10. “Night of the Living Dead” (George Romero, 1968)
George Romero’s subversive independent black-and-white film is a classic of horror and zombie lore, almost single-handedly inventing the modern zombie. Made for peanuts, the special effects are simple and sparse and the actors non-professional – the film’s grittiness works in its favor, giving it a raw realism that’s all-the-more disturbing. Romero has said that the role of Ben wasn’t written for a black actor, and that any perceived racial commentary in the film was coincidental. However, one can’t ignore the symbolism in Duane Jones’ casting — at the time, a very rare heroic role for a black actor in a film surrounded by white actors — against the backdrop of a racially-charged America undergoing significant social change, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Race is never a spoken issue in the film, but Romero’s casting choice opened it up to various interpretations and analyses, especially its incredibly bleak, unforgettable ending. The film spawned several sequels, and remakes, notably a 1990 reboot that starred Tony Todd playing the role of Ben. -TO
Rent or buy on Amazon.
9. “Alien” (Ridley Scott, 1979)
You can survive “Alien,” but you can never truly escape it — and not just because Ridley Scott will probably never stop making sequels and/or prequels. “Alien” has drifted so far from its origins since its violent birth nearly 40 years ago that it can be difficult to remember how terrifying the original film is, so here’s a reminder: USCSS Nostromo and its crew wake up early from hypersleep after receiving a distress signal. John Hurt meets a not-so-friendly creature called a facehugger. Said creature gives birth to something even worse that kills everyone onboard the Nostromo not named Ellen Ripley. In space no one can hear you scream, but those of us on earth aren’t so lucky. -MN
Rent or buy on Amazon.
8. “The Thing” (John Carpenter, 1982)
John Carpenter creates paranoia, fear, and isolation in “The Thing” with an intensity few filmmakers have ever matched. When Antarctic researchers cross paths with an alien life form with the ability to imitates other life forms, mistrust and terror is built shot by shot until it explodes. The practical effects and creature design are some of the best in film history. A film that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. -CO
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream via Starz.
7. “Eyes Without a Face” (Georges Franju, 1960)
Fairy tales can often tap into the same primal fears as horror films: fears of rejection, loneliness, aging, the loss of beauty. In Georges Franju’s telling of a plastic surgeon father obsessed with saving his daughter’s looks — her face was disfigured in an accident — “Eyes Without a Face” is a horror movie in the guise of a twisted fairy tale, right down to its tinkly, child-like Maurice Jarre score. The father’s only solution is a face transplant: which means killing women so he can steal their faces. But his daughter’s body inevitably rejects the skin grafts. There’s so much at work here: the idea that a loss of beauty is the same as death itself (the father has held a funeral for his daughter and he keeps her hidden away from the world) and that beauty is worth killing for (with lab attendant Alida Valli as the “huntsman” archetype in this cockeyed Snow White story, going out and abducting young women). “Eyes Without a Face” says that the ultimate sadness is when happiness itself becomes inequity: that in order to gain something for yourself the only solution is to take from another. -CB
Rent or buy on Amazon.
6. “Psycho” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
“Psycho” is practically the anno domini of cinema — there’s a before and an after, in which nothing has ever been the same. Perhaps all to today’s collective hand-wringing about “what’s a film? and what’s TV?” goes back to “Psycho,” which Hitchcock shot with the crew of his TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” the Paramount logo at the beginning bearing the grainy lines of TV interlace as an in-joke affectation. Who cares about the medium? It’s the vision that matters — and Hitchcock proved with “Psycho” how impossible it would be for all his many imitators to capture his style. For all the scares and shocks — and that shower scene — it’s the humor that sticks with you in Psycho: the “oh, my God” moment when Norman subtly freaks out as Marion Crane’s car briefly stops sinking into the swamp, the sheriff’s wife recalling how she picked out Mrs. Bates’s burial dress (“periwinkle blue”), the “come at me” challenge to believe the pseudoscientific nonsense the psychiatrist spouts at the end to try to “explain” everything that’s happened — when it’s clear no explanation could ever suffice. There are some things in life that are just like that, and “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s cinematic smirk at our futile attempts to make sense of the senseless. -CB
Rent or buy on Amazon.
