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The 30 best horror movies of all time

10. 28 Days Later (2002)

 28 Days Later (2002)

The movie: Let’s get the undead elephant out of the room first. Danny Boyle’s horror is a zombie movie. Yes, they can run, but it’s important to think of this horrible lot as part of the same family tree as Romero’s finest. Maybe they wouldn’t have Christmas dinner together but they’d at least send cards and maybe some gift cards for the necrotic kids. The important thing is, regardless of their speed, these zombies are still the destroyers of worlds. When Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed - a lot like our friend Karl in The Walking Dead - he staggers out into an apocalyptic London that will never be the same again. 

Why it’s scary: 28 Days Later feels like a nightmare. Complete with a quite often heartbreaking as well as heart pounding soundtrack, this feels like the truest glimpse at the modern British apocalypse as Jim and his fellow survivors quest for safety in Scotland. The Infected are truly horrifying, survivors are suspicious, and the fallen British landscape is an impressive feat of cinematography. Throw in excellent performances from everyone involved and 28 Days Later is a gory feast for the eyes and the heart. 

9. Scream (1996)

Scream (1996)

The movie: By the late '90s, horror was looking a little tired. The masked slasher trope was staggering along in a dire need of a cup of very strong espresso. What it got instead was Wes Craven’s Scream which, despite being parodied into Inception levels of postmodern irony since, reinvigorated the genre with its perfect blend of knowing comedy and scares. Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan, and Drew Barrymore as teenagers talking fluent horror movie while being picked off by a genre-obsessed serial killer? Oh go on… Add in Courtney Cox - at the giddy heights of Friends fame - as intrepid news reporter Gale Weathers and Scream is a modern horror classic.

Why it’s scary: Just because something is self-referential doesn’t mean it can’t be truly terrifying. The Scream mask, based on Munch’s painting, might have been twisted into stoned bliss by Scary Movie, but it still manages to unsettle and thrill. Scream’s scares remain unpredictable too. Victims fall to this slasher’s knife with disturbing regularity and as we grow attached to our genuinely likeable quipping heroes, the end game becomes all the more stressful as we wonder who will survive to the credits. Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street scare talents guarantee terror all the way to the end. Why don't you, liver alone, eh?

Read more: Watch Scream online - how to see all the movies, wherever you are in the world

8. Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)

The movie: Arguably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made also just happens to be one of the greatest horror movies too. It doesn't seem fair, does it? The original Alien from Ridley Scott sends the crew of the Nostromo to investigate a distress call from an abandoned alien spaceship as innocently as any gang of hormonal teenagers headed off to a remote cabin in the woods. And, just like those teenagers, not many of them are going to survive to tell the tale. Sigourney Weaver makes for the ultimate Final Girl here. 

Why it's scary: There's nowhere more horribly isolated than a spaceship light years away from home and Giger's alien is as terrifying a monster as you could wish for. The dread goes much deeper than teeth and claws though. This creature represents a multilayered, bottomless pit of psychosexual horror, its very form praying on a raft of primal terrors. Plus, the visual ambiguity of Scott's direction during the final act is an absolute masterclass in 'What's that in the shadows?' tension. Ignore the recent xenomorph packed movies, turn off the lights and watch this and Aliens to reignite your passion for the true horror of Scott's vision. 

7. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975)

The movie: Before Jurassic Park, before ET, and an eternity before the majority of the cast of Ready Player One were brought screaming into existence, there was Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s toothy horror. And yes, this is a horror movie. Jaws, one of the original blockbusters on account of the number of people literally queuing around the block only to flee the cinema in terror, is horrifying. It doesn’t matter that the shark looks a little ropey now when he gets up close and personal, the story of Amity Island’s gory summer season as Chief Brody desperately tries to keep swimmers out of the water is the stuff of horror legend. And, let’s face it, you’re already humming the score.    

Why it’s scary: The reason that Jaws haunts you long after the credits roll is simple. One viewing and this particularly vindictive shark can potentially ruin every trip to the seaside. Every gentle paddle as waves lap at your toes. Every skinny dip. Every precarious trip out onto the ocean wave on anything smaller than the Titanic. Spielberg doesn’t pull any punches either. Dogs die, children die, heads float out of sunken boats. No one is guaranteed to see the credits here, especially not the three men who head out to sea to slay the beast. With legendary performances and a monster that will never leave you, Jaws is the ultimate creature feature. 

Read more: 11 big dumb shark movies to guarantee you'll never go swimming again

6. Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

The movie: Who'd have thought an old Star Trek mask could be so terrifying? Director John Carpenter created a modern classic when he gave his villain a blank William Shatner mask to wear while he stalks babysitters around the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The movie created another icon, too, in Jamie-Leigh Curtis, who'd become both a scream queen in her own right, and the template for all final girls to follow. Who cares if the first scene makes no sense? This is a movie that starts with a child murdering his sister while wearing a clown mask and if that's not scary, you need your horror fan status revoked immediately.

Why it's scary: Pretty much the original stalk-and-slash, Halloween set standards that have rarely been matched. Carpenter composes his shots to keep you constantly guessing, blending both claustrophobia and fearful exposure, often at the same time, to create a deeply uneasy sense of vulnerability wherever you are and whatever is happening. Also, that soundtrack. Composed by Carpenter himself. there is a reason that pounding doom-synth is still the soundtrack for oppressive horror. As a great follow up too, get the 2018 sequel into your eyes. The new Halloween removes all those messy other sequels and does a perfect job of showing the real trauma of growing up as a victim of The Shape himself. 

