The 50 Best Horror Movies on Shudder (July 2024)

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The 50 Best Horror Movies on Shudder (July 2024)

If you’re a horror geek, then surely you’re at least aware of the existence of Shudder at this point. The genre-focused service helped to prove the viability of niche streaming when it launched in 2016, boasting a robust library of horror, thriller and sci-fi features, while using its considerable marketing clout (thanks, AMC ownership) to ensure that it had far more visibility than would-be competitors. Along the way, it also explored the Netflix route of increasingly allocating budget toward original programming, bringing us series such as the Creepshow revival, and the resurrection of MonsterVision’s Joe Bob Briggs as a horror host. That has increasingly resulted in a lot of original horror movies on Shudder.

Today, the Shudder library is typically one of the more eclectic that can be found on the web, with more depth and unusual picks than any of the major streamers. It has grown and shrunk at different periods throughout the service’s lifespan, as Shudder has faced the same difficulties with streaming rights as everyone else, but currently boasts almost 600 titles—probably closer to 700 once you factor in the TV side of the equation—representing an interesting amalgam of vintage slashers, historical horror classics, modern releases, foreign films, hidden gems, and an ever-increasing number of originals. Certainly, Shudder is less reliant on straight-to-VOD junk than the likes of Netflix, which is a mark in its favor.

Allow us, then, to be your guide through the best Shudder has to offer.

You may also want to consult the following horror-centric lists:

The 100 best horror films of all time.
The 100 best vampire movies of all time.
The 50 best zombie movies of all time.
The 50 best movies about serial killers.
The 50 best slasher movies of all time
The 50 best ghost movies of all time.
The best horror movies streaming on Netflix.
The best horror movies streaming on Amazon Prime.
The best horror movies streaming on Hulu.

Here are the 50 best movies on Shudder:


50. Hell House LLC

Year: 2015
Director: Stephen Cognetti

This is just about as lean and minimalist a concept as you can choose for a modern found footage horror movie, but Hell House LLC is much more a practice in execution than imaginative settings. It’s the documentary-style story of a haunted house crew that picks a decidedly wrong location for their attraction, and boom–they all wind up dead. Very standard set-up for a “no one gets out alive” entry in the found footage genre, but Hell House LLC actually does have some inspiring scares and performances. It gets a whole lot out of very small set-ups and deliveries, such as the shifting positioning of props and the life-size (and appropriately horrifying) clown costumes, shooting scenes in what looks very much like “real time,” with no cuts. There’s a naturalistic air to the actors’ sense of frustration and unease as weird events start to mount, but of course it all goes quite off the deep end and into unintentional humor in the closing moments. Still, there are many islands of genuine, blood pressure-raising fear in this well-executed film. Certainly, it’s better than most found footage efforts in the post-Paranormal Activity landscape. —Jim Vorel


49. Horror Noire

horror-noire-poster.jpgYear: 2019
Director: Xavier Burgin

In the opening preamble of Shudder’s new documentary Horror Noire, professor Robin R. Means Coleman lays out a simple but effective mission statement when it comes to assessing the history of African Americans in the past century of horror cinema: “Black history is black horror.” Brutally honest, perhaps, but equally incisive. Horror Noire is a documentary about a community of often ostracized and maligned people coming to terms with their fondness for a genre that has rarely treated them well. Director Xavier Burgin has made what is for the most part a talking heads documentary, primarily structured around actors, writers and directors ruminating on the horror genre from the confines of a darkened theater. It comes to viewers in the guise of a history lesson, but simultaneously manages to provoke some palpable cognitive dissonance from its subjects and would-be teachers, who often find themselves grappling with the enjoyment they feel as audience members vs. the weight of responsibility they feel as black educators or activists—the compulsion to always be striving to combat inequality. Author Tananarive Due puts it best in the film’s opening moments: “We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.” —Jim Vorel


48. Prom NightYear: 1980
Director: Paul Lynch

It is perhaps odd to think, in the post-Jason Voorhees era of slasher villains, that slasher killers of the early ’80s were often weirdly justified in their slayings. Sure, there are some “escaped maniacs on the loose,” but many are basically avenging angels, punishing groups of young people for a terrible crime they tried to sweep under the rug, with Prom Night standing as one of the classic examples. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis in her first slasher role after Halloween, Prom Night knows it’s trying to cash in on that earlier film’s success, but it also manages to stand on its own, inspiring imitations all the way to I Know What You Did Last Summer. Portions of the film are kind of rote, and even the best-looking versions you can find today have a soft, gauzy quality that makes the picture look a little strange, but when Prom Night is good, it’s great. Oddly, it’s not really Curtis who gets the best sequences, but actress Eddie Benton as Wendy, who participates in one half of what is maybe the best (and certainly most formative) chase sequence in the history of the horror genre. Stalked by an axe-wielding killer in a ski mask, the frenzied, “eight-minute scene”:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VukooA1FUQ4 spools out for an eternity as Wendy is chased through the locked, echoing halls of the high school, illuminated in impressionistic, Argento-esque shafts of red light. Not all of Prom Night can live up to it (the disco dance sequences are dreadful), but the chase alone makes it a classic. —Jim Vorel


47. What Josiah Saw

what-josiah-saw-poster.jpgYear: 2022
Director: Vincent Grashaw

Throughout Vincent Grashaw’s What Josiah Saw, what Josiah (Robert Patrick) saw remains the million dollar question. The gruff, menacing patriarch of a secluded Oklahoma farm, at first all Josiah sees are his waning crops and devout, childlike son Tommy (Scott Haze), whom he mercilessly taunts for believing in God. That is, until the night he wakes Tommy up, swearing he was visited by God. He explains that the Almighty told him that he and his children need to repent for their sins, as that is the only way to save the family’s matriarch, Miriam, from the eternal flame she was condemned to after she committed suicide two decades earlier. Okay—we’re 20 minutes in, and the answer already seems simple enough: Josiah saw God. He’s convinced of it, and the ever-earnest Tommy seems to be enthusiastically on board, too. But then we meet his other kids, twins Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner). The former is engulfed in a life of crime and substance abuse, while the latter is clearly hiding a sinister secret—a suspicion that is confirmed when she reveals that, for some mysterious reason, she was sterilized when she was younger. The more Eli and Mary’s troubled lives are explored, the less likely it seems that what Josiah saw was simply God offering the family an opportunity to save Miriam’s soul. —Aurora Amidon


46. Bad Moon

Year: 1996
Director: Eric Red

May we present what is arguably the most underrated werewolf movie of all time: Bad Moon. From the premise, which revolves around a single mom and her precocious little boy living out in the woods when their werewolf uncle comes to visit, you might for a moment think that this film will be treating its subject with kiddie gloves, but man would you be mistaken. This is made clear enough within the opening minutes, which not only includes a fairly explicit sex scene but then features a camp full of people being torn limb from limb by a werewolf before its head is blown off with a shotgun. It’s a fist-pumping, Peter Jackson-esque “FUCK, YEAH!” moment that sets the tone for what is a campy, stupid but very fun feature. In some sense, the actual main character is the family’s overgrown and defensive German shepard, who is the only one to suss out the werewolf’s identity, pitting dog vs. wolf in a battle of wits. Featuring a whole lot of bloodletting, Bad Moon is entertaining despite (or perhaps because of) its melodramatic performances, and it also happens to feature one of the best physical werewolf suits you’ll ever see. Why the filmmakers used any of the atrocious CGI you’ll see in the transformation scene is beyond me, given how spectacular the actual suit looks. Don’t sleep on Bad Moon–it’s the best werewolf movie you’ve never heard of. —Jim Vorel


45. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

halloween-4-poster.jpgYear: 1988
Director: Dwight H. Little

The return of Michael Myers to the franchise after Halloween 3: Season of the Witch’s misanthropic diversion into the anthology format was a move that initially pleased fans of the original Halloween, but the years that followed have not been kind to Halloween 4’s reputation. However, we are here to defend it: This is arguably a more entertaining film than first sequel Halloween 2, and one that gets an above-average horror movie performance out of Danielle Harris as Jamie Lloyd, who was only 9 years old at the time. Michael is at his menacing best, especially in the early dream sequence in which he emerges from beneath Jamie’s bed, and Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis is more histrionic and hyperbolic than ever as he insists—loudly and constantly—that Myers is a monster that must be destroyed once and for all. Halloween 4 is even blessed with one of the more legitimately shocking endings to an ’80s-era slasher film … but one that was unfortunately retconned at the beginning of Halloween 5 after producers got cold feet about committing to its consequences. In the end, that association with Halloween 5 (and don’t even get us started on Halloween 6) is the anchor around the neck of Halloween 4, but judged solely by its own merits, it deserves to be here. —Jim Vorel


44. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

let-sleeping-corpses-lie-poster.jpgYear: 1974
Director: Jorge Grau

The U.S.A. is the first nation one tends to associate with zombie cinema, likely followed by Italy, perhaps followed then by countries such as Britain or Japan. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, then, is an interesting outlier combining the resources of multiple film industries—it’s a Spanish-made zombie movie, filmed in Italy and set in England. In this one, the living dead are brought up from the ground by a “sonic radiation” machine designed to kill insects—the results, suffice to say, are not quite as intended. It’s an interesting mix of American zombie tropes and hard-to-place foreignness that moves a little slow but features some appreciably moody imagery. The zombies, however, look great, and the restored copy on Amazon Prime right now is a wonderfully high-quality version of the film in particular. It’s a somewhat underappreciated entry in the zombie annals that you won’t find in just anyone’s collection, but worth a look, especially if you’re into ’70s Spanish horror or want to branch out from the Italian zombie movies of directors such as Lucio Fulci. —Jim Vorel


43. Come True

come-true-movie-poster.jpgYear: 2021
Director: Anthony Scott Burns

Come True, Anthony Scott Burns’ horror first, sci-fi second hybrid film essentially dramatizes what filmmaker Rodney Ascher gets at in his 2015 sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare. What if your worst fears manifested in the real world? What if you couldn’t tell the difference between the land of the waking and the realm of the slumbering? What if the difference doesn’t even matter because, whether the nightmares are real or not, they still smother you and deny you rest, respite and sanity? Conceptually, the movie is frightening. In more practical terms it’s deeply unsettling, a terrific, sharply made exercise in layering one kind of dread on top of another. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re seeing something that you’re not supposed to?” Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) asks Riff (Landon Liboiron), the scruffy Daniel Radcliffe stand-in conducting an ill-advised science experiment masquerading as a sleep study. The ever-present unnerving sensation that follows—that unspeakable terror is hovering over your shoulder—puts the film in close company with It Follows, another movie about disaffected youth on the run from evil they don’t understand and can’t fight. It’s contemporary, atmospheric and cuts deep—and more than that, it’s original. Burns conjures horror so vivid and tactile that at any time it feels like it might leap off of the screen and into our own imaginations or, worse, our own lives.—Andy Crump


42. The Amusement Park

the-amusement-park-romero-poster.jpgYear: 1973
Director: George Romero

George Romero’s long-lost 1973 film The Amusement Park isn’t truly a narrative feature, instead being more like a disturbing PSA that was bizarrely commissioned by the Lutheran church as a way of highlighting the issues of ageism and elder abuse. Romero delivered exactly what was asked for, crafting a dreamy, surreal and disorienting tone poem about a man wandering an amusement park (a very thinly veiled metaphor for American society) as the uncaring forces around him steadily strip him of his dignity and then sanity. The completed film was apparently deemed too soul-draining for release, and it is quite effectively morose throughout, even if it lacks much in the way of modern commercial appeal. It’s not the most focused effort, but its 2021 release allows Romero to deliver one last blast of buckshot at American culture from beyond the grave. —Jim Vorel


41. Kandisha

kandisha-poster.jpgYear: 2021
Director: Julien Maury, Alexandre Bustillo

what the filmmakers achieve through their script and direction is a wickedly successful creature feature that highlights an underrepresented but widely-held fear among a considerable portion of France’s populace. The portrayal of Kandisha is incredibly layered and diverse, manifesting as mysterious, alluring and abjectly horrifying during different appearances. The viewer tandemly craves and dreads her arrival on-screen, which is an incredibly effective approach to keep the monster from losing its edge after multiple kills. The deaths are also cleverly fused with supernatural elements alongside the directors’ penchant for massive blood loss and bodily evisceration. When it comes to keeping the mounting body count compelling, Maury and Bustillo’s twisted creativity ensures each kill is brutal, both in terms of gore and toying with established emotional stakes. —Natalia Keogan


40. The VigilYear: 2021
Director: Keith Thomas

Yakov (Dave Davis) has recently left the Hasidic Jew community after experiencing a trauma that dismantled his faith. He’s struggling to adapt to the outside world—particularly with money—and in the midst of this struggle, he’s approached to serve as a shomer, someone who watches over a body until it is buried. Typically a shomer is a family member, but in desperate circumstances, someone will be paid to serve this role. So Yakov takes up his post looking over the body of the deceased Mr. Litvak. But this isn’t going to be a night for easy money. As soon as Yakov settles in for his five-hour shift, strange things immediately start happening. He sees shadowy figures lurking in dark corners, he hears strange whispers and feels as if something is watching his every move. As the night progresses, he discovers that a mazzik, a type of demon, is haunting the home, its family and Yakov himself. It is feeding on them, using their grief and trauma to fuel its evil. Central to the power of The Vigil is Davis’ performance as Yakov, created by both Davis’ performance and Thomas’ writing. The film has a short and sweet runtime of 90 minutes, and with that short amount of time, Davis and Thomas are able to create a complex character that has gone through a life of both love and despair. Davis’ frustrated and sorrow-filled face tells a story of a man who just wants to live a life that is his own. Paired with those facial expressions, Thomas’ script quickly and effectively showcases both Yakov’s naivety in the world of technology and women—as he literally Googles “how to talk to women”—and his strength, as he prepares to face off with the mazzik. This is not a generic horror character that blends into the wallpaper, but someone worth cheering for until the credits roll. This is a story that, while following the expected story beats of possession films, still feels unique thanks to Thomas’ specificity and dedication to creating something lean and mean.—Mary Beth McAndrews


39. Glorious

glorious-2022-poster.jpgYear: 2022
Director: Rebekah McKendry

Glorious would completely fall apart were it left to an actor who was not up to the challenge, but Kwanten nails it. Given that he is only ever acting against a bathroom stall or his own reflection, it is impressive that he is able to carry the audience through the many emotional pivots Wes goes through in 79 minutes. We do not have a lot of time to get to know him before the tension escalates, and Kwanten’s performance makes sure we never miss a single beat of his suffering or frustration. Where Glorious stumbles a bit is in the mythology it hopes to create. From early on it is evident that there are greater forces at play, and whatever is talking to Wes is just easing him into the enormous world of its making. There are clear nods to Greek mythology and Lovecraft’s visions of the elder gods, but it feels more like a collage of random elements than the creation of a cohesive, reimagined mythology. Much like the graffiti on the bathroom walls, it is a collection of Easter eggs, not a single sweeping mythos. The allusions are fun to identify, but it feels like a missed opportunity to create a truly defined experience for Wes and this voice. Given its limited cast, location and budget, Glorious is an impressive feat. It never drags or feels more claustrophobic than intended. Thanks to strong performances and mostly tight writing, it’s a tense little chamber film, with deities and grand ideas, but without pants. —Deirdre Crimmins


38. Berberian Sound Studio

Year: 2012
Director: Peter Strickland

Playing with reality and fantasy, the literal and the subconscious, Berberian Sound Studio will understandably be compared to the work of David Lynch. But even if it’s not as startlingly original as that director’s finest films, the movie does offer a quietly building sense of unease as we realize that something isn’t quite right about this recording studio. Maybe it’s the charlatans with whom Gilderoy has to work. Or maybe it’s something else, something inside this closed-off man that he’s never quite acknowledged before. Ultimately, Berberian Sound Studio may be yet another psychological character study about the ways in which life and art intersect. But when it’s this genuinely upsetting and confidently executed, who can resist one more trip through a house of mirrors? —Tim Grierson


