Brutal kills slathered in practical gore. Chilling visions captured in sweeping camerawork. The Empire team locked itself in a darkened room with nothing but a single torch to draw up a list of the 50 greatest horror movies — from game-changing classics like Dawn Of The Dead and Halloween , to contemporary skin-crawlers like The Babadook and It Follows.
The final list has razor-sharp slashers, lo-fi masterpieces, supernatural shockers, beautiful oddities, and raw thrill-rides, guaranteed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Read through the full list and check out their iconic posters here — and be sure to listen out for any bumps in the night….
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Two generations, 27 years apart, share the screen time to relate the lifelong battle of the Losers' Club against unknowable evil cosmic entity Pennywise, who uses a clown as his avatar. Mad, exhausting, occasionally terrifying and surprisingly warm, just like its literary source. A future classic.
Director: James Wan Starring: Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover Occasionally forgotten in the wake of its many sequels, the original Saw is a cracking, gonzo low-budget shocker: stylish, well written and boasting a killer surprise at the end. While the seeds of the tortuous future instalments are sown by the police investigation happening in the background, the central premise is thrillingly lean: two strangers, locked together in a room, and they don't know why.
Tell us you're not hooked. In a horror landscape of teens getting slashed, Clive Barker's debut as a director was an adult domestic drama, albeit with supernatural underpinnings, violence, gore and glimpses of a fascinating larger universe, the rules of which arrived almost fully formed.
The sequel would dive deep into that, but here, at core, we have a love triangle and a Faustian pact: a sort of weird mashup of Marlowe and Chekhov, told with low-key visual panache. But surely the real triumph here is Uncle Frank…. We follow a widower's attempts to get back in the dating game with a younger squeeze, via the rather dodgy and disingenuous audition process to which the title refers.
And it's only when we realise the object of his desire has literally been waiting by the phone for days — apparently in an apartment empty of anything but something ominous in a sack — that we begin to realise something is very, very amiss. And then there's the foot-sawing and the eye-needles. Kiri, kiri, kiri….
Richard Matheson's cracking screenplay streamlines and improves the novel; the pacing and dialogue are sharp; and the performances, particularly from the incomparable Charles Gray and, as always, from Christopher Lee, are top notch. The studio would return to Wheatley with To The Devil A Daughter a couple of years later, but they missed a trick by never bringing back Lee's Duc de Richleau: the paranormal investigator — who brings hell down on his unsuspecting friends here — featured in eleven of the author's novels.
His cases could have run and run. Two hit men take on an assignment. They have the kill list. They have to kill them. Bish bash bosh. But as you watch, small hints of the film's true nature slowly appear. An odd symbol is scratched on a bathroom mirror. A doctor offers bizarre, medically dubious advice.
The soundtrack broods like a rumbling storm cloud overhead. Ben Wheatley's masterful grip on slow-building tension — informed by his love of s Brit folk-horror — crescendos to an almost unbearable, shocking finale. The results were not what the studio expected. Far from the monster mash they'd asked for, Cat People opted for more psychological chills, and a still surprising concept centred on a woman who's afraid to consummate her marriage because of her belief that sexual climax will turn her into a panther.
Paul Schrader's '80s remake took full advantage of the modern potential for FX and erotica, but Tourneur's more subtle scares are all about stalking and shadows. Director: George A. No matter, the doyen of the undead merely served up another chewy allegory for humanity's doom laden with gory moments enhanced by Tom Savini's majesterial make-up designs. Following on from Dawn Of The Dead with the world in the grip of a full-scale zombie infestation, the survivors head south in practically every sense to a bunker in a swampy corner of Florida.
There, a crazed doctor tries to turn the shufflers — including the iconic 'Bub' Sherman Howard — back into productive members of society.
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The subtext, again, is clear: the zombies are the least of our problems in a world driven by violence and greed. Cue a curse to end all curses: visitations from a demon called the Lamia. While the punishment doesn't seem entirely proportionate, the results offer a wild, raw and wickedly entertaining ride with Sam Raimi at his funhouse best throughout.
Justin Long, the loyal hubbie on the other side of Lohman's hellish bubble, takes on the horror staple role of disbelieving agnostic. You'll want to shake him by the end. Director: Julia Ducournau Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf A French flesh-munching art-horror that really sticks in your teeth, Julia Ducournau's film manages to be a full-blooded horror, a darkly funny family drama, and a coming-of-age film all in one. When Justine begins a veterinary course at university — where her older sister also studies, and where her parents first met — she's battered and bewildered by a series of initiation rituals.
It's not long before her stringent vegetarianism is replaced by an unstoppable craving for meat, leading to some truly nauseating developments. Shocking, unrestrained, and strikingly original, Raw is a rich, layered meal of a film for anyone who can stomach it. Director: Terence Fisher Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough Directed by the incomparable Terence Fisher, written by Jimmy Sangster, pairing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with Lee getting actual lines for the first time , and going all out for colour, glamour, sex and blood, Hammer's Dracula aligns the elements and distils the formula that powered the studio for the next two decades.
Sangster's bold screenplay at once eviscerates Bram Stoker's novel and sets the narrative free. With the locations transposed and limited to Romania and half the 'dramatis personae' excised, we're left with a lean adventure. The Lugosi film is a creaky slow-burn, but Hammer's is a swashbuckler. Lee, of course, gets to be urbane and darkly seductive, but there's also genuine savagery to the moments when he gets to bare his teeth.
