The best horror movies to haunt your nightmares

There’s nothing quite like settling down on a winter’s night for some true terror. You need the best horror movies and a nice cup of steaming hot tea and you need them now. Perhaps you’ll want to put the tea down for the scary bits though. We don’t want to be responsible for burns as well as nightmares. But anyway, there’s never been a better time to reignite your love for horror. 2018 has been a golden year for truly terrifying modern masterpieces and, thanks to streaming services, there’s always plenty of fear on demand. But what should you be watching? 

Our list of the very best horror movies is here to make sure you don’t have to sit through any more disappointing two star snoozefests. This definitive selection of scares ticks all the definitely haunted boxes. From modern disturbing nightmares to old school creature features and every masked murderer in between, prepare for the best horror movies you can watch right now. *cue cluster of screeching bats and evil cackle* 

28. Paranormal Activity (2007)

The movie: While The Blair Witch Project revved found footage horror back into action like a haunted motorbike back in 1999, Paranormal Activity is where things got dead serious. The first movie from now horror staple Oren Peli, it introduces us to Katie and Micah who have been experiencing some odd goings on in their LA home. Ever the keen filmmaker, Micah sets up a camera at the foot of their bed to keep an eye on things while they sleep. Now, it just wouldn’t be one of the best horror movies of the noughties if things didn’t go bump in the night, would it?   

Why it's scary: The reason why Paranormal Activity is so nerve-janglingly effective is simple. We all sleep. Regardless of your favourite snoozing position or habits, we all lie down in a dark room, switch off, and become perfect prey for whatever lurks in the gloom. The now infamous shot from the bottom of Katie and Micah’s bed is a masterclass in slow burn terror. Every simple extended shot as the clock ticks forward becomes an agonisingly tense eye test. What’s going to move? Was that a shadow? Lingering footage of nothing actually happening has never been this nail-biting as the days and nights roll on. The sequels have been relentless and a mixed bag in  terms of scares but, like a slamming door in the middle of the night, the pure terror of the original Paranormal Activity just can’t be ignored.

 27. 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. 

26. The Ritual (2017)

The movie: If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Following four men as they go on a camping trip after the death of their friend, The Ritual is a holiday from hell like no other. While there are plenty of ‘humans go to woods, bad thing ensues’ horrors out there, The Ritual, loosely based on a horror book by Adam Neville, neatly dodges all of the predictable bullets. Yes, there is something not right about this collection of trees but the execution, so to speak, and the psychological aspects of the horror at work, is something new and exciting.  

Why it’s scary: It’s too good to spoil what awaits in the woods but everything is especially horrific here thanks to an exceptional script. These four friends feel real and, like a male version of The Descent, you’ll feel like you’ve spent years with Rafe Spall and co, rather than a few short minutes. Try not to get too attached though. The ultra-creepy horror that waits in the trees is truly terrifying and wants to know your new friends, inside as well as out. This might also be the first time in recent memory that the reveal of the lurking evil is just as horrifying as the tension before it. A Netflix movie in the US, The Ritual is waiting in the UK on Amazon Prime. 

Read more: Why The Ritual is the Netflix horror movie you should be watching

25. 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. 

24. The Conjuring (2013)

The movie: Now expanded into a full Marvel-style universe, this nasty piece of work ticks all the right jump-scare filled boxes. Horror maestro James Wan’s techniques Marmite the horror community but few can deny the effectiveness of the scares waiting inside the home of the Perron family. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they attempt to save the family from what hunts them. Cue many bumps in the night and a children’s game involving clapping and one the creepiest scares in modern horror cinema.

Why it’s scary: James Wan is a master of fear. A magician of horror who knows exactly how to shoot the shapes lurking at the foot of your bed, the tall things that circle just out the corner of your eye, and the demons that are ready to pounce when you’re asleep. When the jump scares eventually come after nails in palms levels of tension here, they’re always worthwhile. Great central performances from the young girls in the family solidify a terrifying haunting at the core of the Conjuring, and Wilson and Farmiga add a distinct sense of gravitas to proceedings. It all means that you can’t help being yanked along for the ride on Wan’s ghost train. Just, mind your head.

23. The Descent (2005)

The movie: If there was a dip in caving and bouldering trip attendance back in the mid-noughties, it’s probably the fault of Neil Marshall’s truly terrifying claustrophobic creature feature. Sarah’s friends want to make her feel better after the tragic death of her family so, instead of y’know, buying her some wine, they take her on a caving trip. Unfortunately, the movie wouldn’t be on this list if the six women were there to have a heartwarming, gently comedic adventure where they all grow as people. From the moment this lot lower themselves into the darkness below the Appalachian mountains, it’s very clear that getting back out into the light again isn’t going to be likely. 

Why it’s scary: The claustrophobia of The Descent is horribly real. Before you even discover what’s lurking down there - with a night vision reveal so spectacular that it goes down in jump scare history - this cave system is stone horror. The women are experienced explorers but every shot of squeezing through tiny spaces as rubble gently falls, every huge cavern only lit in one tiny corner by their flares, and every step they take further into the abyss is heart racing stuff. And this isn’t an unlikable crew of barely fleshed out American teens, pun intended, these characters and their complex relationships truly matter. This is beautifully gruelling, not to mention empowering, filmmaking. Witness the UK ending of this cult classic and you’ll need more than some wine to cheer you up afterwards. 

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 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. 

20. A Quiet Place (2018)

The movie: Is there anything more terrifying than the idea of bringing up a young family in a world where brutal monstrosities with supernaturally good hearing hunt down the last of humanity? John Krasinski’s first horror - in which he also stars with irl wife Emily Blunt - follows the Abbott family as they silently creep through a truly miserable existence where every single sound could be their last. Playing with movie audio in an entirely new way, A Quiet Place might have a simple premise but this is 90 minutes of sheer muscle-clenching tension. 

Why it’s scary: It turns out that humans are loud. Footsteps boom. Food crunches. Doors creak painfully. Exquisite use of sound means that every noise that the family makes feels like an agonising step closer to death. Electric performances from the entire cast - especially young Millicent Simmonds - command you to watch every single frame, holding your breath if necessary. Rarely has a horror director commanded your attention for so long with such blatant disregard for the nails digging into your palms. Watch A Quiet Place. Oh, and turn it up.

Read more: "Please shut the **** up" – These reactions to annoying A Quiet Place moviegoers say it all

19. Rec (2007) 

A still from the film REC

The movie: First off, we’re going to pretend that the English language remake doesn’t exist. Good. Now that’s out of the way, it’s time to wax lyrical about the true terror lurking inside a Barcelona apartment block in this Spanish scarefest. As with the best found footage horror movies, the set-up here is very simple. The crew of a morning TV show is following a team of firefighters when the call comes in about a woman behaving strangely in her apartment. Of course, Angela and her cameraman Pablo excitedly follow the crew of emergency workers into, well, hell.   

Why it's scary: Rec ramps up slowly and expertly. You won’t realise just how tense you are until a little too late. Officially this counts as a zombie movie but, like 28 Days Later, this feels like the story of an infection rather than the shuffling horde. This is a claustrophobic nightmare and in its found footage package, painfully realistic and believable.  From the fire crew to the residents of the apartment building, the performances are exceptional, meaning that ‘this is only a movie’ part of your brain will constantly struggle with what’s on screen. Prepare to be hiding behind something or someone long before Rec’s gloriously terrifying night vision-hued third act.

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