Even people who aren’t fans of the horror film genre have to cede that there’s something to its longevity. Something has sustained people’s appetite for scary movies over the past 125 years (and counting). Sociological analyses, such as Vanity Fair’s video “A History of Horror Movies: 1896-2018,” have identified a symbiotic relationship between, and parallel evolution of, horror subgenres and real-world phenomena. Psychological analyses like Dr. Mark Griffiths’ article “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?” point to clearly defined patterns of attraction that self-perpetuate the genre. Whatever the explanation, the fact remains, horror is here to stay.
Personally, what draws me in is the novelty of being made to feel something that is hard to evoke through art: real fear. I’m impressed when something artistic can achieve that. It’s comparable, in my opinion, to admiring a basketball player who can hit a shot from downtown, from way across the court. There’s something vicariously gratifying there, and it’s the same for me with scary movies. If a horror movie can actually scare me, I love it for that reason alone.
True, horror films are known for their abysmal acting and even worse screenwriting. And the ones with budgets rivaling the amount of loose change in your car seal the deal for utter failure by having laughably unconvincing gore, too. So, how could any movie in that genre manage to get deeply enough inside my psyche to disarray my sense of security? Well, some just beat the odds and get it right. For me, they’re all ones in the supernatural subgenre, but that’s just a matter of personal preference. I find ghosts and demons horrifying in a way nothing else can be.
Examining 31 horror movies (alphabetized but not ranked), I present my spoiler-free take on the good ones, the bad ones and the immortal ones. They’re mostly supernatural horror flicks because those are the ones I tend to watch, but not all of them are in that subgenre. None of them are found-footage films or faux documentaries because I get so bored watching those that it makes me angry. After 10 or 15 minutes into one of those movies, I’m too pissed off and impatient to keep watching, and I inevitably bail on the movie – even if I paid money to watch it. Accordingly, films like “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), “Paranormal Activity” (2007) and “A Haunting in …” (Connecticut, Georgia, etc. – fill in the blank) are not included in this list. Nor are zombie movies included, as I’m too squeamish to watch those. (We all have our limits.)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Immortal
This movie is immortal because it used a concept that no other horror movie ever had at that time. If you read the IMDb trivia, you’ll see how Wes Craven came up with the idea and lead character, and you’ll probably agree with me on how inventive he was. Because of its originality, this movie has passed the test of time and is still worth watching. The acting in it is robotic and melodramatic, and the special effects are helplessly dated, yes. But it’s one of the classics you really should see. (Just don’t watch any of the sequels.)
This movie has superb acting and fosters a simultaneous love of and hatred for the main character through an ingenious screenplay. It’s shamelessly playful with really dark subjects, and it spawns a twinge of guilt in the viewer for playing along by watching. Plus, it’s relentless in mocking people who are obsessed with image and others’ approval – which I applaud. That satirical overtone actually causes some people not to classify this as a horror movie though. (Rotten Tomatoes does, but IMDb doesn’t.) As for me, I think the content in it fits neatly in the slasher subgenre of horror.
Annabelle (2014) Good
This movie surprised me by how good it is. I was expecting a hokey killer-doll story, but this one has depth and deals with something – in my opinion – that’s far more credible. The casting and acting are great, and the movie is part of a neatly stitched-together three-film series – all of which I recommend.
Candyman (1992) Bad
I know, I know, some would consider this an immortal flick. I just can’t commit to labeling it that though. This movie has too many plot holes for me to suspend my disbelief and enjoy it. So many things in it are non sequiturs, and too many things that need to be acknowledged and addressed simply aren’t. So, I can’t recommend this one – not even as a Halloween classic.
Although I can’t compare this to the original “Child’s Play” (1988), I can compare it to something that successfully pulled off having a kid’s toy as the supernatural antagonist: “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964), Season 5, Episode 6, “Living Doll.” From that, I know for a fact that this storyline can be skillfully executed and creepy. So, although I bristle at the premise being ludicrous, I’m not categorically opposed to it. However, I can’t say I was impressed by how the “Child’s Play” reboot played out, simply for its failure to be taken seriously enough to be scary.
Evil Dead (2013) Good
Not to be confused with “The Evil Dead” (1981) (a comedy against its will), this movie is actually scary and supremely entertaining. It runs a bit long, and there are multiple times when it feels like the story has reached an organic point of closure but keeps going. Still, it’s one I’ve rewatched several times and don’t find fatiguing.
If you’re the kind of person who always expects the worst to happen, you’ll feel right at home watching this series. What I enjoy about all the “Final Destination” films is how clever the death sequences are. It’s a great blend of “that could happen to anyone” and “when it’s your time, it’s your time.” The formula does get tiresome from one movie to the next, but you can always enjoy the blockbuster opening scenes, if nothing else.
I have no idea how this franchise lasted as long as it did (or will still), or why this is usually included among the Halloween/scary movie classics. I was brutally disappointed by how lame and uninteresting it was when I watched the first one. Trying to be open-minded, I watched other ones in the franchise, convinced I was missing something because this series is so popular. Nope. Each “Friday the 13th” installment is worse than the one that came before it.
