We’ve just had Halloween, which comes with an onslaught of horror movies on TV and at special multiplex screenings. They’re always the same every year, with the likes of The Exorcist, Halloween and The Shining appearing in special one-off events. But are these films the scariest ever made?
A truly scary film is something genuinely remarkable – two hours of discomfort, fear and nervousness that, when put together, create the truly unique adrenaline rush that all genre fans recognise. Hours later, the film’s creeping sense of dread still remains as you shrink away from every shadow and shrink away from every noise, no matter how slight.
Some of these truly terrifying movies are minimal and rely on suggestion. Others are thick with blood and violence. Either way, they leave an imprint behind that is tough to forget every year when Halloween rolls around.
Here are the ten scariest films ever made…
10. Eden Lake (2008)
The first entry on this list is also the most recent. British director James Watkins, who would go on to terrify the world again in The Woman in Black, made a real splash with this shocking tale of urban yuppies terrorised by a gang of violent youths. Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly both give committed performances and Jack O’Connell is genuinely frightening as the feral leader of the youngsters, who deals out horrible violence frequently and without much warning.
There’s real tension to the story, which builds to a shockingly bleak finale. It’s a tough watch, with genuine grit and some truly horrible scenes of brutality that remain difficult to watch even eight years after the film first arrived on the big screen.
9. The Shining (1980)
What is there to say about The Shining? Stanley Kubrick‘s atmospheric, chilling tale of madness remains a unique cinematic experience, whether you think it’s a simple horror movie or an admission that Kubrick faked the moon landings. The story follows Jack Nicholson’s increasingly tortured Jack Torrance as he is driven insane by the villainy concealed within the remote Overlook Hotel, ultimately driving him towards attempting to murder his entire family. This is a film about more than just the iconic, eye-catching scenes. It’s a tale of creeping, measured dread enhanced by Kubrick’s signature icy detachment.
Stephen King, author of the book on which the film was based, famously hates what Kubrick did with the story, and it’s certainly different. Treated as a completely separate entity, though, The Shining is a remarkable example of slow-burn terror. In Danny’s encounter with the Grady twins, it also has one of the scariest single scenes on this entire list. It is etched in my mind forever.
8. Alien (1979)
A lot of people don’t think of Ridley Scott‘s Alien as a horror movie, perhaps because of the move towards action and sci-fi in the sequels. However, Scott’s original is essentially just a haunted house movie set on a spacecraft, as the crew of the Nostromo try to avoid the clutches of the genuinely terrifying xenomorph. Created by the late HR Giger, the phallic creation is one of horror’s greatest villains from the moment it explodes out of John Hurt‘s chest.
Alien is rightly best remembered for giving Sigourney Weaver one of the most badass female roles in history. It’s also a truly terrifying watch that packs in tonnes of excellent jump scares along with innovative, and indeed Oscar-winning, special effects. Scott has a tremendous sense of what it means to create a tense sequence – and there’s the cat of course.
7. Audition (1999)
In the late nineties and early noughties, J-horror was big business. Some of the scariest films in the world were coming from Japan and prolific director Takashi Miike was at the top of the pile. His best work is Audition, which follows a hapless man who stages auditions to find himself a new partner. The lover he finds, Asami, seems sweet and innocent, but she actually has a tonne of skeletons in her closet… and an enormous, mysterious sack in her apartment. The rather innocuous, if a little worrying, setup doesn’t really even hint at the horrors that eventually come about as the film moves into its final third.
Audition goes in exceedingly dark directions as it nears its climax, with there being considerably more to Asami than her initially sweet appearance suggests. Miike has a real affinity for the messed up, which comes across here in scenes of violence and torture that imprint themselves upon the mind of anyone who is able to sit through the whole thing. But nothing’s as terrifying as what is lurking in that sack.
6. Repulsion (1965)
When you think of Roman Polanski’s contribution to the horror canon, you probably think of Rosemary’s Baby. Three years before that film hit cinemas, though, Polanski made his scariest film ever – Repulsion. It’s a simple film that positions Catherine Deneuve’s heroine in an apartment on her own and allows her to gradually go insane in truly terrifying fashion. Nowadays, a version of this story would be riddled with noisy jump scares and creeping around in the dark, but Polanski’s black and white film is a more atmospheric affair keener on delivering genuine chills than easy jolts.
Deneuve’s performance is of an ethereal, wide-eyed innocence, with clear damage beneath the surface that is only hinted at by the enigmatic script. It’s not as clear a story as many of the other entries on this list but, for pure terror, there are moments in Repulsion that rival anything else horror cinema has ever produced.
