The 25 scariest horror films of all time
Our rundown of the most spine-chilling, heart-leaping and just plain creepy scare-fests ever
Sprinting zombie or lumbering knifeman, Satan child or psycho dwarf, there’s nothing more blood-pumping than watching ghosts, demons and monsters munch, slash and stomp their way through an unsuspecting group of victims. But which are the scariest horror movies ever made? Check these out if you dare…
25. The Strangers (2008)
It wasn’t so much the fact that three maniacs in masks had broken into Liv Tyler’s house that makes The Strangers one of the most unsettling modern horror films, it’s that they just stand there, out of focus in the background, while Tyler goes about her business. Chilling.
Scariest moment: The sackhead guy appearing in a doorway behind Tyler. Just standing there.
24. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Imagine Hammer Horror made a prequel to The Omen and you have Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the 60’s most chilling horror flick in which (one sentence full-film spoiler alert) Mia Farrow is duped into mothering Belzebub’s child by a building full of undercover Satanists.
Scariest moment: Farrow takes her first look at her newborn child and cries “what have you done to his eyes?”
23. The Fly (1986)
Body horror maestro David Cronenberg hit the mainstream and bagged an Oscar with this icky story of Jeff Goldblum accidentally merging with a fly while trying to invent teleportation, and slowly watching bits of himself fall off.
Scariest moment: Geena Davis giving birth to a massive maggot. You don’t see that in One Born Every Minute.
22. The Babadook (2014)
When your child starts talking to something in your lovely new house, move. No questions, just move house. This Australian art house hit is amongst the finest of the type thanks to its Dr Suess-meets-Freddie Krueger baddie.
Scariest moment: The Babadook croaks its name through widower Amelia’s bedsheets as she cowers underneath.
21. Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma’s take on Stephen King’s innocent telekinetic Carrie taking the ultimate revenge on the school where she was bullied is a slow-burn (no pun intended) classic, a coming-of-age horror with a legendarily chaotic split-screen climax at the world’s shittest prom. You’ve never sympathised with the monster more.
Scariest moment: Carrie’s cruel bullies pull a rope to drop a bucket of pig’s blood over her as she’s crowned Prom Queen. Bad idea. Really bad.
20. The Orphanage (2007)
The Omen, Ring, Insidious, Children Of The Corn… the horror genre has more creepy kids hanging around than a Young Conservatives meeting. But rarely is kinderhorror as effective as in Spanish director AJ Bayona’s debut feature, in which sack-headed children haunt a couple hunting for their missing adopted son.
Scariest moment: Distraught mother Laura playing the “one, two, three, knock on the door” game with a bunch of ghostly orphans.
19. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Playing on the simple idea of nightmares that actually kill you, the psychological link between sleep and death, the gallons of gore and horrific vision of old Edward Razorhands himself Freddy Krueger combined to make the original Elm Street a movie that would haunt and horrify a generation.
Scariest moment: When an invisible Freddy spins his very first victim Tina across the ceiling of her bedroom, innards flying everywhere. Groo.
18. Don’t Look Now (1973)
A serial killer on the loose around ancient Venice, a mourning couple – Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland – seeing visions of their dead daughter in her red coat wandering the alleyways, a blind clairvoyant making ominous premonitions. Forget all the foot-licking sex, Don’t Look Now is best remembered as one of the creepiest occult horrors of the 70’s, culminating in a scene that, sorry Freddy, really is the stuff of nightmares.
Scariest moment: Sutherland chases a small figure in a red coat through Venice at night, convinced it’s his dead daughter. Let’s just say, it’s not.
17. Wolf Creek (2005)
As group-of-stranded-kids-wander-into-remote-serial-killer’s-lair movies go, the Australian outback version Wolf Creek is amongst the most unbearably tense of the lot. Sadistic cannibal farmer Mick Taylor captures, tortures and crucifies three backpackers around his body-strewn mining camp with no let-up in the stalking menace from drugging to finish.
