I am a huge horror buff. For years, my friend and I have spent many an evening hunting down some of the most interesting, most terrifying horror movies around.
This search has most often lead us to some really awful films. Films so bad we’re not sure how they even convinced anyone to fund them. The search has also lead to a whole subgenre that has filled us with much joy – the crappy but still funny and hugely entertaining horror movie that isn’t very good but still worth watching. This is the sort we watch most of, seeing as there aren’t actually all that many good ones. Which is heartbreaking.
But this is a list of some of the greats. Obviously there are way more than 25 and many of you are not going to agree with my choices. But if you, like me, are often searching for good horrors to tick off your list, perhaps this could come in handy. I hope there are a few here that you haven’t already seen.
Without further ado, here are 25 horror movies you really must see.
1. Scream (all four 1996-2011 USA)
Anyone claiming to be a horror fan will most likely have seen all of these already. It goes without saying: Scream is one of the all-time best horror film serieses of all time. But I had to say it. Because it really is one everyone must see. Scream is the movie all slasher movies wish they could have been. It is able to deconstruct the horror genre, whilst being a fantastic horror itself and still making the audience laugh. Fantastic. Scream is most certainly the pinnacle of Wes Craven’s career, in my opinion.
2. Nightmare on Elm Street (2010 USA)
Another one from Wes Craven. For a long time, the original Nightmare franchise was the benchmark of fear for me when it came to horror movies. Ahead of the release of the remake in 2010, I rewatched all of them. This exercise lead to the realisation that thanks to the advancements in cinematography and makeup, these films were no longer scary. Also thanks to me not being a small child anymore. The remake, however, was fantastic. It takes the story, which is fantastic – the frightful idea that you’re not even safe in your dreams – and backs it up with some of the best horror movie cinematography I’ve ever seen. The film was beautiful and intense. While I’d suggest any movie fans watch the originals too, because they’re interesting and really quite funny in parts, I’d have to recommend the remake in particular. DOP Jeff Cutter did a great job.
3. Cannibal Holocaust (1979 ITALY)
This is one of those films that everyone should see, just so you can say you’ve seen it. One of the few films so brutal, I kept looking away. It took me three attempts before I managed to keep my eyes open the whole way through. I think what did it was knowing the animals are all being killed for real (!). This notorious film aroused a great deal of controversy, and the director was actually arrested on obscenity charges. He was later charged with making a snuff film based on rumours of actors being killed on camera. Ruggero Deodato was eventually cleared, but his film was still banned in a number of countries. This ban was the reason I wanted to see it. This film is intense. It will make you feel a bit sick and it will make you really angry and you may walk away wishing you didn’t do it; but if you’re a fan of horror, I insist. The only minus points really, is that Cannibal Holocaust lead to the popularisation of the found footage-style narrative, which in general is actually really lame (eg The Blair Witch Project).
4. A Serbian Film (2010 SERBIA)
A Serbian Film is probably one of the most brutal films I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the torture porn family and it’s horrible. It’s so horrible. But it’s done so well. I expected this to be another crappy B-movie; little did I know. A Serbian Film is another off the banned list, due to its graphic depictions of rape, necrophilia and child sexual abuse. This movie is painfully difficult to watch. What makes it worse is that the theme is so brutal, so horrid, that you feel like you shouldn’t enjoy the film; but actually, despite being grossed out and hating it, I couldn’t help be impressed. The juxtaposition of emotions at the time of watching was difficult to manage!
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991 USA)
The Silence of the Lambs is a classic, despite not really being that old. Anthony Hopkins, who is absolutely incredible, stars in this horror / crime flick based on a novel by Thomas Harris. This isn’t like any old cannibal story: it isn’t really about Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). He is rather this wonderfully likeable (somehow) malevolent commentator. The relationship between Lecter and Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is one of the best (if not actually the best) relationship between any two character in horror movie history. After its release in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs was the third film to ever win Academy Awards in all the top five categories: best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and adapted screenplay. It was also the first horror to win the Best Picture category.
