Top 20 Horror Films
One of the most enduring discussions around film is the distinction(s) between horror and thriller, two genres that often seem to overlap but can also be mutually exclusive. Personally, I label a film as horror if it trades in fear, whereas a thriller errs more on the side of suspense. There's a similarity to those emotions, but a nuanced variation in the way they manifest in the viewer, namely, the difference between dread and excitement.
Defining the classification of horror or thriller is largely subjective due to everyone being scared or excited by different things. However, this is my website, so if you've read this far, you might be interested in what I have to say, so we'll be following my rules.
Since horror is my favourite genre (for a multitude of reasons, which I'll unpack another time), I thought compiling a list of my Top 20 Horror Films of all time would be a neat way to kick off 2023. To make it on this list, the film simply had to contain an element of horror, no matter how overt or subtle.
Let me be clear. This is MY Top 20 list.* I am not claiming any kind of objective authority. You will not find The Shining here (because it's overrated). Proper film scholars will smirk with derision at this list. I don't care.
(Dis)honourable Mention: The Strangers (dir. Bryan Bertino, 2008)
This was the film that most viscerally affected me, to the point where I vowed never to watch it again. A simple home invasion story told with such ferocity and bleakness I sat in stunned silence while the credits rolled, and another ten minutes after that. Efficient and effective filmmaking, for sure, but never again.
20) 30 Days of Night (dir. David Slade, 2007)
Traditionally, vampire films really don't interest me much at all, so the first entry on this list will be a surprise (if you knew that about me, which you probably didn't). Josh Hartnett and Melissa George star in this stylish, unexpectedly emotional and brutally violent scare-fest that's almost as tough of a slog to endure as it is for the residents of its Alaskan town trying to survive the yearly month of complete darkness. Brian Reitzell's score is a thumper.
19) The Host (괴물) (dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Korean golden boy Bong Joon-ho was taking shots at class systems long before Snowpiercer and Parasite. His 2006 creature feature sets a giant lizard-squid loose in Seoul, taking a young girl hostage whose family sets out to find her. Gripping and surprising, The Host is the film that every monster flick wishes it was.
18) 1408 (dir. Mikael Håfström, 2007)
Stephen King adaptations are notoriously...unpredictable. 1408 is one of the few that really, really works. John Cusack's appropriately skeptical debunker of paranormal activity checks into a hotel room that's reportedly gnarly, despite recommendations to the contrary. To say he's proven wrong would be putting it mildly. Tidy, lean, textbook horror with a blindsiding personal coda.
17) The Conjuring 2 (dir. James Wan, 2017)
James Wan has been making a name for himself as one of the modern masters of horror since the first Saw film (thoroughly Not My Thing, but credit where credit's due), and the Conjuring franchise is one of his crowning achievements. The second instalment just edges out the other two, with a mixture of truly terrifying sequences mixed with a moving redemption arc. Based on the cases of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, these movies are among the best possession stories on film. (The fact that it spawned the subpar spinoff The Nun is being ignored.)
16) Doctor Sleep (dir. Mike Flanagan, 2019)
Another of the most successful Stephen King adaptations (certainly my second favourite) is Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep, King's sequel to The Shining. Flanagan is one of King's most faithful and ardent disciples and his commitment to the visual storytelling drips out of every frame. However, the standout of the film is Rebecca Ferguson's terrifying portrayal of Rose the Hat (pictured), one of King's most underrated creations.
15) The Orphanage (El orfanato) (dir. J.A. Bayona, 2007)
This Spanish horror drama trades largely in sadness over scares, telling its story with a gentle voice (apart from when it has to scream a few things in your face). It's moody, atmospheric and chilling, anchored by central performances that fully commit to the gut-wrenching reveal in its climax. A really beautiful film.
14) What Lies Beneath (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2000)
Probably considered these days to be on the formulaic domestic thriller side, Zemeckis' tricksy little film is a masterclass in misdirection. We watch the story unfold through Michelle Pfeiffer's slowly unravelling lead performance, as she grapples with her ever-more-questionable sanity. Eminently rewatchable and, as I seem to remember from a film critic pull quote on the DVD cover, 'it does for baths what Psycho does for showers.'
13) The Ring (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2002)
It's probably some kind of sacrilege to say Verbinski's 2002 remake of Hideo Nakata's 1998 original Ringu (リング) is the superior film, but it is, so consider it said. Naomi Watts leads a brilliant cast about a cursed videotape that activates a 7-day countdown on the lives of whomever watches it. With a grungy, green-tinted aesthetic, it's as striking to look at as it is an enthralling, gripping watch, and the aforementioned videotape (which we see in full) is a hypnotising, surreal trip. It also has the honour of featuring the apotheosis of Creepy Girl With Black Hair in a White Dress.
12) Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
I know, you're thinking, 'shouldn't Psycho be higher on your list than 12?' No, it's MY list, remember? There are 11 films I think are better. The legacy of Hitchcock's masterpiece is undeniable, though, and even 63 years later, it's still creepy as h*ck.
11) Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland, 2018)
As beautiful as it is haunting, Alex Garland's sci-fi horror is like one of those slow, mesmerising nightmares — not overtly terrifying, but with a creeping sense of unease that's pervasively unsettling. Natalie Portman is spectacular and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar Isaac are brilliantly understated. The final chapter in the lighthouse absolutely floored me.
10) Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
One of cinema's fathers of horror, Guillermo del Toro's fairytale perfectly thwarts the innocence of a child's imagination as a way to exaggerate its more harrowing imagery and fleeting violence, both make-believe and real. With some truly inventive creature design, brooding atmosphere and a moving climax, it's the pinnacle of Spanish filmmaking.
9) Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Shutter Island might have otherwise fit more securely in psychological thriller territory if not for a handful of deftly executed horror sequences. Leo turns in one of his career-best performances as a detective called to an asylum on the titular island to investigate a missing patient. A perfectly calibrated control of atmosphere gives way to a gut-punch conclusion that sits with you for days. Scorsese should make more horror.
8) Misery (dir. Rob Reiner, 1990)
Arguably the finest Stephen King adaptation (no, it's not The Shining, shut up) Misery is an absolute masterclass in broad-daylight terror. Our smiling assassin, maniacally played by Kathy Bates, finds her favourite author (James Caan) injured in a car accident and brings him home for his recuperation. She finds the manuscript of his latest novel in his bag, but to say she's not a fan of the ending is an understatement. Much is left to your imagination, save for one of the most notoriously wince-inducing scenes in film history. Essential viewing. (The rest of the film, I mean. That scene you'll watch through your fingers.)
7) The Invitation (dir. Karyn Kusama, 2015)
Easily one of the most underrated horror thrillers of the 21st Century. Kusama's vision centres on an unsettling dinner party that reunites a group of friends, all of whom have differing levels of skepticism about the hosts' intentions. Tightly wound with such control that, when it finally snaps from the build-up of pressure, the result is sheer bedlam. The Invitation's climax left me breathless.
6) Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979)
Aside from Psycho, this is probably the least surprising inclusion on this list. It's so good.
5) Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
One of horror's most enduring characters, Hannibal Lecter, first started terrifying audiences in 1981 in Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon. Since then, moviegoers have been conveying their penchant for fava beans and Chianti with reckless abandon, often followed by variations on his iconic slurping noise (with varying degrees of accuracy). What remains unchanging over time is Anthony Hopkins' brilliant portrayal and the film's disturbing and engrossing journey.
4) The Black Phone (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2022)
Since it took out the crown on my Top 10 of 2022, it might not be a surprise to see it here. But, the fact that it's already so high on my list of all-timers is a testament to its enormous heart and willingness to unpack some deep questions of faith — it goes places I never expected a horror movie to go, and in doing so it helps cement horror as one of the most efficient storytelling mediums for some of life's trickier, more nebulous themes. There are a lot of technical and creative elements to admire, but ultimately, it's just an astoundingly good film.
3) The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
The main pitfall of introducing someone to this film for the first time is that, unfortunately, it's probably THE movie where the ending is known almost universally. Despite that, every rewatch reveals one more tiny clue about how Shyamalan kept The Twist concealed until just the right time, and the viewing experience is always enriched because of it. Toni Collette is completely brilliant — the scene pictured above leaves me in floods. A reminder: horror films have feelings, too.
2) The Others (dir. Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)
The Others is not often found on all-time horror lists, which is baffling to me. The atmospheric sense of dread that lingers in every frame is deeply unsettling and makes the affecting human story at its heart all the more engrossing. Nicole Kidman's performance is dang near perfection and manages to sell the film's denouement with complete sincerity. It also, like the films above and below it on this list, features one of the best jump scares of all time.
1) Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster, 2018)
Hereditary is the best horror film of all time — I will die on this hill. Ari Aster achieves a tangible sense of dread that is unmatched by almost any other movie I've ever seen. Add to that a criminally under-awarded performance from Toni Collette (welcome back to the list, queen), Aster's unspeakably nightmarish visual techniques and a pervasively unsettling score from Colin Stetson, you have the horror film to beat. And you can't.
*It's fair to say that the films on the lower end of this list are in a constant state of flux depending on my mood. There are also some other films that might have made the cut on a different day — keep a lookout for another list of Honourable Mentions for those. But my Top 10 is pretty much a lock.
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading! I hope you discovered at least one film you might like to try, and if not, I hope the pictures didn't scare you too much. Send this list on to the horror fans in your life (but warn them I won't care if they disagree with me x ).