The grim and psychologically-straining realities of the Covid-19 pandemic can make every day feel like Hallowe’en at the moment.
So, as the day itself approaches, what could be more cathartic than a horror movie?
The Telegraph’s film team have created the definitive list of the best 75 ever made, presented in chronological order.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Uncanny lyricism abounds in this early Poe adaptation, which manages to suggest that things are indefinably wrong in the Usher residence, using shivery long takes and marvellous photographic effects. A wordless séance, full of surprises.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
There is little more frightening in cinema than the sight of Robert Mitchum’s smoothly deranged serial killer, hoving into view, love and hate fighting their battle for superiority in the tattoos across his fingers.
Charles Laughton’s only film as director was savaged on its release; now it is an acknowledged masterpiece, its stark cinematography and truly creepy themes utterly compelling. The scene where the children float away from Mitchum down the river is justly famed; his howl of rage as they escape are almost as terrifying as the hymns he sings as he relentlessly tracks them down.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
A put-upon wife and her girlfriend conspire to murder her awful husband – but why, when the swimming pool in which they dumped the body is drained, is there no trace of him? Still one of the most clammily satisfying horror-mysteries of all time, utterly un-dated, with Henri-Georges Clouzot making expertly menacing use of the gloomy school in which the events increasingly spiral.
Night of the Demon (1957)
MR James’s “Casting the Runes” provided the delectably sinister plot – a curse is passed from body to body, often by subterfuge – and Jacques Tourneur fashioned a British occult chiller around it, whose sly wit and aura of dread are unsurpassed.
Throne of Blood (1957)
An honorary horror film, because Kurosawa places crisp, chilling stress on Macbeth’s supernatural elements – the title says it all. We’re dealing with regicide, spirit prophecies, severed heads. Fate clicks into place with an implacable certainty.
There have been countless imitations but none can lay a blood-stained glove on Terence Fisher’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s chilling novel. Christopher Lee plays the bloodthirsty Count, all curdling terror and knowing humour, while Peter Cushing provides solid support as Abraham Van Helsing. A cape-tivating classic.
Hitchcock welcomes us in with a ticklish story of petty larceny, then slashes up the screen with a comfort-shattering attack on convention. A whole genre was born here, but few of its directors know how to keep twisting the knife with such mutinous verve.
The Innocents (1961)
Prestige horror: a pristine distillation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw into unsettlingly ambiguous cinema. Deborah Kerr is perfectly cast as the repressed nanny who may or may not be projecting her own fears onto her wards.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The torture chamber of a mentally unstable 16th-century Spanish nobleman is a setting rife with horror potential, and this loose adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s story pulls no punches. With the king of horror, Vincent Price, as the nobleman Nicholas Medina, his tormented performance is made all the more terrifying by Les Baxter’s screechingly haunting score. The pendulum of the title is a giant swinging blade, kept in the torture chamber in which Medina believes his wife (Barbara Steele) was accidentally buried alive.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Dreamlike terror on a tiny budget, from the neglected Herk Harvey, whose masterstroke was deploying the derelict Mormon amusement park in Saltair, Utah as a halfway-house between life and death. It’s a place with so many ghosts of its own.
The Masque of the Red Death (1963)
A delectable assortment of ingredients – not one but two Edgar Allan Poe short stories, plus a characteristically committed, impressively imperious performance from Vincent Price – combine to memorable effect in this 1963 Roger Corman horror, one of several Poe adaptations taken on by the prolific director.
More obviously arthouse in its sensibilities than some of Corman’s other Poe movies, the film is set during a medieval plague (the titular Red Death) and has an almost fairy tale-like feel to it at times, while hallucinogenic sequences add to the semi-magical, unsettling overall effect. The grand finale, in which Price’s evil, Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero comes face to face with his own masked fate at a ball, is a masterpiece of suspense and vivid spectacle.
The Birds (1963)
In his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s story, Alfred Hitchcock manages to make something we usually associate with harmless beauty, utterly terrifying. As you might expect from the master of suspense, it’s all about the tension. It builds and builds and builds in an excruciating crescendo.
The Haunting (1963)
With this and The Sound of Music, Robert Wise proved that no director has ever used sound to more terrifying effect. A group of psychics, scientists and sceptics spend a few days in a haunted house and have their nerves shredded by footsteps in the corridor that may put you off country-house hotels for life.
The most gory thing in Roman Polanski's film is a whole skinned rabbit, which decays as the film’s protagonist, Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), descends into madness. Carol’s Kensington flat sees little bloodspill, but the tension is always on a knife edge.
The Devil Rides Out (1967)
The Hammer studios were, for 20 years, prodigious purveyors of Grand Guignol horror – heaving-bosomed vampires, tottering mummies and even a pouting gorgon were all realised in garish Technicolor. This film, based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel, was one of the best and gets its scares from its genteel Home Counties setting, where a group of Satanists, under the watchful eye of a lip-smackingly camp Charles Gray, are running amok. Christopher Lee is, for once, on the side of the goodies as the Duc De Richelieu, hemming his friends into a pentagram to save them from the forces of evil in a delirious finale.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Ira Levi’'s taut tale of Manhattan witchcraft got sensational screen treatment from then-prodigy Roman Polanski, who organises the whole plot against Rosemary (Mia Farrow) with brilliantly oblique technique. Such ghoulish fun. Don't watch while pregnant.
