When it comes to the best Halloween movies of all time, we’re obviously talking about horror, which comes in all shapes and sizes—just like candy, right? We could make a list filled with sweetness and fluff: horror musicals like The Nightmare Before Christmas or chatty comedies like Scream. Or we could give you the down-and-dirty stuff, the really bad-for-you stuff, the candy your dentist has nightmares about (which you love to scarf down in the darkness anyway). That’s what we’ve done with this list. Some of these are blockbuster summer movies, some have won Academy Awards, some are foreign-made. All of them are guaranteed to terrify you. So trick or treat. We’ll let you decide which is which.
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31 best Halloween movies
If this title ranks lowest on our list, you can tell we mean business. Even with the volume pumped up, it’s less terrifying than creepy, but on those limited grounds, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s low-budget hit is pure gold. The scariest part is how these kids can’t put their cameras down, regardless of how much supernatural danger they’re in. Don’t say this movie wasn’t prophetic.
Join the cognoscenti and bow to Bob Clark’s atmospheric sorority-house stalker—a huge influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween and other “the call is coming from inside the house” thrillers, but nowhere near as well-known. Superman’s Margot Kidder is the lovable drunk of the sisterhood, but don’t go pegging your affections on anyone; survival isn’t based on fitness.
Esther is a high-powered businesswoman. She enjoys signing big deals, going out to swanky parties and picking at that nasty scab on her leg. Actually, forget about the deals and parties—this scab is way too interesting. Better call in sick. Written and directed by its toothy French star, Marina de Van, this obsession thriller will unnerve you for weeks, until you find your own scab to pick.
Female spelunkers encounter some cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies, while Freudian analysts in the audience have themselves a ball amid pools of sickening gore. The alternate U.K. ending is more cynical, but either version works beautifully as a tale of misadventure in the darkness—all of it, paradoxically, in the name of bonding with your frenemies.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.