5. Psycho (1960)
It wouldn’t be right to do a list of horror’s scariest films without turning to the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. His most terrifying film is Psycho, which may be an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a reason. From the ballsy decision to kill its main character early on to the genuinely horrifying scares of the finale, Psycho is a precision-tooled work of suspense that knows exactly how to get under its audience’s skin and when to pull the trigger on its biggest shocks.
Anthony Perkins deserves all of the plaudits for his creepy-crawly performance as Norman Bates – even in the final scene of exposition that nobody seems to like. It’s a perfect portrayal of the scarily ordinary murderer next door, nursing all manner of psychoses as he hides away to run his seedy little motel. Then there’s Bernard Herrmann’s outstanding score, which everyone recognises and knows exactly what it means – someone is getting slashed to death.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The late 1970s and early 1980s were the domain of the slasher movie when it came to Hollywood horror. Other people would make cogent arguments for the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th to appear on this list but, for me, they are dwarfed in the fear stakes by the majestically macabre A Nightmare on Elm Street. The late Wes Craven created something truly remarkable with Freddy Krueger and the central conceit of teens being murdered in the vulnerable world of their dreams is simply ingenious. Throw in the tremendous Robert Englund as the deformed, knife-fingered Krueger and you have the recipe for one of the scariest movies ever.
Later installments in the Elm Street franchise would amp up the camp of Englund’s performance, but the perverse mixture of comedy and darkness in this first film makes Krueger all the more terrifying. The kills are violent, sudden and inventive and there’s real suspense in the unusual landscape of the various dreams. It also has one of the best, and most ridiculous, final scares in horror history.
3. Spoorloos (1988)
Some horror films become people’s favourite movies and stories they return to over and over again. Many of the films on this list are films that I count as favourites and will watch repeatedly. There are some horror films, though that are so potent and powerful that they deal a brutal punch to the gut that you don’t want to ever experience again. Spoorloos, more commonly known as The Vanishing, is a Dutch movie from director George Sluizer that has a final twist of the knife so shocking and bleak that it all but ensures I will never see the film again. But that doesn’t prevent it from being a horror masterpiece.
The film follows Gene Bervoets as a desperate man trying to track down his partner, who disappeared years before. Sluizer makes the brave decision early in the movie to introduce us to Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s character, who kidnapped and killed Bervoets’ partner. On the face of it, this would seem to rob the story of its mystery hook, but it instead allows Sluizer to build almost unbearable tension as to why Donnadieu is such a cold and unusual villain. By the time that final moment, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, happens, the film has wormed itself deeply into your brain, only to blow your grey matter apart with one of the darkest twists the movies have ever produced.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Horror films have a reputation for representing the grim, dirty corner of cinema. Never is that more true than in the case of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is a low-budget, grisly tale about a cannibal family and a man waving a power tool about. Tobe Hooper‘s film is palpably filthy and baked in the scorching Texan sun that was every bit as traumatic for the cast as it is for the film’s characters as they are stalked by the chainsaw-toting killer Leatherface. The action culminates in a horrific dinner table sequence that cements Marilyn Burns as one of the most committed “final girls” in horror history.
Beyond anything else, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an oppressive work. There’s never any comfort for the audience, which is chucked into the deep end of this world and asked to inhale every foul stench that comes with it. Hooper deliberately limited the on-screen gore in the hope of scooping a PG rating and it’s certainly true that there’s a great deal less blood in the film than you probably remember. The film’s power comes from its tone, its setting and Hooper’s uncompromising camera, which never turns away from the worst that humanity has to offer. There’s no sense of the supernatural in Chainsaw, and that’s what makes it terrifying.
1. The Descent (2005)
The best horror films are terrifying before anything scary actually happens. A prime example of this phenomenon is The Descent, which follows a group of women on a spelunking expedition deep underground. They are eventually stalked by alien-like creatures, but the film is terrifying before we even glimpse one. Director Neil Marshall, today best known for directing many of the bigger Game of Thrones episodes, knows exactly where to put his camera to enhance the inherent claustrophobia of the surroundings, whilst also teasing out the personal relationships between the characters.
Marshall’s film is a genuinely difficult watch, which makes the most of its surroundings to scare the audience silly. It’s minimal in its production and maximises every aspect of his characters to convey the unique insanity of the strange world beneath the ground where it is set. The ‘crawlers’ are terrifying, particularly in their first jump scare arrival, but it’s the humans who are the scariest in The Descent.
Do you agree with my list of the scariest films ever made? Which movies really get under your skin? Let me know in the comments section.