Why does it feel like horror movies are always undervalued? One thing’s for certain: In this age of geekery reigning supreme, critics and academics no longer dismiss the genre as disreputable with the kneejerk regularity some once did. But even now there’s talk of “elevated horror,” of artier explorations of dread and terror — Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” being two very recent examples — that are clearly distinguished from, well, non-elevated horror. The idea being that they engage your brain more than just showing brains being splattered against the wall.
How can films that fire your adrenal glands, send shivers down your spine, raise goosebumps, and quicken breath — that inspire such an intense physical reaction — also be cerebral experiences? We forget all the time that, as Anna Karina’s Pierrot Le Fou character Marianne Renoir says, “There can be ideas in feelings.”
What scares people says a lot about them — as the recent debate about what it means if a viewer finds certain elements of “Get Out” scary or funny revealed very clearly. “Get Out” showed the similarity between horror and comedy, the two genres most often expected to provoke an immediate, visceral reaction. Maybe the aversion some viewers have to both genres is a fear of losing control: of laughing so hard you snort or having to turn away in fright, of embarrassing yourself. A lot of people simply don’t want to lose control, no matter what. What’s funny is that horror, like comedy, is a genre in which each filmmaker has to assert his or her utmost control over the material, has to perfectly calibrate the storytelling, so that we can lose it. Extreme control so that the audience can lose control.
The IndieWire staff put together this list of the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All-Time to celebrate these intensely primal, personal films. Our writers and editors suggested over 150 titles and then voted on a list of finalists to determine the ultimate ranking. We hope it’s a list that captures the wide range and diversity of the genre, from underseen Laird Cregar vehicles to a Russian chiller based on a Nikolai Gogol story, from J-Horror to the Mexican gem “Alucarda.” Brace yourself for these movies: losing control will never be so much fun.
100. “Village of the Damned” (Wolf Rilla, 1960)
What if the children aren’t our future? That’s the dastardly question facing George Sanders as a professor in the small English village of Midwich whose wife was impregnated by an extraterrestrial force along with all the other nearby women of child-bearing age. Sanders’ character is learned, sophisticated, and tolerant, and he believes the young alien children who are born — all with platinum blonde hair and glowing eyes — deserve the benefit of the doubt. He quickly realizes he’s wrong — even about his own “son” — ultimately arriving at a Stalinist solution. Dripping with dread, “Village of the Damned” suggests that the paranoia we dismiss may not always be unfounded. Rather than history’s arc bending toward progress and justice, the future may hold only entropy and decline. -CB
99. “The Ring” (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
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Gore Verbinski’s supernatural tale is a remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film “Ringu,” based on the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki. A journalist investigates the legend of a videotape comprised of disturbing, mystifying images which when watched, leads to a phone call foretelling the viewer’s death in seven days. Led by an impassioned performance from Naomi Watts, this enigmatic ghost story is heavy on atmosphere — thanks in part to it’s gloomy, isolated Seattle setting — and offers up some genuine scares. Dark, unsettling, and deliberately paced, several thrilling twists that gradually reveal the film’s mystifying plot will hold the audience’s attention. The first American “J-Horror” remake, fans of the original should find this remake nearly as compelling. It spawned 3 sequels and paved the way for more American remakes of Japanese horror films, including “The Grudge.” -TO
98. “The Changeling” (Peter Medak, 1980)
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From “The Uninvited” to “The Innocents,” horror loves a good ghost story, and 1980’s “The Changeling” remains one of the genre’s very best. After the tragic death of his family, a composer moves into an historic mansion in Seattle, but the idyllic home also harbors the spirit of a distressed child, one who was hidden away in the home before being killed, and who is ready to seek revenge on the family who erased him from their past. “The Changeling” also packs on plenty of scares, especially the film’s unsettling séance scene, which undoubtedly inspired 2001’s “The Others.” Although “The Changeling” isn’t as well known as some of horror’s other ghost stories, it’s a favorite of both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who is rumored to have screened it during the production of “Poltergeist.” Featuring a powerhouse performance by George C. Scott and well as a compelling mystery at its core, “The Changeling” is an understated horror gem worth discovering. -JR
97. “Alucarda” (Juan López Moctezuma, 1977)
Alucarda has lived at a convent her whole life, but her world changes with the arrival of Justine, another young orphan. The two girls become inseparable, with their friendship often bordering on a sexual relationship. While out in the woods, they come across a strange burial ground and accidentally unleash a demonic force, which soon possesses them and threatens to tear apart the entire convent and everyone in it. Much like Ken Russell’s “The Devils,” “Alucarda” is rife with sexual ecstasy in a religious setting, where iconography turns sacrilegious. The young girls pledge their bodies both to each other and to the devil, shown in his most beastly form, with cloven hooves and curled horns, a furry nightmare that undoubtedly served as the inspiration for some of Guillermo del Toro’s most fantastic monsters. As the coven gathers to pray, the girls, now fully possessed, cannot stand anything holy, and the entire chapel descends into chaos, making for an unforgettable finale. “Alucarda” might not be as well known as “The Exorcist,” but it’s a possession film unlike any other, one that doesn’t fall back on the genre’s tired tropes, allowing it to truly shock. -JR