37. Dead & Buried

dead and buried poster (Custom).jpgYear: 1981
Director: Gary Sherman

Dead & Buried is a thoroughly unusual horror film that revolves around the reanimated dead, but in a way all its own. In a small New England coastal town, a rash of murders breaks out among those visiting the town. Unknown to the town sheriff, those bodies never quite make it to their graves … but people who look just like the murdered visitors are walking the streets as permanent residents. The zombies here are different in their autonomy and ability to act on their own and pass for human, although they do answer to a certain leader … but who is it? The film is part murder mystery, part cult story and part zombie flick, and it features some absolutely gross creature work and gore from the legendary Stan Winston. It’s just a movie with a feel all its own, and one notable for some unusual casting choices. That includes a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund as one of the possibly zombified town locals, and, in a major role, Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka) as the eccentric, jazz-loving town coroner/mortician, who steals every scene he’s in. More people should see this weird little film. — Jim Vorel


36. Skinamarink

skinamarink-poster.jpgYear: 2023
Director: Kyle Edward Ball

This is a daring, unsettling, inscrutable and at times deeply boring venture into the farthest boundaries of horror esotericism, utterly unlike anything that most viewers will have ever seen before. If someone hosted a filmmaking competition where the stated goal was to engineer a work as divisive as it possibly could be, surely Skinamarink would be a shoo-in to win the grand prize. Created on a budget of $15,000 (Canadian!) as the feature debut of filmmaker Kyle Edward Ball, and dedicated to assistant director Joshua Bookhalter, who passed away during post-production, Skinamarink is an exercise in experimental, sensory-driven horror filmmaking. Now, when one says “sensory-driven” in this context, one might expect that to imply a certain lushness that overwhelms the senses, a la James Cameron’s approach in Avatar: The Way of Water. Skinamarink, however, is more like the opposite—the film’s ultra grainy visual aesthetic and muddy audio (with cleverly hardcoded subtitles) slowly but surely hypnotizes the viewer into a state of heightened suggestibility, until the viewer’s mind begins to provide its own hallucinatory meaning to what it is seeing. Ostensibly, Skinamarink is about a pair of siblings: four-year-old Kevin and six-year-old Kaylee. They live in an unassuming little house with their unseen father, with the status of Mom a veiled mystery that hints at pain and separation. One night, they awake to find that the house seems changed—doors and windows have disappeared, and any parental presence is missing. Objects are strewn around in seeming patterns, while a deep, gargling voice whispers from the darkness. “Oneiric” is the most perfect single word for the experience. Its images are like watching closed circuit security camera footage of someone’s mental projections during a fever dream. Its sounds recall things heard in the dead of the night from a childhood bedroom, and then blissfully forgotten by morning, only to be recalled in a moment of terror decades later. I look forward to watching the wider world discover Skinamarink, feeling for all purposes as if they’ve blundered into a parallel dimension. Like the titular child of The Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost,” they’ll watch as a familiar place becomes a seeming prison, bound by dream logic, boundless and empty. I certainly won’t forget it.—Jim Vorel


35. The Company of Wolves

Year: 1984
Director: Neil Jordan

The Company of Wolves is among the most bewitching and oddest of werewolf movies, uneven but memorably bonkers all at once. Evoking fairy tale and Brothers Grimm sensibilities, it mostly takes place within a dream—or a dream within a dream—and visually reflects this with a sheen of creepy, gauzy otherworldliness. The fantasy world that exists within draws upon fantasy clichés of magical, haunted forests, while also infusing itself with the gothic grandeur and stateliness of Hammer horror productions. It feels at times like a high production value stage play, with somewhat unusual, campy performances, but little plot to speak of … until the moments that it explodes with gory, violent intensity. To watch only the various transformations and “wolfy” moments, you might think the film was an excessive ’80s American gore film, but whenever we move away from what might be deemed “horror scenes,” the focus is instead on lush sets, beautiful backdrops, vivid colors and a positively “painterly” mindset. It may not quite serve up the coherent story and tight plotting that a modern audience would expect, but the images of The Company of Wolves will likely stick with you for a long time.—Jim Vorel


34. The Innkeepers

Year: 2011
Director: Ti West

When you’re working in indie horror, a big part of success is learning how to turn your budgetary limitations into a positive–to rely less heavily on effects and setting and more on characterization and filmcraft. Ti West understands this better than most, which is part of what made his earlier House of the Devil so effective. The Inkeepers has some of the same DNA, but it’s rawer and more “real,” following the mostly unremarkable exploits of two friends as they work in a dingy old bed & breakfast and conduct nightly paranormal research in their place of business. They’re well-cast and feel like two of the most “real people” you’re likely to see in a horror film–West, feeling in moments like a horror Tarantino, enjoys lingering on them during their conversations and small-talk, which builds a sense of casual camaraderie present between long-time co-workers. Of course, things do eventually start going bump in the night, and the film ratchets up into a classically inflected ghost story. Some will accuse it of being slow, or of spending too much time dawdling with things that are unimportant, but that’s “mumblegore” for you. Ultimately, the reality imbued into the characters justifies the time it takes to give them characterization, and you still get some spooky “boo!” moments in the final third. It succeeds on the back of strong performances. —Jim Vorel


33. Stopmotion

Year: 2024
Director: Robert Morgan

Folks on the prowl for monstrously uncanny thrillers need to prioritize Robert Morgan’s Stopmotion. The award-winning short filmmaker’s hallucinatory feature debut remarkably blends stop-motion with live-action like it’s a commonplace horror practice. Its themes stoke the harmful fires that entrap creative types who lose themselves in their projects, recalling the delicious instability of Prano Bailey-Bond’s delirious Censor or Peter Strickland’s sonically sinister Berberian Sound Studio. Morgan bleakly and ingeniously captures what it means to be a “tortured artist,” hybridizing an icky yet alluring stop-motion style that feels like a collaboration between claymation celebrity Lee Hardcastle and slasher legend Leatherface. —Matt Donato


32. A Bay of Blood, a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve

Year: 1971
Director: Mario Bava

A Bay of Blood, released in the U.S. as Twitch of the Death Nerve, is the most important proto-slasher to often get left out of conversations on the history of the slasher genre, and this simply will not stand. Although many Italian giallos of the &#821]7;70s have slasher elements and pre-date the likes of Black Christmas and Halloween, none of them have kills that so directly seem like something out of a Friday the 13th movie. And indeed, that series borrows heavily from A Bay of Blood, especially Friday the 13th Part 2, which recreates two of Bava’s the death sequences almost exactly–most notably the bit where two lovers get impaled on a spear in mid-copulation. It’s Bava’s goriest film without a doubt, although not his most visually striking or narratively sensible, in terms of plot–all of the killings basically revolve around obtaining land ownership. That uneven nature and lack of compelling characters holds it back slightly, but when he’s throwing the red paint around, A Bay of Blood is enjoyably lurid. —Jim Vorel


31. Tourist Trap

tourist-trap-1979-poster.jpgYear: 1979
Director: David Schmoeller

Tourist Trap is a weird one, there’s no getting around that. It has a structure that is extremely familiar for the genre—the “teens go off the beaten path and end up somewhere they shouldn’t be” outline of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and many others—but rather than your standard backwoods killer or psycho cannibal family, the situation these kids run across is considerably more convoluted and bizarre. Even after the identity of the killer is revealed two thirds of the way through, Tourist Trap continues to evolve in unorthodox directions rather than simply coasting to the finish line. It’s actually a bit hard to decide whether it should really be called a “slasher” proper, or more of a supernatural thriller or fucked-up psychological drama. If the latter, it would surely hold some kind of record for “most mannequins.”

