10. It Follows (2015)
The movie: After receiving an unexplained curse through unprotected... *ahem* horizontal jogging, a young girl finds herself relentlessly pursued by a demon. While this entity always pursues her at a walking pace, it can take the form of any human, will never stop tracking her, and is determined to kill once it gets its hands on her.
Why it's scary: Eschewing grand gestures for more subtle sensory cues, It Follows is a sublime example of how the art of creative restraint can lend itself to some of the most rewarding audience scares imaginable. A instinctively terrifying concept delivered with an underplayed, but heart-stopping, visual wrongness, It Follows was an all-timer the moment it was released.
9. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The movie: Romero's sequel to Night of the Living Dead sees the living dead causing even more carnage. This time, survivors are holed up in a shopping mall, not just a house, while the world falls apart around them. The larger scale also gives Romero scope to include more gore and more social commentary.
Why it's scary: It's all too easy to imagine that this really might be the way the world ends. The zombies might be an ever-present, ambient threat, but the very real failings of human nature, and the bleak, quiet, often monotonous creep of the lonely apocalypse make Dawn of the Dead one of the sub-genre's most affecting works.
8. 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: To save any potential spoilers, 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, every awkward conversation between the two teenagers of the family leaves a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach, but you can’t put your finger on the 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.
7. 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 white mask a Halloween mask of William Shatner's face to wear while stalking 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.
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. There is a reason that pounding doom-synth is still the soundtrack for oppressive horror, and Halloween is that reason.
6. 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 masterpiece. There is nothing delicate here. It’s 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.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
The movie: A little girl has gone missing on Summerisle, an isolated island off the coast of Scotland. But when Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives to investigate, the locals seem reluctant to help. They're more interested in preparing for their elaborate May Day celebrations.
Why it's scary: The Wicker Man shouldn't work. It's a mishmash of genres that throws in comedy and surreal musical numbers alongside images of utter horror. But that's why it does work. It's the inherent otherness to Summerisle, the tonally incoherent, constantly surprising, onward-creeping wrongness - amplified by the normality felt by its residents - that makes this one of the greatest pieces of 'stranger in a strange land' horror ever filmed.
4. The Thing (1982)
The movie: A shapeshifting alien stalks the inhabitants of an Antarctic research station, masquerading as one of them until it gets an opportunity to attack. John Carpenter's remake of the 1950s sci-fi The Thing From Another World ramps up the gore and the paranoia, and ends on a note of resignation, not triumph.
Why it's scary: That paranoid atmosphere, for one thing. The Thing's oppressive, one-second-from-doom vibe never lets up for a moment, amplified by brilliant, tightly-wound performances throughout. And it's impossible to over-value The Thing's ground-breaking (and award-winning) special effects work, which unleash increasingly bizarre, hybrid nightmare creatures that will stick with you for life.
3. Alien (1979)
The movie: Arguably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made is also one of the greatest horror movies, as director Ridley Scott sends the crew of the Nostromo off 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.
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. The creature represents a multilayered, bottomless pit of psychosexual horror, its very form praying on a raft of primal terrors. And the visual ambiguity of Scott's direction during the final act - during which the high-tech environments almost merge with the monster's biomechanical countenance - are a masterclass in 'What's that in the shadows?' tension.
2. The Shining (1980)
The movie: All work and no play makes Jack (Jack Nicholson) into a raving lunatic. The Shining is a story of isolation and terror, and from all accounts director Stanley Kubrick did his best to torment his cast and crew while they were making the film, demanding up to 127 takes of a single scene. The result is a delirious viewing experience that'll make you rethink that skiing holiday.
Why it's scary: The deliberate pacing and obsessive attention to detail add up to a hypnotic horror that's impossible to look away from. Weird party guests bleeding from the head, elevators that gush blood, creepy twins, an overzealous bathroom break... The Shining has a lot of fantastic imagery, but the masterstroke is that it's all couched in fantastic, claustrophobic, slow-burn psychological menace.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
The movie: After messing with a Ouija board, Regan (Linda Blair) starts acting weirdly. And not just acting weirdly in a normal teenage kind of way: she talks backwards, scuttles around the house like a crab, and does unspeakable things with crucifixes. Her mother calls in a couple of Catholic priests to cast out Regan's demons, but it won't be easy.
Why it's scary: It quite simply has the most evil-soaked atmosphere of any film ever made. The Exorcist is relentless in its determination to creep you out, but ignore the scares for a moment and you're still left with an exceptionally smart and sophisticated film that demands your unreserved attention and has kept people talking to this day. A bona fide cinematic masterpiece that just so happens to be an edge-of-your-seat scare-fest too.