It's instructive to see how little Adam Wingard's surprise sequel deviated from the set-up and formula of the original bunch of kids head into the Black Hills, record the results on the shakiest of shakycams 17 years later. At the time, it sparked a revolution in the genre. Since then have come dozens of imitators, although even the best of them struggle to replicate the original's disorientating chills. Twigs and bits of foliage have never been so scary. But its the gut-wrenching emotional horror that stays with you — the very worst possible thing happening, the guilt of it, the devastation that ripples out and affects everyone around you.
Aster delivers a heart-crushing rug-pull in his debut feature that is genuinely unforgettable — and from there he ramps up the bumps in the night, the body-horror, and the spine-tingling creepiness like a nightmare that just won't end. Its ending has proven divisive, but whatever your thoughts on the final reel, it's a shattering experience along the way. Director: Jennifer Kent Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman Slightly mis-sold by a trailer that made it look like a standard — though impressive — monster movie, The Babadook's greatest trick is in not really being about the titular thing at all.
Rather, it's a film about a mentally-unravelling mother's difficult relationship with her young son. The 'dook itself is just another spanner in the works. Subverting expectations, the film seems to set up Amblin-style hijinks from a resourceful kid, but those elements never come to pass, and his backpack of tricks is ultimately useless. The rules are right there in creepy storybook: you can't get rid of the Babadook.
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The eventual solution for its defeat — but not eradication — is something like genius. As before, there's immense pathos in the monster's plight — ultimately rejected by his stunning, shock-haired "bride" Elsa Lanchester. But there's more mischievous wit in the second outing, largely thanks to Ernest Thesiger's cherishably waspish Doctor Pretorius. The film is strongest in its opening stretch, as Frye's Renfield visits the stunning, colossal set of Dracula's castle, meets the sombre count — dwarfed by his cobwebbed surroundings — and falls foul of the vampire's ethereal brides: a sequence of exquisite beauty.
Subsequently it's a bit more plodding, and the ending is oddly rushed. But there are still unforgettable elements along the way. Well worth watching with Philip Glass' score — unless you prefer the almost-silence of the orginal. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke Moving into a family home on an ancient burial ground presents the kind of real estate conundrum even Kirstie and Phil would be hard-pressed to help with. That's just about every supernatural domestic catastrophe in the handbook, short of finding the Dyson is haunted and the guinea pig is Satan.
Despite the restriction of its PG rating it was initially R-rated but changed on appeal , the result remains a refreshingly scary brew. Midsommar's sun-bleached visuals are just as nightmarish, pitching everything into the realm of the uncanny as Florence Pugh's grief-stricken Dani loses her grip on reality at a festival hosted by Swedish cultists.
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As with his previous film, Aster grounds the horror in emotional devastation — this time in a searing deconstruction of a toxic relationship, as Jack Reynor's cowardly boyfriend Christian backs out of breaking up with Dani when she suffers a sudden family tragedy. Creepy, deeply unsettling, with brutally gory jolts — and an undeniable sense of beauty. Just bear witness to its instantly iconic flower-wreathed finale. It's also a moving and insightful study of marriage, particularly the way it creaks like the hull of a ship under the duress of loss and grief. But, yes, ultimately it's scary in a way that's cranked up several notches by its eerie backdrop of Venice in off-season, weird encounters with spiritualists, and that red-coated hobgoblin.
Julie Christie lost in her grief for her drowned daughter and Donald Sutherland adrift in his are note-perfect as the central couple, but Roeg's direction and editing — particularly in the famous sex scene — lend the movie the feel of a beautiful but shattered mosaic. Simply trying to survive like countless vampires before her, Eli Leandersson strikes up a bittersweet friendship with social pariah Oskar Hedebrant , offering him salvation from his less-than-ideal home situation.
Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's bestseller and set in Stockholm, it's not just the threat of being offed by a vampire that make this an incredibly effective Scandi scarefest, with themes of loneliness, anxiety and alcoholism helping it slip effortlessly into your bloodstream. It's no surprise Hollywood clamoured for a remake.
A governess takes charge of two creepy children who appear to be being haunted by previous incumbents of their rackety estate.
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But the film preserves James' crucial ambiguity: are the children really in danger from ghosts, or from a sort of supernatural Munchausen-by-proxy stemming from their hysterical guardian? The answer's up to you.
It is: the laughs are balanced by a keen understanding of the fear aesthetic, and it doesn't skimp on either the scares or the gore. Plus, Wright and his cast add such real emotional depth to the characters that they come across as more nuanced than many a scary movie can boast. We never really learn what the 'It' is, except that it's a mysterious entity that's somehow sexually transmitted, manifesting as a variety of shuffling injured strangers, or sometimes as people known to the victims it inexorably pursues.
It's an interesting twist on the slasher movie "promiscuous teens get killed" trope, with the wrinkle that if you find yourself affected, you can just shag someone else and get rid of it, like a chain letter. That rule takes the film to some very dark places. In fact, there's really nothing average about The Witch at all: a devastating psychological ordeal that works as well taken at face value the goat IS the Devil as according to more complex theories.
The cryptic events are never fully explained, leaving The Witch ambiguously unsettling. Romero to thank. Nobody else has contributed more to the modern conception of zombies than the bearded genius from the Bronx, and no film has kickstarted a subgenre so enduring or fruitful.
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