25 Most Terrifying Films of All Time
The older we get, the more Halloween appeals to us as a holiday. Good beer, good friends, good times and candy—what’s not to enjoy? But no celebration of Oct. 31 is complete without the right combination of scary movies to pass the time. To inspire your trick-or-treating, Life’d has put together the 25 Most Terrifying Films of All Time with full knowledge that you’re going to be surprised and shocked at some of our selections (and non-selections). But then, without a few shocks, it wouldn’t be Halloween, would it?
25. The Fog (1980)
We sure do love us some Carpenter, it seems. The Fog revels in atmosphere while re-teaming the director with many of the same cast and crew from Halloween. It also throws in a seductive Adrienne Barbeau in her prime and several good jumps in telling the story of a community haunted by a past injustice that it committed against a ship full of lepers, who are commemorating the town’s anniversary with bloody vengeance. Remade in 2005—don’t bother—The Fog, in its original version, is actually more shocking, atmospheric and cutting edge than its descendant.
24. Phantasm (1979)
The original Phantasm is a trip-y flick that delivers an even mix of blood and suspense. It also gives the horror genre two of its most iconic images in the Tall Man and his murderous balls. While writing that last sentence was probably as awesome as reading it, in all seriousness, the balls we’re talking about are hovering spheres with retractable blades and drills attached. They’re capable of sticking in a man’s skull and drilling into his brain, and they have nothing to do with star Angus Scrimm’s anatomy, so get your mind out of the gutter, people.
23. Orphan (2009)
The classic Bad Seed gets an update in this horrific chiller about Esther, an adopted child with a strange past. The character is played with jaw-dropping intensity by a young Isabelle Fuhrman, who seems made for the role of manipulative and murderous villain. While the family that she torments are largely unlikable, Esther’s devious ways are channeled to the back of innocent Max (Aryana Engineer), and that dynamic gives the film its pulse. Kate (Vera Farmiga) earns some sympathy as well, but it’s Max, deafened by Kate’s negligence, that makes Esther’s deplorability so effective. And it definitely doesn’t hurt Orphan that it possesses one of the most skin-crawling and flooring twists that you won’t see coming.
22. The Sentinel (1977)
The gorgeous and criminally underused actress Cristina Raines stars as a fashion model trying to prove she can live independently from the influence of her boyfriend in the wake of her abusive father’s death. The drive toward independence places her in a New York brownstone with an odd assortment of characters, who each share a much darker past than what the surface might dictate. The cast for this one is incredible—Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Miles, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum and William Hickey. It’s based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz and directed ably by Michael Winner. Gory and shocking, even by today’s standards, we recommend you give this one a look.
21. The Exorcist III (1990)
Okay, fire away people. We can take it. The Exorcist III makes our list while The Exorcist does not. William Friedkin’s original is a good film but much of the praise heaped on it by critics and audiences demonstrates a degree of shallowness when it comes to having a full knowledge of the horror genre. We credit the original in upping the ante for scary movies, but when you watch it in comparison with the William Peter Blatty-directed sequel—Blatty wrote The Exorcist novel on which Friedkin’s film is based and the novel Legion on which this film is based—there is an obvious distinction in the level of terror that favors The Exorcist III. Long tracking shots and Grand Guignol imagery and sounds that invade the senses are punctuated with chilling payoffs that set this one apart from every other demon possession film out there. And while you may disagree with our preference for this over the first film, we think everyone can agree that it’s a marked improvement over the horrendous Exorcist II.
20. Psycho II (1983)
Let us save you the trouble of doing a double-take as you scroll through this list. Hitchcock’s Psycho is not on here, and “Psycho II” is not a misprint. While the 1960 original is unquestionably a great and influential film, the article’s goal is to find “terrifying” films. As that goes, Psycho just doesn’t do it for us any more. However, director Richard Franklin was able to take the same creepiness factor of the original and infuse it with a 1980’s style that makes his sequel a standout of the decade. Anthony Perkins is once again both creepy and sympathetic as Norman Bates, and the ghost of Mother hovers over the story with foreboding effectiveness. Psycho II is an overlooked gem, and while we’ll concede its predecessor did more for advancing the horror movie, and cinema in general, this is the one that’ll have you covering your eyes and jumping in your seat.
19. The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall directed this gruesome terror tale about some outdoorsy women, who go exploring a cave only to find some of the most terrifying creatures to ever grace the silver screen. Be very careful how you go about watching this movie, though. While the U.S. Version did not impede my enthusiasm for the film, the original director’s cut has a completely different ending that really adds to the poignancy of the story. The U.S. Version is good, but the original director’s cut is what makes this a shoo-in for our list of the 25 Most Terrifying Films of All Time.
18. Pet Sematary (1989)
Stephen King has said that writing the book Pet Sematary was one of the few times in his career that he’d written something so profoundly disturbing that he had to sock it away in a drawer and forget about it for a while. The movie will give you the same sensation. The cast is good but nowhere in it with Mary Lambert’s direction, which is able to build sympathy, revulsion and terror in equal measures. The semi-truck scene, Rachel’s dearest sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek) and Gage’s achilles tendon attack will stick with you in ways that are rare for a horror film to accomplish.