The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Directed by Robert Fuest, the gloriously insane The Abominable Dr Phibes stars horror maestro Vincent Price as a scientist and biblical scholar, who vows to get revenge after his beloved wife dies on the operating table – and sets about murdering the medical team he believes to be responsible for her demise, taking inspiration from the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt in the Old Testament. Seven, eat your heart out: this is how to do a Bible-inspired serial killer story in style. Look out for the beautiful art-deco stage sets – and a particularly inventive locust-themed killing.
The Exorcist (1973)
More than 40 years on, William Friedkin’s religiously charged scare-fest has lost none of its uncomfortable, transgressive edge. Boundaries are crossed, and our expectations repeatedly outraged, as the body, mind and vocal cords of a 12-year-old girl – Regan MacNeil, played by the phenomenal Linda Blair – become a battleground for an age-old contest. A large part of the film’s power comes from its wholehearted seriousness, and from the way it fully embraces its own convictions. Here, hell, demons and demonic possession are tangible, formidable things, as real and as visceral as our own skin and flesh – or, indeed, as a projectile splurge of green vomit.
The Wicker Man (1973)
“Try everything once except incest and folk-dancing,” said the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Had he lived to see The Wicker Man, it would have backed him up on at least one of those counts. What a strange, singular film it still is: name another Scottish, island-set folk-horror musical with this kind of instant recognition value.
Christopher Lee’s immaculately polite performance as the pagan ringleader Lord Summerisle, patiently explaining to Howie the very trap into which he’s being lured, holds up splendidly, as does Woodward’s prudish brand of Christian martyrdom. They’re essentially playing Dionysus, god of ritual madness, and Pentheus, stuffy voice of repression, in the only reimagining of Euripides’s Bacchae where you also get Britt Ekland jiggling around nude.
There are moments that still prompt shivers – the banally hideous sign of the Green Man pub, a missing photo of last year’s harvest festival on its wall – and the famous climax holds on to every shred of its unmatched, infernal power.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973)
Despite the scores of imitators, sequels, reboots and homages that have followed in its wake – and continue to proliferate to this day – there has never been a horror movie quite like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There will also probably never be one quite like it again.
Tobe Hooper’s feral, sun-drenched slice of pure nastiness remains remarkable for its raw power; for a primitive, hypnotic wildness that will likely never be replicated. Cast and crew went through sweaty hell to make it, sweltering among raw meat, various animal carcasses and bones and bloodstained, unwashed costumes – and the results lend the finished project an authenticity that many more polished horrors lack.
The story itself is simple: five young people encounter a cannibalistic family, deep in the rural backwaters of Texas, and all but one of the group meet a nasty end. But the sounds and images – Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface swinging his chainsaw in frustrated rage; the cathartic screaming of Marilyn Burns – are impossible to erase.
“I was about 10 when I saw Jaws and it was the most tense cinema showing I have attended,” our writer Martin Chilton recalls. “On the big screen – and to a child the Odeon Leicester Square was a big screen – and set to the chilling bass music of John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s film was seriously scary.
“This was the time before online spoilers and #shark tweets. No one knew what would happen in the film, and the atmosphere, in a late evening screening, was electric. When the dismembered head rolled out of the hole in the boat the whole cinema jumped. The auditorium resounded to gasps and screams. Jaws stayed with me, with its clever tagline: ‘Don’t go in the water.’ Even now, even at a sedate seaside resort like Lyme Regis, I still scan the horizon for any fin suspicious.”
A high-school misfit’s humiliation and orgiastic revenge are extraordinary conduits for empathy in Brian De Palma’s hands – the real horror, every time, is Sissy Spacek’s telekinetic teen not getting what she wants. Astonishingly suspenseful, and funny, with it.
The Omen (1976)
It might mitigate the horror, just a little – but the most enjoyable way to watch Richard Donner’s The Omen, which charts the inexorable rise of devil-child Damien, is to simply accept that the forces of evil are insurmountable, and sit back and enjoy the ride.
The film follows a couple who begin to suspect that their adopted son (the father was persuaded into a secret swap after the death of their own newborn) isn’t really human at all. There are memorable deaths, chilling animal encounters, a haunting suicide, a devastating graveyard reveal – and, all along, a grim inevitability to young Damien’s rise. Gregory Peck is on excellent form as the increasingly alarmed father – and young Harvey Spencer Stephens monstrously appealing as his Satanic adopted son.
The Tenant (1976)
Is the protagonist in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant simply insane? Or are his grim-faced elderly neighbours really plotting to kill him? Starring the director himself as a timid office-worker renting an apartment whose previous incumbent committed suicide, this horribly claustrophobic film is really a meditation on fear itself – whether real or imagined – and all the more menacing for it.
“I wouldn’t want to have a dream like that,” said David Lynch’s mother after watching her boy’s first feature.
This wonderful, excruciating nightmare of a film, creating amazing sets and a whole weird, grungy, post-industrial world for his sad-sack besuited hero Henry (Jack Nance) to inhabit. It’s in beautiful black-and-white – in colour, these images would probably disgust us.
Endlessly imitated, never matched, John Carpenter’s low-budget slasher film virtually invented the genre, making brilliant use of widescreen, and of Carpenter’s own score, to make you jump out of your chair – despite its reputation, the film is almost entirely gore-free.
Murnau’s silent take on the vampire myth is more famous, but Werner Herzog’s hypnotic remake turns it into Wagner. Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani might be the weirdest coupling in a genre with many of them, and the dark poetry of the filmmaking electrifies.