If you’re a horror geek who has heard occasional references to Tourist Trap over the years, perhaps because it’s always mentioned as having the admiration of Stephen King in particular, then you’ve no doubt heard about the mannequins. And even after you’ve seen Tourist Trap, it’s difficult to decide what to make of the mannequins—they’re the most memorably creepy thing about the film, but it’s never entirely clear if they’re actually “alive” or not, in addition to our psychopathic killer. Why’s that? Well, it’s because we come to realize that the killer seems to possess unlimited telekinetic powers, which calls into question whether any of the mannequins ever move on their own, or are simply controlled by the killer from a distance. This, he’s apparently capable of doing, in addition to throwing his voice with the skill of a Vegas street performer. It adds up to a scenario that is significantly weirder than simply telling a story about killer mannequins—not willing to settle for that simple, Twilight Zone-style premise, this is instead “insane telekinetic cowboy with dual personalities, controlling mannequins.” Try finding another slasher film with THAT particular premise. —Jim Vorel


30. Watcher

watcher-poster.jpgYear: 2022
Director: Chloe Okuno

Maika Monroe knows better than almost any actor working today how to turn her head or widen her eyes in mounting horror. The control she has over her body, the ability she has to convey realistic fear and her 2014 double-header of The Guest and It Follows made her an instant household name for genre fans. Perhaps one of those was director Chloe Okuno, who knows exactly what to do with her star in her paranoid debut feature (which follows her V/H/S/94 segment from last year), Watcher. A straightforward little B-treat, Monroe’s furtive glances out her Rear Window morph Watcher into a moody thriller elevated by its acting. Monroe plays Julia, a beautiful young housewife cooped up in an empty apartment and cooped up in an intimidating and isolating Bucharest after moving there with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) for his work. Francis speaks Romanian. He entertains clients, makes friends, grabs drinks, chastises fresh cab drivers and translates day-to-day interactions with neighbors and landlords. Julia has none of that. No job, no friends, no real way to communicate with the world aside from her baser senses. She has her taped language lessons, which soundtrack her wistful wanderings around her lovely pale apartment and its massive window. Through that window, she sees those marking the building across the way. And one of them contains a figure that also stands at the glass, looking right back. —Jacob Oller


29. Night of the Demons

night-of-the-demons-poster.jpgYear: 1988
Director: Kevin S. Tenney

Night of the Demons is one of the most purely enjoyable entries in the late ’80s horror subgenre of “a bunch of young people go to a spooky location and all wind up dead,” which arguably reached its zenith a year earlier in Evil Dead 2. Make no mistake, this film can’t compete with the slap-sticky wit of early Sam Raimi, nor are any of its performers a Bruce Campbell quip machine in the making, but Night of the Demons makes up for it with shameless raunchiness and a generally gleeful attitude toward the demise of its characters. These guys are broad, amusing pastiches of different archetypes in 1980s youth culture, in much the same way as the teens from Return of the Living Dead, right down to the presence of Linnea Quigley. Yes, she’s naked here, although it’s at least not for the majority of the film, as in ROTLD. Instead, come for the top-notch makeup effects and the sick, sophomoric sense of humor. This one makes for perfectly appropriate Halloween-season viewing, as its “let’s get together in a haunted house for a Halloween party” premise is just begging for a cadre of demons to run amok. And so they do, with gory aplomb. —Jim Vorel


28. Hellbender

hellbender-poster.jpgYear: 2022
Director: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser

Over the course of their eight-year collective filmmaking practice, the Adams family have continuously honed their aesthetic and narrative interests as artists. With Hellbender, the sixth feature from the nuclear family of filmmakers, confidence and creativity converge to produce something that feels like an alchemic breakthrough. Particularly following their 2020 supernatural thriller The Deeper You Dig, it appears the Adams have acquired a penchant for horror—a perfect complement to their signature low-budget, home-grown style. Though Hellbender utilizes many recurring motifs present in the Adams family’s work—such as dysfunctional family dynamics and nods to John Adams’ former career as a punk musician—it is certainly the most (literally) fleshed-out project the family has undertaken to date. 16-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams, the youngest daughter and fellow co-director of John Adams and Toby Poser) has been warned from a young age by her mother (Poser) that the outside world will cause her nothing but harm due to her rare autoimmune disease. As such, Izzy spends her days frustrated and friendless, with only the vast landscape surrounding her mother’s reclusive mountain home providing her with any semblance of personal enrichment. Despite being forbidden to leave the property, Zelda’s relationship with her mother is far from acrimonious—they are playfully affectionate with one another, cradling each other’s faces in their hands and venturing into the verdant forest for rainy day hikes. They even perform in a drum and bass punk rock band, appropriately named Hellbender, donning audacious face make-up and practicing tight, catchy songs for the sole benefit of themselves. Every facet of Hellbender has the intrinsically magical quality of being hand-helmed by a small faction of creatives that execute every stage necessary for the film’s production. The cinematography by Zelda and John is just as impressive as the laid-back yet quirky costume design by Poser. The end result is completely stunning in its scope, tandemly laser-focused on two individuals and their insular livelihood while exploring the vast terror of supernatural possession. By the time the film come to a gory, gloomy conclusion, the viewer walks away feeling thoroughly put through the wringer—inherited traumas, overbearing impositions and brooding bloodlust are never presented in a completely straightforward fashion, providing ample twists to accompany any revelation the film wishes to divulge. Tethered closely to the emotions and artistic sensibilities of the tight-knit family that created it, Hellbender is a can’t-miss foray into folk horror. Unabashedly creepy yet perplexingly comforting, it will inevitably remind audiences of the most eccentric aspects of our upbringings. At the same time, it will evoke deeply-concealed memories of the anguish of undergoing growing pains—a veritable hell on Earth if there ever was one.—Natalia Keogan


27. Scare Me

scare-me-poster.jpgYear: 2020
Director: Josh Ruben

For many, scary movies are fun. Watching scary movies is fun. Boil that down further: Telling scary stories is fun, no matter the setting, as long as you’re in proper company. Shudder’s Scare Me toasts that dynamic via a contest of wills between two horror authors trying to out-terrify each other before the second-best possible stage for telling scary stories: a crackling fireplace. (The very best is a campfire, but beggars can’t be choosers.) The authors are Fred (Josh Ruben) and Fanny (Aya Cash). Fanny is the best-selling writer behind the popular critical smash Venus, a zombie novel that, based on what little the audience hears about it, sounds like elevated horror nonsense (which is exactly the kind of thing that scored points on screens and shelves in the mid-2010s horror boom). Josh is a loser. He hasn’t written a damn thing or a thing worth a damn, and he’s secluded himself in a cabin at a Catskills resort to do Serious Work, which he doesn’t, because again, he’s a loser. Fanny’s staying in a nearby cabin, and when the power goes out across the area, she walks in on Fred and challenges him to scare her with his best shot.

The pace of Scare Me slows a tad more than ideal as Ruben takes the plot to its inevitable conclusion, but it’s still a joyful, satisfyingly eerie experience. There are reasons we enjoy the adrenaline blast horror movies give us. Scare Me, which should be essential viewing each Halloween season, understands those reasons well and celebrates them with enough laughs and gasps to leave viewers choking.—Andy Crump


26. Prevenge

prevenge-movie-jpgYear: 2017
Director: Alice Lowe

Maybe getting close enough to gut a person when you’re blatantly with child is a cinch—no one likely expects an expecting mother to cut their throat—but all the positive encouragement Ruth’s unborn daughter gives her helps, too. The kid spends the film spurring her mother to slaughter seemingly innocent people from in utero, an invisible voice of incipient malevolence sporting a high-pitched giggle that’ll make your skin crawl. “Pregnant lady goes on a slashing spree at the behest of her gestating child” is, in practice, more somber than it is silly, but the bleak tone suits what writer, director and star Alice Lowe wants to achieve with her filmmaking debut. Another storyteller might have designed Prevenge as a more comically slanted effort, but Lowe has sculpted it to smash taboos and social norms. Parenthood is a special experience, motherhood more so than fatherhood, but Prevenge imagines the bond between parent and child as something unnatural and even dreadful, without stepping clear over the line into poor taste. This is what pregnancy looks like when described by a woman through a genre lens, one of the best examples of its pedigree, moody and dreamlike with a blend of comic unpleasantry and homage that avoids navel-gazing. The best evidence of Lowe’s intentions is the film’s current of misanthropy. Prevenge hates human beings with a disturbing passion, even human beings who aren’t selfish, awful, creepy or worse. Ruth’s midwife (Jo Hartley) provides routine well-meaning encouragement and counsel, but through Lowe’s eyes her advice chafes more than it soothes. Another character, a kindly young fellow in a relationship with one of Ruth’s victims-to-be, is genuinely empathetic toward her in one of the movie’s gentler moments, but even he isn’t spared her insatiable wrath when his time comes. No one gets out unscathed, even the pure-hearted. They either fall to Ruth’s blade or Lowe’s merciless script. —Andy Crump


