Face it, folks, we’re all gonna die. Whether it’s via natural causes or the business end of Michael Myers’ kitchen knife landing in your head, death is inevitable.
Because that clock is ticking, why not revisit some scary classics or – if you’re a horror virgin – check them out for the very first time? (And perhaps last, because, you know. See above. Hey, we don’t make the rules.)
We put together a tried-and-true list of 25 old-school favorites, influential giants and hidden gems worth a watch before that creepy Japanese girl who crawled out of the TV kills you. Or, if you’re not really in the dying mood, to embrace Halloween as you avoid a looming doom. (No, not COVID-19: Those horrendous mini dark-chocolate bars that return every October. They’re worse than a Freddy Krueger dream seminar.)
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Dig in. IF YOU DARE:
1. ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920)
Though modern eyes might not initially understand the appeal of the silent film – one of the first horror flicks ever – spend some time with the tale of a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) hypnotized into murder, immerse yourself in the striking German expressionist imagery and get wowed by an early twist ending.
2. ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935)
You can’t go wrong with any of the classic Universal monsters (Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy) but this is a two-for-one extravaganza in which Boris Karloff reprises his role as Frankenstein’s Monster and Elsa Lanchester is the bride with the lightning-zapped hair.
3. ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)
Hollywood has given us many Draculas over the years, from Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman, though it’s Britain’s Hammer Horror banner that gave us the most fearsome take in a ferociously fanged Christopher Lee and pitted him against Peter Cushing’s famed vampire hunter Van Helsing.
4. ‘The Birds’ (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” featured a cross-dressing killer with a thing for showers. At least you can avoid seedy motels to steer clear of that guy. Squadrons of seemingly innocent feathered fiends turning sinister and pecking at your face is a next-level threat.
5. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)
If you’re going to watch one zombie movie, George Romero’s original chiller is the granddaddy of them all. Even a half-century later, the undead ghouls that descend upon survivors in a Pennsylvania farm house are timeless and the gut-punch ending couldn’t be more timely.
6. ‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
William Friedkin’s movie about innocence lost and the power of faith has unnerved several generations, and it’s Linda Blair’s harrowing portrayal of a possessed girl and the deeper meanings about good and evil that’ll stick with you more than the infamous images of a spinning head or inappropriately used crucifix.
7. ‘Jaws’ (1975)
Hey, it’s a throwback to when people opened up the beaches too soon not because of a contagious disease but because of a killer shark. Steven Spielberg’s original summer blockbuster unleashed a great white that put a dangerous edge on the waterlogged adventure.
8. ‘Halloween’ (1978)
John Carpenter’s slash-terpiece introduced an iconic masked maniac to babysitting Jamie Lee Curtis and an unsuspecting Illinois suburbia. Pick your villainous poison from the likes of Freddy, Jason and Leatherface, but Michael Myers’ mythology and an all-too-realistic streak makes “Halloween” a cut above.
9. ‘Alien’ (1979)
Whether you think it’s a sci-fi film, horror movie, haunted house flick in space or a darn good argument for chest plates, Ridley Scott’s cosmic trip gone very wrong is bursting with goodness. The terror is real, y’all, and the killer extraterrestrial goes perfectly with the galactic claustrophobia.
10. ‘The Shining’ (1980)
If Jack Nicholson running around an empty and isolated hotel out of his mind, talking to dead barkeeps and carrying an ax isn’t scary enough for you, an elevator flowing blood, the creepiest twins of all time and an old decrepit naked lady in a bathtub should do the trick.
11. ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981)
American dudes backpacking in England get attacked by a werewolf, one of them becomes a beastly nuisance on the full moon, and things get bloody freaky in old London Town. All that plus undead buddies, fantastic special effects, an unreal transformation scene and it’s pretty funny!
12. ‘The Thing’ (1982)
Carpenter’s snowbound remake features a glorious Kurt Russell beard and a shapeshifting alien organism that assimilates other organisms and grows more frighteningly hideous over the course of the movie. Both are beautiful in their own ways.
