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From Nosferatu to Get Out: The Best Horror Movies of all Time

There are a lot of great horror films out there, but some still rank among the best of the best.

By Matthew Jackson

We talk about horror a lot around these parts, whether that means new releases or forgotten classics that just don't get the recognition they deserve. Sometimes, though, you just want to focus on the films that are the cream of the crop.

Over the course of the last century, horror cinema has evolved with the times, but it's never strayed from its genre powerhouse status, its ability to say something profound about our shared fears, and of course, its ability to scare the living hell out of us.

RELATED: Universal Monsters, ranked

So, from the earliest silent masterpieces to modern hits that will stand the test of time, these are our picks for the best horror films of all time.

Check out our list of the greatest horror movies ever

Nosferatu (1922)

Yes, F.W. Murnau's legendary (unauthorized) Dracula adaptation is important. In terms of its impact on generations of moviegoers, movie scholars, and movie makers, it's one of the most vital horror films ever made, so naturally, it's on the list. But it's not just about cultural cache. Even now, more than a century after it was made, Nosferatu is just plain scary. Shots of Max Schreck standing wide-eyed in the corridors of his ruined castle can still make your hair stand on end no matter how many times you've seen them, and that's an incredible achievement for one of the most-referenced works of cinematic art ever.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

After the formula of the Universal Monster movies was established in the 1930s, the time came for filmmakers to go back and start to play with it, finding new ways to express the roles of the title characters and creatures which inhabited the world. With Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale took on the horror elements of his original film and dialed them into blackly comic territory, delivering a horror masterpiece that's as funny and strange as it is genuinely creepy. 

Psycho (1960)

After years of successful Technicolor thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock got together with the crew from his TV series and shot an intimate, deeply disturbing black and white film set at a roadside motel, and made horror history in the process. Psycho is not the first slasher story, nor is it the first precursor to the slasher genre that would blossom 15 years later, but it is still one of the most impressively dread-filled meditations on a killer in cinema history. All these years later, even when you know the shocks are coming, they still land.

RELATED: 'Psycho' vs 'The Birds': Here's how these two Hitchcock horror classics stack up

Black Sunday (1960)

The horror cinema of Italy would prove broadly, delightfully influential around the world throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and it arguably all starts with Mario Bava's occult masterpiece. Featuring a tremendous villain performance by Barbara Steele, and some of the most beautiful photography of Bava's entire career, Black Sunday remains one of Italy's greatest genre cinema triumphs, and has influenced everyone from Dario Argento to Tim Burton.

The Innocents (1961)

More than a century after its publication, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw remains one of the greatest and most influential ghost stories ever told. More than 60 years after its release, Jack Clayton's adaptation of the story, the hypnotic and stunning The Innocents, remains the best onscreen version of the tale. Led by Deborah Kerr's wonderful performance as a governess haunted by the secrets of the house where she's just arrived to work, it's one of the great haunted house movies of all time, and one of the most beautifully shot and chilling understated horror films ever made.

The Haunting (1963)

Robert Wise's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is just one in a long line of new takes on not just the original story, but the formula perfected by that story. Like many films that followed, it's the story of a group of people visiting a spooky old house to try and find evidence of ghosts, and getting more than they bargained for in the process. But no other film since The Haunting has been able to do it in such an achingly, dreadfully beautiful way. In Wise's subtle hands, Hill House becomes a character in frightening new ways, and the film keeps your pulse high without ever revealing a single actual ghost. 

Kwaidan (1964)

There's no shortage of Japanese horror masterpieces in the world, but Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan remains a masterpiece among masterpieces. Arguably the greatest horror anthology ever made, this epic film and the four ghost stories it contains is as terrifying as it spellbinding, and features some of the most beautiful photography in any horror film you've ever seen.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

The moment that opening music hits, you know you're in for something special with Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski's 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin's novel of the same name. By now, even people who haven't seen this film know the premise: A young pregnant woman (Mia Farrow doing some of her best work) navigates the strangeness of the new apartment building she shares with her husband, only to find he may have made a deal with the devil that explains her pregnancy. But Rosemary herself doesn't know that story, and watching Farrow experience it in harrowing paranoia remains one of the best horror experiences any film has yet delivered.

The Exorcist (1973)

I know, I know, The Exorcist is on every "Best Horror Movies Ever" list in the same way that Citizen Kane is on every "Best Movies Ever" list, almost like it's compulsory and not something we really think about anymore. But here's the thing: William Friedkin's possession masterpiece really is that good, from its haunting photography to its remarkable practical effects by Dick Smith and everything in between. It remains a truly disturbing, truly well-crafted, watershed moment for horror cinema. What better way to get ready for the upcoming sequel than by revisiting the original scare fest?

