Before Jigsaw and Pennywise, there was Dracula and the Wolf Man. The horror genre dates back to a time before talkies, when directors relied on set design, story, and really efficient fog machines to get the goosebumps rising. Herewith, nothing after 1985, and everything you want in a scary movie.
Ridley Scott’s jarring trip about a crew of cosmonauts battling a creepy life form in deep space didn’t invent the interstellar horror, but it did set the bar for all who traveled in its footsteps. Not to mention it innovated special effects (chest scene, anyone?) and defied convention, all with a woman (Sigourney Weaver) in the driver’s seat.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Touted as the greatest thriller Hitchcock didn’t direct, Les Diaboliques is French suspense with a famous final twist. More “who’s doing that?” than whodunit, the plot follows two scorned women after they drown the sadist who wronged them in the bathtub—then go mad thinking he’s still alive.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s extraterrestrial horror film was up against a whole host of demonic beings when it released in the early ‘80s. There was the sexually explicit ghost in The Entity, the hockey fanatic in Friday the 13th, and the giallo serial killer in Tenebrae. But when it comes to our affinity for sitting in a dark room and letting the fear of a scary movie wash over us, nothing beats the fright we get from a shapeshifting alien that goes by simply “The Thing.”
Don’t lie: No matter what kind of body of water you dip a toe into—ocean, lake, pool, heck, even bathwater—the irrational fear of a great white shark turning your limbs into chum always hovers somewhere in the back of your mind. We all have legendary director Steven Spielberg—and the film’s signature “dah-dun” sound from composer John Williams—to thank for that. Widely regarded as the birth of the summer blockbuster, Spielberg’s 1975 release follows a sheriff, biologist, and seafarer on their hunt to kill the beast who’s turning the waters surrounding Amity Island a certain shade of blood red.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Released during the Cold War, Don Siegle’s essential paranoia classic—about a town whose community is slowly and unassumingly replaced by aliens—is a reflection of its times. The film’s subtext is often regarded as a metaphor for McCarthyism or groupthink, and today, it boasts pod-people remakes aplenty.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Have you seen the 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon yet? We ask, because the iconic and highly influential film is the basis for just about every creature feature floating around the digital libraries. You won’t get 10 minutes in before noting Gill-Man’s influence in films from your nostalgic collection, like The Monster Squad, and those from more modern times, like The Shape of Water. All the more reason to queue up the source of their inspiration. A quick and dirty 79 minutes, Creature from the Black Lagoon follows a simple yet effective formula: beautiful woman plus terrifying sea monster equals soaked in sweat.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Reportedly based on the real-life Lutz family’s abbreviated stint living at 112 Ocean Avenue, the site of a grisly mass murder in Long Island, New York, the horror film doesn’t have to be entirely accurate to scare the pants off its viewers with bleeding walls, the glow of a feral animal’s stare, and, of course, a previously doting-now possessed husband on a mission to murder his wife and children.
The Innocents (1961)
The horror buff’s horror film, Jack Clayton’s ghost story goes beyond tropes to turn co-writer Truman Capote’s script into an esteemed film that, when watched today, shatters the low-grade reputation plaguing the genre. And it doesn’t do it with violence—just a nanny who might or might not be mad.
El Vampiro (1957)
The classic Dracula tale you know. Told from the perspective of Argentine filmmaker Fernando Méndez, you might not. The film, macabre and atmospheric from start to finish, relocates the classic folklore to an isolated hacienda in a Mexican village where a young woman has returned to bury her aunt. As time goes on, she begins to suspect there’s been some toothsome foul play. And, of course, she is correct. Regarded as the inaugural film that ushered in a wave of Mexican classic horror, El Vampiro is a masterful installment in the classic horror canon—or rather coffin.
There are no words. Literally. This Italian gem from 1911 is a silent film filled with imagery that will make you scream. Loosely based on the Dante literary staple The Divine Comedy, it’s a 68-minute tour of the circle of hell. Bonus: there’s a decapitated man waving around his own decapitated noggin. It’s shocking for its time. (And free to watch on Youtube!)
Japanese horror really took off in the West in the ’90s, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a slew of great ghost revenge flicks lurking in the decades prior. Take for instance, Kuroneko, a stunning fever dream about a pair of women who are brutally murdered by samurai soldiers, then roam war-torn 12th-century Japan as haunting spirits, seeking revenge on those who wronged them. According to the Criterion Collection, the film “is a spectacularly eerie twilight tale with a shocking feminist angle, evoked through ghostly special effects and exquisite cinematography.” Can’t say it much better than that.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Rickety rides, funhouses that aren’t fun, black magic: the carnival can be a terrifying place. In this less-is-more horror delight, a woman seemingly drowns, then stumbles out of the river, moves to Utah, and can’t shake a phantom who wants her to dance in the carnival of souls.
