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The 10 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time

02 September 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Daniel Evans

“Poor strangers, they have so much to be afraid of.”

– Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

People love to be scared. Even as they clammily grasp, white knuckled, at the sheets or the arm of whoever’s next to them, terrified at what horror’s are unfolding on the screen, be it menacing clowns, giant spiders, hockey masked murderers or something altogether darker, there is always a grim fascination with things that fray the nerve or loosen the bowel.

If audiences were sent running up the aisles by what is generally considered the first horror film many full moons ago, Georges Méliès’ Devil leaping, bat swirling Le Manoir du Diable (1896), then little did they know what was to come.

What we now would constitute as a good celluloid scare would probably send the sheltered folk in the early 1900’s caterwauling into a permanent catatonic state, and what they found terrifying would barely cause a whimper from even the most apprehensive viewer. But some films stay with you, lingering under the skin and crawling back into focus on the nights where sleep doesn’t descend, their sheer nightmarish visions imprinted on the memory for years.

The following is a list of the 10 scariest horror films ever, it is a list not purely based in gore and guts and loud noises punishing your senses, but one that remembers that silence is sometimes just as terrifying as a chainsaw.

 

10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

the texas chainsaw massacre

If you were to chip away at the glossy veneer of life and eye suspiciously what lies underneath, then most likely you’d find something similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a feral, unexposed death trip through the most unnatural, disturbed areas of the human psyche.

Immediately, from looking at the lurid title alone you feel a knot in the stomach. Expectations of limbs being tossed across the screen followed by floods of viscera and gore are, cleverly, reversed, and what we get is close up, eye juddering distortion, with off screen limb removals but enough on screen terror to bring even the most hardened viewers’ hands up in-front of their face.

The simple plot involves a group of friends, including Sally (Marilyn Burns) and whimpering wheelchair bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain), drive into the dark heart of Texas, where graves have been defiled and armadillos curl and crisp up along the road, to find their grandfathers final resting place.

Along the way they pick up an unhinged hitchhiker who takes particular pleasure in sharp implements and their affects on the flesh. Soon he is removed from the road trip, and the group stumble upon a putrefying house, which some of the party foolishly explore.

The following scenes are some of the most upfront minutes of pure horror ever filmed, sheer relentlessness encapsulated in a grimy, crumbling layer of atonal noises, shrieks, clouds of chicken feathers and squealing power tools.

Based upon the gruesome acts of Wisconsin fiend Ed Gein, a man who adorned his home with bones, skulls and human skin lampshades from bodies dug up from the local graveyard. We see similar artefacts in the home of Leatherface and family, a huge chainsaw swinging, seemingly mentally infantile butcher who sees humans as pure meat and meat is his business, and business is seemingly good!

Tobe Hooper makes us nose dive into the horror and he never lets up, from the first shocking murder to the unbearable dinner scene to a punishing final chase, it continues to swell, never dissipating, leaving us unable to take a breath.

The jagged landscapes of abandoned farm houses, sticking out of the earth like ancient Texan tombstones, unsettles the bones and with a score reminiscent of a group of cavemen crudely thumping pots and pans with various household objects, it disorientates. This kind of intensity has never been repeated.

 

9. The Brood (1976, David Cronenberg)

The-Brood

“Daddy’s downstairs talking to mummy”- Dr. Hal Raglan.

In David Cronenberg’s world, the body is a vessel for horror and repulsion, plagued by insanity inducing vampiric sexual diseases and, in this occasion, the gnarled manifestations of anger amidst the trials and tribulations of a fractured family unit. Even amongst Cronenberg’s vast twisted output this stands out as a startling psychological vision, one with enough brains behind it and enough streaks of pure horror running through it to startle and horrify.

A bulging Oliver Reed plays Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychologist with unusual methods. He uses these unconventional processes to delve deep into a patients mind and unblock their deepest sufferings. Under his care is Nola (an unhinged Samantha Eggar) the wife of Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), and both are locked in a custody battle over their young daughter Candice.