13. ‘The Fly’ (1986)
For real, everybody needs to see national treasure Jeff Goldblum getting turned into a monstrous insectoid, courtesy of body horror guru David Cronenberg, and Geena Davis absolutely freaking out after dreaming she birthed a giant maggot. Good times.
14. ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (1986)
Use the musical as a palate cleanser of sorts from some of these other fright fests. The Alan Menken songs will get your head bopping amid the retro narrative about a nerdy flower guy (Rich Moranis) who has a crush on a co-worker (Ellen Greene) and develops a co-dependent friendship with a man-eating plant.
15. ‘Candyman’ (1992)
Nia DaCosta’s recent sequel is pretty good, too, but it’s worth it to go back to the original starring Tony Todd as the hook-handed title antagonist, a vengeful spirit of a slave’s son murdered in post-Civil War America. The first movie remains relevant in its tackling of gentrification and the cyclical nature of violence.
16. ‘Scream’ (1996)
Wes Craven’s slasher movie reinvention holds up so well. Ghostface gave us the definitive horror villain of the ’90s, the opening sequence with Drew Barrymore and a telephone remains an all-timer, plus its cleverness hasn’t waned since horror tropes never die.
17. ‘American Psycho’ (2000)
It really shouldn’t be this enjoyable to watch Christian Bale hack a dude to death in Mary Harron’s 1980s-set bloody satire about a cold, calculating and murderous New York investment banker with unusual proclivities. If nothing else, you’ll never hear “Hip to Be Square” the same way ever again.
18. ‘May’ (2003)
More and more folks have found this underrated Frankenstein-esque tale over the years, starring Angela Bettis as an awkward yet hypnotic vet’s assistant who not only keeps a creepy doll around but also puts together her own special friend from spare body parts.
19. ’28 Days Later’ (2003)
If you’re going to watch two zombie movies, have “Night of the Living Dead” be the shot and this the chaser. A rage-inducing virus breaks out in England and leaves London eerily empty while speedy zombies are out for flesh in a story steeped in metaphor that speaks to our pandemic era.
20. ‘Tucker & Dale vs. Evil’ (2010)
The backwoods horror comedy explodes tropes and is just pretty darn fun and clever. Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are good-hearted West Virginia hillbillies who, thanks to increasingly nutty circumstances, are seen as homicidal rednecks by a group of campers.
21. ‘Kill List’ (2011)
A British soldier (Neil Maskell) comes home, reconnects with his family and gets work as a hitman. Ben Wheatley’s genre-mashing masterpiece sticks to being a crime thriller until it takes a turn toward the sinister and transforms into something way more terrifying.
22. ‘It Follows’ (2015)
Teens and sex go with horror like hockey masks and summer camps. David Robert Mitchell ingeniously makes a sexually transmitted disease his villain, and Maika Monroe is the girl who’s cursed after intercourse and is pursued by a dogged dark force until she can pass it on to someone.
23. ‘The Witch’ (2016)
Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Um, yes, please and thank you. The freaky period piece and tragic family drama features Anja Taylor-Joy as a troubled 17th-century teen on the cusp of adulthood who goes down a dark path and Black Phillip as the G.O.A.T. of hellish goats.
24. ‘Get Out’ (2017)
If you can’t empathize with Daniel Kaluuya’s victimized protagonist and his shocked, tear-stained face as he’s taken to the Sunken Place, you might just be a soulless demon. Jordan Peele’s social horror insta-classic is an impressively crafted take on race that changed the scary movie game.
25. ‘Hereditary’ (2018)
Hail Paimon? Hail Toni Collette! She tears it up in Ari Aster’s supernaturally absorbing, demonic dissolution of a family whose grand matriarch was into some seriously weird stuff. “Hereditary” is full of shock and awe, with absolutely brutal deaths and an unshakable sense of doom.