This post is updated (and still in process) from my original 50 must see horror film list (2013). Next year I hope to finalize the list at 100 films! While I could include older classic such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), I’ve used Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as a turning point in horror and as the starting date for this list.
In our house, we watch an intense thriller or horror film about once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list my wife couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her… although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably, on some primal level, it is purgative and cathartic to live and survive someone else’s suffering. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.
I’ve also included atypical horror films: the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel; the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption, and power. Horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representations have a history that extends to the earliest of artistic practices.
I’m not justifying our watching of horror films so much as stating that all humans experience fear and nightmare. We as a species will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Despite our somewhat laid-back lifestyle, my wife and I tend to watch a lot of horrifying and disturbing films. Here’s a list of some of my favourites—although the list is hardly exhaustive—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I’ve provided micro reviews of each film with horror haikus for the top 13! Enjoy these cinematic nightmares!
(Any suggestions for other films I should watch that are deserving to be on the list? We have a long list of films to view over the next year, including A Tale of Two Sisters, The Final Girls, The Witch, The Beyond, The Bird and the Crystal Plumage, Dream Home, and Sleep Tight, among others.)
90 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2015)
90. Creep (2015): Black humour at its finest; Creep offers an idiosyncretic and fresh interpretation on found-footage horror films.
89. High Tension/ Haute tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.
88. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero’s debut is a seminal horror classic and it almost single-handedly created the template for the zombie film.
87. We Are Still Here (2015): A smart and fun twist on familiar territory.
86. Housebound (2014): There’s a few horror-comedies on this list, and this madcap Australian film straddles both genres with equal measures of laugh and gore.
85. Army of Darkness (1993): A well mixed horror brew of action, gore, and comedy.
84. Fright Night (1985): Lots of thrills and humour in the original Fright Night.
83. The Devil’s Backbone: A great film from Guillermo del Toro with equal parts ghost story and political allegory.
82. Resolution (2013): Genre-bending low-budget horror flick that takes place at a remote cabin.
81. We Are What We Are (2013): I guess there is such a thing as a smart cannibal film. Honourable mentions for Cannibal the Musical and Ravenous.
80. In Fear (2014): A high tension and immersive experience where most of the fear and violence takes place in your head.
79. Pontypool (2009): Canadian films have to earn their right to be on this list, and this psychological thriller, in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town, is a tense, abstract, and unique contribution to the zombie canon.
78. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): A chilling and disturbing portrait of a psycho killer.
77. The Dead Zone (1983): A strong Stephen King adaptation from Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both Cronenberg and King (unsurprisingly) appear on this list multiple times.
76. Session 9 (2001): While the ending feels a little abrupt, this film is a masterclass in creating atmosphere.
75. Frozen (2010): Not to be confused with the Disney musical, Frozen is a tense film about three snowboarders who must fight for their lives in the freezing cold after getting stranded on a ski lift.
74. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.
73. Misery (1990): James Caan and Kathy Bates are both fantastic in what is certainly one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work.
72. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976): A young Jodie Foster plays the title role in this taut Canadian thriller.
71. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): A powerful remake that expands on the themes of the original.
70. Big Bad Wolves (2014): A disturbing (and strangely humourous) film that gives new meaning to vigilante justice. Tarantino’s favourite film of 2014.
69. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? You decide.
68. Candyman (1992): I love the score from Philip Glass, which fits well with the nuanced and chilling premise of Candyman.
67. Inside/ À l’Intérieur (2007): I think the French make the most messed up horror films, and this film, which is part of the New French Extremity, is about as bloody, visceral, disturbing, and engrossing as they come. As Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic put it, “Leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.” I can’t actually recommend this one, and kind of wish I could un-see it.
66. [Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy] Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002); Old Boy (2005); Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005): While these films fall more into the mystery/thriller category, their grimy violence and high style allow them to verge into the horror genre (certainly in gore and subject matter) and presents the viewer with both shock and thought.
65. Pulse (2005): Fantastic Japanese horror flick that uses the power of suggestion to provide real scares.
64. Leprechaun (1993): I could write an essay on all the reasons I love this B horror film. Perhaps the highlight of Jennifer Aniston’s acting career?
63. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WW II. I can’t actually recommend this film, as you probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.
62. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?
61. Honeymoon (2014): Leigh Janiak was badass in Game of Thrones and she’s just as badass in this slow building thriller.
60. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Set the standard for all the mock-doc horror films that are now so popular.
59. Scanners (1981): Another sci-fi horror classic from David Cronenberg with mind-blowing visuals.
58. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.