25. Werewolves Within

Year: 2021
Director: Josh Ruben

With the release of his feature film debut Scare Me last year, director Josh Ruben put himself on the horror-comedy map with his tale about horror writers telling scary stories. With Werewolves Within, Ruben further proves his skills as a director who knows how to walk that delicate line between horror and comedy, deftly moving between genres to create something that isn’t just scary, but genuinely hilarious. The cherry on top? This is a videogame adaptation. Werewolves Within is based on the Ubisoft game of the same name where players try to determine who is the werewolf; Mafia but with shapeshifting lycanthropes. Unlike the game, which takes place in a medieval town, Ruben’s film instead takes place in the present day in the small town of Beaverfield. Forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) moves to Beaverfield on assignment after a gas pipeline has been proposed to run through the town. But as the snow starts to fall and the sun sets behind the trees, something big and hairy begins hunting the townsfolk. Trapped in the local bed and breakfast, it’s up to Finn and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) to try to find out who is picking people off one by one. But as red herrings fly across the screen like a dolphin show at the local aquarium, it feels almost impossible. Just when you think you’ve guessed the killer, something completely uproots your theories. Writer Mishna Wolff takes the core idea (a hidden werewolf in a small town where everyone knows each other), and places it in an even more outlandish and contemporary context to pack an even funnier punch. While the jokes never stop flowing in Werewolves Within, Ruben and Wolff never lose sight of the film’s horrific aspects through plenty of gore, tense scares and one hell of a climax. This film full of over-the-top characters, ridiculous hijinks and more red herrings than you can keep track of is a great entry in the woefully small werewolf subgenre.—Mary Beth McAndrews


24. Dog SoldiersYear: 2002
Director: Neil Marshall

If someone ever asks me to venture an opinion on the best-looking practical effects/full-body werewolf suits used in a feature-length horror film, the choice of Dog Soldiers will be an easy one to make. This isn’t exactly a character-driven tale, a la American Werewolf in London, but instead an action-packed wolf yarn that pits a squad of soldiers against a rampaging family of lycanthropes in the Scottish Highlands. It borrows the basic structure of Night of the Living Dead to do so, having our group of protagonists holed up in a rickety farmhouse that is under siege by a large group of werewolves. As members of the squad are slowly picked off in increasingly grisly ways, the only question is who, if anyone, will survive. Dog Soldiers is a stylish (although sometimes a bit dark and hard to see) entry in the genre, with great pieces of action and, as previously mentioned, some really spectacular werewolf designs. I love the odd proportions they give the monsters—humanoid bodies with long, somewhat thin limbs which give the werewolves an imposing height, but heads that are straight-up wolves rather than a mixture of wolf and man. They look utterly alien, and it’s great.—Jim Vorel


23. The Boy Behind the Door

boy-behind-the-door-poster.jpgYear: 2021
Director: David Charbonier, Justin Powell

The thing The Boy Behind the Door relies on the most is not nostalgia, though if you’re an adult, it may feel that way. The power of friendship is what keeps the heart of this film pumping fresh blood until the very end. There is something so sweet and unbreakable about a true childhood kinship, and that treasured bond is ripe between Bobby and Kevin. They are each other’s rock, and their dialogue and character impulses solidify this important piece of the puzzle that aids them throughout. Their mantra, “friends till the end,” sustains them through their trials and tribulations, and it is beyond clear that their symbiotic connection is their greatest asset. It’s easy, as a viewer, to feel deep catharsis with this element and your mind will wander back to those idyllic childhood moments with whomever was your best bud. But it seems the filmmakers also made it a point to take those feelings a step further: Their story makes you so thankful for those times, amid the uncertainty of life and the insidiousness of humanity, that the feeling will unsettle you. And, like The Boy Behind the Door, it should. —Lex Briscuso


22. Tigers Are Not Afraid

tigers-are-not-afraid-poster.jpgYear: 2019
Director: Issa López

It’s possible, even probable, that a portion of Tigers Are Not Afraid’s audience will receive the film as a parable about the current humanitarian crisis unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border, a clarion call for compassion and decisive legislation to put an end to the suffering inflicted on innocent families fleeing mortal peril and economic repression. Such is the myth of America’s legacy. But Issa López made Tigers Are Not Afraid years ago, before the administration in power escalated the United States’ already appalling immigration policies into full-on decimation. This is not a cry for action. It’s a snapshot of Mexico’s recent history that bleeds into its present day. Tigers Are Not Afraid molds the sickening consequences of cartel violence on Mexico’s children to fit the shape of folkloric narrative. It’s a fairy tale, and a horror film, though the two tend to go hand-in-hand: Fairy tales point us to the darkness that exists on society’s periphery—or, in this case, occupies society’s center. The world of Tigers Are Not Afraid is made of crumbling walls and whispers, a land of ghosts where children are acclimated to ducking for cover under their desks when bullets interrupt class time. (Another thread to tempt viewers toward forced topical readings.) All the world is horror even before López starts ushering ghosts into the fray.

Estrella (Paola Lara) is one orphan among many in the unnamed border town López has chosen as the film’s location. When she’s given three wishes by her teacher, she immediately asks for her mother to return. Her mother does—but the conditions of her return are fuzzy, so mom resurrects as a hoarse, desiccated revenant. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Shine (Juan Ramón López), also an orphan, but one devoted to keeping his fellow orphaned boys safe on the streets as they outmaneuver cartel thugs and perhaps hope to find justice against them. Estrella and Shine share the screen as sun and moon share the sky, casting the film with light and darkness amidst graffiti-streaked buildings, the threat of death lurking in alleyways and on street corners. With Tigers Are Not Afraid, López threads the needle through tragedy and hope. This is at once a grim movie, an optimistic movie and a redemptive movie. It’s a welcome reminder that fairy tales and folklore are an essential part of our culture, too. At the most inhuman times, they lay down a path back to humanity. —Andy Crump


21. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage

Year: 1970
Director: Dario Argento

Dario Argento came out swinging with this giallo debut, grabbing you by the throat with its opening kill that traps our writer protagonist in huge glass sliding doors, helplessly watching a killer murder a woman in an art gallery. It didn’t just announce Argento’s talent for balancing panicked chaos with urgent, efficient suspense craft, it set up a recurring motif in his filmography: Being the unwilling eyes of some violent, invasive voyeurism. What follows is a robust, dexterous mystery that keeps finding new ways to hook the audience, setting the standard for giallo iconography—a black gloved killer, haunting, anonymous phone calls—in the process. —Rory Doherty


20. The House of the Devil

Year: 2009
Director: Ti West

Detractors complain that Ti West’s movies are “slow,” which is missing the point. A better adjective is “deliberate.” On The House of the Devil, the first film to really start giving him a reputation as a director to watch, West builds the tension gradually and carefully, as though there is nothing scarier than watching a young woman dance around an empty house while listening to the Fixx. By the time the second act ends, you’ve been holding your breath for an hour when the film explodes into its gory, violent third act, which offers a perverse sense of release. It also gives Jocelin Donahue’s heroine her finest moment, as she at least attempts what the audience is by then shouting for her to do. It’s another film where the low-budget look perfectly fits the aesthetic, mirroring the style of “old dark house” and Satanist films that West is clearly drawing on as inspiration. —Stephen M. Deusner


19. Cemetery Man

Year: 1994
Director: Michele Soavi

Zombies, and really the horror genre in general, went through something of a lull in the 1990s, outside of genre-savvy offerings such as Scream. In Europe, though, unconventional zombie films did still pop up now and then, of which Cemetery Man is the most notable. The premise itself sounds old-school and spooky: A cemetery caretaker lives with his Igor-like assistant and kills the zombies that occasionally rise from their graves after being buried for 7 days. In reality, though, the film is essentially a horror art-comedy, an experimental and partially plotless, dreamy movie about the protagonist drifting through life without purpose and questioning why he bothers carrying out his duty. He pines after a woman who he immediately loses to zombification, and there are elements that almost remind one of American Psycho in the hopelessness and lack of identity he faces–even when the protagonist tries to commit atrocities and get caught, nobody seems to notice or care. It has the artistic flair and painterly quality of the earlier Italian films on this list, while incorporating some of the humor one might find in Re-Animator, but it’s moodier and more taciturn. It’s a film that tries to do many things at once, and is worth watching if only to shake your head considering the versatility of zombies, from simple flesh-eaters to complex symbols of entropy and nihilism. —Jim Vorel