Les Yeux Sans Visage (1962)
The doctor is in, but he’s gone a little mad in Georges Franju’s Cronie-esque noir. A bizarre trip through guilt, science, and body horror that, for its time, was groundbreaking, the story is about a father reconstructing his daughter’s burned face with grafted skin from women he’s lured into his home. Pedro Almodovar directed an inspired retelling in 2011.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The first in a terrifying franchise about a supernatural serial killer with knives for fingers and melted skin for a face, Wes Craven’s slasher gem stars a totally ’80s cast, including Heather Langenkamp as final girl Nancy Thompson. Inspired by an L.A. Times article detailing the unexplained death of a refugee child, the iconic horror flick hasn’t paled in its dread over the decades. Freddie Kruger bludgeoning teens while they dream is just as disturbing today as it was in 1984. “Nine, ten, never sleep again,” indeed.
The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock let the visual effects fly in his 1963 aviary apocalypse starring Tippi Hedren in her debut acting role. She plays Melanie Daniels, a socialite who follows a handsome lawyer to a bayside town where seagulls, crows, and other feathered fowl take out their rage on human flesh. Though it may sound ridiculous to suggest that a film about killer birds is terrifying, the legacy of its bizarro nature can’t be denied: The Birds remains one of the spookiest thriller-horror hybrids to have ever infected the genre.
Though the great debate over who should get credit for directing this paranormal classic—helmer Tobe Hooper or writer Steven Spielberg—rages on, Poltergeist and its legacy have proved that no one really cares. The film starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, and Heather O’Rourke definitely leans heavily into the crux of Spielberg’s signature family-film style, but then the cult classic’s action and effects carry similar terror to Hooper’s Funhouse and Eaten Alive. So it’s anyone’s guess what really happened on that set. One truth that’s for sure when it comes to the classic about a California family and the ominous poltergeist terrorizing them: You’ll be sleeping with the lights on afterward.
David Lynch could sneeze and we wouldn’t sleep for a week. The director has built his career on surrealist fare that creeps into your head and sets up shop (i.e., you can’t unsee this stuff). His first film? This monochromatic tale about a big-haired guy whose paranoia grows with every passing minute.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s brooding slow-burner about a Manhattanite who gives birth to Satan’s spawn is no-joke occult viewing. Eerie in all manner of the word, it breaks tropes by not keeping its audience in the dark. Instead, we know the devil is in the details, and there’s not a thing we can do to stop him.
The Changeling (1980)
Haunted-house movies never get old—even the ones from the ’80s. In this Peter Medak classic starring George C. Scott, a musical composer moves across the country in an effort to work through the grief of losing his wife and daughter in a car accident. He ends up hunkering down in an old Victorian mansion that just so happens to already be occupied: by a ghost. As he attempts to solve the mystery of what happened to his new deceased roommate, you—the viewer—will get sucked deeper and deeper into Medak’s horrifying vortex.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Playwright Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, an experimental vampire tale that wowed critics at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, has a story to tell—and not just its cinematic narrative about an anthropologist named Hess who gets stabbed with a cursed dagger then finds himself immortal and in love with his assistant’s wife, Ganja. Behind the scenes, the film was heavily edited, chopped for time, and released as a Franken-picture the director wouldn’t even put his name on. Luckily, the Museum of Modern Art has restored Gunn’s initial vision, and you can view it in its original glory today.
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s haunted-house chiller based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House locks two women in a mansion and watches as they both lose their minds to fear. Now, its rating says G, but don’t let that convince you to watch in the dark. The film’s sound and effects will make you want to leave the lights on.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
No matter how you prefer your nightwalker—staggering, high energy, foaming at the mouth—the late George Romero is the genius who broke ground in the subgenre by morphing the voodoo urban legend into the flesh-eating mob we know and love today. The result: arguably the best zombie thriller OAT.
Cat People (1942)
Parisian director Jacques Tourneur tapped into felinophobia for this haunting fantasy that transforms the irrational fear of cats into a purring vehicle for a truly disturbing mystery. French actress Simone Simon stars as Irena Dubrovna Reed, a Serbian national and sketch artist who falls in love with a New York man while harboring a wild secret: She just might be a devilish cultist who can shapeshift into a panther.
A Spielberg classic you may have missed, this made-for-TV movie was the director’s gateway horror thriller for Jaws. An elementary plot with a master behind the wheel, Duel is every motorist’s nightmare: a faceless trucker in a tractor-trailer terrorizes a business man in the desert. The end game? Death for one or the other.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Yep, this is that movie, with the did-they-or-didn’t-they love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. However, that’s about as graphic as things get. Nicolas Roeg doesn’t exploit cheap tricks or special effects to send chills down the spine. Rather, he delivers a narrative of grief, clairvoyance, and murder.
Maestro Hitchcock perfected the power of suggestion with his infamous shower scene starring Janet Leigh. Though graphic in nature, we never actually see blade penetrating flesh, and yet it’s impossible to shower without worrying a rube with mommy issues is on the other side of the curtain.