6. Battle Royale (2000 JAPAN)
Battle Royale is a film adaptation of a 1999 novel of the same name by Koushun Takami. I imagine this film (and therefore the book) was the inspiration for books/films like Hunger Games (which I love, by the way). A controversial new law in Japan means the government is now able to force school kids to kill each other as part of a deadly game. This film is another off the banned list, with many countries either banning it outright or just excluding it from distribution. But back home it was a mainstream blockbuster, becoming one of the 10 highest-grossing films in Japan.
7. The Red Shoes (2005 SOUTH KOREA)
The Red Shoes is a beautifully shot horror inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same name. If you know anything about Andersen, you know his stories are all pretty brutal and very rarely end well for anyone. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more horrors based on them, actually! This film follows the tale of a woman who finds a pair of curse shoes on the subway. The storytelling, the acting and the cinematography all work together to create a fantastic psychological ghost story about betrayal and jealousy.
8. Intruders (2011 SPAIN)
Intruders tells two stories in parallel about children attacked by a menacing faceless stranger; one in Spain and one in Britain. I liked that the film was in two different languages, and I loved that I wasn’t always able to predict what was coming. I was even creeped out enough to have to turn the lights on to walk up stairs to bed.
9. Cold Prey (2006-2008 Norway)
Cold Prey I and II, also known as Fritt Vilt, are really good Norwegian slashers. This film is a new discovery for me. There are more in the franchise, but I haven’t watched them yet; I’ll be sure to do so soon, however! There isn’t as much blood and gore in these films as most of the movies on my list. There’s a lot less chase and struggle – mostly because the killer is so bad ass, he kills his victims pretty effortlessly. I really like that the second film carries on from where the first left off. I wish more sequels did that. It turns it into one big long story, instead of a collection of shorter separate stories vaguely strung together, that is often the case with franchises.
10. Cabin in the Woods (2012 USA)
This is the horror movie I wish I wrote. The one I’ve been planning for the last 10 years. I’d be mad that someone beat me to it, but it was Joss Whedon, who is basically a god. If anyone is going to beat you at something, it may as well be a god, right? Apparently Whedon wrote the screenplay in three days and described it as an attempt to revitalise the slasher genre (which is much needed) and as a critical satire on torture porn. Something Whedon is better than basically everyone at it dialogue, which is something that many horror movies forget about. The fantastic dialogue in this film acts as one of a number of tools to both embrace and expose the traditional horror cliches. I love it.
11. Dumplings (2004 HONG KONG)
I really enjoyed this film. I first saw it as part of a compilation of three short horrors, but it was later expanded to a full length. This film is gross, and really gets you where it hurts: you’re apatite. You won’t be able to watch it without at least the occasional twitch.
12. The Birds (1963 USA)
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is one of those films that changed things. It made birds scary. Birds became an ominous symbol of impending danger in horror movies for years to come. It was loosely based on a book by Daphne du Maurier of the same name and depicts a town in California suddenly hit by a series of violent bird attacks.
13. Saw (2003-2010 USA)
Saw is another one of those films to create a whole subgenre of horror: the play-a-gruesome-game-to-survive genre, where a psycho or a millionaire or someone with too much time on their hands kidnaps a group of people and locks them in a building to see if they can solve a puzzle. And kills them if they can’t. I thought the first film in the seven-feature franchise was genius. I’d never seen anything like it before. As you work your way through the franchise, the deaths and traps all get more elaborate and gruesome. After the third film it does all become a little samey, being very much just about how many kills you can get and how creative you can be with them. I’d say watch all of them, because they all tell an overall story (sort of), but definitely watch the first three.
14. One missed call (2003 JAPAN)
This Japanese horror mystery was also based on a novel, Chakushin Ari by Yasushi Akimoto. Characters start getting phone calls from their future selves just as they’re about to die. This film was remade in the US in 2008, but the Japanese version is definitely better. This film has your traditional long black-haired female ghost (standard), but it’s also got a whole lot more gore than more Japanese ghost stories do, and moves a lot faster. It seems like director Takashi Miike had a lot of fun with this one.
15. REC (2007 SPAIN)
Zombie movies are normally pretty naff, as as handycam films; yet somehow this basically does both of those things in an enjoyable way. It’s filmed as a found-footage film and was remade in the States in 2008 as Quarantine (which was almost identical). REC is about what happens when a rabies-like virus is unleashed in an urban area (rather than zombies persay) and is put together really well.
