For filmmakers, horror is one of the toughest genres to get right.
Mastering a scare is something that only the most gifted of directors can manage, and there are a lot of films out that that fall very short when trying to terrify their audience.
Those that do deliver, though, succeed with aplomb: John Carpenter, George Romero and
Get Out director Jordan Peele to name but a few.
For those on the hunt for scares, it can be quite hard out there, but fret no more – we’ve compiled the scariest horror films on offer, ranging from German Expressionist films from the 1920s to indie smash hit,
Below, we rank all the horror films that will genuinely scare you – click through the gallery to see what made the cut.
Directed by: Michael Haneke. Funny Games places the horror in the familiar setting of home. It follows two young men who hold a family hostage and torture them with sadistic games. The result is far scarier than anything featuring ghosts, witches or demons.
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg. The Amityville Horror is based on the true story of the Lutzes, a family who were run out of their home after being terrorised by paranormal phenomena in 1975. Just one year before, Ronald DeFeo Jr shot and killed six members of his family in the same house. James Brolin and Margot Kidder lead this film, which became one of the biggest hits of 1979.
American International Pictures
Directed by: Takashi Miike . Japanese horror Audition (1999) follows a widower who meets a woman named Ayoma after staging auditions to meet a potential new partner. Soon, though, her dark past begins to surface, which equates to a pretty disturbing climax.
Directed by: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez . Although parodied to death, The Blair Witch Project popularised the found-footage format to terrifying degrees in 1999. People genuinely believed they were watching real clips of three student filmmakers being terrorised by a Maryland legend known as the Blair Witch.
Directed by: Robert Wiene . Black-and-white silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionism, but also one of the scariest films in cinema history. It follows a hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist to commit murders, and Wiene’s shadowed sets and striking visual style combines to unsettle the viewer in ways most filmmakers only dream of managing.
Directed by: Bernard Rose. A contemporary classic of horror cinema, 1992 film Candyman – which spawned two sequels and has a Jordan Peele-produced remake in the works – follows a graduate student whose studies lead her to the legend of a ghost who appears when you say his name three times.
Directed by: Ruggero Deodato. Extreme enough to warrant a ban in Italy and Australia, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was one of the first films to embrace the found-footage format – so much so that Deodato found himself charged with multiple counts of murder due to rumours that several of the film’s death scenes were real. He was later cleared.
United Artists Europa
Directed by: Neil Marshall. Released in 2005, The Descent follows six women who, upon exploring a cave, battle to survive against the creatures they find inside. It’s these creatures that earn this British horror film’s placement on this list.
Directed by: William Friedkin. One of the most controversial films of all time, The Exorcist – which tells the story of the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair) – became the first horror to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1974.
Directed by: John Carpenter. Sure, it may be dated, but John Carpenter’s original Halloween film – released in 1978 – remains the daddy of all horrors. It re-defined the rule book and has been emulated in everything from Scream (1996) to Trick ‘r Treat (2007). The tension, as babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) attempts to evade masked murderer Michael Myers, only heightens with every new watch.
Compass International Pictures[
Directed by: Ari Aster. Proving that horror is a force to be reckoned with, Hereditary became independent distributor A24’s highest-grossing film around the world upon its release in 2018. It tells the story of a family who find themselves haunted after the death of their secretive grandmother and features a final act that left many of its viewers with sleepless nights.
Directed by: Ti West. The House of the Devil (2009) follows a student named Samantha who is hired to guard an isolated house with one rule: don’t go upstairs. For most of the film’s runtime, not much happens, which is what makes the action-packed final third so terrifying. Spoiler: she goes upstairs.
MPI Media Group
Directed by: Jack Clayton. Based upon Henry James’ chiller The Turn of the Screw, the plot of 1961 psychological horror film The Innocents concerns a governess who watches over two children and comes to fear that their large estate is haunted by ghosts and that the youngsters are being possessed.
20th Century Fox
Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace. Forget the effects-laden remake – this version of It, released as a miniseries in 1986, is the most terrifying adaptation of Stephen King’s beloved novel to date. It follows a shapeshifting demon who takes the form of a sadistic child-killing clown named Pennywise (Tim Curry).
Directed by: Takashi Shimizu. Japanese horror maestro Takashi Shimizu – who also directed the pretty scary 2005 remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar – balances mystery with horror in Ju-On: The Grudge, a story based in a cursed house in Tokyo.
Lions Gate Films
Directed by: Ben Wheatley. To describe the horrors of Kill List is to ruin the film’s surprises, but let’s just say this: the final 20 minutes of Ben Wheatley’s violent drama from 2011 features some of the most unsettling scenes in any film from this decade.
