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10 of the scariest movies of all time to keep you up all Halloween night
If you really want to be scared this Halloween, we've got you covered.
There are all sorts of Halloween viewing styles for all sorts of households. Some people like to keep things PG and watch a load of family friendly films, diving into Hocus Pocus and Hotel Transylvania while trick-or-treaters arrive at the door. Others keep it classic, bingeing Universal Monsters movies late into the night. Still others prefer the horror-comedy approach, so they keep things light while still getting a dose of gore and even a few genuine scares.
Then there are those of us who like to go really deep into the realms of horror cinema, to find some stuff that will truly send chills up and down our spines. Whether you do this occasionally or you make it your entire October viewing calendar, to do it right you need the scariest films you can possibly find, and that's where we come in. If you're looking for 10 of the scariest films ever made to program into your Halloween, here's where to go.
Note: We skewed somewhat recent for a lot of this list, because a lot of viewers out there will argue they simply don't find the pacing of the older stuff to be as scary. Also, this is a list. It's not the list, so if we left out your personal favorite, don't take it personally.
The Japanese horror wave of the 1990s gave worldwide audiences several contenders (and several remakes) for the scariest movies ever ranks, but of all these tales, Takashi Miike's Audition might be the most outright stomach-churning. The story of a man who fakes a film audition in order to find a new wife, then gets more than he bargained for, the film is a slow, calculated descent into a particular kind of madness. Just when you think things can't get darker or more brutal, Miike hits yet another level, and you can't help but keep watching.
The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan is perhaps the most famous practitioner of the modern jump scare style of horror, and he poured all of his gifts into this film about paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, and one of their most famous cases. There are some horror fans who consider jump scares a form of cheating, arguing that it's more "startling" than actual scaring, but Wan's got you covered there. The scares in The Conjuring aren't merely jack-in-the-box moments, but practiced exercises in tension and release, and what the scares ultimately reveal to the audience is something arguably more frightening than the jump scare itself. The Conjuring has it all, and it never lets up.
The Exorcist (1973)
Often billed as "The Scariest Movie Ever Made," and still appearing at the top of many such lists, William Friedkin's classic film about a possessed young girl and the priests who fight to free her is just as effective now as it was nearly 50 years ago. It's a masterclass in so many different filmmaking techniques, from sound design to Dick Smith's legendary makeup effects, that it's hard to pick just one element that makes it stand out, and that's exactly the point. The Exorcist is not just an exercise in terror, but in genuine filmmaking craft, and that makes it timeless as well as terrifying.
Ari Aster's feature film debut is so unsettling in part because it's so hard to pin down. Hereditary does eventually fall into a particular horror subgenre with its tale of a family torn apart by a dark, intrusive force, but Aster's film creates such an unsettling atmosphere, and goes in so many different directions, that there are times when it's very hard to tell exactly what kind of horror film you're watching. That means you never can quite predict what might happen next, which makes what you end up actually seeing far more terrifying. A jaw-dropping performance from the great Toni Collette didn't hurt, either.
Lake Mungo (2008)
If you've never seen Lake Mungo, Joel Anderson's mockumentary about a grieving Australian family and the possibly supernatural events they're experiencing, you may start watching it and think to yourself that you've just found a straightforward, solidly shot public television broadcast. But that's just the framework Anderson uses to lure you into his powerful, deeply unsettling portrait of grief, destiny, and haunting beauty. It's not laden with jump scares or gore, but Lake Mungo is the kind of film that grabs you and won't let go.
The "New French Extremity" movement of the 2000s is known for its unflinching portrayals of graphic violence and bleak narratives, and while there are numerous films within it that might qualify as the scariest, for me it never gets darker or more breathtaking than Pascal Laugier's Martyrs. The story of a pair of friends, both with trauma in their backgrounds, and the dark falling-out that comes from a quest for revenge, it goes to some very gruesome places in its opening half hour, then goes somewhere completely different with its back half. By the time it's over, you're left shaken and strangely moved.
Famously dubbed the "scariest movie" ever by a scientific study, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill's Sinister does more than get your heart rate up. It will certainly do that, of course, and piles on plenty of now-legendary jump scares, but the film is just as effective in how it handles the quiet moments. Ethan Hawke's central performance imbues the whole film with an added air of contemplative dread, so even when the adrenaline isn't kicked into overdrive, you're left pondering every dark step the film takes, falling under its devastating spell.
The Strangers (2008)
Bryan Bertino's The Strangers is famous for its portrayal of senseless, motiveless violence, something the film made plain in its legendary trailer before the feature itself dove even deeper into that idea. What's especially notable as you watch, even now, is how devoted the film is to the simplicity of that idea. There's no attempt to delve deeper into the psyches of its villains, no sympathetic edge, no hint at a wider motive. It's just Bertino and his dedicated cast slowly building up layers of instantly relatable terror, until you just can't take it anymore.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
At this point, Tobe Hooper's legendary film is as famous for what it doesn't show as for what it does, as fans have continually point out over the years that, despite its reputation, it's not a gore-filled movie. No, the terror in Chain Saw comes from something much more primal than blood and guts. Watching the film, especially its final half-hour, you get the sense that you really might be watching real people going crazy before your very eyes. It's so unvarnished, so from-the-hip, that you're left deeply unnerved simply by witnessing it as it plays out.
The Vanishing (1988)
George Sluizer's The Vanishing operates from a very simple premise, and succeeds by exploring every potential nook and cranny of its narrative. A woman vanishes, her boyfriend spends years wondering what happens to her, and then he gets within reach of the truth. That's it, but within that, Sluizer delivers a haunting, beautifully shot portrait of obsession, darkness, and how far we'll go for closure, even if that closure costs us dearly. It's legendary for its terrifying final scene, but every frame of the film is imbued with its own existential horrors, even the seemingly pleasant ones.
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