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.
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.
Or, as we like to call it, Three Men and a Shark. Yes, it’s the film that created the template for the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Pity that most of its successors suck so hard. Jaws is a perfect sea drama, perhaps not even technically a horror movie. But for its glimpses of toothy terror (and a haunting midnight monologue by Robert Shaw, the scariest bit in the entire script), we’re happy to include it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sure it’s a horror film: a glamorous romance that morphs into bitter rejection, a Hollywood mystery that plunges into doom. In the troubled autumn of this psychodrama's 2001 release, we might have understood its schism all too well. Mulholland Drive is the monster behind the diner; it's the self-delusional dream turned into nightmare. The triumph belongs to David Lynch, who topped himself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Still unnerving nearly 85 years on, this carnival-set revenge drama—peopled by real-life circus acts who may have been exploited—remains a true test of resolve. It’s also an undeniable horror masterpiece made by a director, Tod Browning, who was on top of the world after his Dracula smashed the box office. It’s as risky a movie as Hollywood ever hatched, one that destroyed Browning’s career.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.