Horror isn't like other types of film. It's a bodily experience. It's goes straight for your gut, rummages around inside inside your head, makes your chest get tight. It's an intellectual strain too.
"It's a genre that lends itself to saying things about existence and why we're here and what makes us all afraid and what makes us tick," Saint Maud writer and director Rose Glass told us last year. "But you can, in a way, hide some of those things behind the trappings of just an exciting, scary, entertaining film."
But where do you start? Horror films go all the way back to the very birth of cinema, and with so many exciting, scary, entertaining films to sift through you could do with a guide. Take these 32 as a primer.
There's something about Ari Aster's debut which makes your jaw clench up in fear of the path you're being taken down. The story about a family dealing with grief in their own ways after the family matriarch dies gets to the dark heart of pain, both emotionally and physically. Whether it's the snip of a dead bird's neck or the deadly thunk in the film's most horrifying moment, Hereditary is a true audio horror experience. It also features a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette, while Milly Shapiro turns lead girl Charlie into one of the genre's most terrifying children.
Kill List (2011)
Ben Wheatley's best film is a constantly shapeshifting thing: it looks like it's heading towards an underworld crime drama, before jagging toward neo-folk horror and Wicker Man creepiness. Former soldiers Jay and Gal have become contract killers since leaving the army, but Jay's not as into killing as he used to be. He needs the money though, and a job comes up which he can't turn down, especially when it's sealed in blood. Just when you think things can't get much darker, Kill List finds a way to make things stranger.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
While this one's generally still as sharp as Freddy Krueger's gardening shear fingertips, the morality is a little blunter (if you bang anyone you die, basically), though it's not a film which wants you to take it particularly seriously. As splenetically bloody as it is, A Nightmare on Elm Street has a great sense of humour too. Just as the veil between fantasy and reality is a thin one when formerly deceased creeper Freddy starts murdering teens in their dreams, the distinction between all-out horror and sly laughter is a murky one.
Saint Maud (2020)
Rose Glass's astonishing debut wanders deep into the recesses of a troubled young woman's mind in a story which the director describes as Travis Bickle taking a trip to the seaside. The film follows Maud, a nurse who becomes obsessed with her ward Amanda, with the lines between reality and fantasy ever blurring before the ending delivers what Glass calls a "short, sharp shock". With a sickly grey colour pallet complete with a crumbling seaside town and the churning sea, Saint Maud is truly grim viewing and includes some stomach turning sights and sounds from start to end.
Freiburg is a lovely little city: gateway to the Black Forest, loads of great wine, culture around every corner, loads of sun. Unfortunately for Suzy Bannion, who's just moved there to attend a prestigious dance academy, it was apparently a lot more creepy in the Seventies, when Dario Argento was murdering dancers right left and centre there. There's something very creepy going on at this dance school, what with necromancy, great rains of maggots and dogs ripping their owners' throats out, and Argento's expressive direction makes this one luridly unforgettable.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Ana Lily Amirpour's shadowy, noirish horror follows The Girl, a mysterious young woman who stalks the streets of a fictional Iranian ghost town called Bad City. By day, she hangs out at home listening to music or goes skateboarding. At night, she hangs around wearing her chador and attacking grotty men. She's a vampire, you see, and Amirpour recasts the vampire as an avenging antihero. The moral of the story: if you're an arsehole to women, you're getting chomped.
His House (2020)
Remi Weekes's brilliant haunted house debut follows Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu), a couple who escape violence in South Sudan via a treacherous and traumatic boat crossing to the UK. Not all of their party make it, but when those who do get to a detention centre, they're assigned a house that they can't leave on pain of deportation. "You’re often torn in these two directions and battle within yourself, especially when you’re trying to find your place in a new country," Weekes told Esquire of the conflict within the characters, and in this memorable horror he plays with the conventions of the genre to make salient points about immigration, isolation and autonomy.
Also known as Pulse, this Japanese film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the great Akira) is a techno-chiller from the very dawn of Web 2.0. Two parallel ghost stories see young Tokyo-dwellers discover that souls of people who killed themselves are starting to invade the living world, and that their memories linger extremely creepily inside computer screens. The only thing that ages it is the gigantic computer monitors, which will give you flashbacks to the first, gif-laden Piczo site you ever made.
The Haunting (1963)
The evil building is a key part of horror cinema. Think of Norman Bates' mum's house or the attic in The Exorcist. Bad vibes leak from the walls and floor, memories of horrors past still walk its halls, and it might be conspiring with terrible supernatural forces to attack the unsuspecting humans foolish enough to walk in there. This adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House might be the absolute peak of it.
"Whatever walked there," we learn, "walked alone." Several previous occupants have died – of course they have, look at the place – and a team of paranormal investigators is going in to check it out along with Eleanor, who lived there as a child. But it soon becomes clear that the house wants Eleanor back for good.
