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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

130. “Happy Death Day” (Christopher Landon, 2017)

HAPPY DEATH DAY, Jessica Rothe, 2017. ph: Patti Perret. ©Universal Studios/courtesy Everett Collection

“Happy Death Day”

©Universal/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

Christopher B. Landon’s deliciously campy “Happy Death Day” doesn’t break out its first “Groundhog Day” joke until well into its third act, but the Jason Blum-produced 2017 horror film wears its cinematic pedigree with seeming pride. You can practically hear the pitch that sold the film: it’s the classic Bill Murray comedy, but as a horror outing — and all centered on a bratty co-ed (the charismatic Jessica Rothe) who gets brutally murdered every night, only to be forced to relive the whole ordeal the next day. The only real surprise: how well this wacky horror comedy has aged, how delightfully it inspired a sequel, and how very much fans are still awaiting a final entry.

The most basic of building blocks are in place from the start, including an initially unlikable protagonist and generous serving of montages, even an overarching message about the power of being a good person (at one point, a character screams, “love is love!” and it’s both totally endearing and hilariously out of place). Teresa (Rothe) — or “Tree” as she likes to be called — isn’t a nice person. She’s a spoiled sorority girl mostly interested in partying and keeping all of her relationships at a very safe distance (cue tragic backstory). When she wakes up in an unfamiliar dorm room the morning after a wild night out, she’s disgusted by the adorably dweeby Carter (Israel Broussard) and his good-natured attempts to keep their apparent one-night stand going. She’s off with a shot, out the door and thrust into a day that we’re about to become very familiar with, one that always, always wraps up with her vicious murder (funny as the film is, it never skimps on the clever kills).

Scott Lobdell’s script and Landon’s sharp directing ably introduce key scenarios and important characters immediately — that first walk through Tree’s repeated day provides a number of hints of things to look out for and people to pay attention to — before routinely twisting certain elements to keep the plot moving along. When Landon moves away from the darker parts of the film, opting to play up the campier elements of a mostly silly story, “Happy Death Day” is the kind of dizzy fun the horror comedy genre was made for, complete with a Final Girl worth cheering for, again and again and again. —KE

129. “Inside” (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

INSIDE, (aka A'L'INTERIEUR), Beatrice Dalle (top), 2007. ©Weinstein Company/courtesy Everett Collection

“Inside”

©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

The French are pretty good at giving you the darkest, most morbid horror films around, and Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s “Inside” is no exception. The slasher flick stars Alysson Paradis as expectant mother Sarah Scarangelo, home alone on a rainy evening, and Béatrice Dalle as an unnamed woman who arrives at her door requesting to use her phone to call for help. Though a wary Sarah tries to turn her away, the woman refuses to leave, smashing one of her windows and lurking around her yard for a way in, turning the film into a terrifying game of cat and mouse within Sarah’s small house. “Inside” is a prime example of the new wave of French horror that is characterized by a severe approach to depicting violence. Maury and Bustillo generously deliver the terrifying graphic goods. You’ll never want to be home alone after this one.—ZS

128. “Night of the Demon” (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

NIGHT OF THE DEMON, (aka CURSE OF THE DEMON), Dana Andrews, 1958

“Night of the Demon”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Horror can be at its most effective when it adheres to a rigid set of rules, when there’s a dastardly logic to the grisly doings onscreen. The British chiller “Night of the Demon” (originally released in the U.S. as “Curse of the Demon”) demonstrates just such a schematic precision. A professor in England cowers before his rival, a Satanic cult leader named Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Karswell has unleashed a demon to take down the tweedy fellow, who had been determined to expose his cult. Of course, the poor guy bites it. But if you’re leading an evil cult, there will always be someone else to take you down. Enter Dana Andrews, who teams up with the niece (Peggy Cummins of “Gun Crazy” fame) of the murdered man, to expose the bad guy. Karswell will not be stopped before he unleashes all the forces of hell in what unfolds as something like “Hellboy” meets the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies. His m.o. is to write a curse on a piece of paper, and what happens to the little scrap determines how it will play out. Which is to say that there’s a scenario where the very curse you wish on others can rebound upon you, and the way that it’s twisted around becomes one of Tourneur’s very best horror endings.—CB

