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Poltergeist (1982)
Photo: Courtesy of MGM/UA Entertainment CompanyPoltergeist (1982)

The best Halloween movies of all time

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

Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Andy Kryza
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
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For horror films, October is the great equalizer. It’s the time of year when even the most hardened genre fan stops quibbling about the best horror films of all time and embraces scary movies in all their imperfect forms. Zombie apocalpyses and rampaging monsters finally get their due. Disreputable slashers and schlocky b-movies get pushed to the top of the queue. And horror comedies bridge the gap between the die-hards and the squeamish.

To help you hunker down for your own fright night, we've assembled 40 of the greatest scary movies for the Halloween season, offering up picks for true believers along with less-intense frights for those whose interest in things that go bump in the night starts and stops on October 31. Just remember: if the phone rings, do NOT answer it. Unless it's the pizza guy.

RECOMMENDED: The best scary movies for kids of all ages

Best Halloween movies

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  • Horror

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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  • Fantasy

Dario Argento’s best and most popular film isn’t much, plotwise—an American naïf (Jessica Harper) discovers that her European ballet school is a front for a witches’ coven—but the director’s masterful use of color and deafening music more than compensate. This is the place to start with Italy’s brand of delirious, lurid horror, but we’re guessing it won’t be the place you finish. See it before you watch Luca Guadagnino's remake, which is absorbing in its own way (but not as scary).

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  • Film
  • Horror

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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It’s time to realize that John Carpenter eventually outdid Halloween: The 1951 version of The Thing is generally considered superior, but we prefer Carpenter’s brilliantly paranoid remake, which is both more faithful to its source (the John W. Campbell yarn “Who Goes There?”) and less clumsily expository. It also features the grossest special effects ever committed to film, courtesy of genius Rob Bottin.

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  • Film
  • Horror

This high? Yes, this high. Ari Aster's feature debut is nothing short of a new horror classic, raw and aching, with a sad sense of domestic unraveling at its core. Toni Collette's harrowing performance as a mom out of her depths is brilliant work regardless of what genre it comes in.

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  • Horror

Potentially traumatizing if seen at the right age, George Romero’s lurid homage to the histrionic horror of EC Comics is also his most enjoyable film. Filled with broadly funny appearances from up-and-comers like Ted Danson and Ed Harris, the movie also wrangles thousands of cockroaches for its final, notorious segment. Stephen King, writing in his peak period, penned the original script.

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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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From a certain perspective, all of Stanley Kubrick’s movies are horror films: 2001’s terrifying cosmic loneliness, Dr. Strangelove’s cheery annihilation, the death duels from Barry Lyndon. Which is all a way of saying that when the director finally got around to making a proper thriller, he paradoxically produced the ultimate comic satire on the American family. With blood in elevators.

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  • Horror

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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Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Photograph: Legendary Pictures

11. 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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  • Film
  • Horror

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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  • Film
  • Horror

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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  • Film
  • 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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  • 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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  • Film
  • Horror

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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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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  • Film
  • Horror

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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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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  • Film
  • Comedy

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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  • Horror

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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  • Film
  • Horror

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.

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  • Film

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
  • Horror

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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  • Science fiction

While not as faithful to Jack Finney’s novel as the 1956 adaptation, director Philip Kaufman’s Me Decade take on creepy conformity works sensationally well on its own terms, thanks to sharp, semisatirical work from Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy. The true star of the movie may be its ominously modern San Francisco, a place where the counterculture is dying.

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It Follows
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  • Horror

A catastrophically awful date movie – you will keep it in your pants after sitting through this – but a brilliant horror movie that’s perfect for a Halloween night in. Maika Monroe is Jay, a college student frazzled by the discovery that her one-night stand has invited some kind of relentless shapeshifting demon into her life. Director David Robert Mitchell riffs on ’80s horrors but his debut film is very much its own thing. It Follows’s stylish, chilly atmosphere is, as they say, a mood.

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Two Japanese men are getting drunk in a bar. They grouse about their industry (the movie biz), women, their country. “It’s like a game of torture,” one says. Suddenly, the other has an idea: auditioning hot chicks for a fake film. You know their scheme is bound to end badly, but just how badly places Takashi Miike’s comeuppance thriller in the pantheon of pure pain.

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  • Film

The third time’s the charm for this underrated franchise devoted to free-floating death: Roller coasters run off their tracks, fast-food drive-in lanes turn into demolition derbies, and a weight lifter gets crushed by some heavy metal. Anchoring it all with unusual dramatic commitment is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane). Warning: This movie will make you afraid of everything.

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