Picking the best horror movies is tricky. Horror, like comedy, is highly subjective. Where one person's belly-laugh material might be dumb and boring to someone else, so too will a particular viewer's sense of terrifying, atmospheric dread do absolutely nothing to unsettle another. And then there's your ever-changing mood to take into account as well. Sometimes you want dense, existential terror, sometimes you just want to watch a bunch of idiots get splattered up real good for laughs. Horror is a rollercoaster.
That's why we've kept this list as eclectic as possible. Rather than defining one tone of horror to rule them all as canonically 'good', we've thrown in as many different examples of high-quality horror as possible, from vintage ghost stories, to extravagant gore-fests, to cerebral shockers. And yes, some of it is also really funny. So read on, dig in, and you'll find a good watch whatever flavour of fear you're currently feeling.
And if you're in a forward-looking mood? Check out our list of the most promising upcoming horror movies of 2018.
25. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The movie: Wes Craven's iconic slasher takes the one place on Earth you're meant to be safest - tucked up under your bed covers - and makes it deeply unsafe by inventing a killer who attacks teenagers in their dreams. The scarred-up, knife-fingered Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is one of horrors scariest villains.
Why it's scary: The notion of impossible escape from a whole reality crafted by an evil predator is primally affecting, and doubly so when you factor in that the whole thing happens when you're at your most vulnerable in the real world, a scenario that is always, ultimately, impossible to avoid. Whatever you do, eventually sleep always wins. Plus the whole nightmare conceit gave Craven and co. complete freedom to dream up some utterly horrible kills.
24. Ringu (1998)
The movie: Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) is investigating a story about a cursed videotape and in the process, manages not only to watch it herself but to let her ex-husband and young child watch it, too. The idea of a haunted VHS tape is a brilliant one, and the climactic scene where the vengeful ghost finally makes her entrance is pure nightmare fuel.
Why it's scary: The cursed video concept suggests that not only are the characters in the film in danger but that you, the audience at home, are also in line to meet a sticky end. Yikes. And on top of the explicit scares, the scenes which show the surreal, creeping, indefinably nightmarish imagery on the tape itself make for some of the most instinctively unsettling, slow-burn horror ever committed to film. Two decades on, Ringu is one of the most incisively atmospheric ghost stories around.
23. Near Dark (1987)
The movie: Kathryn Bigelow's '80s vampire western is one of the best and most under-rated films in a decade obsessed with contemporary vampire stories. Telling the tale of an innocent farm boy who falls in love with a drifter girl, only to find out that she's part of a vicious pack of roaming vampires, its depth of atmosphere and richness of characterisation put it in a well-crafted class all of its own.
Why it's scary: It's the tone that does it. Respecting its subject matter enough to take itself seriously throughout - you'll find no ironic winks or out-of-place quips here - Near Dark has a vibe you can drown on. Its beautifully composed cinematography combines with a potently evocative synth soundtrack to create a downbeat but emotionally intense mood throughout every single moment. Coupled with stark, intense bursts of bloody violence, it all makes for a film of genuine edge and power that will stick with you for life.
22. Scream (1996)
The movie: Wes Craven resurrected the slasher genre with this cheekily post-modern effort in the mid-90s. It ticks all the usual boxes, as a teenage girl and her friends are stalked by a masked killer, but these teens grew up watching movies and their ability to remember the rules will make the difference between living and dying.
Why it's scary: Directed by the man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream works as a perfectly great, straightforward slasher in its own right, so even if you're not enough of a genre nut to spot all the references and homages, it's still terrifying. Someone calling you from outside the house? Yeah, that never stops being creepy. And if you do know the tropes, the crushing inevitability of what's to come adds a whole extra, fatalistic weight to the stabbings and maimings. And ye gods, some of them are bloody.
21. Evil Dead (2013)
The movie: In this Fede Alvarez directed reboot of the age-old tale of woodland cabins and Books You Should Not Read - in truth as much sequel as remake - drug addicted Mia is taken to the worst intervention venue in the world by her well-meaning brother and friends, in an attempt to detox. Mia’s mind is tormented to start with, but things are about to get worse. Oh so much worse. You wouldn’t believe how much worse.
Why it’s scary: Because it’s the most rampant, relentless, gruelling, and obsessively dedicated cavalcade of nightmarish disgust you can possibly imagine. And it’s glorious. Eschewing CG entirely, in favour of sticky, stretchy, horrendously grubby practical effects and enough blood to drown on, Evil Dead 2013 is an absolute carnival of slaughter. After its disarmingly affecting, cold and downbeat opening, it erupts into a ripping, tearing, twisting, snapping tribute to the forcible malleability of the human form. Combining surprisingly touching character work with a giddy desire to push what’s possible in the most gleefully horrid, expertly crafted fashion it can, Evil Dead is one of the most focused and deftly executed splatter movies you’ll ever see.
20. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
The movie: Inversely to the 2013 reboot, Evil Dead 2 is more of a remake than a sequel. Reworking the 1981 original’s set-up – innocents go to a woodland cabin, find the book of the dead, accidentally bring the dead pouring down upon their own heads – but presenting it in a far slicker, more professional format than the first movie’s film-school scrappiness allowed, it’s also one of the finest showcases around for Bruce Campbell’s terribly underrated, kinetic character acting.
Why it’s scary: While it deliberately steers into the 1981 Evil Dead’s inadvertent comedy - allowing room for a great deal more slapstick and lashings of mapcap carnage - the thick, dread-laden claustrophobia Evil Dead 2 maintains as its foundation ensures a hellish, dream-like mania permeates the entire movie like old, dirty stain. The otheworldly, creepily graceful, stop-motion resurrection of Ash’s recently-killed girlfriend is a particularly striking image, but the real kicker is the sequence in which Ash, alone in the cabin, steadily loses his mind. Building from creeping, uncanny fear to screaming mad excess, it’s a slow-motion explosion of unhinged, fevered delight the like of which Campbell alone can invoke.
19. The Innocents (1961)
The movie: Creepy kids strike again! Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) are the charges of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a governess working at a huge country estate. Their guardian has asked her never to trouble him with their problems, so when they start misbehaving and talking to ghosts, it's left to Miss Giddens to figure out what's going on.
Why it's scary: Based on the classic Henry James novel Turn of the Screw, The Innocents has Gothic credentials by the boatload, being both a legit part of the canon and an influence on later works like Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak. Plus, the decision to keep the supernatural (or perhaps psychological?) threat ambiguous makes for a far more affecting source of fear. Are we dealing with ghosts, a troubled imagination, or perhaps something inbetween, projecting from one to the other?
18. Raw (2017)
The movie: A coming-of-age story about a vegetarian veterinary student who develops a craving for flesh after eating meat for the first time.
Why it's great: Cannibalism films can be hit or miss, but in Raw, writer-director Julia Ducournau takes that core idea and uses it as the nucleus for an intensive story of hilarity, heartbreak, and - yes - nauseating horror. It's one of those deceptively smart films that draws you in with the promise (and delivery) of lurid, gory excess, but backs it up with a captivating atmosphere and a whole lot of narrative intelligence.
17. The Fly (1986)
The movie: A career high-point for both David Cronenberg and Jeff Goldblum, The Fly is possibly the pinnacle of the director's philosophical body-horror output. Scientist Seth Brundle is working outside the mainstream establishment to develop teleportation technology. He draws the interest of Geena Davis' journalist as he nears completion of his work and, just as global stardom seems certain, a fly gets into the teleport with him and becomes spliced with his DNA, changing the fates of all concerned forever.
Why it's scary: Intelligent, thoughtful, yet more accessible than some of Cronenberg's earlier and later work, The Fly is far more than the sum of its (truly horrifying) body-horror effects. It takes those all the way to their natural conclusion, of course, shying away from nothing, but applies an equal approach to the intellectual, existential, and emotional half of its story. The Fly isn't just a film about the spectacle of a man turning into an insect. It's also a film about what that means in terms of identity, physicality, psychology, and the place where all of that meets in the middle. Effectively a two-hander, carried almost in its entirety by outstanding performances by Goldblum and Davis, it all makes for a disturbingly intimate and affecting horror. Also, Howard Shore's near-operatic score will kick the hell out of you by the end.
16. Ghost Stories (2018)
The movie: A supernatural debunker is challenged to disprove three particularly troubling cases by a distraught figure from his past. Traveling the bleak coastline, countryside, and urban rot of a stark, wintery UK, he encounters hauntings and victims as unique as they are fundamentally disturbing. He persist in brushing off their legitimacy with arrogant certainty, just as a greater, creeping sense of dread grows to envelope the whole journey.
Why it's scary: Dancing assuredly through the entire last century or so of the British horror canon - with a detour or two into unsettling, antiquarian folklore along the way - Ghost Stories' slow, cold, steady fear is a masterclass is intelligent direction. More than earning the few jump-scares it uses, the film transfigures the blasted landscape of decaying contemporary Britain into a realm of primally foreboding otherness, channeling writers from MR James to Lovecraft while asserting itself as a thoroughly modern entry in the lineage. By the mid-way point, the thought of being alone will terrify you.