Calling something “the best” will always be an exercise in subjectivity. You know it, we know it, and yet still we use the term because there’s a silent understanding that it’s all ultimately opinion destined to be forgotten like skin particles in the winds of time as our bodies crumble to dust and our species follows suit.
That said, what you’ll find below are the 50 best horror films, period.
And by “period” I, of course, mean as chosen by myself (Rob Hunter) and the rest of the Film School Rejects family. Our definition of horror comes down to movies that want to scare, unsettle or disturb, and that leaves intentional room for films that could also be described as thrillers, comedies, or sci-fi. The only restriction to consider is that they had to have been released before 2016, as calling something the best of all-time despite having only come out a year or so prior is a bit ridiculous.
One note on the ranking below. The fact that they’re in a top 50 means that all of these movies are among the best of the best, so while they’re numbered the fact that they’re considered the best out of tens of thousands means you should have no issue with their order. Right?
50. It Follows (2014, USA)
With beautiful cinematography and an unnerving score, It Follows is my favorite modern horror film. For me, anticipation and suspense are more terrifying than gore. It takes impressive storytelling to create a film that not only makes you scared watching it but keeps you from looking over your shoulder the next day in fear of someone following you. The nuanced theme of sexual violence is never obvious but certainly present, something hardly done well in horror. – Emily Kubincanek
49. Evil Dead (2013, USA)
If any film’s inclusion on this list raises hackles it’s almost guaranteed to be Fede Alvarez‘s remake of the much-revered Sam Raimi classic. Like the other remakes to make the cut here, Evil Dead takes core plot elements from its predecessor and uses them to tell its own story its own way. Where Raimi used slapstick to fuel its mayhem, Alvarez employs pure terror, stunning effects (both practical and cg), and a sympathetic performer at the center of it in the form of Jane Levy. All due respect to Bruce Campbell, but while his nightmare unfolds in antics and whip-pans this film is an immersion in pure horror that leaves us empathizing with a monster. The film’s third act is a descent into bloody hell that in turn is heaven for fans of fleshy carnage. It delivers a horror experience that’s simple in setup and intensely satisfying in execution as it hits the trifecta of being scary, unsettling, and gory as gory can be. – Rob Hunter
48. Funny Games (1997, Austria)
This is my favorite horror film of all time because it masterfully walks the tightrope of social commentary and scream-inducing terror. Of course, the best films in any genre offer something prescient about our society, but Funny Games makes you feel the commentary before you think it. From the first meeting with the two brothers, Michael Haneke sets up the tension inherent in hospitality. Is asking your neighbor for four eggs too much to ask? And when you break them, asking for four more? Each inconvenience is followed by profuse apologies, building up and building up, until one of the brother’s swings a golf club at the neighbor’s knee. Further, its breaking of the fourth wall and rewind sequence suggest a kind of video game morality. It makes us wonder, “are we the host or the guest?” in this country house of horrors. – Sarah Foulkes
47. Carnival of Souls (1962, USA)
Carnival of Souls is rarely mentioned in the same conversation as classics like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and rest of them, but its influence and importance shouldn’t be understated. Herk Harvey’s eerie chiller was made on a shoestring budget of $30,000 in 1962 and its effect can be found in genre efforts to this day. The film is a landmark of American independent cinema, but its real power lies in its timeless ability to unsettle and get under the skin. What starts out as a traumatic experience for the protagonist, Mary, leads to her discovering some horrifying revelations, but the journey getting there is one steeped in dread and strange occurrences. Come the end of the film, it leaves an impression that’s hard to shake off. – Kieran Fisher
46. Mulholland Dr. (2001, USA)
I watched Mulholland Dr. all alone in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t recommend it. David Lynch has a particular brand of horror that can lure the unsuspecting among us into watching by ourselves. (I did the exact same thing with Twin Peaks because I never learn). There’s one arguable jump scare, but it’s early enough to set you on edge for the rest of the film, and it’s drawn out enough to make you lose your mind in anticipation. Most of the horror comes from confusion and dread and, very effectively, from the characters you’ve come to know and think you understand. One of the oldest horror tricks is inverting the safe into a source of fear. The safety in Mulholland Dr. is the characters and the way in which we think we know them. The most frightening moment is, I think, an eyeline shot between Naomi Watts’ Betty and herself — it inverts a traditional cut and, by extension, the safety and familiarity we feel with the person we think we’ve been getting to know. Ghosts have got nothing on that. – Liz Baessler