In civil war-torn fourteenth century Japan, soldiers are pillaged and looted by an old woman and her daughter. They've got a sweet gig going, until a handsome stranger turns up and the daughter starts sneaking off to see him at night. What begins as a historical family drama takes a chilling swerve in its second half, and in its Hannya mask-wearing ghoul, Onibaba made a lasting impact beyond the East too. Every masked terror who came after, from Jason to Michael Myers, owes something to it.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
Not the first horror, but perhaps the most influential. Without the sharp shadows and distorted perspectives of German Expressionism, the grammar of horror – what scares us, and how cinema tells you when to be scared – would be unrecognisable, and Nosferatu is its greatest achievement.
In 1830s Germany, estate agent Thomas Hutter is sent to sort out a new pad for the much-feared Count Orlok, who is definitely not Count Dracula. You know how the story goes from there – spoiler alert: he's a vampire – but FW Murnau's exacting direction, in which he used a metronome to time his actors' movements, and his mastery of Gothic mood means it still feels fresh and scary nearly a century on. Unfortunately, Bram Stoker's heirs took an extremely dim view of Murnau's clear rip-off, and managed to get a court to order every single copy of the film be burned. One print had been sent abroad though, and it's hard to say what horror might have become had it not survived.
The Fog (1980)
Jamie Lee Curtis was fresh from John Carpenter's Halloween – more on which later – when Carpenter again tapped her blend of folksy approachability, scream queen lungs and no-bullshit steeliness for a more overtly supernatural story. Curtis is the radio DJ in a small town on the Californian coast where spooky stuff suddenly starts happening just as everyone's about to celebrate the town's centenary. Turns out the town was founded by absolute bounders, who deliberately sank a ship of leprosy sufferers so they wouldn't move in next door, and now the dead sailors want their revenge. The Fog is an electric convergence of the classic ghost story, the then-new slasher school, and Carpenter's unique rhythmic sense and soundscapes.
The Innocents (1961)
There have been a lot of adaptations, riffs, nods and straight up rip-offs of The Turn of the Screw, but none are as good as The Innocents. When Miss Giddens gets her first job as a governess, she moves into Bly House and is initially surprised to find out that the sweet young Flora and Miles have started behaving oddly. They're becoming secret and strange, and odd figures have been seen around the place. Bly House itself seems to be possessed too. Are the ghosts of its past possessing the kids? Or is Miss Giddens losing it? Jack Clayton goes for genuine eeriness and atmospheric chills rather than jumps or shocks, and The Innocents is the scarier for it.
Peeping Tom (1960)
In 1960, two visionary slasher flicks arrived. Psycho premiered in June and was hailed a masterpiece; Peeping Tom had arrived two months earlier and pretty much finished director Michael Powell's career, even after he'd made A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Colonel Blimp and the rest. Perhaps Britain was too squeamish about the parallels Powell drew between the voyeur Mark Lewis, who films the murders he commits, and the filmgoing public. A campaign on its behalf by Powell protégé Martin Scorsese helped to restore its reputation – along with Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, he said, Peeping Tom said everything that could be said about filmmaking. It's got a lot to say about sex, life, death, and violence too.
Eyes Without A Face (1960)
A surgeon causes an accident which leaves his daughter Christiane disfigured, and he goes to pretty extreme lengths to get her a new face and allow her to peer out from behind her porcelain doll-style facemask. Georges Franju's direction gives Eyes Without A Face a lyrical, poetic feel, and a twisted logic that makes it feel more like a fairytale than a standard mad professor flick. The Spectator's reviewer at the time called it "the sickest film since I started film criticism," which is quite a recommendation.
No monsters or Big Bads here, but Threads stands as one of the most gutturally horrifying films ever made. In early Eighties Sheffield, people navigate their everyday triumphs and tragedies as the shadow of nuclear war starts to loom over the Don Valley: while the council plans for a war footing, a young couple discover they'll be parents and a family bickers over their son's Gameboy. Then doomsday arrives. It's a kitchen sink horror which pulls as much from Coronation Street and Ken Loach as it does Dr Strangelove, but with added icy dread and a sense of unflinching realism. The bombs start dropping about 20 minutes in, and that's the relatively jolly bit.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Lynne Ramsay's film digs into one of the most elemental fears of every parent: it's not that anything bad will happen to their kids, or that suddenly decide to be a Leeds United fan. It's that they simply won't ever understand them. Tilda Swinton's Eva watches as her first-born develops into a manipulative, cold young man – a kind of archery-obsessed Damien from The Omen – but doesn't know how to stop the nihilism taking hold.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin's masterpiece was not easy to make. Some said it was cursed: the set burned down when a bird flew into a circuit box; actors Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn were both badly injured on set; and shooting ended up taking more than a year. But it became a phenomenon, its haunting, raw, hallucinatory visions turning it into a 10-Oscar-nominated behemoth. In Georgetown, Washington, 12-year-old Regan starts acting oddly: swearing, stealing, talking backwards, that sort of thing. Best get a priest – the much-missed Max Von Sydow – in to sort things out. Things don't exactly go by the (good) book.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1982)
This slasher elevated the genre to high art via a mixture of black comedy, the unsettlingly childlike Leatherface, and a total commitment to its sense of spiralling surreality. You know the set-up – young hippies head to the sticks, get lost, get chopped up by a creepy family of partially undead oddballs – but nothing prepares you for its visceral thrills, or the family's Ed Gein-inspired interior design choices.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
Horror cinema started in earnest with this, the peak of German Expressionism on film. An insane hypnotist uses his skills to get a sleepwalker to commit murders, creeping around a jagged, haunting dreamscape. Its influence on the greatest hits of Hollywood in the Twenties, Thirties and beyond, from Dracula and The Man Who Laughs to Citizen Kane and The Third Man, is incalculable.
