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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.

50. “Candyman” (Bernard Rose, 1992)

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“Candyman”

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A boogieman terrorizing a public housing project? The film’s setting alone separates it from many of its slasher movie brethren. Based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” director Bernard Rose relocates the story from Barker’s native Liverpool to the dilapidated, “scary” buildings of the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. It was an inspired decision that amended the original story’s classist undertones into explicitly racial ones, turning this into more of a subversive meditation on race. The unsettling legend about the hook-handed terror focuses on a skeptical white doctoral candidate working on a thesis on urban legends, who learns of the Cabrini-Green Candyman legend and goes to investigate. Starring Virginia Madsen as an atypical slasher movie heroine, the film boasts one of the more intriguing horror-movie villains, with a complexity rooted in a tragic backstory that makes him sympathetic: a famous black artist and son of slaves who pays a steep price, amputation and a grisly death, for falling in love with a white man’s daughter who hires him to paint her portrait. Digging a little deeper than your average horror film, the film stars the physically imposing Tony Todd as Candyman, whose sonorous, chilly voice haunts long after the movie ends. -TO
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49. “The Lodger” (John Brahm, 1944)

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“The Lodger”

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In Hitchcock’s silent version of “The Lodger” from 1927, the (not-quite-yet) Master of Suspense inaugurated a version of his “wrong man innocently persecuted” formula he’d later perfect in “The 39 Steps” and “North by Northwest.” John Brahm’s remake goes in a decidedly different direction: it’s no spoiler to say that Mr. Slade (Laird Cregar), who’s taken a room in the London home of a middle-aged couple (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood), is in fact the killer. Obsessed with his late brother, who died after drinking himself to death following a broken heart, Mr. Slade blames the female sex in its entirety for his untimely passing. So he’s taken to murdering random women as payback. Cregar is 6’3” and over 300 pounds but, as physically imposing as he is, his Slade is the fragile male ego on two legs. Particularly threatening to him is female sexual empowerment, and so when he watches the music-hall performer daughter (Merle Oberon) of his landlord and landlady prance about the stage, his face becomes a contorted masque of toxic masculinity: he’s attracted to her but hates her, lusts after her but wants to kill her. The male gaze has never been more weaponized than in this scene, and it’s a testament to Brahm’s sophistication that he understood, in 1944 no less, how the act of looking could be an act of violence — with the actual killing that follows almost an afterthought. -CB
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48. “Carnival of Souls” (Herk Harvey, 1962)

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“Carnival of Souls”

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A waking nightmare that’s every bit as ghoulish as its title suggests, Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls” — a singular one-off as storied as “Night of the Hunter” and twice as eerie — is an indelible tour through a funhouse of our deepest fears. Shot for a measly $33,000, and imbued with the morbid unease of a rediscovered snuff film, this micro-budget classic stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary, the sole survivor of an ill-fated drag race. Dredging herself out of the water and re-entering a world that feels ominously shadowed by her near-death experience, Mary finds herself trapped in a stretch of American nowhere that’s as inescapable as the Twilight Zone, and twice as dark. Once upon a time, this was the kind of nameless movie you might stumble upon at 2 A.M. on TCM; the kind of thing you felt you shouldn’t be watching. Today, even though you can watch it on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray or stream it on your laptop, Harvey’s unnerving masterpiece still retains every last drop of its delirious power. -DE
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47. “Ganja & Hess” (Bill Gunn, 1973)

“Ganja & Hess”

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An original treatise on sex, religion and African-American identity, iconoclastic filmmaker Bill Gunn’s 1973 allegorical classic subverts the vampire genre. Anthropologist Hess Green is stabbed with an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant, endowing him with the blessing of immortality and the curse of an unquenchable thirst for blood. When the assistant’s wife Ganja comes searching for her vanished husband, she and Hess form an unexpected partnership. Gunn uses vampirism as a proxy for addiction, although the complexity of the plot makes it nearly impossible to reduce the film to any one simple metaphor. Drastically recut by distributors unhappy with Gunn’s highly stylized version that flirts with the conventions of blaxploitation and horror cinema, it was re-released under other titles. And so, for many years, what was essentially a bastardized version of the film (re-edited without Gunn’s involvement) was all that was available. Forty years later, Kino Lorber made the film gods happy by re-releasing the film, restored to Gunn’s original vision. -TO
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46. “It Follows” (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)

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“It Follows”