Scariest moment: Mick severs Liz’s spinal column, turning her into a living “head on a stick”.
16. It Follows (2014)
A simple yet thoroughly effective premise that merged The Ring, The Thing and Halloween: shag the wrong Tinder moron and a supernatural shape-shifter will amble unstoppably towards you, scrunching you to death unless you have sex with someone before it arrives. Presumably based on some of the more persistent Facebook stalkers we’ve run into, It Follows had the ability to make you terrified of slow-moving queues.
Scariest moment: The monster turning up unexpectedly as an eyeless giant in Jay’s bedroom doorway.
15. The Evil Dead (1981)
A low-budget cross between The Exorcist and Friday The 13th, The Evil Dead took the prevailing horror trope of five teenagers under supernatural siege in a cabin in the woods to the goriest extreme imaginable. The bloody battle between the students and the demons they accidentally unleash when they find a tape of ancient incantations in the basement of their holiday cabin – for God’s sake, never play the tape of ancient incantations you find in a basement! – is often played for laughs (“splat-stick” one reviewer called it), but director Sam Raimi’s way with conjuring creeping dread made it a schlock horror classic.
Scariest moment: The tree assault scene is still one of the most disturbing in the slasher genre.
14. Saw (2004)
Before the series became an unwatchable series of ludicrously graphic self-mutilations as people were forced to gouge and slice themselves out of impossibly elaborate traps as punishment for sharing too many Facebook cat videos (or something), James Wan’s original Saw was a smart, sleek horror masterpiece. A twisting puzzle of a film, it was more curveball than gratuitous gore flick, as two men chained by the legs in a dilapidated bathroom raced to unravel the connection between them before the fatal ‘game’ was over.
Scariest moment: Amanda slashing her way into a paralysed man’s stomach to get the key to unlock her reverse bear trap, otherwise known as ‘bastard braces’.
13. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s take on the apocalyptic zombie movie came with a hypercharged twist – his were the Usain Bolts of undead buggers. These grave avoiders could move, bringing an adrenaline rush to a tired horror staple and revitalizing the zombie genre.
Scariest moment: Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson trying to change a tyre as a horde of rabid ‘infected’ sprint towards them down a tunnel.
12. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
On paper, The Silence Of The Lambs is a psychological thriller, but paper can’t quite convey the terrifying menace of Anthony Hopkins’ dinner party menu. Between Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and lady-skin collector Buffalo Bill there was quite enough serial killer chills to rank Jonathan Demme’s amongst the 90’s greatest frightfests.
Scariest moment: Escaping from his handcuffs while being served dinner in his cage, Lecter leaps straight for the camera, teeth bared, and starts chewing at a guard’s face. Pairing notes not available.
11. Halloween (1978)
The archetypal teenage slasher flick, John Carpenter’s breakout screamer – inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho – saw Michael Myers embark on a shuffling stab spree around Haddonfield, Illinois, and instigated an entire genre of masked nutters with knives lumbering slowly around small towns, capable of surviving multiple bullets to the face and body, long falls, stabbings, explosions, being run over repeatedly with a massive truck and at least one beheading.
Scariest moment: When Myers comes flailing through the door of the closet where Jamie Lee Curtis is hiding, like a gormless, grunting Jack Nicholson.
10. The Thing (1982)
Four years after John Carpenter had made every American teenager feel unsafe in their beds with Halloween, he did the same for, um, Antarctic research scientists. Awakening a shape-shifting alien parasite from the ice, capable of taking on the form of whoever it infects, a team of researchers quickly learn that any of their friends could be a killer alien and they wouldn’t know until their head pulls itself off their body, grows spider legs and runs away.
Scariest moment: You know, that annoying moment when you’re trying to defibrillate someone and their chest grows massive teeth and bites your arms off.
9. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Of the torrent of found-footage movies released in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity was the scariest, largely because it was like the Blair Witch had gotten into your house. Each night CCTV cameras catch an intensifying series of poltergeist activity haunting the Sloat family’s new house – doors slam, bedsheets fly across the room, Ouija boards catch fire. It was the anticipation that soiled the seats.
