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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.

30. “The Wicker Man” (Robin Hardy, 1973)

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“The Wicker Man”

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“Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent,” says the Lord of Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s bonkers classic. And who, you ask, is the Lord of Summerisle? Not telling. Even more than most horror movies, “The Wicker Man” demands to be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible — stories about cops arriving on tiny islands to investigate a little girl’s disappearance rarely end well, but there’s little preparing oneself for this one. The 2006 remake was regrettable — aside from Nicolas Cage’s performance, which was pleasingly bizarre — but the original remains a must-see for the way it continually subverts your expectations. -MN
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29. “The Innocents” (Jack Clayton, 1961)

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“The Innocents”

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Do they ever return to possess the living? That’s the question asked in the hilariously misleading trailer for Jack Clayton’s unnerving adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw,” which stars screen royalty Deborah Kerr as a young governess hired to look after two children on a rural estate. The home is large yet claustrophobic, the kids as off-putting as they are cherubic; you can surely tell where this is going if ever you’ve seen a haunted-house movie, but rest assured you’ve never seen one quite like “The Innocents.” A true exercise in less-is-more horror, the script — adapted from Henry James’ novel by Truman Capote and William Archibald — privileges brief glimpses and hard-to-place sounds over anything overt. As for the question posed by the trailer, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that yes, they do return to possess the living. -MN
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28. “Pulse” (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

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“Pulse”

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Movies about how we live with (and on) the internet weren’t as common in 2001 as they are now, but few have made as lasting an impression as “Pulse.” Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s best film is terrifying not only for its ghosts but for its insights as well — ideas can’t be exorcised. Otherworldly spirits are akin to a computer virus in the film, which slowly veers toward the apocalyptic as the living vanish and ghosts take their place to say things like “death was eternal loneliness”; as with a lot of great horror, “Pulse” transcends its genre roots to become something more. It, too, is like a computer virus in that sense — it grows and changes at an almost imperceptible rate, affecting you in ways you never could have anticipated. -MN
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27. “The Omen” (Richard Donner, 1976)

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“The Omen”

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The first installment of “The Omen” trilogy still holds up as one of the eeriest movies of all time. It tells the story of an “innocent” young boy who, unbeknownst to himself and everyone around him — including his diplomat father and his wife— just might be the Antichrist. Preferring mood and atmosphere over shock and awe, and boasting some genuinely chilling scenes, including grisly death sequences — by hanging, decapitation and impalement — and a famously foreboding Oscar-winning score (led by its theme song “Ave Satani,” composed by Jerry Goldsmith) — the film presents a scenario that would be any parent’s worst nightmare. “The Omen,” aided by a solid cast led by an outstanding Gregory Peck, treats its subject seriously, which adds to its believability. The pale-faced Harvey Stephens as the devil child is sufficiently sinister. The film spawned two sequels, and a 2006 remake that should be avoided — at least not without seeing the original first. -TO
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream via Starz.

26. “Bride of Frankenstein” (James Whale, 1935)

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“Bride of Frankenstein”

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“Science, like love, has its little surprises…” Frankenstein’s monster is an abstraction, a blank canvas onto which viewers can project just about anything they like — namely, and most obviously, man’s propensity for violence and a tendency to violently reject that which reflects our worst qualities back at us. The townsfolk in “Frankenstein” and its superior sequel turn ugly upon first sight of this particular abyss, never even taking the time to actually gaze into it; here, the Bride would appear to represent a welcome opportunity for companionship despite not actually appearing until the last few minutes and thus never fulfilling that role. Almost no one gets their just deserts in “Bride of Frankenstein,” which is part of why it’s more notable some 80-odd years later for its ability to evoke pity than for what few scares it still produces. Someone certainly belongs dead, but I’m not sure it’s them. -MN
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25. “Suspiria” (Dario Argento, 1977)

"Suspiria" (1977)

“Suspiria”