The Shining (1980)
The stir-crazy psychothriller to beat them all, with Nicholson going rapidly doolally at a mountain resort and blaming ghosts for his own marital meltdown. Kubrick’s films are all long corridors into the mind, and this literalises his obsessions terrifyingly.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Still the definitive teens-to-the-slaughter slasher flick, Sean Cunningham’s first visit to Camp Crystal Lake sees a loathsome group of hormonal holidaymakers ritually offed by masked mummy's boy Jason Vorhees (or is it?) in increasingly bloody fashion. In later installments Jason met Freddie, went to space, and even conquered Hell, but this was a killer debut.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance – but it’s not such a marvellous night for the victims of poor David, the film’s titular American werewolf, who wreaks havoc in the titular British capital after an unfortunate encounter on the Yorkshire moors in this 1981 favourite. A genuine horror-comedy, in which the horror, and the pathos, are as sharp as the humour, John Landis’s film is now rightly regarded as a classic.
There are some brilliantly witty cuts – including one to the roaring beasts of London Zoo – and a tense, deliciously nasty sequence that takes place on the London Underground (impossible not to think of it if you’ve ever found yourself alone in a tube station late at night). But the film also stands out for the ground-breaking, award-winning make up work of Rick Baker, who helped bring David’s transition to life in painful, eye-boggling detail. The horror in this extended scene is two-fold: we’re horrified by the startling, skin-and-bone-stretching transformation itself – but we’re also equally mesmerised by David’s own violent fear and distress.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A good horror film introduces fear and uncertainty into the areas of our lives that we like to think are safe and predictable. So the setting of A Nightmare on Elm Street – an affluent suburb in picket-fenced Ohio – was one reason why this quintessential slasher movie scared any boy whose middle class life was proceeding so agreeably at the time.
But it was the central idea of the film – the ability of the cutlery-handed villain, Freddy Krueger, to kill his victims in their dreams – that really messed with our peace of mind. The message was clear: “Even when you’re snuggled up in bed, in your comfortable house, in your quiet neighbourhood, death and danger will find you.” It suggests a deep, psychological desire for self-sabotage that, if anything, is even more scary.
The Vanishing (1988)
This is an un-schlocky, profoundly nightmarish tale of a boyfriend’s obsession with finding out what became of his girlfriend, who vanished from a service-station while they were on holiday. There’s a satisfyingly warped logic about the perpetrator’s reasons for what he did, and the ending is one that never quite leaves you.
Virginia Madsen does powerhouse work as a student of folklore lured into fascination with a hook-handed killer and blamed for his crimes. Majestic direction from Bernard Rose transforms this into a resoundingly epic and gory fable.
The slasher flick’s slasher flick, Wes Craven’s crafty pastiche of the genre manages to send its rules up and skilfully milk them at the same time, using a psycho-killer whose preferred ice-breaker is “What’s your favourite scary movie?”.
Funny Games (1997)
Is Funny Games a horror movie at all – or just a punishing commentary on movie violence and the way in which it cheapens our comprehension of the real thing? Either way, Michael Haneke’s grim little fable – in which a family are terrorised by two menacingly polite strangers, the threat gradually escalating to unbearable levels – is a masterfully-crafted, unforgettably nasty, altogether unmissable piece of cinema.
To ensure Americans wouldn’t miss it (or forget it), the director even remade his 1997 German-language film in 2007, shot for shot, with English dialogue and a new, Hollywood-friendly cast. Both versions are excellent, if rather relentlessly unpleasant – with the latter attribute, of course, being the salient point. Violence, as far as Haneke is concerned, should never be pleasurable.
The Others (2001)
Compared at the time to The Sixth Sense, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others is a clever, brilliantly atmospheric horror film that deserves to be celebrated in its own right – not least for the inspired, guaranteed-to-set-your-nerves-a-jangle performance from Nicole Kidman that lies at its heart.
A mother of two, her husband still missing in the war, Kidman’s Grace hides with her severely light-allergic children in a secluded, shadowy house in the Channel Islands, and soon starts to realise that her family are not alone. Yes, there’s a big twist at the end – but it’s the spectacularly claustrophobic build-up that makes it all worthwhile.
Trouble Every Day (2001)
From that insidious Tindersticks soundtrack, to those predatory, unsettling hotel scenes, everything about French director Claire Denis’s deliciously dismal cannibal love story will haunt you for days afterwards. It might fall on the slower, sadder, more arthouse end of the scares spectrum – but its evocative portrayal of addiction, coupled with a monstrous, erotically-charged performance from Beatrice Dalle as disturbed cannibal Coré, ensure its place in horror history. This is a film with bite – and also, of course, a film about biting, and about the subversive longing to get bitten. Desire has never felt more dangerous, or more futile.
28 Days Later (2002)
Strictly speaking, 28 Days Later, a film often credited for revitalising the zombie genre, isn’t really a zombie movie at all: its mindless antagonists are humans infected by the lab-engineered Rage Virus. For all intents and purposes, however, it’s a zombie movie: pitting the afflicted masses against a few desperate survivors, in a world where all the usual power structures have broken down. But, crucially, its “zombies” aren’t the slow, shuffling flesh-eaters of yore: instead the infected can run (eek!), while the viral disease they pass on to their victims takes effect almost instantly.