17. The Changeling (1980)
Just so you know it’s not extreme gore that does it for us, we point you to The Changeling, a haunted house thriller from the Eighties featuring Mr. Patton himself (George C. Scott) as a college professor mourning the death of his wife and daughter. A strong supporting cast, some genuinely spine-tingling moments and Peter Medak’s able direction complement the story, which is enough to keep both men and women on the edge of their seats. (Worth noting since so many horror movies appeal to loner males with misogynist tendencies.) Curl up tight and watch this one with your sweetie. It still holds up.
16. Tenebre (1982)
Many people will point you to Suspiria as director Dario Argento’s best film, and they’re not too far off the mark. But for our money, it doesn’t get more disturbing and memorable than Tenebre, which is quite simply a perfect giallo film (which is an Italian breed of slasher). The plots on all these movies are extremely convoluted, but Argento makes up for it with a sensuously perverse backstory and some of the finest-staged kills in the maestro’s career, particularly involving the last 15 minutes. Knowing the greatness of Tenebre makes you sad for the director’s current output, which is nothing short of terrible.
15. Friday the 13th (1980)
The original Friday—and really, the first three sequels—are horror gems. The concept is simple and really not even all that original. (See Twitch of the Death Nerve, Black Christmas and Halloween.) The execution, however, is a different story. And horror fans, you’ve got one man to thank for it—FX maestro Tom Savini. Savini set forth some of his most innovative and gruesome (for the time) work that still holds up today, particularly the sequence where we bid farewell to Kevin Bacon. Call us sick, but we can watch this one over and over and over again without getting sick of it.
14. Black Christmas (1974)
The slasher as we know it today was born with director Bob Clark’s classic that pits a murderous madman against a house full of unsuspecting sorority sisters on Christmas Eve. Clark, who also directed A Christmas Story and Porky’s, brings his trademark humor to the proceedings, but make no mistake: this is definitely a horror film. Clark ratchets up the suspense with each passing scene, steering his film toward a nerve-jangling finale, thanks in part to deviantly sinister phone calls and the situational irony of knowing what dangers lurk in the house alongside the main cast. Inside (2007), a film that almost made this list, borrows some from Black Christmas, and is worth checking out if you’re okay with subtitles and a lot more gore.
13. Let the Right One In (2008)
If you’re like us, you prefer Let the Right One In to its remake Let Me In, though both films are well-made and worth a watch. The story focuses on a bullied young man, who finds a friend in his next door neighbor—a young girl, who isn’t at all what she seems. The characters in this one are extremely sympathetic, the situation relatable and the ending phenomenal. Let the Right One In is an instant classic and joins Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Nosferatu (the silent version) as three of the best vampire films ever made.
12. Insidious (2010)
Director James Wan—after solid but grotesque flicks like Saw, Dead Silence and Death Sentence—completely diverted our expectations of him in this suspense-driven vehicle about a family tormented by their child’s coma and the horrifying visions that soon accompany his affliction. From the opening frame to the final moment, there isn’t a second of boredom, which is truly remarkable in that this is PG-13 horror. You can’t put your guard down for a single moment as Wan hits you one minute with a jump and then counters with a hair-raising image or a painfully intense buildup. It’s more than just an admirable piece of horror; it’s a film that manages to throttle even the most desensitized viewer.
11. Session 9 (2001)
We know what you’re thinking. How could any movie that stars David Caruso be good? To that, we say, “Just watch it already.” The movie centers on a team of hazardous material disposal technicians working to clear out an abandoned insane asylum that may or may not be haunted (or possessed). Session 9 is a movie that lends itself to discussion long after the final frame. It also has several scary moments, but more in the can’t-stop-thinking-about-it vein than the jump-out-at-you. Intense right up to the closing moments, it may be the best horror movie you’ve never seen.
10. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero, already revered for giving the world Night of the Living Dead (a classic in its own rite), upped the ante with Dawn of the Dead. The horror is simultaneously sweeping and intimate as a cast of likable characters take shelter in an abandoned shopping mall as the world goes to Hell around them via zombie apocalypse. The film creates an appealing fantasy even as it delivers buckets of unequaled, stomach-churning gore—again, thank Mr. Savini—and that fantasy is, having access to everything you could possibly need for survival and shutting off the outside world. Who among us hasn’t thought about starting our own country free from the effects of the idiots in Washington?
9. Carrie (1976)
Carrie holds up as a classic of the genre and a benchmark which modern horror films must achieve in order to be considered “great.” Sissy Spacek plays the titular role in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, and she does so with great sadness. Piper Laurie, as Carrie’s fanatical mother, breathes demented life into the character in a way that is unequaled by most fright flick villains. And Carrie’s final meltdown puts the viewer through a complex range of emotions that isn’t easy for any movie to duplicate.
