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 parts one and two. Continue to part four and the top ten.
In 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream reinvigorated and redefined horror cinema for a new generation. The film’s intense opening death sequence quickly made one thing clear: anyone could die — even the film’s top-billed actress, Drew Barrymore. Scream reads like a typical slasher movie, with a host of teen bodies being gruesomely dispatched by a masked killer. The beauty of Kevin Williamson’s script, however, is in his deconstruction of the genre. The writer and director created a self-aware parody that lovingly pokes at horror film tropes. The cast essentially knows they’re in a movie and is sure to do all the wrong things: party, have sex, and explore strange noises alone. The postmodern approach created clever and genuinely suspenseful moments. Scream made us see predictable horror movie conventions in a fresh, new light, allowing us to find a new appreciation for scary cinema.
Before Paranormal Activity became a popular found footage franchise, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s shaky cam classic was terrifying unsuspecting audiences in 1999 with a convincing viral marketing campaign and a dark mythology tied to the occult and urban legends. The familiarity of Blair Witch’s storyline drew people in, and its presentation felt utterly real. People believed that three filmmaking students had actually disappeared in the Maryland woods. Audiences were convinced they were watching the recovered footage from cameras left behind. Even those that didn’t buy the marketing scheme had a nagging sensation in the back of their minds. The question was always there. The movie was able to stand on its own, apart from the phony websites and trick advertising, presenting some genuinely frightening moments and an effortless simplicity. The impact was similar to The Exorcist 26 years earlier — uniting audiences far and wide as it effectively tapped into our collective consciousness and deep-seated fears.
28. Cat People (1942)
In 1942, French director Jacques Tourneur became the first horror director for legendary producer Val Lewton’s new unit at RKO Pictures. Cat People was born — one of the filmmaker’s biggest successes, which set the tone for his legacy and the duo’s future collaborations. Tourneur and Lewton emphasized mood and atmosphere over cheap thrills, despite their works’ low-budget origins. Scorsese once remarked that Cat People was “as important as Citizen Kane in the development of a more mature American cinema.” Cat People transcended B-movie trappings, aiming to elevate horror to an art with its hypnotic cinematography and incredible use of shadows and subtle, suggestive poetry. The heartbreaking story about a Serbian woman who grapples with unleashing the “cat” within — which prevents her from falling love and having a happy life — presented compelling ideas about the nature of foreignness, femininity, and sexuality.
Any essential horror films list would be remiss to leave out the classic works created by Hammer Films. The British movie studio made their mark on the horror genre in 1957 with their first color feature, The Curse of Frankenstein. The film made fright legends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee stars and gave American monster movies (namely Universal actors Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi) a run for their money. Based on Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Hammer put the focus on Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) instead of the monster (Lee). Lee’s lumbering creature left a lasting impression, however, and his performance evoked the pity and terror associated with the tragic figure. Curse of Frankenstein captivated audiences, spawning a series of trademark gothic horror tales for the production company, and the resurrection of other classic creeps like Dracula, that would become their legacy.
26. Les diaboliques (1955)
The wife of a tyrannical headmaster at a boarding school and his mistress conspire to kill the cruel man, but the body mysteriously vanishes, and the women are haunted by the uncanny experience. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 French horror-thriller is filled with nail-biting suspense and claustrophobic dread, skillfully taunting audiences for the full 114 minutes. Les Diaboliques is known as the greatest movie Hitchcock never made, since the British filmmaker attempted to option the screenplay and lost. The film inspired Hitch’s Psycho, and it’s easy to see why: the pacing, the implied horror, the unbearable anticipation, and its structure. Clouzot’s artistic handling of the dark material and the story’s memorable climax make it a masterpiece of tension.
25. The Birds
A lot has been written about Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds — about a socialite (Tippi Hedren) who endures strange avian attacks while visiting a seaside town — ranging from themes of rape to female sexuality. The maestro successfully made a film that put birds — creatures humans have lived with for eons that are normally associated with freedom and beauty — in the part of the villain and in the realm of horror. Suddenly the winged creatures perched on our rooftops and trees took on a whole new meaning. It was an improbable scenario made terrifying with increasing suspense. Hitch’s quick cuts are impressive and bombard our senses, but the scenes with birds amassing in wait are often more effective. The director shows commanding technique, and his methods have been copied for decades.
24. Peeping Tom
Michael Powell’s controversial 1960 film angered audiences with its sexual, violent overtones, vilifying the filmmaker and destroying his career. It was an unfair stance, considering his stellar work with film partner Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s, but the world was disturbed by Powell’s chilling look at the psychology of a killer. Peeping Tom’s voyeuristic plot about a serial killer who murders women and captures their dying expressions on film made audiences uncomfortable, but the subtext was deeper than mere murder. Martin Scorsese — who had a hand in helping the film reach a wider audience — has often talked about the movie’s self-referential themes. “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two… Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates… From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.” The movie also had a profound impact on the development of slasher cinema and is said to have inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs didn’t posit itself as a horror film, but the movie that goes inside the mind of two serial killers and an FBI recruit is a fright film through and through. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until 1991 that a horror movie first won an Oscar for Best Picture, but Silence of the Lambs broke the barrier for the genre and proved that horror cinema wasn’t defined by cheap and cheesy scares or no-name talent. Hopkins was a celebrated, award-winning actor when he made the adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, and Jodie Foster had been appearing in successful films since she was a child. The film injected a much needed dose of credibility into a genre that is far too often shunned and misunderstood.
Georges Franju’s poetic horror tale Eyes Without a Face terrified audiences with its shocking surgery scene. The visceral moment caused critics to pan the tale about a deranged doctor who kidnaps and kills young women for their skin so he can graft it onto his disfigured daughter. The moment in question happens when the camera reveals Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) slowly peeling back the flesh from his victim’s skull. There was no escaping the flayed and bloody face on screen, and this kind of celluloid confrontation was almost unheard of in 1960 — especially from a director of Franju’s reputation. (He was one of the founders of the famed Cinémathèque Française). Moviegoers reportedly fainted in the aisles, and the scene was unfortunately cut for the American release. Since then, Eyes Without a Face has been recognized as a notable entry in horror cinema, highly influential, skillfully playing with cinema tropes (like the mad scientist archetype), and a masterpiece of fantastical beauty.
21. The Haunting (1963)
Forget Paranormal Activity or The Amityville Horror, The Haunting is the king of haunted house films — a blueprint for horror filmmakers since its 1963 release. Based on a 1959 Shirley Jackson novel, the film finds an anthropologist investigating reported paranormal activity at the creepy Hill House where a questionably sane woman has been weaving an unusual tale. Eventually the Doctor realizes there may be some truth to her story. As the movie unfolds, the eerie chills and tension mounts thanks to Davis Boulton’s dizzying and claustrophobic cinematography. The house becomes its own character in the black-and-white classic — a looming figure that has a tight grip on the film’s characters — and a symbol of feminine anxiety.