The Top 10 All-Time Scariest Movies
Editors' picks for the most frightening flicks ever
by Beth Rowen
What's the scariest movie of all time?
Take a look at the features at the local multiplex, and you'll find that horror films dominate the lineup. (And not just during the Halloween season.)
Unfortunately, most of the offerings are overwrought, formulaic slashfests that are part of money-making franchises (Blair Witch 2, Lost Souls, and parodies like Scary Movie). We've compiled a list of what we think are the 10 scariest, creepiest movies of all time. Note: Blair Witch Project was intentionally left off the list.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
On-screen chemistry hasn't been this electrifying since Bogart and Bacall, and Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins never even make physical contact. The intensity never lets up in this brilliant psychological thriller that swept the 1991 Oscars. FBI agent Foster interviews vicious murderer Hopkins, hoping he will help the bureau catch another serial killer who's preying on young women. The interrogations turn personal as Hopkins, a psychiatrist, turns the tables and makes Foster his vulnerable subject.
Hitchcock's psychological thriller broke new ground in Hollywood and forever changed the genre. The bone-chilling tension still resonates today, despite a culture hardened to big-screen violence and psychological games. The infamous “shower scene” remains one of the most memorable in film history. Bernard Herrmann's chilling score intensifies the edge-of-your-seat suspense. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards but was shunned in all categories.
The Exorcist (1973)
This controversial film took in a whopping $89 million domestically, a certified blockbuster—quite a feat considering the off-putting plot and stomach-turning visuals: a twisting head, spinning bed, and green vomit. (People actually vomited in theaters during the film's original theatrical run.) A tormented priest tries to exorcise the devil from 12-year-old Linda Blair. In the process, he unleashes some of his own demons. Peter Blatty won an Oscar for the riveting screenplay based on his novel.
Director Ridley Scott deftly combined sci-fi and horror to create a grotesque, visually stunning technological wonder that set the criteria for later films of the genre. The crew of the spacecraft Nostromo must contend with a murderous alien invader that lives on human flesh. A dark, mechanical milieu lends to the eerie feeling of grim isolation.
The Shining (1980)
Who can forget Jack Nicholson's deranged laugh as he terrorized his snowbound family? Stanley Kubrick's most commercial film never really found an audience, but repeated viewings reveal a classic psychological study into family dynamics and the mind of an unhinged man. In characteristic Kubrick style, the auteur makes the Overlook Hotel itself a character, with as much power and intrigue as the real-life actors. Nicholson, never one for subtlety, delivers one of his most over-the-top performances.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
What would a scary movie list be without one slicer-dicer from the 1980s? After all, director Wes Craven is the indisputable king of horror, who's also responsible for the Scream franchise. Intelligent characters and—believe it or not—a thought-provoking screenplay set this first installment in the Freddie Krueger series apart from other films of the genre.
Jacob's Laddert (1990)
Forget the ending and you're left with one of the most disturbing, creepy films in film history. Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam vet who's haunted by harrowing hallucinations that obscure his hold on reality. He's convinced the military used him in a drug experiment gone awry. Look for Macaulay Culkin in an unbilled supporting role.
The Mummy (1932)
Not to be confused with the 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser. The original, a silent picture with horror icon Boris Karloff in the title role, remains a classic, with unforgettable make-up and atmosphere. An archaeologist opens Karloff's crypt, resurrecting a fallen prince who had been entombed for 3,700 years. Karloff, who has returned as an Egyptologist, recognizes the incarnation of the woman he loved thousands of years earlier and plans to kill her so they can be together again in the afterlife.
David Fincher, director of Fight Club, was the 1990's master of dark, stylized suspense. The rain never seems to let up in this thriller, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as New York homicide cops trying to track down a maniacal serial killer whose victims represent the seven deadly sins. Fully realized characters, a tight script, and harrowing special effects make Seven a sure-to-be horror classic.
The singular Dracula movie Nosferatu boasted remarkable animalistic makeup that has not been replicated, even with modern technology. Max Schreck gives a downright creepy performance as the vampire who terrorizes the city of Bremen and is ultimately destroyed by a determined Greta Schroeder, who's willing to sacrifice herself. Expressionist director F. W. Murnau delivers plenty of heavy-handed symbolism, but it works to haunt rather than distract. Dozens of Dracula films followed, but none captured the essence of Bram Stoker's artistry.