Directed by: Joel Anderson. Taking the form of a mockumentary, the little-seen Australian drama Lake Mungo may have received a limited release in 2008, but its story of a family attempting to come to terms with the drowning of their daughter stays with viewers long after.
Directed by: Pascal Laugier. The polarising 2008 film Martyrs, often associated with the New French Extremity movement, is the kind of horror that leaves you needing a shower once the credits roll. It follows a young woman’s quest for revenge on the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child.
Anchor Bay Films
Directed by: George A Romero. Younger viewers may be desensitised by the more extreme horror films to have been released in recent decades, but the scares featured in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – including the young girl zombie reveal – remain some of the most chilling committed to celluloid.
Directed by: FW Murnau. Alongside Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the character of vampire Count Orlok in 1922 film Nosferatu – played by Mac Schreck – remains one of the most spine-tingling in cinema history.
Film Arts Guild
Directed by: JA Bayona. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, this acclaimed 2007 chiller follows the disappearance of a young boy in an orphanage, which brings many of the building’s terrifying secrets to the fore.
Warner Bros Pictures de España
Directed by: Alejandro Amenábar. The Others (2001) is a towering achievement for Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar who wrote, directed and scored this Nicole Kidman-fronted tale about a woman trying to protect her children from supernatural forces. It’s perhaps the scariest 12-certificate film of all time.
Directed by: Oren Peli. Could Paranormal Activity be the scariest film of all time? It’s certainly one of them. Just when you thought found-footage had had its day, Oren Peli’s small-budgeted festival favourite became one of 2009’s biggest hits. Audiences lapped up the story of a couple who capture supernatural presences on a camera in their own home.
Directed by: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. Paranormal Activity 3 earns its place on this list for its final 10 minutes. Set 18 years prior to the events of the first two films, we see the cause of the curse that follows characters Katie and Kristi for the rest of their lives – and it’s down to a coven of witches led by their grandmother.
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza. Played out in real-time, the claustrophobic Spanish horror film [REC] is one of the better examples of found-footage cinema. Released in 2007, it follows a reporter and her cameraman who follow firefighters to a Barcelona building and soon find themselves locked inside with its occupants who are displaying murderous behaviour.
Directed by: Hideo Nakata. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the story of Ring by now: viewers of a cursed videotape die seven days after watching it. While the inevitable Hollywood remake in 2002 was better than it had any right to be, Nakata’s original is as terrifying as horror films come.
Directed by: Roman Polanski. Released in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby follows a pregnant woman who suspects that an evil cult want to take her baby for use in their rituals. Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon’s performances tip this psychological chiller into classic status.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick. Forget the iconic “Heeeeere’s Johnny” or that bath scene – it’s the smaller moments that make Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining a terrifying watch, notably the trippy final act that sees Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) lose his mind to the Overlook Hotel.
Directed by: Scott Derrickson. Of all the Blumhouse horror films, 2012 release Sinister – which features the demonic character Bughuul – is the spookiest of them all. It stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer who discovers a box of home movies depicting grisly murders in the attic of his new house.
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró. This little-seen Spanish horror follows a concierge who, believing he was born without the ability to feel happiness, decides to make life hell for everyone around him.
Directed by: Tobe Hooper. The fictional Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), marketed as a true story, follows a group of cannibals – including Leatherface – who relentlessly hunt down a group of friends.
Directed by: Danny Boyle. Many might not reflect upon 28 Days Later (2002) as one of the world’s scariest horror films, but its desolate depiction of a viral outbreak seems more real than any other. When merged with the fast-paced infected and the usage of John Murphy’s song “In the House – In A Heartbeat”, it’s hard to deny it such status.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by: Various. Directed by six filmmakers, including Adam Wingard and Ti West, 2012 anthology film V/H/S is grimy horror of the tallest order. Look no further than David Bruckner’s section “Amateur Night” following three friends who meet a mysterious girl who says nothing other than three small words: “I like you.”
Directed by: Na Hong-jin. Twist-filled horror drama The Wailing follows a policeman who investigates a series of mysterious killings and illness in the mountains of South Korea. If the journey fails to scare you, its destination will leave you lying awake at night.
20th Century Fox Korea
Directed by: Robin Hardy. The Wicker Man is deemed the best British horror film of all time for a reason. It tells the story of a Police Sergeant who travels to an isolated island in search of a missing girl, only to find its inhabitants practising a form of Celtic paganism.
British Lion Films
Directed by: Robert Eggers. For the most part, it’s not what you see in The Witch that terrifies, it’s what you don’t see. Eggers unsettlingly holds his camera a fraction too long in places as he retells the story of a Separatist family who encounter supernatural forces in the woods beyond their farm.
Directed by: Ben Coccio. The horrors are all too real in Zero Day, a film inspired by the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. The majority of the film is portrayed through the video diaries of two students who are planning to attack their high school.
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