasher movie icons, but also created an archetype that still influences several different types of horror.
Arguably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s last true masterpieces, Psycho remains a genuinely good movie that should be seen at least once for its historical value.
Watch if: You want to see what all the shower scene fuss is about. Avoid if: You don’t have a lot of patience for unlikable leads and dated attitudes towards crossdressing and the like.
3. Black Christmas (1974)
If you ask me, trying to build value for Black Christmas around the fact that it came out before Halloween is kind of asinine. It doesn’t really matter. While Black Christmas is a clear influence on slasher movies, aside from also being just a great horror film, it still didn’t jumpstart the slasher genre as it is known today. It proved Holiday-themed horror movies could make some bank, as long as the budget stayed low. That is important enough.
Directed by Bob Clark, who later made A Christmas Story, you get a great cast (including John Saxon and Olivia Hussey), good pacing, and a truly unsettling ending. You can argue that Black Christmas is better because it came out first, or you could just enjoy the movie’s many enduring qualities.
Watch if: You want a movie that validates your hatred of Christmas. Avoid if: You actually like Christmas.
4. Deep Red (1975)
If you want to know what slasher movies did between 1960’s Psycho and 1978’s Halloween, it could be argued that several elements of the genre found a home in Italian giallo movies. Deep Red remains not only one of the finest giallo films of all time, but also one of the best from director Dario Argento.
The mystery side of the movie focuses on an unknown killer with black gloves and a can-do attitude. The style and pace of the movie offer one brilliant assault on the senses after another.
Is it a slasher? Not to be glib, but there’s an awful lot of slashing going on.
Watch if: You like it when your media violence is stylized as hell. Avoid if: You don’t like ambitious mysteries, or you want to wait to start until 1978 for your impending slasher movies marathon.
5. Halloween (1978)
While John Carptenter’s Halloween was not the first slasher film, it did set the tone for the rest of the 70s, then the 80s, and then beyond.
The hundreds and hundreds of slasher movies released after Halloween, which tells the story of a jaunty homicidal maniac named Michael Myers, returning to his hometown for a fresh killing spree, all owe some form of debt to this film. That is obviously important in a historical appreciation of these movies, but keep in mind that Halloween in of itself remains as entertaining, and even frightening, as ever before.
It established Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the first scream queens of the slasher era, and it offers one of the definitive Donald Pleasance performances (as Michael’s bug-eyed doctor).
Watch if: You want to see a horror classic and a trendsetter Avoid if: You can’t un-see the William Shatner mask
Directed by William Lustig (who later went on to do the Maniac Cop series), and co-written by character actor Joe Spinell, who pulled double duty by playing the maniac in question, there are few slasher movies as bleak and grimy as Maniac.
It helps that it was shot in New York City, during the height of the city having a grand old time on the edge of oblivion. It also helps that Joe Spinell, who appeared in movies like The Godfather and Rocky, taps into one of the scariest portrayals of a killer that anyone had seen up to that point.
Not surprisingly, the ugliness of this movie, the depths of madness, and the fact that Spinell was an intense-looking guy all conspired to ensure Maniac would be poorly received. It isn’t an unreasonable response, to be honest. Despite the 2012 remake being pretty darn good, nothing is quite the marriage of despair and sleaze that Maniac establishes.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best examples of a horror movie with a car crash atmosphere. Avoid if: You can’t take a shower immediately after.
7. Friday the 13th (1980)
What Halloween started, particularly in terms of establishing momentum for slashers, Friday the 13th shaped even further. A lot of slashers, particularly throughout the 80s, would generally stick to borrowing/ripping off from one or the other. The initial Friday the 13th cements the idea of stacking the story with a noticeably high body count.
The fact that slashers were just getting started at this point gives this first film an odd innocence that still comes through. A lot of slasher archetypes are here, but the movie doesn’t have the weight of trying to do something original with the 8th sequel, or whatever happens when too many of one franchise are released.
The original Friday the 13th is an innovator that still retains the unique energy it possessed at the times of its release. You also get a young Kevin Bacon, and some Tom Savini (an essential figure in slasher movie history, among other achievements) makeup for a genuinely intense climax.
Watch if: You don’t take this stuff too seriously. Avoid if: You have a ride or die mentality with hockey masks.
8. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
My Bloody Valentine still has one of the best atmospheres of dread and doom ever brought to a slasher. The movie is quietly upsetting throughout, even as it offers moments of inventive violence. Speaking of the violence, the heavily-edited theatrical version should be avoided at all costs. My Bloody Valentine is also a rare example of a slasher that doesn’t feature teenagers as the victims/protagonists.
Beyond its strong plot and likable characters, My Bloody Valentine also proves that slashers could be creative within their qualifications. While this Canadian horror classic might share certain traits with other examples of the top slasher movies, it is a showcase for the various ways in which a movie could distinguish itself within the genre.
Watch if: You want something with a striking touch of the unsettling. Avoid if: You want to keep your Valentine’s Day associations positive.
9. The Funhouse (1981)
The Funhouse was written by Tobe Hooper, whose previous credits include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That’s another one people debate. Regardless, while I wouldn’t call TCM one of the best slasher movies of all time (certainly, one of the greatest horror movies ever), I would give that distinction to The Funhouse.