Halloween (1978) Immortal
This is my favorite among the classic horror movies because I appreciate the depth of its lead antagonist, Michael Myers (Tony Moran, Tyler Mane). Let’s face it, a character study is nothing you’d expect from a slasher; most movies of this nature are shallow and formulaic. With “Halloween” though, you actually become intellectually invested in why the characters behave as they do. To get the most out of the 1978 version though, you really should also watch the remake, “Halloween” (2007). Each film has details about the franchise’s canon that are included in one version but not both. For example, there’s an extensive Michael Myers backstory in the 2007 version that isn’t in the original, but that complements the original well. So, the two, together, paint a fuller picture. After you watch those two movies, I recommend that you watch “Halloween II” (1981), skip “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982) (don’t say I didn’t warn you) and enjoy the rest of the series. The remake of the second film, “Halloween II” (2009), is worth watching because it’s entertaining, but it strays from canon and follows the director’s (Rob Zombie) own path. So, I wouldn’t include it in a “Halloween” series binge.
If this had been pitched to me as a sci-fi/fantasy movie instead of a horror movie, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. It’s remarkably imaginative and creative, and the special effects’ deficiencies don’t obstruct the story’s progression. But it is not scary. At all. Watch this just to say you’ve seen all the classics (my motivation), but don’t bother saving it for Halloween season.
This is a kitschy movie that kind of has you rooting for the bad guy, even if you feel bad about it. I foresee this (and the rest of the trilogy, “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005) and “3 From Hell” (2019)) becoming an immortal horror movie in a cult-classic kind of way. It’s full of quotable one-liners (in a good way), and it has wonderfully developed characters. Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding in the film) is always hilarious, and Sheri Moon Zombie (wife of director Rob Zombie) is on-point as the seductive and vicious female lead.
Insidious (2010) Good
For years, this movie held the honor of being the scariest movie to me. It still would be if I hadn’t become anesthetized to it from watching it so many times. That said, even when I watch it now and know what’s about to happen in a scene, it still gets to me. And I’m not talking about cheap jump-scares; I mean real, get-inside-your-head scares. I watch this when I want a familiar scary movie that I know can still play with my mind. The second, third and fourth installments are worth checking out too, but this one is the best.
It (2017) Good
I like this movie, but I’ll admit that you have to appreciate (or at least be tolerant of) drawn-out character development to enjoy it. If you’re not, you’ll be chomping at the bit for the next action scene. It’s reminiscent of remakes that take homage a little too far and produce carbon copies of the original (e.g., “Psycho” (1998)), with slightly different dialogue, improved special effects and fresh actors. I haven’t seen the original TV miniseries “It” (1990), so I can’t determine whether that’s the case with “It” (2017). But this movie doesn’t seem to cater to a 2017 audience’s attention span. That said, it’s still got great characters and plenty of originality, so it can still hook you.
Nosferatu (1922) Immortal
This isn’t your typical silent movie with mimed lines and word cards proudly displaying painfully corny lines in some ancient, illegible cursive font. Sure, the shoddy editing and jerky cinematography scream “1920s” and make it kind of difficult to follow the storyline. But it’s still timelessly spooky, trust me. Watching it, you’ll feel genuinely transported to the eerie streets of 1830s Transylvania. It won’t give you nightmares (or will it …), but this movie will impress you by how scary it actually is for something this aged and primitive.
Poltergeist (1982) Immortal
This is the definitive Halloween season movie. It’s got the right grisly ambiance, and it’s riveting. I’ll leave it at that; it’s too easy to drop spoilers.
If the occult spooks you, you’ll find this movie deeply unsettling. Myself, I find it more fascinating than frightening, but I still recommend it. What I like most about this movie is that it’s not predictable. There are plenty of horror movies whose scripts are so transparent you can practically mouth the dialogue in real time the first time you see them. But this one got it right when it comes to changing things up. Plus, I enjoy the authenticity of the characters. They all have purposeful dialogue. And there aren’t any scenes that are there just to pad the runtime, either.
Some of the scenes in this movie are ones I can envision taking place in my own home, so the film’s relatability won my fear. It’s not horrifying, but it’s got a few things that will linger in your thoughts, for sure. The casting matches the characters, and it’s got solid acting and screenwriting.
This is a horror movie finely crafted for horror movie fanatics in particular. You don’t have to be a fan of the genre to enjoy it, but you’ll get a lot more out of your movie-watching experience if you are one. It holds a special place in my horror collection because of how personal it is.
The Conjuring (2013) Good
This is another movie that will likely become immortal. In addition to its sequel, “The Conjuring 2” (2016), this movie uses fantastic visuals and perfectly cast characters to tell a genuinely scary story. I put this on when I want a legit, not-gonna-sleep-tonight scare. I can’t wait for the third installment to come out in 2021.
The Crow (1994) Immortal
Not confined to the Goth crowd, this movie can please anyone who appreciates vengeance and true love. The casting is flawless, with Eric Draven played by the late Brandon Lee, an actor whose performance sells the idea of being a vulnerable, smitten star-crossed lover even in the afterlife. You have to forgive the cringe-inducing one-liners fed to the main villain (it came out in the ’90s, after all), but the film’s overall vibe is captivating and one you’ll want to re-experience.