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After perfecting the giallo with 1975’s “Deep Red,” Dario Argento tackled the supernatural with “Suspiria,” the first installment in his Three Mothers Trilogy. American ballet student Suzy lands a spot at a prestigious dance academy in Germany, but the school is home to an ancient evil that Suzy must find and destroy before it devours her. With the exception of his follow up film, 1980’s “Inferno,” Argento has never quite made anything as jaw-dropping as “Suspiria.” Resplendent with garish set pieces and dazzling pops of red, blue, and green, “Suspiria” counters the film’s absolutely brutal and iconic death scenes with true beauty. It’s nearly impossible to do justice to “Suspiria” with words; it’s a piece of cinema that must truly be experienced, which is perhaps why Luca Guadagnino didn’t dare remake the film, but instead tried to convey how Argento’s version made him feel in his 2018 take. -JR
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24. “The Birds” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

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“The Birds”

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For one, it’s the only Hitchcock film ever to imply its ending is the end of the world — a reading reinforced by Robert Boyle’s original concept art showing the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds, even San Francisco lost to our new avian overlords. For another, it’s as pure an expression as any ever put on film of how much we take normalcy for granted. We’re going along, all seems fine. You may be a San Francisco socialite (Tippy Hedrin) looking to pull an elaborate prank on a smug denizen of Bodega Bay (Rod Taylor). And suddenly, stunning disaster strikes — in this case, as one of the characters puts it, “the bird war” — and your life may be changed forever, no going back, say goodbye to normal. All our lives are lived on a razor’s edge but we just choose, for the most part, not to think about it. The second half of Hitchcock’s film is almost beat for beat perfect, including a stunning scene set in a diner in which townfolks bring many different views to the table about how to deal with the crisis: there’s the evangelist who quotes Scripture to make sense of what’s happening; the scientist who thinks reason holds the answer; the drunk just passing through who thinks wholesale slaughter is the solution; the conspiracy theorist who decides to blame Hedrin’s character: “I think you’re evil! Eviiiiillll!!!” The scariest question to ask is: would any of us handle the end any better? -CB
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23. “I Walked With a Zombie” (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

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“I Walked With a Zombie”

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Do you believe the lies you tell? Producer Val Lewton’s masterful film says that when you finally do believe your own falsehoods, well, anything can happen. In this most philosophical of classic Hollywood films, a young nurse (Frances Dee) travels to the Caribbean isle of St. Sebastian to look after the wife of a wealthy planter (Tom Conroy). She can walk and stare off plaintively into the distance, but in no other way does she seem to be conscious. The Afro-Caribbean community thinks she’s a “zombie,” per voodoo lore — she was cursed because she had an affair with her husband’s brother. And the nurse comes to believe that too. What follows is one of Hollywood’s earliest looks at what happens when white people try to co-opt black culture. A sense of profound melancholy suffuses “I Walked With a Zombie,” the melancholy of the colonized: “That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial.” -CB
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22. “Repulsion” (Roman Polanski, 1965)

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“Repulsion”

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Roman Polanski’s portrait of an introverted woman (Catherine Deneuve) who loses her mind while left alone in her apartment is a disturbing portrait of an abused, alienated woman whose experiences with assault and loneliness driver her to the brink of insanity. Deneuve’s disquieting performance finds the poor Belgian woman enduring a series of hardships — living in close quarters with her promiscuous sister, then trapped at home, where she endures horrific assaults both real and imagined — until finally she lashes out, with bloody, devastating consequences. Polanski’s gritty, stripped-down black-and-white storytelling keeps the tension high throughout; there’s no big revelation or unexpected twist, but this masterful look at the pratfalls of gender imbalance was ahead of its time in many ways. Polanski himself may be a tarnished name, but “Repulsion” has only grown more valuable with age: It highlights the horrors of abuse by proving that even isolated incidents can have terrible long-term impacts, and escape is not an option when the horror lingers in the mind. -EK
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21. “Carrie” (Brian De Palma, 1976)

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“Carrie”

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Your prom night may have been bad, but it wasn’t “Carrie” bad. Sissy Spacek is among the few performers to earn an Oscar nod for starring in a horror film, and with good reason: Her chilling turn is the main reason Brian De Palma’s killer adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is thought of as a justified revenge saga instead of something even darker. Pig blood and telekinesis remain its most attention-grabbing elements, neither of which would amount to much were “Carrie” not so devastating in its depiction of an especially traumatic adolescence. De Palma was on fire during this period — “Sisters,” “Blow Out,” and “Dressed to Kill” were all made within five years of “Carrie” — but this supernatural horror flick is still his crowning achievement. -MN
Rent or buy on Amazon; stream via Showtime.

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