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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.

60. “Poltergeist” (Tobe Hooper, 1982)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by MGM/Sla/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883494l) Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Jobeth Williams Poltergeist - 1982 Director: Tobe Hooper MGM/Sla Entertainment USA Scene Still Poltergeist - La vengeance des fantômes

“Poltergeist”

MGM/Sla/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“The Shining” and other ghost stories have used the conceit of building on a Native American burial ground leading to supernatural unrest: Manifest Destiny as both original sin and inciting incident. “Poltergeist” gives that notion a Reagan-era twist: the problem here is that a new gated community has been built over what was formerly the town cemetery. “They’re just… people,” the real estate developer behind the project says, as direct an indictment of corporate inhumanity as served up by any film ever. The ghosts of the no-longer-resting-in-peace invade one family’s house through the pacifying trappings of suburbia: the toys for the kids and the TV for the adults. Considering how many people believe their TV sets are haunted — Northwestern University professor Jeffrey Sconce even wrote a book on the subject titled “Haunted Media” — it’s surprising electronic apparitions haven’t been explored even more onscreen. Or maybe it’s just that “Poltergeist” did it so definitively. -CB
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59. “The Sixth Sense” (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ron Phillips/Hollywood/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5879446e) Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis The Sixth Sense - 1999 Director: M. Night Shyamalan Hollywood Pictures USA Scene Still Mystery/Suspense The 6Th Sense Le sixième Sens

“The Sixth Sense”

Ron Phillips/Hollywood/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout feature earned the filmmaker the reputation of being beholden to his big narrative twists, and while that may still be the case (his latest twist went so far as to inspire an entire new movie), it’s hard to question the power of his biggest reveal. The Bruce Willis-starring feature is creepy enough without its final act jaw-dropper, with the actor as a hangdog child psychologist palling around with a terrified young kid (Haley Joel Osment) who comes armed with one of modern cinema’s most indelible catchphrases (it’s hard to beat “I see dead people,” and who would want to try?). What a pair they make, and Shyamalan skillfully guides the film so it seems as if they’re working towards one conclusion, before veering into an entirely different one that’s as jarring as they come. It’s a film that begs for an instant rewatch, all the better to pick up all the tiny, terrifying clues that Shyamalan has laid out along the way. -KE
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58. “The Haunting” (Robert Wise, 1963)

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5881587k) Russ Tamblyn, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson The Haunting - 1963 Director: Robert Wise MGM BRITAIN Scene Still Horror La Maison du diable

“The Haunting”

MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Adapted by Nelson Gidding from the 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (who suggested the film title), “The Haunting” stars Julie Harris as Eleanor, a shy woman who once experienced poltergeists. She joins a group organized by a paranormal investigator (Richard Johnson), including a mod lesbian psychic (Claire Bloom), and the son of the house’s current owner (Russ Tamblyn), to study a death-plagued abandoned haunted mansion. The filmmaker made the most of a much lower budget than “West Side Story” by taking the shoot to England. He used an experimental 30 mm wide-angle Panavision camera to unsettling effect to portray the film’s most memorable character — the house — from odd, jarring, dislocated angles, often showing Eleanor’s mentally unstable point-of-view. The crew bent walls, destabilized a spiral staircase, applied photo-sensitive makeup to make the actors look pale when they stood in a “cold spot,” delivered a jump scare when a missing woman’s head pops out, and most disturbing, “morphed” a woman from childhood to old age by photographing four actresses at different ages and uniting them with dissolves. While the movie received mixed reviews on release, it has built a cult following and is considered by many — including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg — to be one of the scariest horror films of all time. Having seen it when it first came out, I for one am scarred for life. -AT
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57. “The Conjuring” (James Wan, 2013)

"INT PERRON HOUSE - CELLAR Carolyn flips upside down and shoots up to the ceiling John Brotherton (Brad), Vera Farmiga (Lorraine), Patrick Wilson (Ed), Ron Livingston (Roger)"

“The Conjuring”

Michael Tackett

A well-polished fictionalized account of the real-life cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, Wan’s film shows the supernatural seekers taking on the case of the Perron family, new owners of a Rhode Island home that appears to be haunted. An offspring of “The Exorcist,” set on an isolated, vast, animated compound, if it feels familiar it’s because the film relies on old-school horror film motifs for its scares. But it’s still effective, thanks in part to believable performances by its cast, notably stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine, who have a natural on-screen chemistry. And Wan’s decision to limit his use of computer generated effects is wise. The first film in what has come to be called “The Conjuring Universe,” it’s spawned a sequel and three spin-offs which have collectively earned over $1.5 billion at the box office worldwide, making this the highest-grossing horror movie franchise in history. -TO
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56. “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” (David Lynch, 1992)

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“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”

