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The Greatest Horror Movies of All Time

From underseen Laird Cregar vehicles to a Russian chiller based on a Nikolai Gogol story, from J-Horror to the Mexican gem "Alucarda," these are the best horror movies the genre has to offer.

The Greatest Horror Movies of All Time

40. “The Others” (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Teresa Isasi/Miramax/Canal+/Sogecine/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5880168b) Nicole Kidman The Others - 2001 Director: Alejandro Amenabar Miramax/Canal+/Sogecine FRANCE/SPAIN/USA Scene Still Horror Les Autres

“The Others”

Teresa Isasi/Miramax/Canal+/Sogecine/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Arguably the most satisfying gothic horror movie since “The Innocents,” Alejandro Amenábar’s fogbound delight is more than just a loving homage to Jack Clayton’s undying ghost story, it’s also a bonafide classic in its own right. Gleefully inverting age-old genre tropes in order to explore the subject of grief from the inside out, the film stars Nicole Kidman (in one of her finest leading roles) as a harried mother who retreats to a haunted manor on the Channel Islands in the aftermath of World War II. Waiting in vain for her husband to return from the battlefield and help care for their photosensitive children, the woman begins to unravel. Is she having a breakdown, or is it possible that the phantom of an old lady really did possess her daughter? The truth is only revealed after more than 100 minutes of richly atmospheric chills, as “The Others” building to one of the great twists in movie history. It’s a rug-pull done right — one that recasts everything that came before it in the cold light of day, and suggests that people can be as haunted as the houses they call home. -DE
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39. “The Devils” (Ken Russell, 1971)

“The Devils”

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Ken Russell tackled history in 1971 with “The Devils,” an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon.” The film depicts the real-life account of Urbain Grandier, a 17th century priest accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun, the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne. Russell dives deep into the religious hypocrisy and sacrilegious imagery, turning history into infamy, and singlehandedly giving birth to the Nunsploitation genre. One of the film’s most divisive scenes, nicknamed the “rape of Christ” shows the abbey’s nuns running rampant with sexual ecstasy, turning the church into a brothel, as orgies break out, priests masturbate into pages of the bible, and a bevy of naked nuns begin molesting a giant crucifix in orgasmic pleasure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “The Devils” was banned, rated X, and heavily censored upon release, and while versions of the film have finally become available to watch, the true director’s cut has never been released. Still, it remains a fascinating rumination on the corruption of power and the danger when sexual repression bleeds into hysteria. -JR

38. “Black Sunday” (Mario Bava, 1960)

“Black Sunday”

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In 1960, Italian horror maestro Mario Bava catapulted his career with “Black Sunday,” a loose adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy,” which would also later be adapted into one of the only horror movies ever made in the Soviet Union. The film also launched the career of Barbara Steele, who starred as Asa Vajda, a witch burnt at the stake, who returns from the dead hundreds of years later to seek revenge of the descendants of her killers. Asa’s torment is palpable and appropriately horrific. She has a death mask, studded with spikes, nailed onto her face before she is burned alive. In one of the film’s best scene, as Asa comes back to life, the mask is peeled away from her face, still preserved after centuries, but bloated with nail marks. Although the film is a stunning example of Italian Gothic horror, it was banned in the U.K. until 1968 because of its violence, with some of the film’s gore censored in the U.S. as well. Despite years of censorship, “Black Sunday” is wonderfully atmospheric and moody, with foggy graveyards and dripping dungeons that seem lifted from some of the best horror films of the 1930s. Bava would soon move on to the technicolor world of gialli, but “Black Sunday” remains one of his best. -JR
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37. “Hausu” (Obayashi Nobuhiko, 1977)

“Hausu”

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The story goes that Japanese movie studio Toho was tired of losing money on movies that made sense, and so they greenlit Obayashi Nobuhiko’s “Hausu” — a potentially career-ending script that no in-house director would touch — thinking that it was time to lose money on a movie that didn’t. They only got half of what they bargained for: An utterly delirious (and strangely cheerful) ghost story about a teen girl named Gorgeous (Ikegami Kimiko) who takes a group of friends to her aunt’s haunted house, Obayashi’s magnum opus is a demented funeral parade of phantasmagoric delights. A killer mattress, a carnivorous piano, and a demonic cat are just the tip of the iceberg of a wild, super fun, and disarmingly playful movie in which even the smallest moments are touched with madness. A forgotten gem until the Criterion Collection rescued the film from obscurity and turned it into a cult phenomenon, “Hausu” may not make a lick of sense, but it was a hit in its own time, and an even bigger one in ours. -DE
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36. “Don’t Look Now” (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Casey Prods-Eldorado/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5869897c) Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland Don't Look Now - 1973 Director: Nicolas Roeg Casey Prods-Eldorado Films BRITAIN Scene Still Daphne Du Maurier Mystery/Suspense Ne vous retournez pas

“Don’t Look Now”