People associated with Candice start to be killed off by deformed, diminutive creatures and Frank sets out to prove the connection between them and Dr Raglan’s sinister Somafree Institute. Cronenberg wisely keeps these creatures appearances fleeting and rapidly paced during the murders; we never get to truly linger on their misshapen forms, which make them all the more disturbing.

The climax is what drives this film into everlasting purest horror as we find that Nola’s anger towards her many rejections has culminated in an appalling abomination, it’s a scene that spits at the screen and shreds the nerves, once seen, never to be forgotten.

Cronenberg details two people going through a divorce with a child in tow (if it sounds similar to Kramer vs. Kramer then Cronenberg has stated this is his reaction to that particular film) in an unyielding, far more shocking manner than anyone but him could ever document. Its scares jump out of the low lying mist of misery that surround the characters, leading up to that unrivalled, monstrous finale.

 

8. Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)

halloween

Surprisingly by 1978 no-one had made a major contribution to the horror genre involving All Hallows Day, the one date of the year where scares seep into the mainstream and kids and adults dress as their favourite bogeyman and terrorize the streets. John Carpenter changed all that.

Halloween night, 1963, a six year old child dons a mask and butchers his sister. Upon capture the boy is taken to a mental institution to seemingly live out the rest of his days. 15 years later he escapes and returns home to Haddonfield to stalk its young inhabitants, on his trail is his doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) who is intent on sending his disturbed patient back to the hospital and back under his watchful eye.

A relatively simple plot doesn’t conceal the absolute terror that lurks in this film. Without the aid of gore tricks and great globules of flesh hanging from the screen, Carpenter crafts a tale of panic and ramps up the tension, silently creeping up on the viewer before lurching at us with relentless scenes of the unstoppable Michael Myers stalking lone survivor student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) after picking off her young friends one by one.

Along with the pulsating score by Carpenter (one of the most recognisable pieces of music in the whole horror genre) his expert use of shadows to conceal Myers, and his use of perspective unnerves the viewer. Michael seems to be on the outskirts of the screen throughout, and without ever having to break into a run or even a brisk walk he manages to be everywhere at once.

Watched alone this is a masterpiece of suspense and horror without ever being gruesome. Where would the horror genre be if Michael never came back home that fateful night?

 

7. Audition (1999, Takashi Miike)

audition

Beginning as soapy romantic fluff and ending with scenes so sensory and horrifying, its images burned onto the memory, is not the usual brief for a movie. But we are talking Takashi Miike here and the hugely controversial Audition is his most nauseating and terrifying effort. The build up is slow and elegantly paced, with soft bouncy jazz leaping out over the characters and their world, harmless enough, but all that it does is lead us to the very edges of the extreme.

Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is on the hunt for a new wife after becoming widowed. He discusses this with a friend and soon an audition process is set up in which women will come and try out for an imaginary part in an imaginary film that the producer friend is making.

Out of these women Shigeharu may like to pick his new bride to be. Unfortunately he becomes enamoured with Asami (Eihi Shiina), a fragile looking beauty, and soon they are in a relationship. As time goes on, we learn more of Asami and the film takes on a decidedly darker tone, pushing away all trace of that gentle beginning and leaves pure terror in its place.

As the females are presented to Shigeharu one by one in the audition, he is clearly the dominant one, like a predator eyeing up his next meal. But those roles are hideously reversed as the seemingly submissive Asami takes gradual control, tapping into his carnal need, until a final blow out of violence at its climax, as Shigeharu submits to her sputtering brutality. The sheer shock of the violence and horror in Audition is too much for most, but this is a masterpiece of hellish scares for those who want to indulge.

 

6. Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Vampyr (1932)

When Freddy Krueger attacked the dreams of the youngsters in Elm Street, he didn’t come close to the nightmarish scenes that drift through this film. Its images glide past woozily like ghosts and the subconscious wilts under their weight.

