Trying to boil down the scariest horror movies in cinema history is almost impossible. Everyone has a different scare threshold and our ten will almost certainly not be your ten, but we at Set The Tape all listed the ten films that freak us out the most and we aggregated the films to come up with ten pictures you need to see for maximum chills.
Even if you’ve seen most of these, do you really need an excuse to fire up your BluRay player and frighten yourself again? Well here’s one anyway…
10 – A Nightmare on Elm St (1984)
It’s fair to say that Wes Craven started his reign of cinematic terror in an uncompromising fashion with the likes of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes so it was a shame he went through something of a slump with the poorly received Hills Have Eyes sequel and Swamp Thing. So thank the horror gods that he came up with A Nightmare on Elm Street and its villain, Freddy Krueger – a razor gloved, former child killer burned to death by the victims parents and back from the dead for revenge. But what makes Freddy so scary is the fact that he gets to his victims through their dreams and lives off their fear before slicing and dicing his way through the children of the parents that murdered him. Despite slasher films doing great business at the time, Elm Street took it to another level. How can you kill a dream? It’s this that terrified audiences everywhere and made A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy himself a huge hit.
Despite being a victim of its decade on occasion, Craven’s film is still dark, creepy and scary enough to do the trick for horror fans 34 years on.
by Adam Massingham
9 – Aliens (1986)
How do you build on one of the most famous sci-fi horror movies of all times? How do you make a sequel to a film that almost single-handedly defined a genre? James Cameron knew the answer. You go bigger. Bigger sets, more characters and most importantly not just one alien, this time you’ve got lots. You’ve got Aliens, the 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott’s incomparable 1979 Alien. While tonally a very different film from the tight, cramped, claustrophobia-inducing original Alien, Cameron’s sequel did what every good sequel should do – take what was already there, and make it bigger and better. From a small crew we go to a squad of heavily armed marines, from one ship we have an entire colony, from one alien to… lots. Far more action-heavy than the original, Aliens still possesses the ability to terrify, to have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, helped not only by Cameron’s masterful directing, but thanks to James Horner’s superb work with the soundtrack, mixing martial brass and drums with skittering, spine-tingling strings.
While some of the effects have aged, this is still a must-see for any self-respecting horror fan and remember – “They mostly come at night. Mostly.”
by Shaun Rodger
8 – The Descent (2006)
The Descent, with its superb all female cast, starts off shocking enough and continues to scare and provoke as more violence, gore and terror is poured on. When this previously tight knit group go off in search of adventure, something that is exciting and extreme, they choose caving. This would all be well and good if it wasn’t an uncharted cave system that they get themselves into and then, horrendously, trapped inside with no idea if there is even a way out. Ramping up the claustrophobic element early on and managing not to ease off the building terror from that moment on, the strains and stress of the situation put additional pressure onto their relationships, which had some hidden issues to begin with. With increasing paranoia and having to face their fears in this dark and unknown terrain, they push ever onwards until they find something that is going to make this ordeal a hell of a lot worse, or rather something find them.
The Descent has everything that a horror film would want in terms of atmosphere, scares and plenty of gore. But there are also plenty of scares and moments where it goes absolutely crazy. The complex group dynamics, strong female characters along with playing superbly on some base fears, Neil Marshall has created a bona fide modern horror classic. And make sure you watch the UK ending deemed too dark for US audiences!
by Gavin McHugh
7 – Halloween (1978)
What is the seminal slasher movie of all time? The one that set the trend for all the great (and numerous not so great) movies that followed in its wake? The slasher movie that defined the many cliched trends referenced so lovingly in post-modern slasher Scream back in the 90s. Don’t say “I’ll be right back.” Don’t have sex, drink or be anything other than virginal. Don’t shoot them once because they always come back. Before Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser and Candyman there was John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The Halloween legacy – and indeed slasher movies as a whole – owe so much to the 1978 original. It’s no wonder that the climax and music were mirrored so lovingly in Wes Craven’s Scream that bore homage to the slasher genre. The 1978 movie is a simple but incredibly effective masterpiece and in our opinion, never bettered.
by Baz Greenland
6 – The Exorcist (1973)
Print the legend, they say; and when it comes to The Exorcist, every legend and even myth about it has been told – and then some. Released in 1973 to an unsuspecting public, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel changed the course of horror cinema forever. It earned huge box office figures, critical acclaim and a place in the Horror Hall of Fame, all the while having a profound affect on movie audiences the world over. Many elements of its production and release became something akin to an urban myth. After 45 years, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells can still retain a chill because of this movie. The mention of pea soup also brings up images of Linda Blair vomiting it, while everyone has at some point tried to do an impression of Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal performance as the demon and talked of misbehaving children as possibly either having the ability to turn their heads 360 degrees, or, in tribute to The Omen, having the mark of the beast in their hair. It’s always been wonderfully strange how two horror movies that can be thought of as evil in many respects can find their way into conversations over badly behaved kids so easily.
