As Halloween draws near, you’ll undoubtedly see dozens of lists analyzing the scariest, goriest, and even the funniest of horror films. Nostalgia surrounding the spooky holiday conjures a breathless excitement to seek and share the movies that toy with our deep-seated fears. If you’re new to the horror genre, we don’t want you to feel left out of the fun. We’ve created a list of 50 essential films that will educate and entertain you all month long. Each week, we’ll be counting down to number one and exploring a breadth of titles. Whether you’re looking for a creepy tale to watch on Halloween night, or you’re interested in honing your horror knowledge, check out the second installment in our must-see movies below. Then, catch up with part one, and continue the countdown with parts three, four, and the top ten.
Proms have never felt the same since Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic, which stars Sissy Spacek as the titular girl drenched in gore. Carrie is a character most of us can relate to. She’s an awkward teenager who suffers unjust humiliation from her peers. She struggles to survive puberty and the confusing feelings that sex and love stir up. Meanwhile, her religious mother (the amazing Piper Laurie) forces doomy scripture on her, locks her in closets, and refers to her breasts as “dirty pillows.” Our hearts break for Carrie throughout the film, but it becomes unbearable during the scenes leading up to her shining moment on stage, accepting the crown for prom queen. We know what her bullying classmates have in store for her, and the image of Carrie covered in pig’s blood makes a lasting impression. De Palma elevated what could have been a mere B-horror adaptation, maintaining author Stephen King’s dark, feminist subtext. Hitchcock references throughout the film make it signature De Palma (those violins are from Psycho and Carrie attends “Bates High”).
Fans of Sam Raimi’s cult classic series, which kicked off in 1981 with The Evil Dead, can’t get enough of the demon-slaying Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his trusty chainsaw. The first film finds Ash and friends hanging out in a remote cabin where they accidentally resurrect the dead. The film has a decidedly horror feel, but ventures into slapstick for the quotable Evil Dead II. Although the tone is more lighthearted in the sequel, Raimi doesn’t skimp on the gore. His hyper direction keeps the action going. Campbell owns the movie. His comedic timing, snarky coolness, entertaining physical stunts, and regular Joe persona make him extremely likable and relatable. We feel comfortable endorsing The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II equally. For over-the-top fun, pop in Evil Dead II — which many fans will tell you is basically a rehash of the first film, made more absurd. It also lets you seamlessly transition to the third movie, Army of Darkness. To see Raimi’s inspired direction — an early example of low budget filmmaking at its finest — Evil Dead is what you’re looking for.
38. The Wolf Man (1941)
Part Greek tragedy, part Universal monster movie, The Wolf Man is a classic terror tale that established cinema’s werewolf mythology. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s heart-rending performance as Larry Talbot, the man struggling with the lycanthrope within, made him a legend. His torment is powerfully felt in the gothic, atmospheric backdrop and Curt Siodmak’s original script, emphasizing Talbot’s pathos. The nocturnal creature is brought to life through Jack Pierce’s groundbreaking special effects sequences.
Western audiences were introduced to the work of controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike when his disturbing Audition arrived on scene in 1999. Although he’s a filmmaker associated with extreme horror and brutal death sequences, he shows an admirable, chilling restraint in Audition — at least until the squirm-inducing final fifteen minutes. Indeed, Audition is unflinchingly visceral, but it tempers the film’s obvious, shocking moments with a dark, psychosexual undercurrent. The movie makes many twisted, psychological turns and contains several interesting feminist notes. Filmmaker Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is pressured to remarry after the passing of his wife, and he holds a mock audition to screen for a new partner. He falls instantly for the graceful and mysterious Asami (Eihi Shiina), who appears to embody Aoyama’s ideal, perpetuating the movie’s blurry lines between fantasy and chilling reality. Asami’s final performance is her most crucial act, but also the most gruesome.
Hideo Nakata’s Ringu rekindled an interest in Japanese horror and introduced American audiences to a now overused horror cinema trope: the vengeful, malevolent ghost girl (based on the mythological figure, the yūrei). The film’s fabled elements are nicely integrated into an urban legend-inspired storyline about a cursed videotape. Nakata’s atmospheric direction is probably the movie’s strongest asset, creating tense scares and striking imagery — like the famous scene where our ghost girl crawls through a television. See Ringu to find out where its American counterpart The Ring, and movies like Ju-on (remade as The Grudge), got their inspiration.
The 1980s was a decade of masked madmen and slasher film stories, but Clive Barker’s Hellraiser stood apart from the machete-wielding killers by presenting an adult-oriented fairy tale filled with dark sexuality. Hellraiser contains a wicked stepmother, but she hardly holds a candle to Barker’s Cenobites — dark guardians of hell that were once human. Their insatiable appetites led them to open a mysterious puzzle box, transforming them into mutilated figures that espouse pleasure through pain. They are summoned by others seeking unearthly delights, which is how we first meet them. Doug Bradley’s Pinhead makes for an imposing and intriguing horror villain and is reason alone to watch Barker’s adaptation of his novella, The Hellbound Heart.
34. The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg’s The Fly — a remake of the 1958 Kurt Neumann movie — is as eccentric as its lead character, brilliantly played by Jeff Goldblum. The Fly is the most accessible body horror tale from Cronenberg — a surreal mix of quirky comedy, a tragi-romantic plotline, and poignant subtext meditating on the effects of disease and death. Cronenberg transcends the films sci-fi origins with his signature visceral touches and gut-wrenching gore. An intelligent script and a sympathetic performance from Goldblum counterbalance the gross-out effect.
Two American men backpack through England, but their trip comes to a screeching halt when a creature lurking in the moors attacks. John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is entrenched in classic werewolf mythology, and the film’s opening sounds like standard horror movie fare. It doesn’t take long to realize that the 1981 film is far more clever and endearing. AWIL’s horror-comedy quotient became the template for future funny fright films. Rick Baker’s groundbreaking special effects, particularly during the transformation sequence, are still a marvel to watch.
32. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the most claustrophobic horror films ever created. Based on John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? and the 1951 Howard Hawks movie of the same name, the story centers on a group of men (played by Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Charles Hallahan, Keith David, and Richard Dysart) stationed at a remote Antarctic research facility. Things go terribly wrong when a shape-shifting creature infiltrates the center and slowly erodes the bond of the group. It’s a tense, terrifying 109 minutes that immediately puts us in the paranoid mindframe of Carpenter’s characters as they become increasingly isolated from their humanity. The ending is as nihilistic as you’re imagining right now.
The term “torture porn” is a dismissive, tiresome, and lazy label that was first attached to Eli Roth’s Hostel in 2005. Critics and audiences alike were quick to dismiss Roth’s film about a group of backpackers who fall prey to a sadistic underground group due to its graphic violence and depiction of torture. Beneath the grime and gore is a surprisingly complex storyline in which Roth admirably arouses our sympathies for a group of homophobic, immature bro-dudes we would otherwise rail against. The director raises questions about sexual and ethnic panic, as well as American ignorance and disposable commodity culture. The boys are a product of society, naively content on using the bodies of foreign femme fatales — an act they pay a steep price for later on as their own flesh is farmed out for fun and profit. The gore is challenging, but the conclusions Roth leads us to before pushing us off the cliff are equally disturbing.