RELATED: Blumhouse's 'Exorcist' sequel unveils title, story details and first footage at CinemaCon

The Wicker Man (1973)

The greatest folk horror movie ever made, Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man has barely any violence, and very little in the way of gore. What it does have is an overwhelming, all-encompassing sense of dread tinged with haunting natural beauty and the unnerving power of its smiling villains. It's a 90-minute, nail-biting buildup to one unforgettable ending, and even when you know that ending's coming, its power isn't diminished.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Fans of Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic (now streaming on Peacock!) about a group of youths who run afoul of a family or murderous Texas cannibals will talk to you all day about how the film's reputation as a shocker isn't earned, because there's almost no blood, and no gore at all, in the movie. That's true, but what makes Texas Chain Saw work isn't just how effective it is at implied violence. It's that in many cases, the film doesn't need violence to be terrifying. Decades after its release, the scariest parts are often looks, screams, and the sense that we the viewer are trapped in the house with Leatherface and his kinfolk.

Jaws (1975)

Jaws is one of several major horror films that fans still argue over, not in terms of its greatness, but in terms of whether or not it actually fits the "horror" mold. Well, you can call it a thriller all you want, but Steven Spielberg's breakthrough film about a New England town plagued by shark attacks is undeniably scary. From underwater jump scares to great creature effects and one of the most unsettling opening kills of all time, Jaws has horror in its soul, and that means it belongs here.

Suspiria (1977)

Longtime devotees of Italian horror master Dario Argento will often argue that Suspiria isn't actually his best film, but while Argento certainly has more than one masterpiece, Suspiria's place in horror history means it always rises above the rest in the public imagination. The story of a mysterious dancing academy in the heart of Europe that might be run by a sinister witch, it's gorgeously filmed, rich in worldbuilding, and home to some of the most effective and elaborate kills in Argento's career. And as a longtime Argento fan, let me assure that's saying something.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

With Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero essentially invented the modern zombie genre. With Dawn of the Dead a decade later, he cracked it wide open. Presented in vivid color and with often jaw-dropping scale, Romero's sequel to his original black-and-white classic dials up everything about the first film to great effect, and is as frightening as it is fun.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is very solid sci-fi horror fun, and still ranks as a very good horror film from its era. But in 1978, director Philip Kaufman got hold of the same material, and delivered nothing short of a paranoid masterpiece. Starring Donald Sutherland as a scientist who learns that aliens are taking over everyone close to him, it has all the nervous tension of a classic, gritty '70s thriller mixed with some of the most unsettling horror imagery you'll ever see. Throw in a dog with a man's face, and one of the most disturbing final shots in all of horror, and you've got a classic.

Alien (1979)

Call it a creature feature, call it cosmic horror, call it a haunted house movie in space. Whatever you call it, Ridley Scott's Alien remains what might be the best expression of sci-fi horror ever produced, and a deeply chilling experience even decades after its release. From Sigourney Weaver's lead performance to H.R. Giger's legendary xenomorph design, it's a masterpiece through and through.

The Shining (1980)

Stephen King famously dislikes Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his haunted hotel novel, but King's quibbles with the screen translation aside, The Shining just works. There's something unearthly about it, which explains why the film has spawned decades of analysis and even conspiracy theories. For a film that takes place at a resort in a very real place like Colorado (albeit it one with a less-haunted history), it retains the feeling that it was beamed in from another, creepier planet. 

The Changeling (1980)

Sometimes simplicity is the best approach when it comes to a haunted house story, at least until it comes time to deploy all the big scares. That's exactly what you get in Peter Medak's The Changeling, the story of a grieving composer (George C. Scott) who moves to a secluded and historic house and finds that he might not actually be alone. The way Medak builds the suspense in this film, in tandem with Scott's wonderful performance, makes it an all-time great entry in its chosen subgenre. By the end, you'll be hanging on every moment.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Some films start with a great idea, and then just get every little piece of the execution right along the way, from the casting to the humor to the horror visuals to the soundtrack. An American Werewolf in London is one of those films. It's just flawlessly put together from start to finish, which means every little piece of this relatively simple story gets to shine in uncanny ways. 

Possession (1981)

For years, it was hard to find Andrzej Zulawski's legendary European horror classic unless you were willing to go digging for import discs. Now, thanks to the rise in streaming, that's changed, and Possession is more visible than it's been in years. That's a very good thing, because it's an absolute masterpiece of dread, unease, and the sense that everything could explode into absolute bedlam at any moment. Fronted by a searing performance from Isabelle Adjani, Possession is one of the '80s most hypnotic must-see horror films.

