The 20 Best Atmospheric Horror Movies of All Time

7. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Robert Wiene was a great German director that highly influenced the themes and aesthetic of what was to be known as German expressionist cinema. This influence could be compared to Fritz Lang’s 1927 opus Metropolis, which also left its mark on that particular genre seven years later.

With its sets that carry marks from expressionist architecture: the sharp angles, jagged and distorted buildings, monumentalism of the sets and unrealistic colors coupled with the chiaroscuro contrast, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari created a paradigm for horror movie atmosphere that’s been replicated since then.

But that’s not the only aspects the film introduced. Besides the beautiful game of colors (even though it’s a black and white movie it works with tints to evoke color) and sceneries, it’s remarkable for the fact that it’s one of the earlier precursors of the slasher flick and it began the twist ending craze. Its narrative and visual influence can be tracked across the decades.

This 1920 German silent is a small film (running 71 minutes-long) about paranoia and control of the masses, with a hint of fascism that can be considered an allegory for German social attitudes in the period that followed World War I.


6. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

Alien 1979

Ridley Scott’s Alien is a masterclass in suspenseful horror. From the opening shots of the desolated spaceship, that immediately set the dreadful tone of the film, to the wide shots of the alien planet and the alien itself, this 1979’s masterpiece is one of the most atmosphere-ridden horror films.

It’s also one of the most exquisitely crafted science fiction movies, and the truest paradigm of a monster flick, constantly forcing the evolution of the creature’s design as the film progress, so the viewer never quite knows how it looks like or what to expect from it. It’s also a highly interesting and untraditional exploration of feminine and maternal themes, what with its recurrent phallic imagery and sexual overtones.

It’s this kind of subtext that creates an enveloping and moody tone that differentiates Alien from other sci-fi horrors that couldn’t quite reach such operatic heights. With a minimal cast, and a reduced number of sets (although grandiose in scale) it grabs the viewer by his throat and never lets it go until the very end. It’s like taking a two hour breath, unable to exhale until the harrowingly climatic finish.


5. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)


Eraserhead is David Lynch’s first feature film. After a decade of directing off-the-wall short films that spanned animation and live-action, the Twin Peaks director created what’s perhaps his most haunting film to date.

One of the early body horror films, Eraserhead has its roots in film noir, which it takes to its stylistic limits. After Henry Spencer (played wonderfully by regular Lynch contributor Jack Nance) learns that his betrothed is pregnant, he must adapt to the notion of parenting. The film’s era is intentionally ambiguous, being set in an apocalyptic industrial landscape that could very well be either the past, present or future.

The catch, though, is that Jack’s child is completely and grossly deformed. It’s most likely a metaphor (at least on the surface) for unwanted pregnancies and the general woes of being a parent, but the graphic depiction of the kid’s deformity is the film’s best known and most talked about image.

The black and white cinematography, industrial setting, surrealist musical cues (and all-around amazing sound design), and dream-like imagery that is so characteristic of Lynch’s works create a profoundly unsettling atmosphere that’s to this day utterly unforgettable.

A “dream of dark and troubling things” indeed.


4. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)


Jacques Tourneur is an overlooked master of mood and atmosphere. His craft lends itself to the budgetary constraints his films worked under, hiding them with evocating lighting sets and shadowy, urban backgrounds. Cat People is perfectly representative of the director’s overall oeuvre, littered with subtext and narrative twists and turns that keep the viewer guessing from scene to scene.

The film’s plot revolves around the life of Serbian immigrant Irena Dubrovna Reed (wonderfully portrayed by French actress Simone Simon), who fears that she will turn into the cat person of her homeland’s fables and folk horror stories. This fear comes from her desire to be intimate with her husband, therefore revolving about sexuality and its eternal taboo and dichotomy of being natural/unnatural, benign/profane.

Having some of the most suggestive imagery and trained scares from Tourneur’s expansive filmography, Cat People is a magnificent horror noir of the sound era.


3. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

the birds

The Birds is considered the last of the Hitchcock greats. It was released at a time the director’s popularity was at its peak (Pyscho hit cinemas in 1960, Vertigo two years prior), which certainly helped it in the box office.

The movie’s protagonist is Melanie Daniels, a trickster that tasks herself to deliver a pair of lovebirds to a home in Bodega Bay so she can have an excuse to see lawyer Mitch Brenner one more time. As soon as she arrives though, the town on the California coast is assaulted by the ravenous flying animals.

What’s so interesting about The Birds is the way it distills Hitchcock to his bare essentials. Foregone are the intentions of a clearly delineated plot or the kind of character development we’ve come to expect from the director of Vertigo. This film is all about the thrills and horror of being constantly swarmed by murderous, bloodthirsty birds. These assaults are violent, filled with a smoldering rage that could be explained by the film’s sexual innuendos: is Melanie’s desire for Mitch so ardent it’s got even the birds in heat?

Nevertheless, The Birds is a great Alfred Hitchcock film, carrying his formal precision and mastery of the camera, with a very assured sense of location and non-existent traditional score that work towards a building tension that, when released, feels pleasurably cathartic.


2. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)


Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is the ultimate anti-marriage film. That’s usually the logline used to present this overlooked (or even forgotten) masterpiece about human want and need, the eternal push and pull between man and woman, lover and loved. The film’s horror, more than the gore and body horror of the last half, comes from an interpersonal and relational point of view. The words traded by the protagonists hit deep and hard, perhaps harder than even when they come to very violent blows.

What could be described, at first sight, as a no-bullshit approach to kitchen-sink drama and a hardcore depiction of the complicated relationship between husband and wife, quickly turns to the metaphysical and the bizarre.

The plot is as such: Mark (played by Sam Neill) comes home to his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani, at her most gorgeous in what could be her best role ever) only to find she is cheating him with another man. Mark then has a brutal nervous breakdown and a three-week detox from something. Is it love he’s detoxing from? Or is he shedding his vulnerable and exposed skin in order to become someone different?

The film is punctuated by swift and weird camera moves, like spiraling traveling shots and frenetic tracking shots. The score is restrained and spare, knowing when to accentuate a particular scene and when to shut up. That abortion-slash-exorcism at the metro tunnel? Completely silent (apart from Adjani’s agonizing screams) until the very end, and rightfully so.

Possession is a brilliant, though complex, film. Filled with terrific performances, a sharp script and off-the-wall characters, it’s stood the test of time to become one of Zulawski’s best films, which ultimately tells us that we can never possess someone, no matter how hard we might be willing to give ourselves to them.


1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

The Shining

Almost every single one of Stanley Kubrick’s films is a masterclass on how to create atmosphere in your movie. The infinite attention to detail, symmetry, iconic scores, carefully planned camera moves, fantastic performances by the always spot-on cast; everything builds towards a perfect notion of ambience and atmosphere.

It’s because of this (although not only) that his films click with audiences even decades later: they’re just so well built that the invisible barrier between screen and viewer gets torn down and the latter is transported right into the movie.

1980’s The Shining has one of the most iconic opening scenes of all cinema: it immediately sets the stage for the film, ominously foreboding a narrative plot, and it captures an instant sense of dread.

It’s hellbent, and chilling to the bone.

Author Bio: João Santos is a Portuguese cinema student and an aspiring scriptwriter. He spends most of his time devouring films and some TV series as a guilty pleasure he can’t shake off, even though he knows he should be editing his damn scripts.