The scariest horror films ever – ranked!

Occult chiller Hereditary is the latest in a proud line of big-screen blood-curdlers. Our critic picks his 25 most terrifying

25 Don’t Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)

Now that Lars von Trier has offered what may be a backhanded homage to it in his serial-killer nightmare The House That Jack Built, attention may well refocus on this cult giallo classic from Italy. A journalist investigates a series of murders in a remote village and uncovers black-magic practices.

24 American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

Christian Bale in American Psycho
Christian Bale in American Psycho. Photograph: Rex Features

Once upon a time, Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho was the most shocking thing in American publishing. Mary Harron’s movie version did not excite the same disgust, but it made Christian Bale into a star as the gym-built Wall Street master of the universe and status snob who is also a serial killer.

23 The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)

A classic crude slasher from Tobe Hooper, in my view better than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Four teenagers become trapped inside a haunted ride at a carnival and find themselves being picked off by the disfigured killer inside. Hooper weaponises his own fiendish bad taste with some truly grisly killing scenes.

22 The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)

The explosion of digital movie-making 20 years ago – and the sudden availability of digital cameras at high-street prices – liberated film-makers and gave birth to the “found footage” genre. This is a movie whose cheeky viral marketing allowed people to think it was a genuine documentary. Three students hike into a forest, intending to make a supercilious video-diary history project about the local tradition of the “Blair Witch”. They are never seen again and this footage is all that is recovered.

21 Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, 1968)

Night of the Living Dead
Underfed undead … Night of the Living Dead. Photograph: Image Ten/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

George A Romero invented the zombie genre with this smart, low-budget shocker about a virus, accidentally brought back to Earth from outer space, that causes people to eat each other, afflicted by an eternal hunger. It satirised racism, conformism, careerism and the country’s secret fear of the future.

20 Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

Ari Aster has barnstormed his way into the scary hall of fame with this deeply strange movie featuring Toni Collette as an artist and miniaturist who is haunted in every sense by her late mother, an abusive and manipulative woman who now wishes to gain control of her grandchildren from beyond the grave.

19 It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)

A brilliant horror inspired by MR James’s story Casting the Runes. After sleeping with someone, a young woman discovers she has been inducted into a supernatural death cult; she is being followed by a demonic figure that only she can see and which pursues her on foot at a zombie pace, but will eventually kill her – unless she has sex with someone else, at which point this demon’s target will change. And so it goes on: a viral chain-letter of sex and shame.

18 Audition (Takeshi Miike, 1999)

Eihi Shiina in Audition.
Born for the part … Eihi Shiina in Audition. Photograph: Channel 4

An almost unclassifiable masterpiece of J-horror and one of the very few movies in the genre in which the demonically violent protagonist is allowed to be a woman, satirising women’s position in Japanese society and cinema. A film producer hits upon the idea for getting a wife: he will audition actresses for a (nonexistent) minor role and then, having found a suitably submissive woman, let her down and ask her for a date. The auditionee (Eihi Shiina) turns the tables on his arrogance with extreme violence.

17 Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

One of the great horror thrillers of contemporary US cinema and a brilliant allegory for the plot twist of the US post-Obama. An African American photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) is invited by his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to spend the weekend with her super-liberal parents.

16 The Addiction (Abel Ferrara, 1995)

One of the great movies about vampires, which Abel Ferrara reimagines as a parasitical cult of addiction, a pyramid scheme for spreading evil. Lili Taylor plays a lonely student in New York who is bitten and must then bite. Her agony in confronting her unwished-for destiny of eternal undeadness is brilliant.

15 Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

Tony Moran as Michael Myers in Halloween.
Tony Moran as Michael Myers in Halloween. Photograph: Allstar/Falcon International

A masked attacker has escaped from a secure facility. It is the loathsome Michael, who has one of the most disturbing walks in film history: lumbering and laborious, and yet inexorable in his pursuit of Jamie Lee Curtis. The pioneering use of electronic music is part of what makes Halloween memorable: the plinking piano theme over a buzzing synth score.

14 Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1959)

Frequently and misleadingly described as “the British Psycho”, this is the film that undid Michael Powell’s career – a serial-killer nightmare with strange echoes of his earlier film with Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale. Carl Boehm plays the deranged porn photographer and amateur cine-movie obsessive who films prostitutes at the moment he kills them. The sheer tattiness and seediness of postwar Britain is superbly conjured.