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Why are there so many horror movies about the grieving process? It’s a big question, but “Don’t Look Now” is as comprehensive an answer as you’re likely to find. For one thing, Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece — a splintered and unshakeable portrait of two parents (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in mourning over the death of their young daughter — has inspired a zillion lesser films to explore the same terrain. For another, this morbid Daphne du Maurier adaptation complicates Hitchcockian psychology with Borges-inspired surrealism to illustrate how genre language can tap into trauma more directly than standard dramas might allow. Spooky twin sisters, spectral visions, the murk of Venetian canals, one infamous sex scene, and the most disturbing reveal in all of cinema combine to articulate the isolating madness that follows loss, and the consequences that come from surrendering to it. -DE
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35. “Hangover Square” (John Brahm, 1945)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5876652c) Michael Dyne, Linda Darnell, Laird Cregar Hangover Square - 1945 Director: John Brahm 20th Century Fox USA Scene Still

“Hangover Square”

20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Watch almost any Laird Cregar performance and you’ll instantly become a fan. One of the finest character actors of the early 1940s, he was poised to have the horror movie career that Vincent Price ultimately had until tragedy struck: over 300 pounds for most of his adulthood, and thus limited to character roles in Hollywood, he wanted to be a leading man. Therefore, through extreme dieting and exercise he lost 100 pounds in less than a year, which so strained his heart that he died at age 31 before his last film could be released: “Hangover Square.” And it’s a masterpiece. Cregar plays a sensitive pianist who suffers from sleepwalking and, while doing so, kills women. When he wakes up he has no memory of the killings at all. Can he be held responsible for the murders since he’s literally unconscious when committing them? But, he is still committing them. It taps into a deep fear that no matter how good a person we think we may be, there may be some horrible dark side just waiting to crawl out. -CB
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34. “The Devil’s Backbone” (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001)

"The Devil's Backbone"

“The Devil’s Backbone”

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The magic of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmmaking is his ability to mix terror and wonder in a way that heightens both emotions without ever feeling trite. Set during the Spanish Civil War (it was shot in Spain and backed by Pedro Almodovar), this ghost story is told from the perspective of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy who is a new arrival at an ominous orphanage after his father was killed in the war. Carlos, haunted by visions of a mysterious apparition, tries to piece together the mystery of what happened the night a bomb hit the orphanage’s courtyard (but strangely didn’t explode) and a young boy (who now haunts the house) was killed. The film is more unsettlingly creepy than edge-of-your-seat scary, revealing the true horror is being a child during wartime. Del Toro has called “Backbone” his most personal film. -CO
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33. “Scream” (Wes Craven, 1996)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Miramax/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885613f) Drew Barrymore Scream - 1996 Director: Wes Craven Miramax USA Scene Still

“Scream”

Miramax/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

A horror maestro in his own right, Wes Craven’s decision to send up the very genre that made him a household name could have been a messy, dumb disaster — instead, he made “Scream,” which is both very funny and very scary, and functions just fine as a slasher film, even as it unpacks typical slasher fare. The Neve Campbell-starring feature first satirizes horror films in general, then slasher films in particular, as the tiny town of Woodsboro, California is held hostage by a masked killer with no clear motives, beyond slicing and dicing teenagers in increasingly amusing ways. But while that concept would go on to breed a whole other franchise in the form of “Scary Movie” (fun fact: “Scream” was originally titled “Scary Movie”), Craven added a special twist: what if this whole thing could be scary, too? Eventually the film reveals itself to be a genuinely gruesome, seriously clever horror outing that still doesn’t shy away from poking holes in the genre. And poking holes in plenty of teens, too. -KE
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32. “Near Dark” (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

Lance Henriksen in "Near Dark"

Lance Henriksen in “Near Dark”

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Kathryn Bigelow couldn’t get her revisionist Western funded, so she rode the 1980s vampire wave to make this unique genre-hybrid. A gorgeous, gory, and (romantically) gooey film set in small midwestern town, “Near Dark” is a complicated love story about a vampire Mae (Jenny Wright) and Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), the boy she falls in love with and bites one very eventful evening, but whose essence proves to be non-violent, making her fall for him that much more. Bigelow’s nomadic vampire tribe, however, is violent and the director brings the visceral brutality in a bar scene that is anything but romantic. All of this capped off with one of those ’80s-inflected Tangerine Dream scores that transports audiences to an entirely different headspace. For those who wish Bigelow never left genre for prestige, this film is a reminder of how dense her “less serious” films were right from the start. -CO
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31. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (Robert Wiene, 1920)

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”

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Putting the expression in German Expressionism, this seminal horror silent has remained a definitive achievement in spooky storytelling by creating a nightmarish world where nothing is certain. As lanky somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) commits a series of murders at the behest of the titular hypnotist (Werner Krauss), director Robert Wiene sets the drama in the confines of a labyrinthine environment that makes the upside-down look downright homey. Shadowy buildings hover in the background at awkward angles and roads veer off in dizzying directions. The ceilings often look as though they  might close in on these frantic characters — and, with the brilliant plot twist of the final act, that’s essentially what they do. Told within the confines of a flashback, the movie presents itself as the story of a young man (Friedrich Feher) whose world falls apart as he becomes aware of the doctor’s evil scheme; with time, however, it’s clear that this unreliable narrator may be a victim of his own confusion, and the brilliance of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is that it places us right there at the center of his insanity. Nearly a century later, the final twist still comes as a surprise to new audiences. -EK
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