The most enduringly haunting aspects of 28 Days Later, however, are its compelling vision of a post-apocalyptic Britain – in one early sequence, lead Cillian Murphy (Jim) wanders through an eerily deserted London – and its uncompromising focus on human nature. Like The Walking Dead, with which it shares many similarities (coincidental ones, as the first comic books were apparently being written ahead of the film’s release), it reminds us that fully cognisant human beings are often much more frightening than brain-dead infected ones.
In My Skin (2002)
In this gory little slice of New French extremism, Esther, a woman with a demanding job and apparently happy relationship – an ideal situation, but one in which it can feel as if your body is just a cog in a system; something that belongs to everyone but you – sustains a nasty cut to the leg at a party. Intrigued by the fact that she feels no pain at the time of the incident, the young professional (played by the film’s director, Marina de Van) becomes obsessed with her injury, and, by extension, her body itself: mutilating her limbs, repeatedly cutting into her skin, and eventually eating parts of own flesh.
Her compulsive, almost masturbatory habit leads to increasingly bloodier visuals, but, unsettlingly, de Van never offers any explicit explanation or justification for her character’s actions. Even more unsettlingly, after a while Esther’s destructive habit begins to make a weird sort of sense: what she’s doing isn’t self-harm so much as a bizarre form of self-love. If you’ve ever sat at your desk and felt strangely disconnected from your own physical self – ever looked down at your arm, or leg, or hand and thought “What the hell is this thing? Why is it in this office?” – you’ll probably feel a queasy sense of recognition.
With the exception of The Blair Witch Project, Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) set the tone for millennial horror more than any other film, with its graphic cruelty, feminist subtext and bitter satirical bite. Four years later, the prolific Japanese auteur struck out on another new path – but one so crazed, so macabre, so logic-liquefying, that the film he found there is destined to remain a lunatic one-off.
In Gozu, a young yakuza is ordered to kill his unstable mentor, a theoretically straightforward mission that leads to a string of unimaginable bizarreries and creep-outs. Genders switch, bodily fluids flow, and cow-headed apparitions stalk the corridors, while the childbirth-based climax – graphic, protracted, and too fabulously grotesque to spoil – makes ordinary labour look like a cakewalk.
It’s been written off as a simple, sadistic slice of “torture porn” – and, in fairness to this viewpoint, the film’s (seemingly endless) string of sequels have certainly gone all-out when it game to the elaborate gore. But don’t be too quick to dismiss the movie that kicked it all off.
In James Wan’s gripping little 2004 horror-thriller, two men find themselves trapped in a room, each chained by the leg to opposite ends of their prison – with instructions that one must kill the other by 6pm that day or risk the death of his family. A corpse and a gun lie between them, while cassette recordings relay their tasks. Meanwhile, through flashbacks and cuts to scenes of police work, we learn more about the enigmatic man behind their predicament, the so-called Jigsaw Killer. The film, believe it or not, is relatively restrained, teasing us with the horrifying choices it presents – the men eventually twig that the saws they have been given are not for their chains, but for their legs – and building up an impression of killer who will always have one up on his victims, and his audience.
Along with Hostel, Saw was a film that defined an era – and went on to spark a hugely successful franchise. If possible, however, it’s still best to watch the original without knowing too much about what comes next.
The Descent (2005)
Horror went underground in 2005 with The Descent, a frightening movie set in a subterranean cave system, that took the refreshingly bold step of having an all-female cast. (The superficially similar but absolutely awful US film The Cave, which came out the same year, serves as a useful reminder of just how good The Descent is). While Marshall’s 2002 Dog Soldiers, about a group of army recruits who have a run in with some werewolves, arguably felt like a very male kind of horror, the director went out of his way to make a different kind of film with The Descent, focusing on his female characters, their relationships, and their emotions.
The combination of plausible personalities, all-too-believable inter-group tensions and a unique setting combine to make a monster movie that is both jumpy (think horrible creatures dwelling in dark places) and psychologically chilling (friends betray each other, and it’s impossible to know who to trust). Claustrophobes and those with a fear of being buried alive should probably avoid.
Wolf Creek (2005)
Ah, Wolf Creek. Pay attention, horror aficionados: this is how you do a holiday-gone-wrong movie. It’s also how you do a “torture porn” movie.
A slow, indulgent build-up gives us time to properly get to know the film’s trio of young tourists – and, at first, it’s only the isolation, as the three travellers disappear into the vast Australian desert, that disquiets. People can get lost in deserts, we remember. People can disappear. Of course, this being a horror movie, there’s a friendly Aussie face on hand to help with the actual disappearing: sadistic killer Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), who tortures and dispatches those unlucky enough to stray into his path in an array of nightmarish ways. (Head on a stick, anyone?)
The film spawned a sequel, as well as a TV series – but, for sheer mesmerising nastiness, plus expertly escalating tension, the original takes a lot of beating.
Inland Empire (2006)
A horror film? You betcha. Just as Mulholland Drive trapped us inside the disintegrating psyche of a would-be starlet, Lynch’s epic, abrasive, wildly divisive follow-up charts the alleged comeback of faded actress Nikki Grace (an astonishing Laura Dern), who disappears down the rabbit-hole of her own delusions. The abyss she tumbles into is one of the scariest of its decade, offering no identifiable exit and bringing her face to face with… well, her own face, in a ballooned-out form that’s as nightmarish an image as Lynch has ever inflicted.
Don’t search here for Mulholland’s death-dream puzzle logic, just hold on for dear life, in a devastating ordeal of a psychodrama which often feels like it’s being broadcast to you from Purgatory.
