It’s that time of year again, when everything becomes that little bit sinister. Pumpkins are scarred with faces etched onto them, apples are blistered with hot toffee and everyone hawks a best-of shortlist that’s tenuously Halloween related.
ShortList wouldn’t stoop so low, so we are merely presenting a list of horror movies that are the scariest ever.
We would never pigeon hole these films to be watched only over Halloween - but if you were to watch them on that most frightening of days then you would get one helluva scare.
Scariest movies of all time
1. Ringu (2002)
While the idea of a haunted video cassette is a touch dated now, there’s still inherent terror in Ringu (The Ring). This J-Horror classic burns imagery into your brain that just won’t leave. The jittery sight of a long-haired girl ghost emerging out of the TV is pure horror in itself but what it symbolises is far scarier. This is a film that (literally) moves beyond the screen - at one point we witness what’s on the cursed tape in full, making us a potential next victim, and not just a passive viewer. These heady concepts make Ringu that bit more real and send shivers down the spine.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
50 years on and The Exorcist’s power to shock is still there. Based loosely on a true story of apparent possession, the movie digs deep into mythos to conjure a cruel spirit that resides in the body of Regan (Linda Blair), a child. What ensues is an assault on the senses, with no-nonsense director William Friedkin using brute force to bring his demon to life, through graphic imagery and a powerhouse physical performance by Blair (and let’s not forget Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of possessor Pazuzu). Faith is questioned, pea soup is spewed and, best of all, you will be terrified throughout.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Freddy Krueger is one of the best known horror villains and while in recent years he was turned into a comedy caricature, his debut on the big screen is one of sheer horror. Wes Craven got the idea of the movie after reading about a spate of deaths, thanks to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). This shape-shifted into A Nightmare on Elm Street, about a group of teenagers who are slain in their sleep by Freddy, a scarred child murderer with a glove of knives. The whole thing is pure nightmare fuel, buoyed by a superb performance by Robert Englund as Freddy. “One, Two…”
4. Halloween (1978)
Halloween is the movie that created the slasher genre, bringing horror to the sleepy suburbs of America. Michael Myers is terrifying as the ultimate monster - seemingly without emotion, just out to kill his prey. Whether he is popping up in broad daylight on the street, or in a house packed with victims, his presence is deeply unsettling, As for that music… sorry, we’re going to have to go and turn a light on.
5. The Thing (1982)
The fear of the unknown is threaded throughout The Thing. The story, about a shape-shifting alien terrorising a group of researchers in the Antarctic, is perfect horror fodder because anything could be the alien. Mix this paranoia with the isolation of the setting and what you have is one of the scariest films ever made - one that was ignored and lambasted on release but now rightly regarded as a classic of the genre.
6. The Shining (1980)
The Shining is a horror movie that lingers long after the credits roll. Its tale, of a writer who takes his family to an empty hotel to help him write, is one of demons: the demon drink that has hold of Jack Torrance (a stunning Jack Nicholson) and the demons that permeate the building and beyond. It’s a haunting movie, one that douses the viewer in dread. While there are jump scares, the woman in the tub is as striking a scene as they come, the terror here is constant and feels very real.
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
There’s a real nastiness to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, making it one of the most uncomfortable movies to watch. It’s rough-looking, almost homemade feel makes it all the more real and while there’s implied gore, you don’t actually see that much. But you know it’s there, covering everything with a grime and seaminess that you can almost smell. As for Leatherface, he and his feral family’s actions are both sadistic and animalistic, playing with their prey before going in for the kill. While the ending offers some hope, the screams that precede it bring home that nothing will be the same again.
8. Psycho (1960)
There are 52 cuts in the infamous Psycho shower scene but we see no actual ‘cuts’ from the knife, such is the mastery of Alfred Hitchcock’s direction. Psycho is a fantastic film of firsts. It was one of the first to kill off its lead actress (Janet Leigh) shortly into the movie, making a statement that anything could go. It was also one of the first to hint that the normal person next door could be a psychopath. Heck, it was even among the first to show a flushing toilet on screen, upending the conservative norms that had a hold of cinema at the time. All of this makes for a deeply unsettling, scary movie that still brings chills today.
9. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Very much one to watch only if you can separate art from the artist, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a masterclass in terror and a movie that proves you don’t need jump scares or gore to put the fear of God into your audience. Instead Rosemary's Baby offers foreboding in spades, with a creeping sense that a pregnant Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) paranoia, because there is a conspiracy against her, turns out to be true - horrifically so.
10. Don’t Look Now (1973)
There’s nothing more frightening than the idea of witnessing your child die. It’s no wonder, then, that this is the central motif of Don’t Look Now - a moment of devastating grief that haunts John Baxter (a sublime Donald Sutherland) continuously, so much so that he starts getting visions of a child in the same red coat while working in Venice. Nic Roeg’s beautiful direction creates a fragmented, dream-like movie that questions what is reality throughout. While there are moments of sheer terror, the film balances this by painting a picture of a loving, incredibly intimate relationship between John and his wife, Laura (a fantastic Julie Christie). All of this makes the cold, abrupt ending all the more shocking.