18. Black Sunday

Year: 1960
Director: Mario Bava

After years spent toiling as a cinematographer and (at times uncredited) co-director on an assortment of moderate to low-budget horror and sword-and-sandals productions, Mario Bava broke out in a big way with Black Sunday. Loosely (and I mean loosely) based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, the film centers on the resurrection of a 17th century vampire-witch (Barbara Steele) and her paramour (Arturo Dominici) as they seek revenge on the descendants of the brother who executed her. Designed as a throwback to the Universal Monster movies of the 1930s, Black Sunday drew significant controversy for several gruesome sequences (including, but not limited to, the implementation of a spiked death mask and a moment where a cross is stabbed through an eye). Naturally, this kind of notoriety only intensified the film’s popularity. Though time has since lessened the impact of the gorier scenes, the movie still packs a huge punch with its nightmarish atmosphere, which is further accentuated by its vivid black-and-white photography and striking production design. An influence on filmmakers from Tim Burton to Francis Ford Coppola, Black Sunday remains a towering beast in the history of the horror genre. —Mark Rozeman


17. Santa Sangre

santa-sangre-poster.jpgYear: 1989
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Most of Jodorowsky’s films, such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain, have some element of horror to them simply in how disorienting they are to watch, but Santa Sangre is on another level when it comes to imagery that is meant to shock and repulse the viewer. This is a true “horror” film, less in the sense that its goal is to actively frighten its audience, and more that it aims to get under their skin in the most unnerving way possible. It casts a mesmerizing, psycho-sexual spell; a phantasmagorical nightmare from which there is no waking. Santa Sangre, loosely, is the story of Fenix (played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Axel), a circus performer with a childhood steeped in surrealism and nightmare fuel. His father is a drunken, philandering knife-thrower and the owner of their traveling show, while his mother is an aerialist whose true passion is as the religious figurehead of a Catholic cult that worships a patron saint who died after her arms were cut off. As fate would have it, Fenix’s mother also ends up having her arms cut off, but that’s only our jumping off point. The true horrors of Santa Sangre are when she reappears, and demands her son fill in for her missing faculties, becoming her dedicated arms and hands. Actress Blanca Guerra has a piercing intensity as the mother that is difficult to shake—her force of will seems impossible to resist, even as she steals her son’s agency and forces him to commit terrible crimes in her stead. —Jim Vorel


16. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Year: 2016
Director: André Øvredal

Men don’t understand women. It’s the oldest cliché in comedy, in psychology, in nearly every book Dave Barry has ever written, in men’s and women’s health magazines alike. In André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the cliché is no less clichéd, but he does appropriate it for use in a powerful metaphor for male blindness to female traumas: The film is about a woman’s invisible suffering, the kind experienced beneath her exterior and which men can neither see nor comprehend, even when they have the benefit of being able to literally peel back her layers. You can probably guess from the title exactly what layers are being peeled, which is to say that you’ll know right off the bat whether The Autopsy of Jane Doe is for you or not. What you won’t discover without watching the film is the source of Jane’s anguish, though by the time Øvredal is done with us, you may wish you’d never looked close enough to learn for yourself. —Andy Crump


15. Black Christmas

Year: 1974
Director: Bob Clark

Fun fact: Nine years before he directed holiday classic A Christmas Story, Bob Clark created the first true, unassailable “slasher movie” in Black Christmas. Yes, the same person who gave TBS its annual Christmas Eve marathon fodder was also responsible for the first major cinematic application of the phrase “The calls are coming from inside the house!” Black Christmas, which was insipidly remade in 2006, predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years and features many of the same elements, especially visually. Like Halloween, it lingers heavily on POV shots from the killer’s eyes as he prowls through a dimly lit sorority house and spies on his future victims. As the mentally deranged killer calls the house and engages in obscene phone calls with the female residents, one can’t help but also be reminded of the scene in Carpenter’s film where Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) calls her friend Lynda, only to hear her strangled with the telephone cord. Black Christmas is also instrumental, and practically archetypal, in solidifying the slasher trope of the so-called “final girl.” Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey) is actually among the better-realized of these final girls in the history of the genre, a remarkably strong and resourceful young woman who can take care of herself in both her relationships and deadly scenarios. It’s questionable how many subsequent slashers have been able to create protagonists who are such a believable combination of capable and realistic. —Jim Vorel


14. When Evil LurksYear: 2023
Director: Demián Rugna

Director Demián Rugna’s debut horror feature Terrified has slowly but surely captured the attention of horror geeks around the world, but 2023’s When Evil Lurks is likely to complete his ascent to a star in the genre, even if he hasn’t yet produced an English-language feature. This is one of the most disturbingly creative and fraught possession horror films to arrive in decades, dropping the viewer absolutely cold into a setting where god is dead and evil is seemingly running roughshod over the Earth.

It’s deeply disconcerting to watch a horror film centered around demonic possession where the act of possession isn’t decried by the characters as some foolish impossibility, but is instead a well-understood facet of daily existence in this world. The arrival of a “rotten one” in a community is like the outbreak of an exotic and extremely deadly disease, requiring the presence of a specifically trained “cleaner” to dispose of the gestating demon in a way that doesn’t result in the entire area quickly becoming infected with evil. What happens when regular people have to deal with that kind of horror themselves? We quickly come to realize that there are a plethora of “rules” to surviving these encounters, but Rugna doesn’t handhold the audience and inform us of what they all are–every interaction instead becomes a paranoid question of wondering if the characters have become possessed, or vulnerable to attack. Never are we certain of what is true, and what is folklore. Pair this uncertainty with unflinching savagery and brutality, and you have one of the most gut-wrenching horror films to make its way to a small number of U.S. theaters in recent memory. —Jim Vorel


13. Opera

opera-dario-argento-poster.jpgYear: 1987
Director: Dario Argento

Giallo is not the kind of genre in which directors end up receiving a lot of critical aplomb—with the occasional exception of Dario Argento. He is to the bloody, Italian precursor to slasher films as, say, someone like Clive Barker is to more westernized horrors: an auteur willing to take chances, whose gaudy works are occasionally brilliant but just as often fall flat. Opera, though, is one of Argento’s most purely watchable films, following a young actress (Cristina Marsillach) who seems to have developed a rather homicidal admirer. Anyone who gets in the way of her career has a funny way of ending up dead, and her constant nightmares hint at a long-buried connection to the killer. Essentially the giallo equivalent of Phantom of the Opera, Opera’s canvas is splashed with Argento’s signature color palette of bright, lurid tones and over-the-top deaths. If you love a good whodunnit, and especially if you have an interest in cinematography, Opera is a primer in horror craftsmanship. —Jim Vorel


12. Blood and Black Lace

Year: 1964
Director: Mario Bava

Blood and Black Lace plays like a missing link between Psycho or Peeping Tom and the classic “body count” slashers of the early 1980s, with a significantly more misanthropic attitude reveling in its on-screen violence. Perhaps the single most influential giallo film ever made, it codified some of the early tropes of a nascent film genre, innovated a few new ones of its own and did so with a sumptuous visual aesthetic that proved difficult for any of its imitators to match. In a career full of classics, it is perhaps Bava’s prettiest and most drum-tight film. The action takes place in a cavernous fashion house where high-end models are dressed, primped and prepared to don their haute couture and walk the runway, offering ample opportunity for the camera to both leer at a bevy of young women and examine the way they’re degraded by their industry, which treats them as little more than domesticated animals. When one of the company’s girls is violently murdered, it throws the entire organization into an uproar, with suspicion landing on almost every person employed in the building. What are we to make of the fact that none of the deaths can be traced to any individual? Bava ultimately uses a variety of simple (but effective) tricks to divert the audience’s suspicions until his big reveal. It’s the set-up for an old-fashioned murder mystery, but Blood and Black Lace also deviates from its forebears by being less concerned about the mystery and suspects on hand than it is with the killings themselves. This truly feels like a ground zero for the pulpy, grindhouse aesthetic that prioritizes cinematic death sequences, and the manner of the deaths, above all else. The unfortunate crew of models in the film bite the dust in all manner of ways, both inventive and notably grisly for the time, whether it’s burned to death by being pushed against a hot furnace, drowned in the bathtub or being stabbed through the face with a spiked glove. The film makes it clear: You are there to watch people die, and die in the most stylish way possible. –Jim Vorel