Read more: The best Halloween movies rewatched, reviewed, and ranked

5. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

The movie: And here we are into the top five of this best horror movies list. It almost feels predictable now that William Friedkin’s masterpiece, now in its 40s, is still looming near the top of so many horror features. But watch The Exorcist and you’ll understand why. This is the tale of Regan, the daughter of a successful movie actress who one day occupies herself in the basement by playing with a ouija board. If you have ever wondered why your parents don’t want you playing with this innocuous looking toy, a young Linda Blair probably has something to do with it. Using the ouija board as gateway, an unwelcome guest takes root in the little girl and the rest, as the titular exorcist arrives, is cinema history. 

Why it’s scary: Much like The Shining, The Exorcist is not safe. Unpredictable, visceral, and primeval, this is a movie based on the simplest of premises but even in it’s happiest moments, is absolutely anxiety inducing. With a now near mythical production, William Friedkin’s relentlessness for ‘authenticity’ meant his actors were frozen in a refrigerated bedroom, physically pulled across sets to replicate the demon’s physical prowess, and, of course, splattered with warm pea soup. The result is a horror movie that you’ll probably never say you actively enjoy, but will find yourself rewatching, just to feel the sheer terror of Friedkin’s evil ghost train in all its disturbing glory once again.

Read more: 7 questions I STILL have after watching The Exorcist

4. Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary (2018)

The movie: Home is where the heart is. It’s also where the worst horror lives, hiding just beneath the surface of the perfect family life. A harrowed Toni Collette leads Ari Aster’s very first (!) feature film as the mother of a grieving family. The death of her own mother has sent shockwaves through their home and, to keep this review spoiler free, the future isn’t looking exactly, errr, bright either. 

Why it’s scary: It’s fair to say that at no point does Hereditary feel safe. Nowhere during its two hour run time do you feel like you can stop and take a breath, or even make a guess as to what’s coming next. Is this a supernatural movie? Is this an exercise in grief, similar to the Babadook? Is there even a difference between these two ideas? Every shot of Collette’s artist painstakingly creating miniature dioramas feels like a threat and every awkward conversation between the two teenagers of the family leaves a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach. Why? There's no putting your finger on the exact reason. It might have split cinema audiences but Hereditary is a tour de force of modern horror that will leave you reeling long after its gruelling third act. We’re just not going to tell you why.

Read more: Intelligent, emotional, and terrifying, Hereditary is near-perfect horror. With a little more restraint, it would have been flawless

3. The Thing (1982)

The Thing (1982)

The movie: Perhaps you’ve been buried in snow and have missed John Carpenter’s ultimate creature feature. Entirely understandable. Why don’t you come closer to the fire and defrost? The title might sound hokey but The Thing remains one of the most gloriously splattery and tense horrors of all time as a group of Americans at an Antarctic research station - including Kurt Russell’s R.J MacReady - take on an alien, well, thing that infects blood. It might start off taking out the canine companions - there’s no need to check out DoesTheDogDie.com this time around - but it really doesn’t stop there.

Why it’s scary: The Thing is a movie of physicality. There’s intense paranoia and horror sprinkled in as the party begins to fall apart as the infection spreads but it’s the very real, oh-so-touchable nature of the nasties at work here that’s so disturbing. The practical effects - the responsibility of a young Rob Bottin and uncredited Stan Winston - are the true stars as arms are eaten by chests, decapitated heads sprout legs, and bodies are elongated and stretched. The macabre vision of these murderous monsters at work is never anything less than true nightmare fuel.

2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The movie: Some movie titles are vague, letting you gradually work out their meaning as the narrative slowly unfurls in front of your eyes like a delicate flower in tea. Then there’s Tobe Hooper’s grim, sweaty horror movie. There is nothing delicate here. Its titular weapon needs to be sharp but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a blunt instrument of horror. This is a tour de force of violence as five young people leave the safety of the world behind and journey into dusty Americana. What they find in one house when they innocently enter looking for gas is such death and depravity that the movie is still, decades on, a disturbing endurance test. 

Why it’s scary: The funny - and there is humour here, it’s just not there on the first watch - thing about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that there’s actually very little blood. There’s the iconic Leatherface, inspired by Ed Gein in his fleshy face covering, and a death scene involving a hook that will make you look down and check your body is still there, but very little viscera. Gore is something that your brain mentally splashes everywhere to try and deal with the horror on screen here, to cope with the screams of pure terror and iconic disturbing soundtrack. It’s suffered plenty of clones over the years, not to mention a Michael Bay produced glossy cash cow remake, but nothing can replicate the sheer desperation and violent honesty of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It would almost be dangerous to try.  

Read more: The real Texas Chainsaw Massacre – how a 1950s grave-robber inspired a horror classic

1. The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The movie: Even if you haven’t watched Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, you’ll know of The Shining. You’ll know Jack Nicholson’s (apparently ad-libbed) “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny” and you might even be aware that if you’re handed the keys to room 237 in a hotel, you might want to switch it for another suite. But what if you haven’t? What if you have been snowed up in a mysterious hotel with only hedge animals for company? Well, The Shining follows a man and his family as he takes on the role of winter caretaker at a resort hotel known as The Overlook. Given that this is a Stephen King adaptation (albeit one that that horror author hates so much that he made his own movie), the winter months don’t go well. The Overlook Hotel, it turns out, doesn’t really like people.

Why it’s scary: There's a reason that this is the top of this veritable pile of screams. The Shining feels evil. From Jack Nicholson’s deranged performance as a man descending into murderous insanity to Kubrick’s relentless direction as we hypnotically follow Danny navigating the hotel corridors on his trike, this is a movie that never lets you feel safe. Like Hereditary earlier in this list, The Shining is like being driven by a drunk mad man. What’s coming next? Lifts of blood? Chopped up little girls? The terror that lurks in the bath of room 237? This is not a horror movie made of boo scares or cheap tricks, Kubrick’s film is a lurking, dangerous beast that stays with you long after your TV has gone dark.