Far more terrifying things lay awake deep in the catacombs of the mind than what could ever surround us in everyday life. And Vampyr, although being void of the shock scares that normally litter a horror film, proves this with minimalist intensity, like a permanent state of sleep paralyses watching strange events unfold, but never understanding them or their importance.

Allan Gray arrives at a small town late one night, and where best to spend the night as a studier of all things occult, than a strange inn full of deathly passageways, ominous characters and an atmosphere as thick as London fog.

After an old man gives him a parcel and a cryptic message, Allan sets out to discover what this means. He encounters a sick young girl who has been bitten by a vampire and is in the final throes of life. Allan has to protect the girl and her sister Gisele, before the creatures of the night close in on them forever.

Silence is just as terrifying as a wailing chainsaw in this film. It leaves long spaces where the emptiness and uncertainty of the proceedings conjure confusion and fear. And the series of connected spiralling sequences that torture the mind as we wait for a straight ahead plot turn or a climax, are quiet, incredibly dark in tone and deathly like a faded photograph thick with dust and torn by time.

A tilted, unsettled world is created and it is creepier than the actual vampire (who isn’t the kind of bloodsucker that appears grandly at your bedside at night or jumps from shadows) itself.

This “strange adventure” is one that doesn’t require any sleep to form its nightmares.

 

 

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  • Brandon Thompson

    Psycho? Suspiria? The Witch?

    • Jacob Kilgannon

      Suspiria is one of my favorite films, but I never really thought of it as one of the scariest. Amazing, yes, and also a visual delight. Killer score too (Goblin is awesome). Didn’t really freak me out at all though.

  • CatKitten Amy

    Physco omission is glaring !

  • colonelkurtz

    Do people really think The Shining is the scariest horror movie? I don’t like horror films, but I’ve seen The Shining, and while there was one scene that freaked me, the rest was just a real good film with excellent suspense. But I can’t judge since I’ve seen so few of them.

  • Dawn Valley

    Ju-on.

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Scare is in an eye of beholder.

  • Andrey Koshmar

    Quality list. Why again count movies that are not included here? This is a subjective opinion of the author as to what 10! movies are the most terrible. But, as always, there are those who consider it their duty to ask: where are my favorite Psycho and Suspiria? Probably on 11 and 12 places.

    • Jasper Sapien.

      Exactly. These lists are meant for people to start a discussion, not just list their favourite movies with a question mark. Personally, I really like Zombie Flesh Eaters, and the first 45 minutes of Kairo.

    • Ramiro Piedrabuena Vázquez

      To answer your question “Why again count movies that are not included here”. Because what you said. It’s subjective, hence people can have a different opinion. You’re welcome.

    • Jacob Kilgannon

      I think that the fact that it is subjective is what makes these kinds of lists hard for me to get into. My brain would probably respond to this list better if it had a title like “Ten Horror Films You Need to See” or something like that.

  • Scott Jenkins

    The Haunting. 1962

  • KeepinIt Real

    I really don’t understand how the Chuck Palahniuk quote has anything to do with Martyrs since “suicide” and “press coverage” have absolutely nothing to do with the film. I also really hated the movie itself. The BS premise that purity and salvation can be achieved through immense suffering didn’t save the film from feeling exactly like torture porn. If the woman had been replaced with a man or a child, would people still find its message worthy of all that gratuitous gore? Torture is horrific yes, but it’s not so much scary as it is just sick, depraved, and unnecessary.

    • Jacob Kilgannon

      Idk, personally I thought that Martyrs was brilliant. I don’t tend to like excessive violence/gore appealing in horror, because it’s a very cheap way to get a scare (I find atmospheric horror to be more effective). The way that I see it, the violence in Martyrs served a purpose. There’s actually whole essays written about the perception of violence in the film. There’s a lot of subtext within the film having to do with that.

  • Henry Swanson

    John Carpenter’s The Thing

    • One of my all-time favorite films, which I feel is a true American Cinematic Masterpiece, and one of the three best horror movies, but personally don’t find it all that scary.