The Orphanage (2007)
This Guillermo Del Toro-produced film begins as a conventional but beautifully atmospheric supernatural chiller: a mother, Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband Carlos and their young adopted son Simón move to an abandoned orphanage, Laura’s childhood home, where the son begins communicating with an unseen “friend”. But things take a turn halfway through, when Simón disappears without trace, and Laura, driven frantic by grief, begins digging into half-forgotten secrets from her own childhood.
Ultimately, The Orphanage is all about the parent-child relationship and the lengths a mother will go to for a son – and it’s Rueda’s stunning performance that gives the film its emotional heart. But the creepy mood also deserves a mention (think perfectly-maintained eeriness, rather than silly shocks), as does the intricate plotting. Early on, we see Simón play with treasure hunts, and the structure of the film itself echoes this idea: clues lead to further clues, long-buried answers (and decades-old bones) come to light, and we move towards the tragic final reveal in perfectly measured steps.
“We deeply love the [horror] genre so like kids on set we were always saying ‘More blood! More blood! More blood!’ explained Julien Maury in a 2009 interview about Inside, the tense 2007 pregnancy slasher he made with Alexandre Bustillo (the pair’s directorial debut).
The duo’s sanguinary enthusiasm is clear to see: Inside is one of the most satisfyingly blood-drenched horror movies you’re ever likely to encounter – and, thanks to the pregnancy theme and the no holds barred gore, it’s also fascinatingly transgressive (you’re constantly on edge, waiting to see what will get cut or bled or battered next).
Heavily pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis), mourning her late partner and struggling with ambiguous feelings about the soon-to-be-born child inside her, is stalked and terrorised by a woman desperate to steal her unborn baby (a formidable Béatrice Dalle). An early shot of a pair of scissors, piercing Sarah’s exposed belly as she sleeps, perfectly epitomises the film’s heartstopping juxtaposition of vulnerability and violence. From then on, things only get more intense.
Trick ’r Treat (2007)
Watching Michael Dougherty’s anthology horror is like diving into a basket full of juicy, sugary Halloween goodies: among other delights, the director serves up a haunted lake, a twisty werewolf tale (starring Anna Paquin in a Little Red Riding Hood costume), and a killer with a nastily novel way of making lanterns.
The Autumnal, pumpkins-everywhere nostalgia that the film evokes is a very American nostalgia, but it’s also a sensibility that will affect anyone who has ever enjoyed a certain type of domestic American slasher (John Carpenter’s Halloween is the obvious example).
Plus, whether we’re talking V/H/S or 1965’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, there’s something about the anthology film and the horror genre that works remarkably well: a sit back, relax, and let me tell you some scary stories tradition that harks back to the likes of MR James. Utterly delicious.
The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont’s gripping Stephen King adaptation The Mist (the director’s The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are also based on works by King) is remembered for its supremely devastating ending, which dared to go a shade bleaker than the source material. But, while the final twist might be its most disturbing part, the rest of the movie, about a mysterious mist which descends over a US town, swiftly followed by an array of terrifying monsters, isn’t exactly warm and cheery. Thomas Jane plays lead David, who barricades himself in a grocery store along with his young son and a small group of survivors – but paranoia and religious mania soon prove just as dangerous as the beasts outside.
For anyone who ever read Barbara Creed’s Freud update The Monstrous Feminine while at university, this off-beat comedy horror is a wicked tongue-in cheek treat: a gloriously literal 21st-century realisation of the Vagina Dentata myth, with a dark sense of humour and nicely unsubtle feminist subtext. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like: a sharp-fanged vagina, with the ability to bite and sever any unwanted intruders.)
Virginal student Dawn (Jess Weixler) is horrified to discover she has the mutation… but, after a series of encounters with a rapist, a bragging classmate and and lustful stepbrother, she begins to see the advantages.
Let The Right One In (2008)
It spawned a US remake and a British stage play – but, eight years on, the eerie power of Alfredson’s Eighties-set Swedish vampire tale (itself based on the equally eerie, equally powerful book by John Ajvide Lindqvist) remains undimmed. The story of 12-year-old outcast Oscar and his friendship with vampire Eli, who has “been 12 a long time”, manages to be both uncompromisingly brutal (a bloody swimming-pool sequence is particularly noteworthy) and achingly tender all at once.
It’s also a surprisingly hopeful film: one where very real horrors – Eli’s thirst for blood, frightening schoolyard bullying and subtle hints of child abuse and paedophilia – sit alongside a moving pre-teen love story, and an ending so improbably uplifting, it’s almost impossible not to cry when watching. The film’s visuals also leave their mark: watch it late at night, and you’ll dream of bleak, almost-empty urban playgrounds and white, white snow against a cold black sky.
A favourite among hardcore horror fans, Martyrs is often labelled “torture porn” – and, on a superficial level, that’s exactly what it is. But the really horrific thing about this bleak French shocker is the way in which it subverts expectations, imbuing its scenes of graphic torture with a sense of vivid, heart-breaking pity, and forcing its audience to really feel everything they see on screen.
Without giving away too much, it’s also one of the most twisty horror movies around: it begins as a grimly intense home invasion, with what appears to be a supernatural element (swiftly revealed to be something else altogether), then takes a dramatic tonal shift halfway through. Try double billing it with Dreyer's silent classic Joan of Arc for a particularly un-relaxing (but weirdly thematically and visually aligned) evening.