127. “The House That Jack Built” (Lars von Trier, 2018)

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, from left: Matt Dillon, David Bailie, 2018. © IFC Films / courtesy Everett Collection

“The House That Jack Built”

©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Leave it to Lars von Trier to make a serial killer human. After he made his audience sympathize with a pedophile in “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II,” naturally all that was left was to turn his sadistic humanistic lens to a child killer. Aided by an inspired performance by Matt Dillon as the titular Jack, the protagonist in Von Trier’s darkest epic is plagued by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, making his messy hobby as a murderer extra difficult. Von Trier mines this dichotomy for black humor, as we sympathize with Jack’s obsessive quirks while he talks his confessor, Virgil, through the details of his most heinous crimes. At just over two and a half hours, the tension of each gruesome scene helps the film sail along at a grotesque pitch. As each murder becomes more outlandish, the viewer is implicated in Jack’s transgressions, descending further into the circles of hell alongside this maniacal Dante. Sickeningly grotesque and utterly absorbing, “The House That Jack Built” is Von Trier at his most devilish artistic heights. —JD

126. “Relic” (Natalie Erika James, 2020)

RELIC, Robyn Nevin, 2020. ph: Jackson Finter/©IFC Midnight/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Relic”

©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Echoes of David Cronenberg abound in Natalie Erika James’ chilling feature debut, “Relic.” Starring Emily Moritmer, Bella Heathcote, and Christian White, the film centers on three generations of women in a family that could be cursed by dark forces. With her 85-year-old mother spiraling into dementia, Mortimer’s Kay returns to her childhood home accompanied by her daughter, Sam (Heathcote). Not all is as it seems. “Relic” exists firmly in the realm of allegory, so if you’re looking for answers to the film’s spooky ambiguities and uncanny set pieces, you won’t find them. James is more concerned with creating an atmospheric rumination on intergenerational trauma, death, and dying that also happens to be a striking horror movie. In that sense, “Relic” belongs on the shelf next to “The Babadook” and “Hereditary” as highbrow, female-led horror movies that dwell in the slow burn. The movie concludes with easily one of the most disturbing, enigmatic, and strangely touching final scenes you’re likely to experience all year, a real showstopper that finds mother, daughter, and granddaughter coming together to bridge an ineffable gap. —RL

125. “The Evil Dead” (Sam Raimi, 1981)

THE EVIL DEAD, Ellen Sandweiss, 1981

“The Evil Dead”

Courtesy Everett Collection

The ultimate in cabin-in-the-woods terror, the franchise starter still impresses for its unrelenting pitilessness. Lacking the humor that defined “Evil Dead II” — and definitely did make that sequel the better film — this is a pretty monochromatic experience. Five college friends head to a rustic retreat where the porch swing ominously keeps banging into the side of the cabin until the moment the keys to the front door are retrieved from their hiding place. Pro tip: if that ever happens to you, rethink your vacation plans. A bevy of Sumerian demons lurk in these woods and the terrifying possessions that occur marries the supernatural terror of “The Exorcist” with the onslaught of dismemberment common in a zombie movie. Raimi calibrates every grisly happening to be as wince-inducing as possible: in his hands, a pencil can be as gruesome an instrument of terror as an axe.

A paragon of DYI filmmaking, Raimi schmoozed his way into raising the $375,000 budget himself, most of which surely went into the viscerally detailed makeup effects by Tom Sullivan, and had a crew made up largely of Raimi and star Bruce Campbell’s friends and family. Thirteen of the crew actually slept in the cabin itself, located near Morristown, Tennessee, in what by any standard sounds like a grueling shoot. But discomfort led to invention, and the dutch angles, inverted overhead shots, and home-made camera rigs Raimi and DP Tom Philo came up with resulted in an unusually absorbing movie. —CB 

Rent of buy on Amazon. 

124. “Dead of Night” (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden, 1945)

DEAD OF NIGHT, Michael Redgrave, 1945

“Dead of Night”

Courtesy Everett Collection

When the Ealing Studios anthology film “Dead of Night” opened on September 9, 1945, it was the first horror movie to play in the U.K. in years: the British Board of Film Censors had banned horror movies during World War II. But what a great one to revive the genre: a man is invited to a country house in Kent for a party, and when he meets his fellow guests he has the disturbing feeling he’s seen all of them before. In fact, he has: in his dreams — nightmares all.

