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The best Halloween movies of all time

From hardcore horrors to squeamish giggles, these Halloween movies will set the mood for the season

Written by
Andy Kryza
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
&
Matthew Singer
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Let’s address the obvious question right off the (vampire) bat: what’s the difference between a horror movie and a Halloween movie? For us – and presumably, the folks for whom spooky season isn’t a holiday or even a month, but a whole lifestyle – there is a fine distinction, perhaps best summed up as: all Halloween movies are scary, but not all scary movies are Halloween movies.

In other words, there are horror flicks worth watching basically any time of the year, but only a specific subcategory of those are ideal for viewing in October. A movie like, say, Don’t Look Now, is certainly disturbing, and a triumph of the horror genre. But its scares are perhaps a bit too cerebral for the time of year when everyone has smiling pumpkins on their porches and 12-foot Home Depot skeletons on their front lawns. You want your frights to be visceral, hard-hitting and, most of all, fun. In that spirit, here are 45 great movies to drop in your queue in the lead up to All Hallow’s Eve.

Recommended:

😱 The 100 best horror movies of all-time
🩸 The 15 scariest horror movies based on true stories
🔪 The 31 best serial killer movies
👹 The 50 best monster movies ever made
🧟 The best zombie movies of all-time

Best Halloween movies

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Let this be the year—if you haven’t already done so—to finally work up the courage to see Tobe Hooper’s criminally underrated classic, a top-rank satire of American class warfare (survival of the hungriest), teenage misadventure in the backwoods and one of the darkest masterpieces of the ’70s. Though shrouded in a gruesome reputation generated by that title, Texas isn’t particularly gory. It is, however, the scariest movie ever made.

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Dario Argento’s grim fairy tale doesn’t sound like much on paper: a timid American dancer enrols at a spooky European ballet academy and soon discovers strange phenomena are afoot. But that simple premise allows the giallo master plenty of room to stretch out, splattering the screen with unreal colours, staging some gnarly death scenes and blowing out eardrums via the truly hair-raising score from spooky Italian prog rockers Goblin.

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  • Film
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Ghost stories got a high-tech makeover in this punishing suburban smash, now seen as a secret critique of American materialism: Your TV set will eat you. (It’s all the more surprising that it was “ghost-directed” by family-friendly producer Steven Spielberg.) Production values were lavish, including some early blue-screen work and stunning lighting, but a possessed toy clown remains the unforgettable scare.

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Initially dismissed, John Carpenter’s bloody-disgusting remake of the ‘50s B-movie The Thing From Another World has come to be seen as a true sci-fi horror classic, and rightly so. It’s not entirely because of the awesomely gross special effects, either – although the various mutations devised by make-up whiz Rob Bottin are really some of the nastiest of all-time. What makes it so scary is the sense of deeply-felt paranoia that hangs over every scene. Infected by an alien organism capable of assimilating any other living being, a team of isolated Arctic researchers begin to turn on each other, building to an ambiguous finale as unsettling as anything Carpenter has done.   

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  • Film
  • Horror

You know you’re watching a modern horror classic when the sudden decapitation of a child is only, like, the fourth most shocking thing to happen in a movie. Another good indicator: the movie is directed by Ari Aster. The New York horror wunderkind established himself as a master of the genre right out of the gate with this deeply unsettling debut feature about a family collapsing under the weight of its own buried secrets. You’ll be thinking about it far longer than is good for your mental wellbeing.  

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Presaging HBO’s Tales from the Crypt in bringing the goofily macabre vision of 1950s EC Comics to the screen, this George Romero-helmed anthology is Halloween in a nutshell: frightening, yes, but cut with enough knowing silliness that it’s more fun than truly traumatic. Admittedly, though, the first Creepshow does have some pretty freaky stuff in it, perhaps most memorably the segment in which a curmudgeonly germaphobe’s apartment is invaded by an army of cockroaches.     

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  • Film
  • Fantasy

People remember the film’s look: motes of dust hanging in the air, Jerry Goldsmith’s shivery orchestral score, an atmosphere thick with dread. But Ridley Scott’s chest-bursting horror landmark has a lot more going for it under the hood. It’s a sexually radical sci-fi film that turns men into pregnant hosts—and a woman, Sigourney Weaver, into the most iconic hero in genre filmmaking.

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If you don’t watch Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel at least once every October, you’re doing spooky season all wrong. Jack Nicholson is gleefully over the top as Jack Torrance, a writer who agrees to housesit a creepy old hotel during its winter offseason, along with his wife and kid, and finds himself beset by the worst case of cabin fever ever documented. You may know all the iconic scenes – the elevator full of blood, the ghost twins, ‘Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!’ – but the movie holds secrets that continually unveil themselves, even after dozens of viewings. For instance: why does Jack keep looking at me?  