  • Exit Exit Quit

    The Vanishing and Kill List

  • Babimbap

    There’s only 2 movies that scares the shit out of me, Martyrs and Blair Witch Project.
    The shining is IMO the most overrated horror movie of all time, it’s just 1 hour too long so many empty scenes it was ridiculous.But heh it’s a classic by kubrick so everybody have to praise it!

    • Matt Hart

      the Blair Witch Project? oh come on, they could’ve just followed the stream out of the most sparse woods ever

  • David Haig

    I’d agree that The Exorcist is scary, but the only other film that gave me chills was John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Don’t ask me why. Watching it again later did nothing, but that first time…gave me the heebie jeebies.

    • Vincenzo Politi

      yes! Yes! YES! That movie is a masterpiece!!!! Sooooo underrated in the John Carpenter’s filmography, while I think it’s his best!

  • Raul F. Manfredini

    The Others?

  • Derrick Tyson

    Where in the world is THE HAUNTING? Psychological horror is far more ‘scary’ than anything that we are visually shown, since we conjure up the ‘monsters’ in our minds, which is far more dramatic than seeing the monster or spectre or whatever it may be.

    • ArmitageX

      Could not agree more.

    • Jacob Kilgannon

      Couldn’t agree more. That movie messed me up so bad the first time I watched it. Had to sleep with the lights on for a few days. I bought it on dvd years later but still haven’t worked up the courage to revisit it lol.

  • shane scott-travis

    I’ve always found The Shining too campy and OTT to be scary. And the ending, the jump cut to a frozen Jack, always gets loud laughs from the audience. Not scary imo.

    • Mortimer

      That scene WAS funny lol but there are some really creepy scenes in the movie (old woman in the bath etc) and the atmosphere overall was eerie.
      I always thought THE THING was campy af. Compared to ALIEN it looks almost like grotesque parody. Still very entertaining cult movie of course.

  • Jacob Kilgannon

    One film I haven’t seen anyone mention yet is Inside. Brilliant film and definitely one of the scariest films I’ve seen. Makes for a great double feature with Martyrs.

  • SupernaturalCat

    There are some in this list that I agree with; Alien, The Exorcist, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. Although there are others listed here that I’d never even consider for a list of twenty five (or more) “scariest” movies.

    For instance, while I didn’t find Audition to be remotely scary, I do find it to be (much like The Strangers, and Cabin Fever, both horrendous imo) one of the most over-hyped genre movies that leaves me puzzling over how so many genre fans seem to fall all over themselves in praise of it. Anyway…

    A few I’d include for “scariest” in that they effectively generate suspense and terror…

    The Haunting (1963)
    Night of The Living Dead (1968)
    Black Christmas (1974)
    The Tenant (1976)
    The Omen (1976)
    The Thing (1982)
    Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
    The Reflecting Skin (1990)
    The Blair Witch Project (1999)
    The Eye (2002) …not the atrocious 2008 remake!
    Dead Silence (2007)
    The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

    And as much as I enjoy the recent It Follows, and The Witch, and as well made as both are, I’d still be reluctant to tag either as being representative of the “scariest.”

  • bijinius

    RE: “The Shining” write up: i don’t think there is such a thing as an “ex alcoholic”

  • Black Christmas (1974)

  • Kevin M.

    Unpopular opinion here… I couldn’t argue if someone says The Shining is one of the greatest film of all time. But scariest movies of all time? Meh. Not even close. And what about The Blair Witch Project?

    • David Johnson

      most boring of all time maybe

  • Leonardo Teles

    great movies of course, like alien, the best of this list, but no, these are not scarie movies, they are awesome movies but not scarie

  • rtfilmcrew

    I don’t know how The Omen (and to a lesser extent it’s sequels) always get overlooked on these top horror films lists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it listed, I’d put it uo with the exorcist in terms of dread inducing helplessness.

  • Rob Williams

    Surely “The Haunting” should be on this list, the 1963 version I mean. Also “Night Of The Demon” (1957) was a really scary film… until you actually get to see the demon which is a bit pants, frankly, but doesn’t happen until the last few minutes so not too bad.