The Exorcist (1973) Immortal
This movie predates the era of high-tech special effects, but it doesn’t constantly remind you of that while you’re watching it – something very few older movies can pull off. It’s from 1973, yes, but you don’t have to continually give it that caveat while watching it. The screenwriting, casting, cinematography, score and everything else in this masterpiece of horror won’t put you in a time warp. I put this on when I’m in the mood for a classic that lives up to its reputation.
With a cast led by Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, you’d expect a great film, right? Well, even when granting it leeway for being a horror movie, I find this movie simply to be poorly written. It has more (unintentional) laughs in it than scares, which is why it was an easy target – not to mention, the core parody – in “Scary Movie 2” (2001). It’s not a movie I’d ever spend money on to see again. If someone else has it on and I’m bored, I’ll sit still for it … if they have good snacks and tasty beverages to offer me too anyhow. (Note: This came out around the same time as “House on Haunted Hill” (1999), which is equally unwatchable.)
Despite being rated R, this is – in my opinion – more of a lighthearted, family-friendly gory horror flick. I like it because of how imaginative the ghosts are, and I like Matthew Lillard and Rah Digga as the comic relief duo. I go long periods in between re-watching this one (that only sounds odd to people who don’t watch the same movie over and over, I realize) because it’s not captivating. But it’s good enough to be in my home horror collection.
The Nun (2018) Bad
This spinoff of “The Conjuring 2” (2016) (a must-must-must see) had such promise. The character’s action in its source film is very scary, and the costume design amplifies the terror. (I even bought a painting of that nun.) So … what happened?? This movie is corny and ludicrous. Plus, thinking nothing of it, they cast as the lead the real-life younger sister (Taissa Farmiga) of the female lead (Vera Farmiga) in “The Conjuring.” That wouldn’t matter (especially since Taissa is a great actress), except she looks exactly like her sister. So, viewers were made to wonder the whole time what the connection was between the two characters – which would actually have been a really cool story arc. But nope, no connection, just dead-end confusion.
I didn’t discover this movie until 2020 somehow, but it was another hidden treasure that’s become a personal favorite. It walks the line between found-footage and traditional film styles, but manages to be what no found-footage film ever is: convincing. Moreover, it’s entertaining from start to finish – another thing no purely found-footage film achieves. You don’t have to wait until the last 10 or 15 minutes of the film to be scared, and the payoff isn’t as shallow as being startled by a loud noise. Plus, it gives you some real-world ideas to consider (if you don’t already).
The Ring (2002) Good
This one scared me so much when I first saw it that I still remember how that moment felt. I was watching it on a laptop computer, no less, not even a big-screen TV – and it still chilled me. It really left its mark. Seeing it now, I’m more of a fan than afraid, but it’s still a scary movie. I put this on when I want to watch a ruthless villain and get a good dose of folk lore.
The Shining (1980) Immortal
This movie will never, ever, ever go out of style – ever. If you’re like me and read all the IMDb trivia for movies, you’ll know why this movie has remained in the horror spotlight for as long as it has. Director Stanley Kubrick put a lot of work into squeezing the most out of his talented cast, and it shows. Also part of this film’s allure is its refusal to make everything perfectly clear for viewers (a Kubrick trademark, I’m told). There are many things that are left open for discussion, and plenty of things that will make you second-guess what you thought you knew about the film. Tragically, that kind of sophistication is completely missing in the nominal sequel, “Doctor Sleep” (2019), which had to force a connection to “The Shining” (1980) to get away with a shameless cash-grab.
The Sixth Sense (1999) Immortal
With a plot twist that’s been imitated ad nauseum since 2000, it’s hard to appreciate how unique this was when it first came out, watching it today. It lives on because of its originality though, and its storyline is purposeful and driven along by value-adding dialogue, not transparent excuses to cut to the next scene. I watch this one both to relive 1990s horror and to appreciate the bravery of the lead protagonist, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment).
This movie has more jump-scares than it needs to, in my opinion. Unlike some scary movies, it doesn’t need cheap “gotchas” to compensate for insecure directing or screenwriting; it’s good enough all on its own. It has just the right levels of creepiness and mystery, and the set design is really good. Plus, it’s got a very intricate emotional side to it that’s really effective to the plot.
I checked this out because I kept seeing merchandise for it in every Halloween store; having seen it, I’m glad I wasn’t suckered into buying any. It’s the Halloween-season equivalent of “Movie 43” (2013), but with an attempt – a failed attempt – at Tarantino’s storytelling style. It comprises short stories, each progressively worse than the first, that are loosely linked in the end.
White Noise (2005) Good
This is another movie that scared me out of my seat (yes, literally) when I first saw it. Sadly, the special effects are really dated now, so although it’s still scary, it’s not nearly as scary. If you believe in electronic voice phenomena (EVP), then your heart is really going to be racing while watching this.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice- over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.