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Proof that digital video and zombie apocalypses go together like moldy peaches and rancid cream (we mean that as a compliment), Danny Boyle’s epic portrait of a post-traumatic stress disordered Britain is near perfect. Here’s where all those fast-running zombies come from—the flip side to Trainspotting’s euphoric running. But there’s also real poetry in the movie’s empty London.

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A zeitgeisty sensation, an Oscar winner and (most importantly) a timely culture changer that brought us all to the "sunken place," Jordan Peele's enormously confident directorial debut did more for the reputation of horror—as a vessel for sociopolitical commentary—than any movie since Night of the Living Dead.

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The Omen (1976)
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Every expectant mother, deep down, worries about the relationship they’ll have with their child, but none expects to raise the literal son of Satan – at least, they didn’t, until the release of Richard Donner’s blockbuster, which forever has parents checking their new babies for the mark of the beast. It’s not as artful as Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s much easier to watch, and still chills to the bone.

The House Of The Devil (2010)
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An unabashed exercise in retro horror, director Ti West’s excellent throwback to the Satanic panic slashers of the 1980s gets so many period details right that halfway through you’re liable to think you’re watching a video nasty grabbed from a rental store shelf during the Reagan years. A financially desperate college student (Jocelin Donahue) takes a babysitting job at a creepy house in the country, and it’s all pizza and solo Walkman dance sessions…until she gets a bit too curious about what’s behind the locked door upstairs. 

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13. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Michael Dougherty’s franchise non-starter had a inglorious rollout, but has since accrued a cult following thanks to its status as a Halloween movie that actually ties into the sugar-powered holiday. LIke most anthology films, Trick ‘r Treat moves in fits and starts, but when it hits – especially in a segment featuring the great Dylan Baker as a school principal moonlighting as an inept serial killer – it’s a bloody great time. Meanwhile, the film’s mascot, a burlap sack-masked moppet named Sam (as in ‘Samhain’), is an all-time great Halloween ghoul who does incredibly nasty things with lollipops, making for a deliriously offbeat horror confection. 

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What is up with these hippies, swearing at their parents, laughing at authority and vomiting up their dinner? They sure could use some talking to by a priest. (Never let anyone tell you that horror doesn’t express the anxieties of the moment.) The pea-soup industry still hasn’t recovered from its product’s memorable “cameo” in this film. The power of Christ compels you to see it again.

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The film that forever changed zombie cinema by introducing the undead’s hunger for braaaaains, Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon’s punk-rock zom-com is the rare hybrid that nails both the scares and the laughs. The former come courtesy of some of the goopiest reanimated cannibals ever put to film; the latter is courtesy of a game cast that knows to go full ham before themselves becoming dinner. 

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It wasn’t the first slasher movie per se, but John Carpenter’s ingenious minimalist nugget about suburban teens and an unstoppable killer is easily one of the most influential horror films ever—especially for its percolating synth score, echoed as recently as It Follows. Jamie Lee Curtis is the last word in “final girls,” and that faded white mask still gives us the cold sweats.

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Bernard Rose’s baroque Clive Barker adaptation has grown in status over the years thanks to its thoughtfully gruesome themes of gentrification and violence against the Black community (Nia DaCosta’s recent reboot tugged at the same threads and became a bona fide hit). But the real reason for Candyman’s staying power is simple: It’s scary as hell. In riffing on the old Bloody Mary urban legend – say his name five times and you’ll be hooked! – the film takes on its own mythological status as both a dare-to-watch sleepover staple and an eerie mood-setter for the season. 

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Old-school horror fans rejoiced and forgave director James Wan for Saw: His summer sensation proved that certain tricks and devices won’t ever go out of style when deployed this stylishly. Conceived like a forgotten Nixon-era classic and set in the autumn of 1971, Wan’s possession shocker reminds us that if the creaky house ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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The Changeling (1980)
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A classic vengeful-ghost story with Shining vibes, Peter Medak’s supernatural chiller about a grieving composer holed up in a creaky old house raises goosebumps with the barest of elements – at least until the fiery finale. Medak gets more out of a rubber ball bouncing down a set of dark stairs than other directors manage with a whole swimming pool full of stage blood.

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  • Thrillers

Who knew Dan Stevens, aka Downton Abbey’s urbane Matthew Crawley, would make such a chillingly charismatic psycho killer? Adam Wingard, evidently. The Guest director gives him the bad-guy role of a lifetime as the ex-soldier who returns from Afghanistan and inveigles his way into the lives – and homes – of his KIA (supposed) bestie. The outcome surfs the line between horror, action flick and thriller in glorious, wantonly bullet-strewn style. Treat yourself.