11. One Cut of the Dead

one-cut-of-the-dead-poster.jpgYear: 2017
Director: Shiniichiro Ueda

Director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), beleaguered protagonist of Shinichiro Ueda’s box office indie smash One Cut of the Dead, has two modes: “On” and “in dire need of an ‘off’ button.” Even at his most sedate, Higurashi hums with the unharnessed energy of a pent-up greyhound, always at the ready for a race around the track but conditioned to patiently wait until the signal is given. Once it is, he’s a sight to behold, a man unleashed, screaming like a maniac christened as dictator, vaulting around sets with such vigor and dexterity to put the world’s parkour champions to shame. Hamatsu’s is the kind of performance that can only be contained by a specific kind of film. That film is One Cut of the Dead. Ueda first introduces Higurashi as a despotic indie filmmaker howling at his weeping star, Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama), then 37 minutes later reveals the man to be a docile, much too obliging videographer who chiefly works on weddings and karaoke clips. It’s a glorious, bonkers 37 minutes, too, presented as a zombie movie shoot gone wrong. Higurashi and his cast—Chinatsu, former actress (and Higurashi’s wife) Nao (Harumi Shuhama), and pain in the ass leading man Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya)—and crew have set up shop at a decrepit, isolated warehouse that also stores a coterie of shambling undead. As they’re besieged by ghouls, Higurashi, yet to find a take that he actually likes, keeps on filming through the carnage. Of course it’s all a film-within-a-film. Once One Cut of the Dead shifts gears from a zombie movie to a backstage inside baseball comedy, the initially cold atmosphere Ueda establishes warms up. The amateur terror of Higurashi’s guerilla filmmaking gives way to winning charms as the audience gets to see who he really is, what this project means to him and just how damn hard it is to make a movie in a single take. It’s chaos, but it’s controlled chaos (even if only just), and in the chaos there’s absolute joy. One Cut of the Dead ends with smiles, pride, reconciliations and the accomplished sense of having achieved the impossible. If that’s not a ringing endorsement of collaborative art’s benefits, then what is? Maybe Ueda’s film is an odd messenger for delivering such high sentiment, but it’s the messenger we have, and we should embrace it. —Andy Crump


10. Mandy

mandy-movie-poster.jpgYear: 2018
Director: Panos Cosmatos

More than an hour in, the film’s title appears, growing lichen-like, sinister and near-illegible, as all great metal album covers are. The name and title card—Mandy—immediately follows a scene in which our hero forges his own Excalibur, a glistening, deformed axe adorned with pointy and vaguely erotic edges and appurtenances, the stuff of H.R. Giger’s wettest dreams. Though Red (Nicolas Cage) could use, and pretty much does use, any weapon at hand to avenge the brutal murder of his titular love (Andrea Riseborough), he still crafts that beautiful abomination as ritual, infusing his quest for revenge with dark talismanic magic, compelled by Bakshi-esque visions of Mandy to do her bidding on the corporeal plane. He relishes the ceremony and succumbs to the rage that will push him to some intensely extreme ends. We know almost nothing about his past before he met Mandy, but we can tell he knows his way around a blunt, deadly object. So begins Red’s unhinged murder spree, phantasmagoric and gloriously violent. A giant bladed dildo, a ludicrously long chainsaw, a hilarious pile of cocaine, the aforementioned spiked LSD, the aforementioned oracular chemist, a tiger, more than one offer of sex—Red encounters each as if it’s the rubble of a waking nightmare, fighting or consuming all of it. Every shot of Mandy reeks of shocking beauty, stylized at times to within an inch of its intelligibility, but endlessly pregnant with creativity and control, euphoria and pain, clarity and honesty and the ineffable sense that director Panos Cosmatos knows exactly how and what he wants to subconsciously imprint into the viewer. Still, Mandy is a revenge movie, and a revenge movie has to satiate the audience’s bloodlust. Cosmatos bathes Red (natch) in gore, every kill hard won and subcutaneously rewarding. There is no other film this year that so effectively feeds off of the audience’s anger, then sublimates it, releasing it without allowing it to go dangerously further. We need this kind of retribution now; we’re all furious with the indifferent unfairness of a world and a life and a society, of a government, that does not care about us. That does not value our lives. Mandy is our revenge movie. Watch it big. Watch it loud. Watch yourself exorcised on screen. —Dom Sinacola


9. The Babadook

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent

Classifying Jennifer Kent’s feature debut, The Babadook, is tricky. Ostensibly this is a horror film—freaky stuff happens on an escalating scale, so qualifying Kent’s tale of a single mother’s fractious relationship with her young son with genre tags seems like a perfectly logical move. But The Babadook is so layered, so complex and just so goddamned dramatic that categorizing it outright feels reductive to the point of insult. There’s a grand divide between what Kent has done here and what most of us consider horror. You’ll spend your first week after the experience sleeping with the lights on. You will also come away enriched and provoked. Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Kent has made a movie about childhood, about adulthood and about the nagging fears that hound us from one period to the next. There’s a monster in the closet—and under the bed, and in the armoire, and in the basement—but the film’s human concerns are emotional in nature. They’re not aided by the ephemeral evil lurking in the dark places of its characters’ hearts, of course; going through personal trauma is enough of a chore when you’re not being stalked by the bogeyman. —Andy Crump


8. Perfect Blue

perfect-blue-poster.jpgYear: 1997
Director: Satoshi Kon

Perfect Blue is a precious rarity in the genre-saturation of contemporary anime: an honest-to-god psychological horror thriller brimming with malice, menace and cinematic sophistication. Adapted from Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s 1991 novel, Satoshi Kon’s feature debut follows Mima Kirigoe, a singer who retires from the pop-idol trio that gained her fame to pursue a career as an actress. As the pressures of her new career begin to take their toll, a string of vicious murders perpetrated by a mysterious assailant who claims to be an agent of the “real” Mima begins to encircle the set of her first big role. As the boundaries between her private and public life begin to blur, Mima’s grip on reality begins to fray as she stumbles spirals deeper into a tailspin of depression and madness. An avowed cinephile, the most visible influences for Kon’s work on Perfect Blue are unmistakably that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic Suspiria is also cited by fans and critics as a possible spiritual inspiration, though Kon himself denied having seen any of Argento’s films before hearing these comparisons. With exquisitely inventive editing, thoughtful color direction, and a gripping plot, Kon delivered a strong first outing as a director that would set the bar for his tremendous decade-spanning career. Though ostensibly a film about inherent toxicity of pop culture in manufacturing idols with the same infatuation as it would destroy them, Kon was by and large unconcerned with the surface reading of his work. His interest was found beneath the folds of easy answers and trite moralizations to lay bare the truth that, as one of his characters quotes from a script, “there are no fixed truths about ourselves, only a continuous stream of memories to be ordered and rationalized.” —Toussaint Egan


7. A Dark Song

Year: 2016
Director: Liam Gavin

In Liam Gavin’s black magic genre oddity, Sophia (Catherine Walker), a grief-stricken mother, and the schlubby, no-nonsense occultist (Steve Oram) she hires devote themselves to a long, meticulous, painstaking ritual in order to (they hope) communicate with her dead son. Gavin lays out the ritual specifically and physically—over the course of months of isolation, Sophia undergoes tests of endurance and humiliation, never quite sure if she’s participating in an elaborate hoax or if she can take her spiritual guide seriously when he promises her he’s succeeded in the past. Paced to near perfection, A Dark Song is ostensibly a horror film but operates as a dread-laden procedural, mounting tension while translating the process of bereavement as patient, excruciating manual labor. In the end, something definitely happens, but its implications are so steeped in the blurry lines between Christianity and the occult that I still wonder what kind of alternate realms of existence Gavin is getting at. But A Dark Song thrives in that uncertainty, feeding off of monotony. Sophia may hear phantasmagorical noise coming from beneath the floorboards, but then substantial spans of time pass without anything else happening, and we begin to question, as she does, whether it was something she did wrong (maybe, when tasked with not moving from inside a small chalk circle for days at a time, she screwed up that portion of the ritual by allowing her urine to dribble outside of the boundary) or whether her grief has blinded her to an expensive con. Regardless, that “not knowing” is the scary stuff of everyday life, and by portraying Sophia’s profound emotional journey as a humdrum trial of physical mettle, Gavin reveals just how much pointless, even terrifying work it can be anymore to not only live the most ordinary of days, but to make it to the next. —Dom Sinacola