45. The Beyond (1981, Italy)
The second installment in his unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy, Lucio Fulci’s 1981 cult classic doesn’t make a lot of sense at times. Regarding narrative cohesiveness, it’s by no means flawless. However, sometimes the best horror takes the viewer takes the viewer out of their comfort zone and leaves them feeling bewildered and confused. The Beyond is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a seedy, gore-drenched nightmare and that’s what makes it so effective. It’s by no mean the classiest title on this list, but few movies surpass it when it comes to surreal imagery and grotesque practical FX. – Kieran Fisher
44. Seven (1995, USA)
Anyone who suggests that David Fincher‘s Seven isn’t a horror film is not only wrong but should also never be listened to again. Like The Silence of the Lambs before it, the film is a serial killer thriller that enjoys conventions of the genre while simultaneously twisting a knife into its writhing corpse. Increasingly twisted set-pieces share the screen with moments of pure humanity — a diner conversation on love, a shared laugh to hide nervousness, time spent learning in a library — and by the time our killer inexplicably turns himself in we’re left as uncertain and off-balanced as the detectives themselves. There are scenes of absolute horror here in the grotesque crime scenes, but it’s the emotionally gripping nightmare that haunts the film’s third act that cements its place in the genre. Fincher’s gorgeous, precise direction hits the beautifully-crafted ugliness of Andrew Kevin Walker‘s script, and the result is a mirror held up to the best of us and the worst. The film’s final line captures the eternally current and too often horrific state of humanity well. “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” – Rob Hunter
43. Les Diaboliques (1955, France)
Full of far more grandiose twists and turns than director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s other horror masterpiece Le Corbeau (1943), Les Diaboliques is one of the most poetic, terrifying, and entertaining films about misplaced trust and identity. Set in a French boarding school run by the increasingly ill Christina Delassalle, the film expands on Clouzot’s obsession with films set in claustrophobic settings. Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret (as Michel Delassalle and Nicole Horner) are equally terrifying, with Signoret’s tall, looming presence being something this writer both fears and aspires to. Véra Clouzot, who the director was married to, plays Delassalle with such naiveté and truth that the viewer will often feel as though their heart is mirroring hers. Like Clouzot’s performance, the film’s horror is understated, masking itself in the confines of the frame until the horror creeps out and all is revealed. – Sinead McCausland
42. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986, USA)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a Chicago-centric sociopathic character study that is one of the models of the modern serial killer film. The film’s hypnotic horror, alternatingly deadened by blue-collar hopelessness and invigorated by explosive violence usually reserved for the climax of indie slashers, lulls viewers into its urban nightmare. Writer/director John McNaughton works with Michael Rooker (in his breakout performance) to make a tight, $100,000 glimpse into the mind and life of a loser who’s slipped under society and into a new one of his own creation. Bleak morality looks evil in the face, straight through its mask and into the heart of its depravity. This steely gaze is enhanced by razor-sharp dialogue and unflinching brutality that makes Henry one of the most disturbingly realistic horror films ever made. – Jacob Oller
41. Martyrs (2008, France)
If horror is thought of as a genre of catharsis then it can be surmised that most great horror movies entertain along their journeys with wicked fun and/or satisfaction. Good triumphs over evil, but if not audiences at least had an entertaining ride. Pascal Laugier‘s Martyrs takes a different approach. To be sure, the film’s first half features some intensely creepy scenes as a young woman is stalked by a nightmarish, razor-wielding figure, but the film satisfies in a wholly unique and brutal way. Ignore the garbage people who call the film “torture porn,” and know that while it features harsh, painful scenes of abuse it does so in a tale that shocks, surprises, and lands with an emotional gut punch. Themes of guilt, sacrifice, and mortality are explored in ways no other film has attempted, and it succeeds through the power of its lead performances, the visceral beauty of its cinematography, and the unrelenting power of its message. – Rob Hunter