Released in 1981, The Funhouse is one of the better examples of taking the basic slasher formula and pushing everything around it to be as weird as possible. At his peak, Tobe Hooper can manipulate cinematic chaos with the best of them.
Obviously, the movie is set in a funhouse at a carnival. Beyond that, I think it’s best to just strap in for a film that is equal parts absurd and creepy.
Watch if: You always knew there was something going on at those cut-rate local carnivals. Avoid if: You prefer smart protagonists, or demand that things generally make sense.
Once again, we come to the legendary makeup FX of Tom Savini. Between the slashers and the zombies, it is easy to see why Tom is one of modern horror’s icons. The Burning isn’t quite as well known as Friday the 13th or Dawn of the Dead, but it deserves to be.
Filmed in Western New York, which has always been a faintly creepy locale, The Burning makes a good case that if the people involved are creative and passionate, it can come through in the telling of what seems like a fairly standard story these days.
A prank goes horribly wrong, and the recipient returns a few years later for revenge. Pretty simple. Except the style and execution of The Burning is anything but.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best revenge slashers of all time. Avoid if: You live in Western New York.
11. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
By 1982, movies were already deconstructing and subverting slasher genre expectations. The Slumber Party Massacre was written as a parody, and yet filmed as a straightforward slasher movie. The end result is one of the most interesting entries on this list.
Slumber Party Massacre has all the tropes one might demand from this genre. It just adds a good deal more humor than the norm, especially at the time of its release.
The Slumber Party Massacre also has the distinction of being one of the few slasher movies written and directed by women (Rita Mae Brown and Amy Holden Jones respectively).
Watch if: You like stuff that walks a fine line between comedy and horror. Avoid if: You don’t care for stuff that knows it’s ridiculous.
12. A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)
Through writer/director Wes Craven and star Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger took the fear of knowing someone is after you and applied it to devastating reality of knowing you must sleep sometime. A Nightmare on Elm St. endures because it is still one of the most inventive slashers ever. This creativity would later shift to the execution of Freddy’s kills with the sequels, which may or may not please you.
The first one? It’s decidedly low-budget, weird, and quite vicious. In his best movies, Craven could make you understand exactly what he was talking about. He could make you emphasize with things that are scary to almost all of us, in some form or fashion.
Watch if: You want to see the first, arguably best appearance of one of the greatest movie villains of all time. Avoid if: You have enough problems being scared of things that may live under your bed.
13. Candyman (1992)
Candyman is another slasher movie that proved you could do more than just kill as many people as humanly possible. Nothing wrong with that, and Candyman (based on a short story by Clive Barker) is certainly a brutal example of its type, with a towering performance from Tony Todd as the Candyman in question.
Yet the film, directed by Bernard Rose from his own screenplay, also leaves room for an unshakable element of social commentary and historical context. Taken as a whole, Candyman shakes your senses in a way few slashers can or ever will.
Watch if: You want to be creeped out for a long time afterwards. Avoid if: You live alone.
14. Scream (1996)
Despite a tone that some have described as condescending, Scream is still one of the best efforts anyone has ever made to celebrate and gently tease the genre equally.
It makes sense Wes Craven directed Kevin Williamson’s screenplay (and Williamson himself became quite prolific within slashers for much of the 90’s) about a masked killer pursuing teenagers. The movie distinguished itself and won audiences over in 1996 for dropping the standard slasher concept into a culture wholly cynical of horror movies in general, and slasher films in particular. It doesn’t hurt either that Scream has a genuinely charming sense of humor, combined with the perfect cast to assemble for something like this.
Craven came back for the rest of the series, which offered a few more surprises, but nothing quite as satisfying as the first installment.
Watch if: You like it when movies celebrate and send up conventions Avoid if: Self-referential horror movies make you want to self-referential yourself right off a cliff.
15. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Behind the Mask goes for a similar self-referential style to what you get from Scream and its sequels. However, whereas Scream plays things relatively safe, Behind the Mask aims to go over the top before you’re even a fourth of the way through. That doesn’t appeal to everyone, but The Rise of Leslie Vernon is proof positive that good slasher movies continued well beyond the heyday of the 1980s.
It doesn’t hurt that the movie also dips into the found footage frenzy that was going on at the time, with further still to offer on the growing popularity of horror films that have been categorized as torture porn.
The influence of Freddy, Jason, Michael, and the others on young Leslie Vernon is clear. At the same time, Leslie also aspires to take things in an entirely new direction. What helps make Behind the Mask a modern slasher classic is the fact that for several reasons, the film itself matches the ambitions of the madman.
You also get some immensely enjoyable supporting performances and cameos from Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, and the late, great Zelda Rubinstein.
Watch if: You want to see the concepts of Scream explored in a more surprising, less commercial kind of way. Avoid if: It sounds like someone stole your actual weekend plans.
It’s easy to get stuck in the 80s with slasher movies. It’s also tempting to pay tribute to some of the better sequels in some of the more famous horror movie franchises. Hopefully, if you’re annoyed about the first point, or a firm believer in the second, the following runner ups, presented in no particular order, will ease you:
– Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) – The Final Girls (2016) – A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
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