6. Mad God

mad-god-poster.jpgYear: 2022
Director: Phil Tippett

Though it begins by quoting the 26th chapter of Leviticus—“I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors”—Mad God plays out like the Book of Revelation. Punishment and apocalypse are writ large and brown in feces and industrial run-off. Medical malpractice means more than negligence, it means quacks and ghouls elbow-deep in your guts. All is grist, everything is decay, human bodies little more than rag dolls made of shit. A so-called “She-it,” a screeching, walking tumor of hair and bared teeth, defends her beaked young against the mania of Mad God’s wasteland, wielding a cleaver. (All while I crammed so-called “Cheez-Its” down my gullet, watching and ceaselessly consuming.) Your pleasing odors escape un-savored into the ether. And just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of Hell, convinced there are no more realms of the beyond left to unveil, you see there is always more bottom, always more beyond. You see whole universes of innocent creatures suffering behind heavy vault-like doors, within the memories of one disposable martyr after another, in the spaces yet to be born. In a series of ever-obliterating visions, Mad God reduces the human experience to cosmic chum. It’s deeply upsetting, and often just as stirring. It would be a pretty clearly nihilistic piece of work, too, were it not such a careful, frequently astounding achievement. A stop-motion film 30 years in the making—beginning with an idea sparked during a lull in shooting Robocop 2Mad God is mostly the work of one man, legendary animator Phil Tippett, every elaborately nauseating set hand-fashioned over the course of decades. In Mad God, life seems meaningless. Stories don’t end when protagonists die because there are only antagonists running reality. And yet, as punishing as the film can get, it’s also clearly, fully realized, as pure a translation of a remarkable man’s bodily prowess—action, reaction, sinew and muscle and bone in tandem, the heartrending inertia of all things moving toward obliteration and the patience to let that happen—as we’re privileged enough to get from someone who’s already given us so much of himself. For all the grossness, all the bodily fluids and misery and Dan Wool’s charmingly contratonal music, for all the cynicism about the nature of the human race, Mad God is ultimately hopeful. It’s an absolution, for Tippett and maybe for us too. Nothing that’s taken 30 years, and so much health and sanity, could be anything but.—Dom Sinacola


5. Day of the Dead

Year: 1985
Director: George A. Romero

Although Dawn will probably always have more esteem, and is significantly more culturally important, Day of the Dead is my personal favorite of George Romero’s zombie films, and I don’t think it ever quite gets the respect it deserves. It comes along at a sort of sweet spot–bigger budget, more ambitious ideas and Tom Savini at the zenith of his powers as a practical effects artist. The human characters this time are scientists and military living in an underground bunker, which for the first time in the series gives us a wider view of what’s been going on since the dead rose. This film reintroduces the science back into zombie flicks, finally making one of the main characters a researcher (Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan) who has had some time to study the zombies in the relative safety of a lab. As such, the movie redefines the attributes of the classic Romero ghoul–they’re dumb, but not entirely unintelligent, and some of them can even be trained to use tools and possibly remember certain aspects of their previous lives. That of course brings us to “Bub,” maybe the single most iconic zombie in Romero’s oeuvre, who displays a unique level of personality and even humor. Day of the Dead ultimately takes a monster that audiences thought they knew pretty well at this point and suggests that perhaps they were only just scratching the surface of zombies’ potential. —Jim Vorel


4. Deep Red

deep red poster (Custom).jpgYear: 1975
Director: Dario Argento

Dario Argento movies would be exceedingly easy to pick out of a police lineup, because when you add all of his little quirks together they form an instantly iconic style—essentially the literal definition of auteur theory. Deep Red is one of those films that simply couldn’t have been made by anyone else—Mario Bava could have tried, but it wouldn’t have the instantly iconic soundtrack by Argento collaborators Goblin, nor the drifting, eccentric camerawork that constantly makes you question whether you’re seeing the killer’s POV or not. The story is a classic giallo whodunit: Following the brutal murder of a German psychic, a music teacher who lives in her building starts putting the pieces together to solve the mystery, uncovering a tragic family history. Along the way, anyone who gets close to the answer gets a meat cleaver to the head from a mysterious assailant in black leather gloves. Except for the ones who die in much worse, more gruesome ways. Argento has a real eye for what is physically disconcerting to watch—he somehow makes scenes that are “standard” for the horror genre much more grisly and uncomfortable than one would think, simply reading a description. In Argento’s hands, a slashing knife becomes a paintbrush. —Jim Vorel


3. Halloween

halloween-1978-poster.jpgYear: 1978
Director: John Carpenter

For students of John Carpenter’s filmography, it is interesting to note that Halloween is actually a significantly less ambitious film than his previous Assault on Precinct 13 on almost every measurable level. It doesn’t have the sizable cast of extras, or the extensive FX and stunt work. It’s not filled with action sequences. But what it does give us is the first full distillation of the American slasher film, and a heaping helping of atmosphere. Carpenter built off earlier proto-slashers such as Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in penning the legend of Michael Myers, an unstoppable phantom who returns to his hometown on Halloween night to stalk high school girls. (The original title was actually The Babysitter Murders, if you haven’t heard that particular bit of trivia before.) Carpenter heavily employs tools that would become synonymous with slashers, such as the killer’s POV perspective, making Myers into something of a voyeur (he’s just called “The Shape” in the credits) who lurks silently in the darkness with inhuman patience before finally making his move. It’s a lean, mean movie with some absurd characterization in its first half (particularly from the ditzy P.J. Soles, who can’t stop saying “totally”) that then morphs into a claustrophobic crescendo of tension as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode first comes into contact with Myers. Utterly indispensable to the whole thing is the great Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, the killer’s personal hype man/Ahab, whose sole purpose in the screenplay is to communicate to the audience with frothing hyperbole just what a monster this Michael Myers really is. It can’t be overstated how important Pleasance is to making this film into the cultural touchstone that would inspire the early ’80s slasher boom to follow. —Jim Vorel


2. The Changeling

Year: 1980
Director: Peter Medak

George C. Scott tempers his natural irascibility to play a melancholy composer grieving for his recently deceased wife and daughter in Peter Medak’s conflation of haunted house movie and supernatural whodunit. Dubbed one of the scariest movies of all time by Martin Scorsese, The Changeling deals the terror out in spades, with Medak playing up the tightening fear of the unknown with the precision of a horror maestro. (Indeed, it’s amazing Medak had never even been near the genre before.) Having moved into a new home, a century-old manor also occupied by the restless spirit of a young boy, Scott’s John Russell digs to discover the tale of an institutional cover-up, and of power wielded monstrously in the name of financial gain. The Changeling may be a showcase for an effortlessly magnetic veteran lead, but it’s also a mystery thriller that engrosses as it frightens. What begins as another haunted house story ends as a commentary on the history of America: a nation built not just on hard work, but also on blood and not-always-heroic sacrifice. —Brogan Morris


1. The Shining

Year: 1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick

As an aural-visual experience, The Shining is likely the single most distinctive horror film ever made. Its droning soundtrack, innovative Steadicam shots and singular images, like that of the two little Grady girls standing in the hallway, beckoning to Danny, are instantly recognizable even to people who have never explored horror cinema. Its most famous sequences, such as Danny scrawling “redrum” on the wall or Jack chopping down the bathroom door to get to Wendy, are so deeply embedded in pop culture at this point that references to them will be easily understood until the end of recorded history. At the same time, though, The Shining also still rewards scholarly analysis of its elements that are less known to the casual cinemagoer, such as Kubrick’s unique use of dissolves layered on top of one another to create composite images, or the seemingly purposeful continuity errors that pop up in a handful of scenes. These small details have for decades fueled mysteries and conspiracy theories about the director’s true intent, as was captured beautifully in The Shining documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher. Watching that film, one begins to understand how a movie such as The Shining can draw forth deep, primordial responses from its audience, such as the all-consuming need to understand. It is telling that, unlike some of the other great horror films on this list, The Shining saw few attempts at what you’d call direct imitation in the years that followed. It was too much the product of an auteur mind to be so easily unwrapped and reverse engineered; nor was its initial reaction entirely positive, contrary to what you might now assume. It was and remains an exceptional film of great beauty, coldness, precision, calculation and yes, fright.–Jim Vorel

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