13 The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

The Wicker Man
Horror film for the Brexit era? The Wicker Man. Photograph: Allstar/British Lion/Studiocanal

A classic of English folk-horror: Edward Woodward plays the stolidly moralistic police officer who comes to a remote Scottish island community to investigate the case of a missing girl and is unsettled by the strange pagan practices. It is a society that has evolved separately from Britain’s mainland and its Anglican beliefs, but it looks like an alternative reality of fiercely insular, irrational England. Is there anything more Brexity than this?

12 Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

An eminent surgeon attempts a cosmetic reconstruction of his daughter’s face after she is disfigured in a road accident – using parts of faces of other young women that his assistant lures to his laboratory and kills. It is a horror movie in the tradition of Mary Shelley and yet also something of Beauty and the Beast, with the beastly father-figure turning his innocent daughter into something repulsive. Her mask is inexpressibly disturbing.

11 Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976)

Sissy Spacek is the bullied teen with telekinetic powers in this parable of bullying and misogyny, which is also a brilliant satire of high school, particularly the prom as a theatre of cruelty and anxiety. The violence and rage scream out of the screen.

10 The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Photograph: Allstar/Orion Pictures

Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece of forensic psycho-macabre horror stars Anthony Hopkins, who brings a career’s worth of Shakespearean savvy to his greatest role: the imprisoned serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Foster plays the FBI rookie Clarice Starling, who must convince Hannibal to offer invaluable help from behind his toughened glass in tracking down another murderer. But what will he want from her in return? A guignol gem.

9 The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

I have rewatched this a number of times and it just gets better, verging on classic status. A lonely and stressed young mother finds herself reading to her young son from a strange pop-up book he has found, called The Babadook, about a weird top-hatted figure that lives in the wardrobe. Too late, she realises that it is a satanically charged object and by reading it aloud she has made it come true.

8 The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

The Shining
Timeless chiller … The Shining. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros

Stanley Kubrick’s gift for eerie grandeur is given free rein in this adaptation of the Stephen King novel (disliked by the author) about Jack Nicholson’s brooding writer, given the job as caretaker of an out-of-season hotel. There are sensational set pieces of horror and mystery: the lift shaft full of blood, the twin sisters appearing in the corridor.

7 The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

An elegant, sinister and scalp-prickling ghost story, based on Henry James’s story The Turn of the Screw. A governess, played by Deborah Kerr, takes charge of two children at a remote country estate and suspects that the house is haunted by the drunken valet and the former governess he seduced. She suspects the children can see these ghosts, too, and that these evil spirits have befriended them.

6 Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

There’s a remake on the way from Luca Guadagnino, and we have had many homages (from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan to Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon), but here is the original and best. The extraordinary, operatic fantasy horror about a young American dancer discovering awful secrets at a German ballet school freaks out its audience with crazed intensity and eyeball-frazzling blocks of fierce colour.

5 Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al, 1945)

Low-key it may be compared with the jump-scare slashers, but this Ealing classic from 1945 is genuinely frightening: a portmanteau collection of five ghost stories, of which the most disturbing is probably the one directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, about a mad ventriloquist haunted by his dummy – a superb premonition of Psycho.

4 Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Wouldn’t harm a fly … Psycho. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Paramount

One of the great event movies of the postwar era and an inspired exploitation nightmare that sensationally took Hitchcock – then in late middle-age – to the next level of cinematic greatness. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch – itself based on the grisly true story of the serial killer Ed Gein – it stars Janet Leigh as a realtor’s secretary who takes off with $40,000 in stolen cash and has to stay at a creepy old motel run by awkward Anthony Perkins, heading for a horrendous fate in the shower.

3 The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece, the most famous of the devil-child wave made possible by Rosemary’s offspring, delivers a sledgehammer punch of fear – and a lumbar-puncture stab of horror. Max von Sydow plays a priest who is called in to cast out a devil occupying the body of a 12-year-old girl in Washington DC. The effects and prosthetics are still staggeringly good and the cataclysmic confrontation of good and evil is genuinely horrifying.

2 Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby.
Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

For its sense of insidious and encircling evil, and the sensationally good performance from Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby is unforgettable. Adapted by Polanski from the Ira Levin bestseller, it shows the demure, shy young title character (Farrow) moving in to a strange New York apartment building with her actor husband (John Cassavetes), becoming pregnant under strange circumstances and suspecting that a sinister satanic cult has designs on her baby.

1 Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s magnificently disturbing ghost story, adapted by Alan Scott and Chris Bryant from the Daphne du Maurier short story, is an inspired combination of the erotic and the uncanny. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie give superb performances as the parents of a dead child who encounter, in Venice’s dankly crumbling splendour, terrifying signs of her existence beyond the grave. It is a meditation on time, memory, the poignancy of married love and the inexplicable mystery of death — and very scary.


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