Drag Me To Hell (2009)
After a decade spent on Spider-Man, Raimi leapt back into the mainstream-horror fray with this twisted fable about a gypsy curse, which faltering bank employee Alison Lohman brings down on herself when a bankrupted crone (Lorna Raver) begs her for leniency. Channelling occult classics such as Night of the Demon, but cooked up with Raimi’s trademark go-for-broke exuberance, the movie yanks its poor heroine pitilessly to the brink of an inferno, unleashing ever-wilder set pieces such as a séance with a talking goat and a hideous set-to with embalming fluid. It’s quailing hysteria socked to us in the high black-comic key only Raimi does this well, at once gleefully disgusting and legimitately panic-inducing.
The House of The Devil (2009)
In this meticulously crafted, gloriously retro 1983-set Ti West throwback, which pays a homage to a certain type of Eighties “babysitter in peril” horror movie, suspense is masterfully built – even when not all that much seems to be happening. College student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) reluctantly agrees to take on an unusual-sounding babysitting job, and in the film’s best scenes she’s alone, oblivious, trying to relax in a creepy edge-of-town mansion. We, the audience, however, are in a slightly more privileged position: able to see the net slowly closing in.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
In Kim Jee-woon’s unhinged, gloriously bloody Korean revenge thriller, a man hunts down his fiancée’s killer, sadistically stalking the murderer with the aid of a tracking device – and resorting to ever-more brutal acts in his pursuit of a very personal kind of justice. Energetic, pacey and always-gripping, the film packs in the shocks, and some fairly extreme, gasp-inducing gore – but is also suffused with a sense of bleakness and real pathos. It’s often horrible, but never mindlessly so – and it’s this which elevates it from divertingly nasty escapism to more lingering meditation on vengeance and violence.
Kill List (2011)
Frustratingly ambiguous with a cool disregard for traditional movie-making templates (not to mention genre conventions), Kill List might seem like a confusing film when watched for the first time, but it’s also an assuredly brilliant one.
Ben Wheatley’s story of two sparring hitmen, contracted to carry out four murders, starts off as a character-driven crime movie, but things swiftly take a turn for the weird and the horrible. The increasingly unsettling atmosphere is matched by an unsettlingly illogical, at times almost dreamlike plot, punctuated by some extreme violence, and capped off with a truly shocking occult-themed ending.
Wheatley deliberately keeps the audience in the dark about exactly what is going on – but his two hitmen are even more clueless, helping us share their growing unease. (What’s that weird symbol? Why are their victims thanking them? What the hell is going on?) The result is one of the most genuinely interesting British movies of the last decade.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
In this story of a British sound engineer employed on a Suspiria-esque Seventies Giallo thriller (at one point in the movie, there’s some creatively creepy use of vegetables as torture sound-effect props), Peter Strickland stylishly blurs the lines between cinema and real-life, draws a meatily compelling performance from star Toby Jones, and has fun reminding everyone that, when it comes to the creation of fear, what we hear is often so much more disturbing than what we see.
We Are What We Are (2013)
Set in rain-swept upstate New York, Mickle’s “re-imagining” of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican horror movie of the same name is a claustrophobic coming-of-age story with a spot of cannibalism thrown in for good measure. It tells the story of the Parkers, a family led by a repressive patriarch, with a grim annual ritual dating back to the time of their Pilgrim ancestors. Ambyr Childs and Julia Garner are fiercely compelling as daughters Iris and Rose, two pale, blonde sisters, whose fragile appearance belies their complicity in the bloody family secret.
It’s a bit of a slow burner - but the cathartic final dinner table scene, which manages to be horrifically gory and wonderfully uplifting all at once, is well worth the wait. A horror movie rarity, this US remake also enjoys the distinction of being both vividly different to and a shade more powerful than its source material (although Grau’s unusual film is certainly worth checking out).
Evil Dead (2013)
Reboots of classic horror films often get a bad rap, but with his Evil Dead, Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez proved that taking a risk can pay off. Instead of aping the offbeat humour of Sam Raimi’s much-loved supernatural franchise and throwing in a tonne of CGI, the film unashamedly opts for old school effects-based gore and action packed brutality – and the result is one of the most bloodily creative horror movies of recent years. Despite the new cast and higher budget, it also feels spiritually in sync with its Eighties predecessor.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
A girl walks home alone at night – but put aside all expectations: it’s not the girl who should be afraid.
In Ana Lily Amirpour’s impossibly beautiful black and white arthouse piece, a “first-ever Iranian vampire Western" set in the imagined town of Bad City and shot like a gorgeous piece of French New Wave, the night-time streets are haunted by a dangerous, blood-drinking young woman. But her thirst is meted by compassion; she seems to feed only on those who deserve it, sparing sympathetic young admirer Arash (who pierces her ears in a beautifully tender encounter) and slowly drawing him into her world.
Stars Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi are as beguiling and compelling as the film itself – and there’s even a narratively-important cat. What more could any discerning Iranian vampire Western fan want?
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
The crucial thing about The Babadook, the debut feature of Australian director Jennifer Kent, is the fact that it’s really two films in one. On its most immediately obvious level, it’s a spectacularly scary supernatural thriller about a character from a sinister children’s book: the spindly-fingered, top hat-wearing Babadook, who can be seen lurking in every dark corner: a horrible shadowy thing, always catching at the edge of your vision and making your skin suddenly prickle with dread whenever you’ve been lulled into a false sense of safety. But it’s also a heartbreaking drama about a mother dealing with grief and mental illness after the death of her husband, and struggling to cope with her behaviorally challenged six-year-old son.