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  • Film
  • Comedy

This near-perfect blend of Jewish humor and horror from John Landis (Animal House) was a seminal movie for burgeoning cinegeeks and Fangoria subscribers in the ’80s; thankfully, it’s also one of the few scary comedies from the era that doesn’t seem dated. The transformation scene, ingeniously set to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” remains a highlight.

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Pay your respects to the late Wes Craven by returning to his most enduring creation, a dream killer with razors for fingernails. You know his name. And yes, that is indeed Johnny Depp getting wasted in the water bed, one of the movie’s bloodiest kills. This film has a deeper level (expressed by mom Ronee Blakley), about the sins of the parents being returned upon their children.

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  • Film
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Flesh-eating “ghouls” (“Yeah, they’re dead—they’re all messed up”) terrorize a farmhouse in a movie that invented an entire subgenre: Today we know these creatures as zombies. George Romero’s budgetary limitations, far from being a hindrance, actually contribute to his film’s nightmarish atmosphere. There’s a racial allegory here, too, for those who want it.

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Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson’s winkingly gruesome send-up of the slasher genre completely changed ‘90s horror cinema, but no film of the era matches Scream in its barrage of scares and meta asides. The opening is a bait-and-switch that would make Hitch proud, while the brisk, brutal film that follows manages to fully dissect horror history while paving the way for its future. In a real-world meta twist, Scream has become a generation’s answer to the famous question posed by Ghostface: ‘What’s your favorite scary movie?’

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  • Film
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Aussie Jennifer Kent’s supremely confident first feature already feels like a horror classic, restoring the genre to its psychological prestige while turning the monstrous-mommy gimmick on its head. Inventive, recognizably real and scary as fuck, the film staked out a shadowy domestic terrain last dominated by Roman Polanski—Kent may have actually outdone him.

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A magnificent exercise in escalating unease, Polanski’s poker-faced adaptation of Ira Levin’s neogothic best-seller follows the harrowing gestation of Manhattan mom-to-be Mia Farrow as she unwittingly carries the devil’s offspring. We’re not quite in a documentary—Roman Polanski is too careful with his camera—but it might as well be one, set on the same wing as the Draper residence.

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  • Film
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George Romero’s belated sequel to his first masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (it’s coming), gives the zombie material a satirical spin, frequently undercutting the tension in order to poke fun at consumer culture: The heroes have barricaded themselves in a banal shopping mall where they live out their lives like birds in a gilded cage. Show this one to anyone who thinks horror is dumb.

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J-horror, a millennial revolution in Japanese cinema, can be traced back to Hideo Nakata’s 1998 supernatural thriller about a cursed VHS tape that imposes a lot more than late fees on its unlucky viewers. When Hollywood decided to do a remake, an unusual amount of thought went into it, beginning with the casting of spooked Naomi Watts. Director Gore Verbinski actually improves on the original.

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Or, as we like to call it, Three Men and a Carcharodon Carcharias. The original blockbuster and still one of the most immaculately constructed, Steven Spielberg’s scary AF sea movie lingers in the mind longer than most straight-up horror movies: anyone with an enduring phobia of sharks can probably trace it to Jaws. Robert Shaw’s account of the USS Indianapolis could be the spookiest campfire tale in the movies too.

30. Sleepaway Camp (1983)

In most respects, Sleepaway Camp is a standard post-Friday the 13th slasher flick about a killer running loose at a summer camp. But its psychosexual undertones build up to one of the most bizarre twist endings (and final images) in the entire horror canon – one that’d probably get thinkpieced to death if it came out now, but will still hit modern audiences with a visceral shock. 

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Horribly disfigured and isolated in her rural mansion, a young woman aches for an identity that never formed. Her brilliant surgeon father, still guilty over the accident that caused her deformity, grafts the faces of unsuspecting victims onto his daughter. Beyond icky, this morose French masterpiece sneaks up on you. It may be greatest psychodrama not made by a Swede.

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Jeff Goldblum’s queasily eloquent performance as a genetically modified scientist, along with that of Geena Davis as a charmed journalist who becomes worried about him, elevate this remake well above its hokey ’50s predecessor. It’s arguably David Cronenberg’s finest film: Who knew he could do romantic tragedy as confidently as he could gross us out with his signature body horror?

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  • Film
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Working with his unfussy TV crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and shooting in black and white, Hitch ended up producing one of his more adventurous thrillers, brutal for its day and boldly perverse. This director runs circles around most of the filmmakers on our list; we’re only placing Psycho near the bottom because its horror comes in just a handful of scenes (one of which all but invented the slasher).

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