Some may laugh it off as not being very scary anymore, but let’s face it, it still is and anyone saying so is simply overcompensating. The power of its initial release will never be diminished and its forceful velocity never leaves you, even after all this time. It bulldozed its way into the Horror Hall of Fame, and that’s where it deserves to stay.
by Eamon Hennedy
5 – Event Horizon (1997)
The career of Paul W. S. Anderson is not particularly highly-regarded, but in this 1997 sci-fi horror he has an enduring cult classic. Beloved of genre fans that came of age in the mid-to-late 90’s (which would explain its inclusion on this list), it’s an inventive and suspenseful mix of the haunted-house-in-space aesthetic of Alien, eerie Lovecraftian dread, and ripe occult horror straight out of a Dennis Wheatley novel. Event Horizon works through its commitment to playing a potentially ridiculous premise completely straight, with none of the winking meta-humour that was beginning to be characteristic of 90’s horror. What makes Event Horizon so compulsively rewatchable however is the terrifying subliminal imagery; some of the most twisted and gruesome in modern memory.
Along with the claustrophobic atmosphere and a permeating sense of dispair, it makes the film a disquieting cloying experience that sticks to the skin like napalm.
by Kevin Ibbotson-Wight
4 – Scream (1996)
There was no denying that by the time the mid-nineties came round, the slasher movie genre was feeling a little tired. After seminal horror movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, slasher movie fans were given sequel after tired sequel to that proved to be a law of diminishing returns. Killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger just weren’t that scary anymore. Wes Craven changed all that with Scream. Aided by the writing talents of Kevin Williamson, who would also pen other popular 90’s horror movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Faculty, Craven brought back scares aplenty but also plenty of self referential humour as the post-modern slasher emerged. It’s a term that feels pretentious but Scream did for the slasher genre what Buffy The Vampire Slayer did for TV horror; it was fully aware of the horror tropes, the clichés, the rules and the twists and turns and embraced them. The characters of Scream don’t live in a world where serial killers don’t exist. They live in a world whey they have grown up watching Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and they know exactly how a good slasher movie should play out.
Scream is immensely entertaining, funny, tense and sometimes scary too that sent the audience on an emotional, nail-biting rollercoaster. It also jump started the slasher genre once again, though it didn’t necessarily succeed (aside from Scream 2, it’s other two sequels lacked the magic of this film). Perhaps most successfully, you can enjoy it time and time again; some movies lack re-watch-ability once you know who is behind the mystery. But Scream continues to be a blast from beginning to end even twenty years later.
by Baz Greenland
3 – The Thing (1982)
Never has a film been so incorrectly savaged upon release as The Thing. John Carpenter’s gory, practical effects-driven adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? was so poorly received that it even cost the director his multi-film contract with Universal. Thankfully, home video and television audiences gradually inspired a deserved reassessment, with the sci-fi horror now frequently referred to as a masterpiece of special effects and one of the genre’s finest film. Utilizing themes of paranoia, nihilism, and impending doom, The Thing relies on its brutally unnerving tone and visuals, rather than the traditional lineup of jump scares. Cementing The Thing’s classic status is Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous score, comprised of understated synths and strings in a haunting style not far removed from Carpenter’s own, and spearheaded by its plodding, bass-heavy main theme. Several tracks from an hour of unused music would later be recycled by Quentin Tarantino for his western The Hateful Eight, also scored by Morricone.
A timeless slice of cinematic horror, John Carpenter’s The Thing is handy reminder that us critics are occasionally full of sh*t.
by Nicholas Lay
2 – The Shining (1980)
Already established as a master of half a dozen genres from war film to satirical political comedy to science-fiction epic, Stanley Kubrick had never fully dabbled in horror until he adapted Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously disliked Kubrick’s fairly loose adaptation, which took the same concept–writer Jack Torrance uproots his wife and son to caretake the Overlook Hotel during a cold winter only to become consumed by an evil inside the building–and delivered one of the strangest, unerring chillers cinema has ever devised, packed with iconic horror visuals; the twin girls, the old lady in the bath and the unforgettable sight of Jack Nicholson hacking down the hotel room door with an axe and delivering the immortal “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!”.
Set to the whirring synth of Wendy Carlos and interspersed with classic, haunting classical strains of Lontano & Penderecki, The Shining is a powerful, layered, symbol and mythic concoction that while being far more than simply a horror film, remains one of the scariest cinematic experiences you will ever watch.
1 – Alien (1979)
While Star Wars changed the face of science-fiction on the cinematic landscape, just two years later Ridley Scott’s Alien arguably did the same for horror. Billed as a ‘haunted house movie in space’, Alien more than lives up to the immortal tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream”. Scott’s trick is to present the titular extra-terrestrial much like a spectre; barely seen for the majority of the picture, as it undergoes a very specific biological process subsequent sequels milk to death, by the time Sigourney Weaver’s unorthodox heroine Ellen Ripley faces a life or death battle with the H.R. Giger designed xenomorph, your nerves will be shredded as Scott’s taut, atmospheric direction and Gothic production design steadily absorbs you into the heart of the Nostromo.
For so many people, Alien is justifiably the pinnacle of both horror and science fiction, and as fusions of the two go, this remains a true pioneer endlessly imitated, almost never equalled.
What are your 10 Scariest Horror Movies? Let us know your lists!