Lynch-Frost/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Conceived as both a prologue to — and a postscript for — the original “Twin Peaks” television series, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” has since been renovated into something of a bridge between the old and new iterations of the show; the dark nexus of that particular universe. But to focus on its function within Lynch’s mythology is to overlook “Fire Walks with Me” as an experience unto itself; even in a vacuum, it’s one of the most emotionally harrowing movies ever made. Lynch has said that he “was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside.” This film, which mostly follows Laura (Sheryl Lee) in the days leading up to her murder, crystallizes how this story has always swung between the intractable trauma of abuse and the overwhelming power of love. Positioning Laura’s father (a scarring Ray Wise) as the pit beneath that pendulum, “Fire Walk with Me” shines a light into the void beneath a quaint Washington town, and finds that heaven and hell might be a lot closer together than they seem from street level. The scares will get under your skin, and the residue they live behind will stay under your fingernails. -DE
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55. “The Fog” (John Carpenter, 1980)

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“The Fog”

Debra Hill Prods/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“A celebration of our past!” declares the triumphal banner hanging over the town square of Antonio Bay, California in honor of its centennial celebration. Director John Carpenter, in his first film after the landmark “Halloween,” makes us ask an important question: who wrote that history we’re celebrating? The ghosts that are coming out of the mists rolling in off the Pacific have a very different perspective on Antonio Bay and its residents, and if they can’t write their own story in the history books, they will write a tale of present-day revenge instead — in blood. With a setting much like “The Birds,” “The Fog” is a masterpiece of mood. And it features both Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh — but this is no escapist horror pastiche. How much do the people of today bear guilt for the crimes of their forebears? Are reparations owed? Carpenter examines the crushing weight of the past and suggests that history may be the ultimate horror story. -CB
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54. “The Babadook” (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Essie Davis in The Babadook

“The Babadook”

IFC Films

In the last 20 years, no director has come to her first feature so fully formed as both a storyteller and a master of cinema as actress-turned-writer/director Jennifer Kent. Kent’s tale of a widowed mother (Essie Davis) battling her son’s fear of a storybook character come to life is hide-under-your-seat terrifying, but instead of relying on lazy scare tricks that have come to define the genre in recent years, Kent uses precise compositions and clockwork-like precision to build tension and draw viewers into a scene. Kent is not simply a master technician, but one who uses the horror genre to tackle a subject (the burden of motherhood) that doesn’t get discussed in polite company and creates something that is for more hard-hitting than any “important” piece of Oscar bait. -CO
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53. “The Witch” (Robert Eggers, 2015)

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

“The Witch”

A24

Robert Eggers’ astonishingly confident New-England Folktale is not fucking around. And, just to make sure you know that right from the start, one of its first scenes finds a demonic hag — the skin on her back painted with the light of a full moon — stealing a baby from the Puritan family that’s been exiled to the fringe of her woodland domain and crushing the child into bits with a pestle and mortar. There are any number of reasons why “The Witch” is such a giddily perverse experience (the director’s Kubrickian rigor and his fetish for period details not least among them), but the film is ultimately such a startling sight to behold because of Eggers’ straight-faced commitment to the bit. He leans into the fears and fascinations of 17th century life and he leans into them hard, and that unflinching approach makes it possible for modern-day viewers to believe in the power of the devil, and the goat that might serve as his messenger. Tie it together with a go-for-broke finale, throw in a star-making Anya Taylor-Joy performance into the mix, and you’ve got a new American classic that trembles with the echoes of the first horrors visited upon this country. -DE
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52. “Frankenstein” (James Whale, 1931)

“Frankenstein”

Shutterstock

It’s only fitting that a novel as influential and forward-thinking as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” would inspire a similarly unique and enduring big-screen classic. James Whale’s take on the tale of a striving doctor and the freakish creature he cobbles together from the dead contributed mightily to how people envision the monster, with Boris Karloff’s big-headed and lumbering portrayal still serving as the gold standard. But while Frankenstein’s monster (always “Frankenstein’s monster,” never just “Frankenstein”!) is an object of terror in the film, Whale also made sure to overlay all that understandable horror with Shelley’s own message about the beastliness of humanity itself. -KE
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51. “The Spiral Staircase” (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

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“The Spiral Staircase”

RKO/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“There’s no room in the whole world for imperfection,” the main villain declares. He’s a serial killer who’s been on a spree murdering women who are disabled. And now he’s targeting a young maid (Dorothy Maguire) who’s mute — we know she’s in his sights because we see her from his point-of-view. When he looks at her, he sees her face without a mouth entirely, much like the image of Keanu Reeves with his mouth sealed shut in “The Matrix.” Director Robert Siodmak conceived a visual language for murderous hate here — the villain is so intolerant of anyone he views as less than “perfect” that he literally sees them differently. In this case, targeting the disabled calls to mind Nazi persecution of people with physical and mental disabilities — World War II had ended just a year earlier, and Siodmak himself had fled the Nazis due to his Jewish heritage. The result is that “The Spiral Staircase” is a work of Gothic Horror for a world still reeling from the Holocaust. -CB
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