96. “Tales from the Hood” (Rusty Cundieff, 1995)
An updated twist on the British Amicus Production anthology horror films, popular during the ’60s and ’70s, Cundieff’s cult classic uses satire to tackle race and racism (among other themes), while also staying true to horror genre conventions. It unfolds in much the same style as the Amicus films, which typically followed a group of strangers who come together to face some evil soothsayer, and in a series of flash-forward or flashback sequences, learn how they will die, or how they died. In “Hood”, three wanna-be hoodlums visit a funeral parlor run by a kooky, creepy mortician (played with verve by Clarence Williams III), with the intention of buying “found” drugs from him to then sell on the street. Of course, they each get more than they bargained for when Williams instead recites four grim horror stories that spook them, after which the mortician reveals his true self, and the delinquent trio come to learn their ultimate fate. Not only does “Hood” effectively lampoon the Amicus anthology premise, but it also makes potent commentary (sometimes with biting humor) on a range of issues specific to the black experience, like police brutality, institutional racism and gang violence. Certain aspects might feel dated 23 years later, but “Hood” still packs a wallop. Cundieff produced a lesser sequel in 2018. -TO
95. “Messiah of Evil” (Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, 1973)
“Messiah of Evil” is an underseen gem that manages to creep under the skin despite its very low budget. When a woman heads to a seaside town to look for her missing father, she finds the creepy hamlet has been infiltrated by an undead cult. It’s never quite clear if the undead are zombies or vampires, but their presence is unshakably ominous. While “Messiah of Evil” is lesser known, it’s full of iconic and memorable scenes (a victim being devoured in a supermarket, another surrounded by the undead at the movies) that recall to mind some of George A. Romero’s best work. Co-written and co-directed by husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who would later co-write “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Messiah of Evil” is worth seeking out. -JR
94. “A Bay of Blood” (Mario Bava, 1971)
In 1963, Mario Bava released “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” kickstarting the giallo subgenre that would dominate Italian horror for years to come. In 1971, Bava reinvented the genre once again with his early slasher “A Bay of Blood,” where the murder of a wealthy heiress kicks off a greed-fueled murder spree, which also targets a group of innocent teenagers camping out nearby. “A Bay of Blood” would serve as a key inspiration for “Friday the 13th” and its subsequent sequel, with the franchise copying two murders from Bava’s film nearly shot for shot. It remains a vital watch for horror fans, and a reminder of how Bava continued to push horror into new and interesting realms, the reverberations of which are still felt today. -JR
93. “Trouble Every Day” (Claire Denis, 2001)
Connecting sex and violence in a vampire movie is hardly new terrain, but through the lens of director Claire Denis — and the way her camera studies of bodies in motion — it becomes a natural extension of her quieter dramas and a somber look at man’s nature. Normally Paris is the perfect romantic city for a honeymoon, but our groom, an American scientist (Vincent Gallo), is there to search for his ex-lover Coré (Béatrice Dalle), with whom he shares a desire for blood when aroused. Coré has become an “Under the Skin”–like seductress, luring men to hidden locations with the promise of sex, before ripping them to shreds. Eventually, Coré’s keeper Léo (Alex Descas) – another scientist of sorts – tracks her down, buries the bodies, and locks her back up in his basement laboratory. It’s a pattern that defines their relationship. “Trouble Every Day” was somewhat panned following its Cannes premiere, but has been reexamined quite a bit over the years as Denis’ work looks more intentional and layered with each passing year. -CO
92. “The Tenant” (Roman Polanski, 1976)
The third film in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” is less well-known than the previous two (“Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”), but utilizes the same subtle breaks with reality to capture the director’s unique brand of psychological horror – never making it clear if what we are seeing is imagined or really happening. Polanski himself stars as the unassuming new tenant who is made to feel unwelcome by his new Parisian neighbors as the memory of the previous tenant — who attempted suicide by throwing herself out the window — hovers over the film. In “The Tenant,” Polanski, who spent most of his life as an immigrant, captures the feeling of what it feels like to never quite fit in and experience reality in different way than others. -CO
91. “Goodnight Mommy” (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, 2014)
There’s horror that you see and horror that you can feel. A slow psychological build from unassuming start to fiery end, this is unnerving filmmaking — and not just because of the fierce bodily harm on display. It’s drenched in the insidious, unsettling feeling buried within: the idea that your own family’s inability to recognize you can metastasize into something so brutal. Featuring the rare twist that’s improved by a straightforward, matter-of-fact reveal, “Goodnight Mommy” is a harsh spin on the fear of the unknown that permeates so many of the stories on this list. Yes, it may feel like an endurance test. But there’s an extraordinary element of control here, in which each fresh affront is carefully doled out with masterful precision. -SG
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