Scary movies come in all shapes and sizes. There are the classic horror genres such as vampire, werewolf, or ghost stories, and specific famous monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula. There are the more modern teenage slasher flicks starring villains like Freddie and Jason, and other members of the ’80s horror explosion such as Hellraiser and Phantasm.
Now there is an overabundance of big budget torture flicks and remakes of Japanese horror films. It’s no secret that a majority of all horror films are subpar. This happens for a variety of reasons, including terrible plotting, ridiculous stories, pathetic effects, and bad acting.
The Achilles’ heel of horror films, however, is something far more difficult to combat.
The simple fact is that it is difficult to scare people. It is even more difficult to keep them scared over the course of a two hour movie, especially considering those other factors like story and character.
The following films not only succeed in scaring, but also make for a great movie in general. This Halloween, treat yourself and watch some of these brilliantly scary movies.
1. The Shining: Based loosely on Stephen King’s horror masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stars Jack Nicholson in one of his most famous roles as Jack Torrence, a struggling writer going slowly insane in the isolated Overlook Hotel.
From hundreds of gallons of blood pouring out of opening elevator doors to piles of sheets covered in “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy” to a pair of creepy little girls who want you to come play with them forever, this movie has a staggering number of unforgettable scenes. But the single most powerful reason to see this movie is Jack Nicholson. Here’s Johnny!
2. Halloween: John Carpenter’s Halloween is very nearly a perfect horror movie. The soundtrack, composed by Carpenter himself, is creepy and suspenseful, and it gets your pulse pounding before anything scary happens. Halloween was one of the first to apply the have sex, get brutally murdered rule of horror flicks, and the genre has never looked back since.
Jamie Lee Curtis is great in her role of the chief harried heroine, but it is Michael Meyers himself that really makes this movie. That simple white mask and blue jumpsuit don’t come with a lot of back-story or psychological profiling to explain Michael. He has no motives or rationalization for his violent deeds. He is pure and simple evil, and this purity makes him an unstoppable force.
Also see: A Nightmare on Elm Street, the other seminal ’80s slasher flick.
3. Poltergeist: The original haunted-house-built-over-an-Indian-burial-ground movie still holds up. Vampires and werewolves and zombies are easy to make scary, and ghost stories tend to seem a little childish in comparison with their more violent counterparts.
Regular ghosts are mostly seen but not heard. Poltergeists, on the other hand, make themselves known.
They move things, they make noise, and they can even possess things. Like, say, a clown doll. This sequence alone warrants Poltergeist a spot on the list, and the film only gets scarier. They’re heeeeeere!
Also see: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. If you’ve somehow missed this movie, don’t talk to anybody about it, just go see it.
4. Jaws: The great white shark is possibly single most feared animal on Earth-or at least in the water-thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. Some might argue that this film isn’t really a horror movie, but it is undeniable that this movie is scary.
It’s certainly a suspenseful thriller, at least suspenseful enough to generate a fear of the ocean in countless viewers. Admit it, you’ve panicked before when you thought you saw a fin approaching.
Also see: Ridley Scott’s Alien. One of the greatest sci-fi or horror films around, and another genre-defining creature feature.
5. 28 Days Later: The single scariest pseudo-zombie film ever made. We’ve all heard the arguments about this, that the rampaging murdering mindless humanoids running round in this movie are supposed to be called “the infected” and not “zombies.” They don’t cannibalize human flesh, they’re not undead. Sinister British scientists created the Rage Virus in secret labs and a militant animal rights organization sets a gaggle of chimpanzees loose who quickly infect everybody in sight.
The film follows a small group of uninfected survivors who find each other about 28 days after the big first day. The primary aspect that sets this movie apart from other zombie films is that the infected are viciously fast. Traditional zombies are slow and shambling, but the infected run at breakneck speeds. Until they catch you.
Also see: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the 2004 Zach Snyder remake. The original is one of the greatest zombie films out there, and the original is a rare example of a quality horror remake.
6. Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece stars Norman Bates, the original creepy-yet-charismatic horror movie villain. This movie is entertaining, well-written, tightly-plotted, visually amazing, essentially the definition of a great Hitchcock film. Hitchcock maintained a huge amount of control over every aspect of his films, from writing to directing to editing. This resulted in a large catalog of some of the greatest thrillers ever made. The unforgettable shower scene and the accompanying Bernard Hermann soundtrack help make Psycho a standout in Hitchcock’s strong collection.
Also see: Hitchcock’s The Birds. Ugh. Birds.
7. Seven: Starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kevin Spacey, and made with technology that show off its modernity and high budget, David Fincher’s psychological thriller proves its worth among more traditional horror movies.
It carries the disturbing premise of a serial killer who murders based on the sin he believes defines his victims and in a way that reflects that sin. For instance, he makes a fat man eat himself to death to punish him for his gluttony. Those who have seen the movie understand that this description does not do justice to the horrifying scene it describes.
The movie follows the detectives rather than the serial killer, making it more of a mystery than the cringe-inducing torture flick it might have been if it was made today, but it also makes it one of the smartest movies on this list. Go ahead and try not to think of this movie whenever you hear the song Closer by Nine Inch Nails after you’ve seen the opening credits sequence.
8. An American Werewolf in London: Werewolf movies frequently falter, but this one is amazing. Most are ridiculous and terrible even by low horror movie standards, or else so grotesque and violent that they’re nearly unwatchable.
This film, on the other hand, boasts excellent acting, writing, and effects. It sticks to enough traditional werewolf lore to be accessible to neophytes and acceptable to horror fanatics. And it’s genuinely scary! Too bad that vampire films lack a similarly qualified entry.
Also see: Interview with a Vampire. This one isn’t so much scary as simply deadly interesting and compelling to watch. If that’s not enough of a teaser, add to that Brad Pitt, pre-Oprah Tom Cruise, and Antonio Banderas all as sexy vampires. That’s right, go see it now.
9. The Ring: The one-and-only example of a great American adaptation of a Japanese horror film by Gore Verbinski. The Japanese and Koreans have revitalized the horror genre in part by tapping into the ancient Japanese folk myth of the vengeful Yurei ghost, that creepy shambling ghoul with hair covering its face for a terrifying effect.
The film centers around a cursed VHS tape that kills its viewers seven days after watching it. The film suffers from weak characters and a few plot holes about the tape’s origin and precisely how the curse works, but it’s gripping and extremely frightening. And it gets into your system. Watch it, and you can count on being acutely aware of what day it is for the next week.
10. Shaun of the Dead: Ah yes, the novelty portion of the list. It turns out that the greatest zombie film with actual zombies is a romantic comedy! From Britain! Although the creative team of director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost would have you call it a “zombedy.”
This movie delivers in every way imaginable. The characters are charismatic and interesting, the story is compelling, the romance is believable, the parody is spot-on, the horror aspects are surprisingly effective, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nothing short of hilarious together.
Also see: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II and Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, two more excellent horror-comedies.