The film’s power, of course, lies in the way these two threads are seamlessly, expertly merged together – and from the extraordinary performances given by Essie Davis, as lead Amelia, and Noah Wiseman as her son Samuel. As the Telegraph’s Tim Robey put it in his review: “Managing to scare an audience silly with original imagery and non-formulaic jolts is no mean feat at a time when the horror genre has become a largely self-plagiarising, cannibal entity. Managing to move us at the same time is close to miraculous.”
It Follows (2015)
A dreamy, wistfully melancholy picture of suburban teenage life combines with a genuinely terrifying antagonist in David Robert Mitchell’s startlingly original, beautifully shot It Follows: a horror movie about a curse passed on through sexual intercourse.
Anyone “infected” (and the word feels appropriate, given the obvious STD parallels) will find themselves followed by a demonic entity, which can take the form of any man or woman, steadily, relentlessly walking towards them. Maika Monroe (who cut her horror-thriller teeth in Adam Wingard’s The Guest) is perfectly cast as lead Jay, who falls victim to the curse, thanks to an unscrupulous “boyfriend”, and must decide how to engineer her fate… and who to pass the curse on to. One chillingly open-ended sequence sees her approach three young men on a boat, all strangers; subsequent events, and their subsequent fate, are left to our imaginations.
Goodnight Mommy (2015)
Two undeniably terrifying horror-movie staples: people with concealed faces, their masked features suggesting they could be anyone at all – and creepy twins. This grimly gripping Austrian film has both. An impressively nasty exercise in suspense, it tells the story of brothers Lukas and Elias, who become convinced that the woman living in their home, wearing a full-face bandage after surgery and exhibiting some alarmingly out-of-character behaviour, is not their real mother at all. They attempt to confirm their suspicions – and, as their mistrust grows, the film builds to a horrifying, sadistic finale.
The Witch (2016)
“If you want to discover what it might feel like if your stomach independently decided to take up ashtanga yoga, The Witch is the film for you,” wrote the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, in his five star review of Robert Eggers’s 17th-century set horror movie. He’s absolutely right: Eggers’s directorial debut is seriously scary stuff.
The Puritan-era, edge of a dark dark wood setting is pushed to its utmost, imbuing the the film with a sense of crawling, fetid dread, and psychologically transporting its audience to a more God-fearing age, in which witchcraft wasn’t a joke, but a plausible, always close-at-hand threat. Just in case absolute terror isn’t enough, there’s also a talking, possibly Satanic goat: the majestic, monstrous Black Philip.
Under The Shadow (2016)
Some of the most complex life experiences can be made crisply tangible by horror in the time it takes to gasp for breath.
So it is with Babak Anvari’s terrifying debut feature, in which a mother and daughter living under Sharia law in 1980s Tehran are haunted by both the vaporous djinn – evil spirits who flap through their bedrooms like wind-blown hijabs – and the ticking threat of an unexploded missile on the roof of their apartment block. Anvari and his outstanding actresses, Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi, stir up the kind of lingering, meaningful fear that can’t be easily shaken off.
Train to Busan (2016)
An accomplished and surprisingly poignant effort from director Yeon Sang-ho, this South Korean horror is about a train journey disrupted by a hellish on-board zombie outbreak – and manages to be pretty much everything you could possibly want a zombies-on-a-train movie to be.
It’s reminiscent of a really, really good episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead (remember when The Walking Dead was good?), effortlessly yet effectively evoking everything from terrorism to the ongoing refugee crisis, and not holding back on the stylish, splattery gore. But like all great horror films, Train to Busan also makes you care about its characters – and root for all the ordinary men, women and children caught up in the carnage.
The Neon Demon (2016)
Frequently surreal, ravishingly shot, and preposterously, pulsatingly over-the-top, Nicolas Winding Refn’s disturbing psychological horror celebrates beauty, surface appeal and narcissism – and then allows the shallow but beguiling world it has built up to disintegrate into bloody ritual, cannibalism and murder. The film tells the story of an aspiring young model, played by Elle Fanning, and explores the jealousy – and, more pertinently, the hunger – that she provokes in others.
Cannibalism, in cinema, is often used as a metaphor for desire, or as a demonstration of power and ownership. Here, though, these two representations combine, in a way that makes the film’s sickening finale feel, if not entirely natural, then at least fully plausible. Neon Demon doesn’t stop at the cannibalism either: there’s also a spot of necrophilia, that precedes and foreshadows a disturbing betrayal. The film horrifies and dazzles, all at the same time – and wears its gore with delightful, catwalk-ready flair.
Better Watch Out (2016)
Chris Peckover’s clever little Christmas horror boasts a stupendously gobsmacking twist, just before the midway mark, that changes the course of the entire film – and elevates it from effectively creepy seasonal chiller to downright disturbing commentary on male entitlement and the way in which certain behaviours are normalised by cinema/wider society.
It’s very funny, brilliantly tense, and best watched without knowing too much about it beforehand. The equivalent of biting into a promising-looking mince pie and finding something mildly unpleasant inside – and then being informed (haha, joke’s on you!) that the mince pie was poisoned all along.