57. Se7en (1995): I was a little reluctant to include a mystery thriller because there are many I like even more than Se7en, but Se7en is unique for its disturbing exploration of the seven deadly sins, and does so in a more creative way than most horror films proper do.
56. Don’t Look Now (1973): With haunting imagery and and a bone chilling score, Don’t Look Now is a must see for fans of the horror genre. It seems that Donald Sutherland was in a lot of these kinds of films in the ’70s.
55. A Field in England (2013): Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller/horror shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. See my full review, here. Also, for another unconventional “horror” film from Wheatley, see Sightseers.
54. The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s remake is such a fantastic and engrossing film. After seeing this, watch the episode called “Ice” from the first season of The X-Files for some close parallels.
53. Black Christmas [also released as Silent Night, Evil Night] (1975): One of the first slasher pics ever made, and it’s Canadian! Interestingly, it is one of Steve Martin’s favourite films.
52. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror.
51. Jaws (1975): Spielberg’s Jaws remains a benchmark in blockbuster thrills, and has given sharks a bad name to this day.
50. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.
49. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.
48. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987): As much fun, and almost as good, as the first installation!
47. Lost Highway (1997): I love Lynch and this is a bizarre drive worth taking.
46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Not as good as the T.V. show, but it has many of the same themes that make this disturbing and vivid surrealist dream worth viewing.
45. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.
Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.”
44. Oculus (2014): A recent film that blurs reality and perception, showing that fright can be more effective than gore.
43. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.
42. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Such an amazing debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not often you’ll come across an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.
41. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.
40. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.
39. Eden Lake (2008): This British horror film is brutal, but features incredible performances from both Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender.
38. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Featuring Johnny Depp in his screen debut, Nightmare on Elm Street showcases Wes Craven at his finest. Freddy Krueger remains as frightening as ever.
37. Goodnight Mommy (2015): There’s been some fantastic horror films lately, and this is one of them. This unsettling identical-twin psycho-thriller is a riveting nightmare.
36. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): One of the funniest horror-comedy films I’ve ever seen, and a great update on the modern vampire flick.
35. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.
34. Videodrome (1983): Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.
33. Ringu (1998): I have to go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.
32. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.
31. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
30. It Follows (2015): While it falters at times, It Follows is a smart and terrifying offering that reminds us that modern horror has plenty to offer.
29. The Red Riding Trilogy (2010): This British crime drama might not quite classify as horror proper, but it is an immersive and gritty neo-noir epic based on the Yorkshire Ripper.
28. Alien (1979)/ Aliens (1986): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. The more visceral Aliens is also fantastic and so I cheated and lumped it in with Alien.
27. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.
26. The Babadook (2014): Such a fantastic horror film that relies on genuine scares rather than gore. A modern classic in my opinion.
25. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory giallo horror is full of phantasmagoric style. The soundtrack is incredible.
Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople”:
24. Let the Right One In (2008): Reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, as I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.
23. The Brood (1979): The perfect example of David Cronenberg’s body horror cinema, offering a take on how repressed demons of the psyche worm their way to the surface. The Criterion print of this film is a work of art.
22. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any, films can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and as well as this film does.
21. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.
20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Also host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?
19. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.
18. You’re Next (2013): This film has it all: energy, brutal gore, a strong female lead, and pitch black humour.
17. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.
16. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish. Check out the trailer below:
15. [REC] (2007): My favourite zombie film and one of the best uses of POV found footage.
14. Kill List (2012): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.
13. Audition (1999)
the girl of his dreams?
eyes open, kiri, kiri
nope: mistress slasher
12. American Psycho (2000)
classic Christian Bale
11. Martyrs (2008)
witness grisly form
french do more than wine & cheese
take your filmy skin off
10. Eraserhead (1977)
surreal & bizarre
reptilian cries pierce night
parenthood is hard
9. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
thriller: cannibal killer
hear screams: then silence
8. Dead Ringers (1988)
a trifurcated cervix
twins: macabre game
7. Blue Velvet (1986)
she wore blue velvet
Hopper wore a bug-like mask
I heard Lynch meditates
6. The Loved Ones (2012)
observe with bright eyes
lobotomize your hard skull
5. The Evil Dead (1981)
old woods . . .
the dead come in
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Friedkin’s freaky film
fact, fiction, or fantasy?
exorcise some faith
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
viddy this brothers
blood oozes like eggiweg
on moloko world
2. Psycho (1960)
shower with lights on
psycho thriller that Hitchcock:
master of suspense
1. The Shining (1980)
blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!
Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.