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter cemented the slasher genre with Halloween, but while that film is possibly his most influential, it's not his best in terms of sheer terror craft. That honor goes to The Thing, a paranoid creature feature masterpiece about isolation, resentment, and the very nature of fear. Rob Bottin's legendary creature effects, the ensemble cast, and Carpenter's own finely tuned sense of human nature all come together to create one of the most rewatchable and consistently frightening films ever made. 

RELATED: The Thing 2002 Video Game Remembered by Creators: "We Were Reaching Far Beyond Our Capabilities"

The Fly (1986)

No one else makes horror films quite like David Cronenberg. It's not just that he's the king of body horror. It's that there's a sense of fascination with the ways in which we as a species can change, grow, and even destroy ourselves which gives his filmography the sense of being one long, gleefully devilish experiment. The Fly, featuring great lead performances from Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, is perhaps the purest expression of this feeling, and the result is the best body horror movie of all time.

Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow's vampire Western still retains its bite even after nearly three decades of even more vampire films, some of which drew inspiration directly from her tale of a band of nomadic bloodsuckers and the farm boy sucked into their orbit. It's a relatively simple story, but there's so much in the way Bigelow presents it, from the creature effects to the coming-of-age longing that persists through the entire film, that its aura glows well beyond the borders of the story. It's one of the best vampire films ever made, and deserves and even bigger audience than it already has.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Directed with peerless intensity by Jonathan Demme and starring the brilliant duo of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs gets lumped in with the thrillers far too often, maybe because it's that rare scary movie to be taken seriously by the Academy. But despite all the trappings of crime thrillers around its narrative, it's still near-mythic story of a woman who must use one monster to catch another, more terrifying one, and when those monsters come out to play, it's a deeply frightening experience indeed. Horror can, and should, claim it as its own.

Scream (1996)

Wes Craven knew all the slasher rules. He'd played by them himself, several times, so when he took on Kevin Williamson's brilliant script for Scream, he was able to both deliver the goods and subvert everything we thought we know about a well-trod horror formula. It's been 25 years, and the result of this collaboration is still one of the smartest, most fun horror films ever, not to mention one of the most influential.

RELATED: Scream 6 is a 'fresh reinvention' Kevin Williamson teases

Let the Right One In (2008)

One thing you can't ever get over about Let the Right One In is how unbelievably, relentlessly beautiful it is. Whether director Tomas Alfredson is filming an outdoor snowscape or a hospital room, there's tremendous care put into each and every moment, a patience to the film that shines through even when the pace picks up. That means that even when things get horrific -- and they do get horrific -- you remain transfixed, mesmerized by the careful power of this unforgettable horror romance.

Lake Mungo (2008)

Any day I get to introduce a horror fan to Lake Mungo for the first time is an extremely good day. Shot in a mockumentary style, Joel Anderson's film about a grieving family who thinks their daughter might be haunting them sneaks up on you like a ghost at the foot of your bed, slowly creeping under your skin until, by the third act, you're hanging on every moment. It's a strong contender for best horror film of the 21st century so far, which is really saying something.

Martyrs (2008)

Fans of New French Extremity films are, of course, very divided over which movie to emerge from that movement deserves the title of greatest. While other films, like Haute Tension, are more well known to global audiences, my money's still on Martyrs, Pascal Laugier's brutal, mesmeric exploration of the further reaches of pain and suffering. It's easy to be swept away by the gore, but don't lose sight of the central themes Laugier's playing with here. There are profound, disturbing things in this film, and it can still take your breath away. 

The Babadook (2014)

Jennifer Kent's astonishing feature film debut is almost 10 years old, and it's just as unsettling and beautifully rendered now as it was when audiences first saw it. The story of a struggling mother (Essie Davis) trying to care for her disturbed son (Noah Wiseman) while they're both seemingly plagued by a monster straight out of a storybook, The Babadook is simultaneously a great monster movie, a great haunted house movie, and a great movie about the simple terrors that come from not understanding someone you're supposed to love. It's a masterpiece, and its raw power hasn't diminished yet.

Get Out (2017)

When it comes to talking about the greatest anything of all time, people get concerned about recency bias. There's a sense that we don't have enough context to understand the impact of something after just a few years, so there's no use lumping it in with something that's had decades to work its magic. That's a fair point, but when it comes to Jordan Peele's horror debut, two things are inarguably clear: One, Get Out is a great film featuring wonderful tension, rich symbolism, and great performances. And two, Get Out changed horror. That's obvious even five years after its release. This film was a clear inflection point in the horror landscape, not just for Peele, but for many up-and-coming filmmakers who would follow him into the "social horror" arena. It's a masterpiece, and its influence already packs a wallop. 

Suddenly in the mood for some horror films? Peacock's got a ton of 'em, so start streaming and screaming now!