Raw, the debut feature film of French director Julia Ducournau, is both a gruesome cannibal horror movie and a yearningly evocative coming-of-age drama, in which the sexual awakening of young veterinary student Justine (the fantastic Garance Marillier) sits alongside the birth of a more destructive kind of hunger.
Erotic, fearsomely sensual and occasionally disgusting – one scene, involving a finger, reportedly caused early preview audiences to faint – the film hits all the right notes, veering between playful irreverence and real emotion. But its true power – its shuddering, relentless intensity – lies in the way it makes you vicariously enjoy both of Justine’s burgeoning hungers. You’ll relish every sticky, illicit bite – even if you feel a little sick afterwards.
Get Out (2017)
What genre could possibly convey the dangerous contradictions of a world where racism is as alive as ever, but where plenty of white people are hell-bent on pretending it just isn’t so? The answer was only ever going to be horror – and Jordan Peele’s first feature film went on to electrify audiences, with its sly but pointed humour and uncomfortably accurate racial politics.
The film, which struck a blow for the horror genre by claiming the Academy Award for Best Screenplay – as well as a nomination for Best Picture – tells the story of a young photographer, who takes a trip to meet his new girlfriend’s parents. While there, he finds that these awkward, apparently well-meaning white liberals are nowhere near as harmless as he initially assumes. Sophisticated as it is, the film doesn’t pull its punches when it come to the big horror stuff – or the gore. But the full-blooded violence, when it finally arrives, is joyously cathartic, and all the better for the slow, extended build-up.
Concepts from the film, meanwhile – such as the hideous “sunken place” – have already found their way into the modern lexicon. People will be talking about Get Out – and using Get Out to talk about vital issues – for years to come.
IT’s greatest achievement? It reminds you exactly what it feels like to be a frightened child, trapped inside the scariest of scary dreams.
A sensitive yet full-throttled adaptation of the Stephen King’s novel, Andy Muschietti’s film faced the difficult task of bringing King’s small-town horror to a new generation, and finding a Pennywise to compete with the legendary Tim Curry, who starred in a much-loved earlier adaptation (and in scores of subsequent nightmares). Remarkably, the director managed to succeed on both counts: his IT hits all the right nostalgia notes while still feeling fresh – and, in Bill Skarsgård’s “It”, offers a genuinely frightening new take on an old favourite.
The opening scene with the storm drain works as a horrifying short film in its own right, while Muschietti’s wise decision to centre his movie around the character of Beverley, and her struggle with her abusive father, imbues the story with a new, explicitly empowering edge. Yes, modern horror’s love affair with all things Eighties is arguably starting to feel a bit tired – but when the nostalgia is this beautifully realised, it’s hard not to get sucked in.
It’s been described as the scariest movie in years – and for once, the hype is pretty much spot-on. Ari Aster’s stupendously chilling drama tells the story of the Graham family, besieged by a series of truly appalling events, and by some increasingly unsettling supernatural developments, after the death of their secretive matriarch, Ellen.
Toni Collette is on Oscar-worthy form as artist Annie – whose miniature doll houses gift the film with some supremely creepy visuals – but Alex Wolff, as son Peter, is equally compelling, as a young man falling into his own deeply personal hell. Hereditary, while gripping and pacey, is a bleak, heart-crushing movie: it effectively invites you to watch a family disintegrate, its helpless members caught up in unimaginable fear and grief, unable to escape their own inbuilt destiny.
For true horror fans, however – or for anyone who wants to be truly horrified – it’s also an unmissable one.
A Quiet Place (2018)
In John Krasinski’s clammy-palmed survival horror, the slightest sound, in the film’s post-apocalyptic vision of a human race in hiding, will send a scavenging alien straight to your door. These creatures, which we glimpse only in alarming flashes for the first hour of screen time, have no other senses at their disposal – you could shine a floodlight into their faces, puff cigar smoke into their toothy maws, and no harm would arise. Drop a pill bottle, though, and they’ll tear you to shreds.
The Abbot family, headed by Krasinski’s Lee and by Emily Blunt, his real-life wife, as Evelyn, have learned to survive in silence largely because their eldest child, played by Wonderstruck’s deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, has always had no hearing. In cinemas, audiences were famously too terrified of noise making to munch their popcorn.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is a serpentine and spine-jangling horror allegory, which uses the blunt force of this supposedly “low” genre to blast open one of the fault-lines running through 21st-century American life.
This parable of a middle-class black family who come face-to-face one night with their malevolent, snarling doppelgängers suggests that each of us has a “shadow self” seething with this stuff – and that it’s for the good of the entire country that we do them in with a brass poker, golf putter or similar at the earliest possible opportunity. It's a masterclass in spiralling terror, with its darkly comic asides, ravishing images and sly cinephile hat-tips that draw out the full flavour of the fear, like seasoning on a cut of meat.
Ari Aster works his playful, malignant magic again, barely a year after his debut. Largely set during a blindingly bright nine-day pagan festival in Sweden, Midsommar is a delicious prank of a film that’s by turns heroically upsetting and deeply funny.
Grief-stricken college undergrad Dani (Florence Pugh) ends up tagging along on her one-foot-out-of-the-relationship boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) summer getaway – and a trio of his pals – after a multiple bereavement so horrendous you can barely imagine surviving. The film’s mischief often overrides scares and you really don’t mind: it’s doubly entertaining having them spar. With digital trickery subtly infecting the imagery – flowers morphing, faces melting – it’s like a good-bad acid trip in a diabolical state of flux.