8. Evil Dead (1981)
The long-awaited and inevitable remake hits theaters next year and while the trailer looks promising, it is hard to imagine the film surpassing Sam Raimi’s original. With five mostly likable characters—a rarity in horror movies—an isolated and chilling atmosphere, and buckets of crowd-pleasing gore to go with the disturbing imagery—a woman gets raped by a tree for goodness sake—Evil Dead has all the elements to both please and revolt its audience, even more than 30 years after its original release. The sequels are well worth checking out for their sense of humor, but as horror movies go, they don’t compare to the source.
7. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Werewolves were never scarier (or funnier) than in director John Landis’ classic tale of two American youths on a hike through the English countryside, who are attacked by a beast of the full moon. One is torn apart. The other is left to live with the curse of the werewolf. The movie delivers some groundbreaking blood and gore that holds up just as well today. David Naughton plays the perfect funny, sympathetic everyman to Jenny Agutter’s understated though undeniably sexy nurse. And Landis uses both rural and metropolitan England for maximum effect. Followed by a fun but inferior sequel in An American Werewolf in Paris.
6. Alien (1979)
We dug Aliens every bit as much as the 1979 classic, but one viewing of each will tell you that they belong in entirely different genres. James Cameron’s 1986 sequel is clearly an action movie, but Ridley Scott’s original is an exercise in classic horror and modern suspense. Alien is a horror film in space. It is not a sci-fi movie. It is not an action movie. The creature remains one of the most frightening visions you’ll ever see on screen, but Scott has the good sense to keep it in the shadows for most of the experience. Meanwhile, the chest-bursting scene still holds up as a deeply disturbing, inspired piece of horror.
5. The Thing (1982)
The re-remake of 2011 gets an undeservingly bad rap in our opinion, but it was a little misguided to try and better John Carpenter’s take on the 1951 Christian Nyby-Howard Hawks film, which itself was based on a John W. Campbell, Jr., short story called “Who Goes There?” Carpenter’s version stars Kurt Russell and Wilford (Diabeetus) Brimley. The FX work still holds up and is largely superior to the 2011 version, but it’s Carpenter’s same ability to create an uncertain, queasiness-inducing atmosphere, as demonstrated in Halloween, that puts his version over the top. That human-head/spider thing still gives us the willies!
4. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Don’t get too excited if you’re watching this for Brooke Shields. A) She was criminally young when the film was made. B) She’s not in it very long. Instead watch this one for the creepy killer, the haunting atmosphere, and the depth of storyline which you rarely see in the horror genre. Alice, Sweet Alice is not just an eerie murder-thriller. It’s also an indictment of religious hypocrisy and a sometimes heartbreaking family drama wrapped in a shroud of unnerving suspense and full-blooded horror. The mystery centers on the brutal murder of a young child at her first communion. The killer—probably the scariest of all time based on looks alone—may or may not be the girl’s troubled older sister Alice (Paula Sheppard). That’s for you and the girls’ estranged parents (Linda Miller and Niles McMaster) to decide. A remake is upcoming from original director Alfred Sole’s cousin, Dante Tomaselli (Satan’s Playground, Desecration).
3. The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance, Stanley Kubrick’s chilling direction, and elements from Stephen King’s demonic novel combine to make The Shining one of the greatest horror movies—and greatest films—of all time. While King was not fond of the finished product and used the dismal made-for-TV remake as an opportunity to “correct” Kubrick’s vision, it’s pretty clear that the story was in better hands in the 1980 outing. Eerie children, ghoulish ghosts, and a performance from Nicholson that will make you think twice about ever approaching the Hollywood legend, make the original theatrical version of The Shining a film classic.
2. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick transcends its sub-genre through a combination of atmosphere and editing. Jamie Lee Curtis is a perfectly sympathetic heroine, the kills are low on gore but heavy on buildup, and Donald Pleasance is a film treasure. While the ending and the movie itself was screwed up by a string of unnecessary sequels and an asinine brother-sister storyline, the original stands alone as a work of art that literally makes you feel as if the terror is all around you and inescapable. Whether you’re talking about it in the context of genre or mainstream filmmaking, it’s a nearly perfect movie.
1. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
For the longest time, this classic was undeservedly forgotten by society. Only those of us who watched it growing up, on the rare occasion that it played on television (usually during the month of October), could remember how expertly paced and suspenseful it was. Dark Night of the Scarecrow dealt with vigilantism, hypocrisy, revenge and perversion in a made-for-TV movie that actually took advantage of its limitations. The limits on sexuality, violence and dealing with mature themes were circumvented by Frank De Felitta’s direction, J.D. Feigelson’s screenplay, Feigelson and Butler Handcock’s story, and Ray Bradbury’s guidance. The cast is strong in presenting a tale about a simpleton wrongly executed by small-town thugs, who returns from the grave as a scarecrow—or does he?—to exact revenge.