The Exorcist (1973)
Forty-plus years later, William Friedkin’s attack on the senses is still king of the demon subgenre, if not the genre as a whole. Based on the “true”-story possession of a kid named Ronald Hunkeler, Friedkin’s tale of a little girl, her demon, and the filth she spews sets the mold few can live up to.
The Omen (1976)
Animals, kids, clowns: they’re a horror director’s essentials. Here, Richard Donner uses a pint-size spawn of the devil to elicit his screams. Everyone’s favorite father figure, Gregory Peck, takes the lead as an American ambassador trying to figure out if his son is the Antichrist.
Black Christmas (1974)
It’s definitely not the most wonderful time of year for the sorority girls being being terrorized over the phone. This Canadian classic made way for modern-day slasher flicks like Scream, and sure, it has a third-act twist you’ll see coming thanks to subsequent lookalikes, but that doesn’t make it any less horrifying.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s all-time critics’ favorite is the ultimate horror film. So what if it butchers a narrative from the brilliant mind of Steven King? And so what if it’s set in a resort hotel of impossible proportions? Jack Torrance, his family, and his descent into madness is a seminal work that has given oxygen to some of the most enduring conspiracy theories of our time. People are still trying to figure it out.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
It’s German. It’s silent. But Robert Wiene’s monochromatic chiller still delivers the screams. Arguably the first horror movie ever in the can, it’s a highly-stylized nightmare about murder, madness, and somnambulism. You’ll recognize its influences all over Tim Burton’s resume.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s Southern-fried fete of swine, cannibals, and high-octane power tools is an exercise in endurance. Though it lugs around a hard-core slasher reputation, it actually serves up very little gore, instead leaning on an immersive atmosphere to jangle the nerves. Even today, it’s incredibly effectual.
Dead of Night (1945)
A relatively obscure horror anthology film, Dead of Night is anchored by the déjà vu had by an architect at a party whose recurring nightmare seems to be bleeding over into reality. Over the course of the night, he and the other party guests, who have all starred in his dream, take turns swapping disturbing and unhinged ghost stories—until, of course, the suspense is capped off with a stellar twist ending.
Another German Expressionist horror staple, Nosferatu is the first surviving film to introduce a vampire to the big screen. Though its legacy is shrouded in a copyright horror story of its own (for ripping off Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Nosferatu is the one to thank for the “I vant to suck your blood” camp we crave.
Don’t wear white while watching Brian De Palma’s blood-soaked horror fest adapted from the Stephen King tale. It’s essentially about a bullied, telekinetic teen who finally snaps, and when it comes to the genre, mainstream culture, and our very own psyche, this one hasn’t just left a mark—it’s left a permanent stain.
Golden-era actress Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) stars in a film of suspense, madness, and mind games helmed by George Cukor (A Star Is Born, the Judy Garland version). And though its horrors don’t borrow from the traditional scare tactics of the ‘40s—no wolf men, Franken-monsters, or mummified terrors here—it explores the scariest presence there is: a manipulative husband.
Dario Argento’s magnum opus is a symphony of witches, prog rock, and primary colors oozing with giallo influences. It follows an American who joins a German ballet company harboring a coven of witches, and though it’s perfect as is, we can’t help but be curious about Luca Guadagnino’s remake.
Before Christopher Lee donned the infamous collared cape, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi sank his fangs into the role of the “epitome of evil” in Tod Browning’s haunter. Not only did this Dracula establish the aesthetics of the villain, but he and Browning helped catapult the supernatural genre onto American soil.
Spider Baby (1967)
We’re not sure which we like better: the winning title, Spider Baby, or its runner-up, The Maddest Story Ever Told. A pitch-black comedy that holes up with a brood of deranged siblings whose brains are slowly turning to mush, Jack Hill’s story of deviant inbred cannibals spawned the concept of crazy killer families that the genre plays up in classics like House of a Thousand Corpses, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Cabin in the Woods.
Billed as experimental comedy horror, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s gonzo surrealism with a massive body count is midnight madness at its best. From the disembodied floating heads to the fluffy white witch cat, there really are no words to describe it. Just see it for yourself.
The tale of the godless Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster who goes on a rogue killing spree dates back to 1831, a century before director James Whale adapted Mary Shelley’s fright fest for the screen. But its influence remains alive and continues to breed many a contemporary redux.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
The title alone is a terrifying thought. Let alone the fact that leading man Vincent Price is the sole survivor outrunning the zombies that are now invading what’s left of the planet after a global epidemic wipes out the human race. If it sound a little like Will Smith’s walking dead movie, that’s because I Am Legend is the 2007 remake.
Originally titled The Babysitter Murders, writer, director, and composer John Carpenter took a shoestring budget, a William Shatner mask, and a whole lotta creativity to deliver a massively successful slasher flick that would eventually become the pinnacle of teen screams.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Bushy yak hairs, a fog machine, and a perfected moon howl, and the wooliest of the Universal Monsters was born. The film that launched a thousand lupine transformations had a release date that fell just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and despite critical finger-wagging, it achieved blockbuster status.