Scariest moment: When demon footprints appear in the baby powder by the side of the bed and we realise we aren’t dealing with a bunch of mischievous squirrels here.
8. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The found footage technique in horror dates back to the less-than-pleasant Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, but The Blair Witch Project made us believe, at last for a second, that we might be watching a real-life internet snuff film someone had found in the woods. Who knew that watching badly-lit shots up someone’s snotty nose while a runner waggles their tent would be amongst the most terrifying film experiences ever made? Suddenly all those CGI disembowelings seem rather over-priced.
Scariest moment: All those handprints on the wall.
7. Funny Games (1997)
By breaking the fourth wall to discuss the viewer’s expectations of a horror film and rewinding scenes that don’t go according to their torturous plans, the polite home-invading psychopaths taking a middle-class vacation family hostage in Michael Haneke’s original Austrian Funny Games draw the viewer in, complicit in their evil schemes. The calculated, random and pointless nature of their killing spree makes it an unbearably chilling watch.
Scariest moment: The invaders coldly play a counting game to decide which member of the family to shoot with a shotgun.
6. Ring (1998)
The original Japanese version of the yarn about a cursed video tape – watch it, receive a phone call to say you have a week to live, make someone else watch it, pub – trumps the US remake thanks to its far more sinister Sadako, the girl trapped in a well and out for supernatural vengeance.
Scariest moment: The bit when Sadako climbs out of the well, crawls towards the camera then climbs right out of the television screen still gives us nightmares every time Theresa May appears on the news. Brrr.
5. Alien (1979)
The slow stalking and slaughter of the crew of the Nostromo by a slimy alien git with deadly piston-penis teeth is arguably cinema’s greatest ever masterclass in ratcheting tension and less-is-more gore. In space, everyone now worries about indigestion.
Scariest moment: Hunting the alien through the Nostromo’s duct system with only a Pac Man dot tracking the creature’s location and the flamethrower on his rifle to see by, Captain Dallas takes the wrong ladder, turns round and – bosh! – he’s xenomunch.
4. The Shining (1980)
Over one cut-off winter the many lingering spirits of the Overlook gradually turn writer-turned-caretaker Jack Nicholson into a toilet door-axing maniac in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s haunted hotel classic. From the creepy corridor twins to the rotting woman in the bath and the scrawl of ‘REDRUM’ on a bedroom door, Kubrick’s graceful eye for the unsettling was never better focused.
Scariest moment: “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!”
3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The epitome of the 70’s video nasty and the origin of the hulking masked psychopath, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is surprisingly low on the gore-count by modern standards, but its grainy realism and sheer intensity as a bunch of young chainsaw-fodder fall foul of Leatherface and his cannibal family sparked Empire to call it “the most purely horrifying horror movie ever made”.
Scariest moment: Leatherface popping up in a doorway, clubbing Kirk to the ground and slamming the metal door shut behind him, all to the sound of squealing pigs.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin’s controversial possession flick, in which a young Linda Blair (playing Regan) degenerated into a foul-mouthed, goop-puking, head-spinning demon’s plaything – cut so close to the bone that some 70s cinemas provided vomit bags and the home video was effectively banned in the UK for over a decade.
Scariest moment: Regan stabbing herself in the groin with a crucifix while her head spins around swearing like Shaun Ryder in pain is still one of the most shocking scenes in cinema.
1. The Omen (1976)
The stark, nihilistic tone of 70’s horror reached its peak in this unremittingly eerie tale of Biblical prophesies, death-by-photography and the devil-child Damien, protected from all attempts to destroy him by Satanic sects and dark forces. The menacing choral soundtrack alone was terrifying enough without the self-sacrificing nannies, speared priests and secret scalp 666s.
Scariest moment: It might be pretty rough by the standard of today’s special effects, but the decapitation of photographer Keith Jennings is teased and signposted so masterfully it remains one of the most memorable deaths in horror history.