The Thing (1982)
Out in Antarctica, a dog runs across the tundra, pursued by some very angry Norwegians. What's that they're shouting? Better shoot them, just to be safe. A dog that cute could never do anyone any harm. Cue grisly body-warping from a scuttling, phlegm-covered shapeshifting alien, and Kurt Russell with a flamethrower. John Carpenter's ice station-set chamber piece is still the gold standard for utterly splenetic effects-driven body-horror.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Based on the MR James story 'Casting the Runes', this one's a slow-burning creeper. An attempt to unmask a murderous cult, led by the devilish Dr Karswell, turns into a supernatural cat-and-mouse game between Karswell's curses and the man trying to bring him down. Kate Bush sampled it on the intro of 'Hounds of Love' too. It's in the trees! It's coming!
Ari Aster's follow-up more than delivered on the hype around his name after Hereditary. It's a break-up film at heart, following bereaved Dani and emotionally stunted Christian as they try to ignore their dead relationship by going on a spring break trip to Sweden for their mate Pelle's traditional family shindig. Some of the most unbelievably fucked-up images follow. We'll not ruin anything, but suffice to say come the ending, you'll be looking fondly looking back on the bit where two old people got their skulls smashed by a lad with a big hammer.
Get Out (2017)
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting his girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) parents out in rural upstate New York. That kind of thing's nerve-wracking enough without the sneaking suspicion that the other black people in this white neighbourhood are acting a bit oddly. Jordan Peele's excoriating and hilarious critique of liberal America's complacent, but-I-voted-for-Obama racism comes wrapped in horror thrills.
The Babadook (2014)
It's never a good sign when a kid starts getting freaked out about something nobody else can see (cf The Exorcist, It Follows, The Witch, etc) and when Adelaide widow Amelia's boy Sam starts building weapons to fight off an imaginary monster, she is understandably worried. Despite how disturbing the Babadook is, Jennifer Kent's study of grief, maternal doubt, depression and rage is an oddly uplifting and comforting watch. Plus, the Babadook's an LGBT icon now.
The Wicker Man (1973)
When a girl goes missing on Summerisle, a island in the Hebrides, police sergeant Neil Howie goes to investigate. Devout Howie finds a Pagan society under the rule of Lord Summerisle (an absolutely majestic Christopher Lee) and sets out to sort out these bloody heathens and find the girl. As you might know, it doesn't go that well for him, and ends in one of the definitive images of all British cinema: the Wicker Man burning as Summerisle sings. Probably skip the extended version where Lee goes on about the cultivation of apple trees for ages. And the Nic Cage-starring remake from 2006.
Vegetarian Justine heads to veterinary school expecting the classic uni experience – lectures, grotty trebles bars, maybe join the badminton team – and ends up being forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys in a hazing ritual. Instead of getting in touch with the welfare officer, she gradually gets a taste for it, and eventually things go the full Hannibal Lecter. Not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached).
It Follows (2014)
One of the most overtly indie of the indie horrors of the 2010s, this is a beauty to look at as well as being a chiller. A curse moves from teen to teen in small town America, passed on like a supernatural STI. If it's on you, a figure moves slowly towards you, and when it catches you, it absolutely mullers you.
The Witch (2016)
Also known as The VVitch, this one's about slow-building dread more than any jumps or gruesomeness. Anya Taylor-Joy, from Peaky Blinders and Emma, is Thomasin, eldest child of ostracised New England settlers William and Katherine. They start to believe they're cursed, and it's not long before accusations of witchcraft start flying about. But is it actually the goat's fault?
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In a year of upheaval, protest and anger, George A Romero's definitive zombie apocalypse film channelled every anxiety America had going into its shuffling, groaning undead: capitalism, communism, race, masculinity. It's still a rich and profoundly disturbing watch half a century later. It's also in the public domain, so it's all on YouTube.
In the great pantheon of taciturn man-mountain bad lads, Michael Myers has to be top of the (gigantic) heap. His first appearance, in which he escaped from captivity after killing his sister and started hunting down teens in smalltown Illinois, remains one of the great slasher thrillers. Jamie Lee Curtis, in her breakout role, is the gutsy Laurie Strode, Myers's next intended victim. By bringing terror to the middle classes' suburban haven, Halloween changed everything.
The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock basically invented the slasher, the psychoanalytical horror-thriller, and the creepy mummy's boy murderer with Psycho in 1960, but The Birds is the furthest he ventured into pure horror. It all starts quite innocently, in the classic Hitchcockian mode, until all of a sudden birds start launching themselves at people. Why the aviary terrorism? And will it ever stop? It's all incredibly tense, with its sparse electronic score the under-appreciated MVP.
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