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“It’s right behind you!” is a common, and cheesy, horror refrain, but David Robert Mitchell’s lyrical coming-of-age vision gave it entirely fresh currency. A murderous creature visible only to the afflicted pursues its prey with a slow, relentless march forward, manifesting as their worst fears; the only solution is to have sex with someone to pass the threat forward. But if one person dies, the monster makes its way back down the line. This brilliant gimmick enables “It Follows” to assemble a series of frantic teenagers in a desperate attempt to figure out a solution to their conundrum. B, but the body count is fated to rise, and Mitchell’s evocative storytelling makes it clear that nothing can totally rescue them from the shocking physical transformations of young adulthood. Sex, which often dooms characters in horror movies, has never been such a menacing cinematic threat. -EK
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45. “The Blair Witch Project” (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)

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“The Blair Witch Project”

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Few movies have been as parodied and intimated in the last 20 years as “The Blair Witch Project”; fewer still are as scary. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s endlessly influential exercise in found-footage horror has been hotly debated since before it even premiered — is it real or is it not? — and remains polarizing even now. Lost in that debate is how terrifying it still is. Getting lost in the woods has never looked so scary, especially as seen through a trio of film students’ grainy camcorder; Myrick and Sánchez maximized their notoriously tiny budget by having most of the action occur offscreen and forcing us to mentally fill in the details. That it introduced both found footage and viral marketing to the general public may be a mixed blessing, but don’t hold that against it: “The Blair Witch Project” brings new meaning to the phrase “often imitated, never duplicated.” -MN
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44. “The Brood” (David Cronenberg, 1979)

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“The Brood”

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The big reveal in the Canadian auteur’s breakout movie “The Brood” is Samantha Eggar lifting her white drape to show Art Hindle the multiple “babies” growing from her torso, opening the biggest sac to lick the blood off her newborn. Following “Rabid” and “Shivers,” “The Brood” signaled the arrival of a cerebral filmmaker with icky ideas about the hazards of science, from armpits with sex organs and veined penis-shaped parasites with ears and mouths crawling in and out of body cavities, to psycho-plasmic hives that become humans, born out of anger and forming an army. Made for about $1 million with a tiny crew of seven, “The Brood” used a mix of analog prosthetics and clever manipulation of light and dark in a pre-CGI world to create believable, naturalistic menace. When Roger Corman picked up the movie stateside, horror mavens Joe Dante and John Carpenter helped to cut the trailer. Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” and “The Fly” came later. -AT
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43. “I Saw the Devil” (Kim Jee-Woon, 2011)

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“I Saw the Devil”

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A visually canny director with a sharp sense of humor, Kim adeptly plays with genres, from his sixth film, the wacky Oriental western hit “The Good, The Bad, and the Weird” to serial killer thriller “I Saw the Devil,” which also stars Lee Byung-hun. This time, Lee is a homicide detective on the hunt for a brilliant serial killer who whacked his pregnant wife in a haunting opening sequence. This movie is not for the squeamish — Kim takes the violence about as far as anyone ever has, bringing you along for the ride via intricate tracking cameras as the detective starts to emulate the insane devil he is chasing. This vengeance plot, with all its gore and evil, is in the service of art. And it’s funny, too, as the detective and the killer engage in a strange game of one-upmanship. Despite being hit with restrictive ratings for violence in Korea, cutting some of the violence and limiting the theaters where it could play, the movie was a monster hit. Kim was able to keep more horror in the international version. -AT
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42. “Freaks” (Tod Browning, 1932)

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“Freaks”

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“One of us, one of us!” As sad as it is scary, Tod Browning’s career-ending pre-Code masterpiece is not at all the movie you expect it to be. Its title gives the impression of an exploitative sideshow attraction, and though “Freaks” is certainly carnivalesque in the way it showcases its cast — including conjoined twins, a bearded lady, and the famous “pinheads” — it’s ultimately most notable for the empathy it shows them at the expense of the “normal” characters who mistreat them. Endlessly controversial when it was first released, with one woman even threatening to sue MGM after claiming the movie was responsible for her having a miscarriage, it has since been reevaluated as the one-of-a-kind classic it is. Better late than never. -MN
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41. “Possession” (Andrzej Zulawaki, 1981)

“Possession”

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The demise of a marriage has often made lent heft to some of the best dramas, but it’s not often that it makes for an unforgettable horror movie. When Anna reveals to her husband, Mark, that she is having an affair, it sends him to the brink of madness. Although he is struggling to keep it together, Mark hires a private investigator to follow Anna, while also having an affair with his son’s teacher, who could pass for Anna’s double. Tucked away inside of a shabby apartment halfway across a war-torn Berlin, Anna is hiding with a secret lover lifted straight out of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmares. Bolstered by a tour-de-force performance by Isabelle Adjani, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival after the film’s 1980 premiere, and her unforgettable subway breakdown, “Possession” is a film like no other, and one that still manages to truly shock over thirty years later. -JR
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