16. Audition (1999 JAPAN)
This psychological horror-drama directed by Takashi Miike is based on a novel by the same name by Ryu Murakami. This film is a reminder to not always go on first impressions. Miike is toying with the audience, as he delicately builds suspense throughout the film.
17. Hostel: Part III (2011 USA)
Hostel 3 is my favourite of the Hostel films. The first wasn’t really great, but they get better each time they try. Despite it’s low budget, this movie was very creative and went a long way to improve on the flaws of the first two films (though, I also liked the second one a lot more than the first). Part 3 follows a different structure, which acts as a nice surprise; in fact, this film is full of surprises. It’s smarter than before, and the torture audience aspect is really rather disturbing – mostly because it feels almost as though something like this could really be plausible. People are crazy.
18. Creep (2004 UK)
There’s something wonderful about watching a film based on home ground; so as I Londoner, a horror movie based on the London Underground really resonated. Having fallen asleep on the last Tube numerous times, and once even getting stuck in the tunnel where the trains go to sleep when they’re done, I could imagine myself in the characters’ shoes: trapped on the Underground with a creep trying to kill you.
19. The Shining (1980 UK / USA)
This incredible Stanley Kubrick film starring Jack Nicholson is definitely a must-see. It’s based on a Stephen King novel of the same name and takes a look at the supernatural and a father’s descent into madness. It’s so good. It’s creeping and gripping, and Nicolson is one of the greats. His performance in this is outstanding. This film is really clever and plays with the space in a really interesting way. The cinematography is constantly used to trick us; but it’s done so subtly it’s hard to notice on the first watch.
20. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003 SOUTH KOREA)
Based on a famous Korean folk story, A Tale of Two Sisters is the highest-grossing Korean horror film of all time and was the first to be screened in American theatres. It preys on our deep-rooted fears of adolescence, insanity and evil step-parents. The dread and the mystery pumping out of this Tale make it a classic. In 2004, it won Best Picture at the Fantasporto Film Festival.
21. The Collector (2009 USA)
This is really fantastic horror movie. Rumour has it the script, originally titled Midnight Man, was intended as a prequel to Saw; but the producers dismissed the idea early on. It is jam-packed with really gruesome murder/torture moments, and takes a huge chance on an extended period without dialogue – something that worked really well.
22. Final Destination (2000-2011 USA)
I really enjoy all the Final Destination films. They’re fun and clever and loop back around just nicely. It’s all about how to foresee, avoid and control death as the time comes for it to take you. This is a particularly interesting tact, because the ‘bad guy’ here is death itself. Nature is manipulated to ensure people die, and if they escape their fates, death does and loop and comes back for them. It’s smart and gory and unlike anything else on this list. It’s a great slasher movie, without there being an actual slasher doing the slashing.
23. The Eye (2002 HONG KONG)
The Eye is a wonderful film that wastes no time getting into the swing of things. Almost immediately, the film starts hitting us with ghostly apparitions. And they don’t stop, one ghost after ghost popping up to freak us out. I liked the pace of it all. It was remade three times, including in 2005 in India and in 2008 in Hollywood.
24. Dead Snow (2009 Norway)
I like this film a lot. I’ve seen it a number of times, and it’s funny every time. I’m not always a fan of the horror comedy genre, but this has been done really well. It’s a somewhat idiotic horror about Nazi zombies that will definitely keep you entertained.
25. Invitation Only (Taiwan)
Invitation Only has been billed as Taiwan’s first slasher movie – and what a great first step into the genre it was. Well worth a watch!
This is by no means an extensive list, but these are some of my favourites. These are films worth recommending to fellow horror buffs. I have no doubt that many of you will have seen a number of them already; but I’m hoping there will be at least a few new ones in here for you to explore.
Do let me know in the comment section if you have in fact seen all 25 and what movies you think would be worthy of joining the list.
I’d like to thank my friend @lauraannswift for her help in watching hundreds of horror movies over the years. And also for looking at my list and giving it her approval, comments and suggestions. She’s a good friend.