5. “Halloween” (John Carpenter, 1978)
There were plenty of horror movies before John Carpenter’s iconic slasher debuted in 1978, but “Halloween” found the perfect formula to transform the spooky holiday into an unforgettable one. With a pulsing theme, the perfect Final Girl in Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, and boogeyman who can’t seem to die, “Halloween” changed the genre forever. After inexplicably murdering his older sister on Halloween when he was just six, Michael Myers has spent most of his life in an asylum, but on a fateful Halloween night in 1978, he returns home to Haddonfield for a murderous rampage that terrorizes Laurie and her friends. With his disfigured face hidden behind a ghoulish white mask, Myers stalks and stabs his way through the film, impervious to both bullets and blows. Though Carpenter would technically kill him off in 1980’s “Halloween II,” Myers proved so popular he resurrected once more in 1988 to spawn an entire franchise still beloved by horror fans. -JR
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream via Shudder.
4. “The Exorcist” (William Friedkin, 1973)
Warner Bros/Hoya Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Nearly half a century after its release, “The Exorcist” remains one of the scariest movies ever made for one reason — there is a primal discomfort from the contrast between an innocent young girl and the demon possessing her soul. Linda Blair’s seminal performance as 12-year-old Regan, whose head twists around and spews vomit as she unleashes disturbing laughter and unfiltered vulgarities, embodies the idea that nothing is sacred. Even the prospects of a Bbible-toting Max von Sydow doesn’t guarantee that everything will turn out rosy for poor Regan and her family. Friedkin, who was hardly exclusive to the horror genre, approaches William Peter Blatty’s novel with the same sophistication he brought to innumerable other genres at the height of his career. One of the most profitable movies in history, “The Exorcist” gave birth to has birthed several sequels and a television series, but none of them have matched the clarity with which the original unravels the mythology of upper-middle-class America with in such profound, disturbing moments so credible that even Friedkin came out of the experience as a true believer. Decades later, his exorcism documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth,” about the inspiration for the character in the movie, proved just how much this seminal achievement continues to haunt its maker — and generations of moviegoers as well. -EK
Rent or buy on Amazon.
3. “Rosemary’s Baby” (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Unsettling from the moment Mia Farrow starts singing over those haunting opening credits, Roman Polanski’s masterpiece digs its claws into you and leaves as ghastly a mark as it does on Rosemary herself. Evil isn’t an unknowable entity in this still-timely tale of a woman being gaslit by her husband and neighbors; it’s the Satanist next door. Pregnancy is stressful enough when there isn’t a coven of witches chanting in the night, and it’s made doubly distressing by poor Rosemary’s suspicions that they’ve made a pact with Lucifer involving her unborn child. So cerebral in its approach to psychological horror that it deserves a PhD, “Rosemary’s Baby” has only grown more uncomfortable with time — and not just because we know more about Polanski now than we did 50 years ago. -MN
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream via CBS All Access.
2. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
The 1970’s changed the horror genre forever, and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was the catalyst. A group of friends stumble upon a literal house of horrors in Texas, filled with a deranged family of cannibals led by one of horror’s most terrifying villains, Leatherface, clad in a mask stitched together from human skin. By escaping the clutches of the chain saw-wielding Leatherface, Sally became horror’s first Final Girl, a survivor who emerges from a chrysalis of terror to become a blood-soaked angel of vengeance. Although Final Girls have undergone several empowering transformations over the years, the trope remains one of horror’s greatest feminist accomplishments. Like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Éowyn, who defiantly declares “I am no man” before slaying the seemingly indestructible Lord of the Nazgûl, Final Girls have destroyed some of horror’s biggest boogeymen, thanks to the path paved by Hooper’s Sally. -JR
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream on Shudder.
1. “The Shining” (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
The fault lies not in the ghosts that haunt us but in ourselves. Wouldn’t Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) have ended up going down his psychotic path in “The Shining” no matter what? When we first meet him, he’s already been involved in an incident of domestic abuse with his son. Nicholson certainly plays Jack like he’s demented from almost the very beginning — cue chills: “You see? It’s alright. He saw it on the television.” “The Shining” has a certain dream logic to it, much like that of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” nineteen years later — it suggests everything you fear but dismiss may actually be true. That dread in the pit of your stomach isn’t lying. If your instinct is telling you that your husband may try to kill you and your son, there’s probably a very good reason for that instinct. Denial is necessary a lot of times just to get through life, to make it through each day — but horror movies always invariably show that denial is also what may kill you. It certainly almost kills Wendy and Danny in “The Shining,” but they wake up and change and see the reality of their situation without making any more excuses, and so they get to live. A lot of us don’t — marching blindly through life so rigidly we might as well be frozen in the snow, doomed to keep repeating our mistakes over and over again like we really have always been the caretaker after all. -CB
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream via Showtime.