He proceeds to relate his nightmares, which begins a series of short horror films, some admittedly better than others. The best is Cavalcanti’s “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” which sets the stage for Chucky and “Magic” with the story of a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who’s bullied into submission by his wooden puppet, who very much appears to have a personality of his own. Mixing scares with laughs, or at least dread with laughs — the moment Redgrave begs his dummy not to break off their partnership and go off on his own as a solo act and the dummy scornfully replies “Like hell I will!” is golden — “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” mines some real pathos, appealing to the universal fear of abandonment. —CB

123. “Horror of Dracula” (Terence Fisher, 1958)

HORROR OF DRACULA, Christopher Lee, 1958, vampire

“Horror of Dracula”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Universal’s original 1931 telling of the Bram Stoker chiller is far more a masterpiece of mood than Hammer Film’s take on the material, with Christopher Lee stepping into Bela Lugosi’s cape. But the Universal film has a rushed cop-out of an ending, and that’s something the Hammer remake very much corrects. Grislier throughout — a bloody shot of one of Dracula’s brides with a stake through her chest is more violent than anything you’d have seen in a Hollywood film at the time — the British film turns the vampire into more or less an English gentleman. Until suddenly you have that iconic shot of Lee’s fangs dropping blood.

Peter Cushing stars as Doctor Van Helsing, eternally out to get Dracula. Their final showdown, inspired by “Nosferatu” far more than the 1931 version, is one of the great climaxes in any horror film: a breathless convergence of Lee’s physicality, staccato editing, and some ahead-of-their-time makeup effects as Dracula battles both Van Helsing and the approaching dawn. —CB

122. “Inferno” (Dario Argento, 1980)

INFERNO, Irene Miracle, 1980, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

“Inferno”

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Italian master intended for his 1977 classic “Suspiria” merely to be the start of the Three Mothers Trilogy. That one followed a battle against the Helena Marcos’s Mother of Sighs. In its immediate follow-up, “Inferno,” the Mother of Darkness is the nemesis, and the action transplanted from Freiburg, Germany to New York City. The colors in this sequel are somehow even more vivid than in “Suspiria” itself, reds and blues splashed across the screen with abandon. And the set pieces are unforgettable, including when a young woman plunges into a water-filled basemant. There really do need to be more underwater scenes in horror movies.

And nothing in “Suspiria” is quite as terrifying as the scene of a man being attacked by a pack of rats, every New Yorker’s worst nightmare come to life. “They’re eating me alive!” he screams repeatedly, and since he’s in Central Park at night when this happens no one’s around to hear him. Mind you, this occurs after a separate incident when a woman is mauled by a pack of house cats. This is not a movie that holds anything back! Alas, the conclusion of the trilogy had to wait for 27 years, until 2007’s critically maligned “The Mother of Tears.” —CB

121. “The House of the Devil” (Ti West, 2009)

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, Jocelin Donahue, 2009. ©Magnet Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The House of the Devil”

Magnet Releasing/Courtesy Everett Collection

Jocelin Donahue turns in one of the all-time great “final girl” performances in Ti West’s ‘80s-set 16mm chiller. Made when the director was still in his twenties, “The House of the Devil” translates the sensibility of “Rosemary’s Baby” to the Satanic panic of the Reagan years. College girl Donahue needs money to move off-campus, so she accepts a babysitting job. But she finds out its not to take care of a child, but an elderly parent, a bait-and-switch that prompts her to ask for more money: $400 specifically.

That the job poster (a creepily elegant Tom Noonan) is willing to pay that much (in 1980s dollars, remember) should give her pause. But it doesn’t, of course. Much of the film, then, features Donahue doing her job in the eerie house (without ever seeing her charge) without dialogue, an extremely difficult task to ratchet up the suspense purely through the filmmaking and Donahue’s quietly assured performance. But West is up to the task, and draws you in until you’re identifying with Donahue to an overwhelming degree. Also on hand, Greta Gerwig as Donahue’s schlubby best friend, who has one of the funniest voicemail greetings in movie history. —CB

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