The Witches (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)
If a horror film’s success can ever be judged by how many sleepless nights it causes children who watch it, The Witches is surely the most terrifying film ever made. Roeg’s take on the Roald Dahl classic is unique in how gleefully it upsets younger viewers.
Switchblade Romance (Alexandre Aja, 2003)
Originally titled High Tension, this French slasher film is as simple as they come: two friends are chased through the countryside by a psychopathic killer. What sets it apart is a balls-to-the-wall energy and some spectacularly violent deaths.
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
Villeneuve’s superb and criminally underseen psychological thriller sees Jake Gyllenhaal discover his doppelgänger and possibly lose his mind. It’s not actually that scary, unless you have a fear of spiders. In which case it will absolutely ruin you.
REC (Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, 2007)
We can all agree the world does not need another found-footage zombie horror film, but this Spanish classic is the one and only exception. A clever, relentless experience shot on location in a Barcelona apartment block, it is a brilliantly realised vision of pure terror.
Creep (Patrick Brice, 2015)
A videographer is hired by a terminally ill man (cleverly played against type by Mark Duplass) to record his life for posterity. All is not what it seems. You’ll laugh, you’ll flinch, and when the credits roll you’ll be thoroughly disturbed.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Half the fun in watching slasher films is guessing which of the obnoxious teenagers is going to get killed next. There is no such fun to be had watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It just feels too real.
Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)
A dopey producer decides to hold a fake audition for a film that doesn’t exist in the hope of finding a girlfriend. Audition starts off close to a romantic comedy, but when one of the women exacts excruciating revenge it descends into pure, torturous horror.
It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017)
An unseen threat forces a family to isolate in a remote cabin. Their relative order is shattered when another desperate family seeks refuge. Things soon descend into a tense and terrifying nightmare of paranoia and fear.
Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
Sure, it’s funnier than it is scary, but the opening scene with Drew Barrymore is horror perfection distilled. Craven’s love letter to and send-up of the slasher flick spawned countless imitations, but it still sits on a throne of its own.
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
If you’re lucky enough to see The Descent without knowing anything about it beforehand, you are in for a visceral, relentless and very bloody treat. It really does lose a lot of its effectiveness if you know what to expect, though, so do yourself a favour and go in blind.
Pet Sematary (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, 2019)
It might not have the nostalgic thrill of the original, but credit where credit’s due – this is an excellent and chilling remake. The plot has been changed in a mildly sacrilegious way, but it’s enough to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2012)
The sudden and visceral acts of violence in Wheatley’s superb thriller are unsettling enough, but coupled with such a creepy atmosphere and enigmatic plot, it makes for a film that lingers long in the memory.
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
The isolated setting, the music, the special effects, Kurt Russell’s hair; it all remains such a joy to watch. But the real genius lies in the simple dread of not knowing who the monster is. In the paranoid age of Covid, where every wayward cough comes from a possibly infected enemy, The Thing has become an unlikely film of the times.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
n 1973 the devil possessed a 12-year-old girl and the world was changed forever. Still scary, still disgusting, and most remarkable of all: still shocking.
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013)
How many horror films has Wan hammered out over the last 20 years? It’s hard to say for sure, but … a lot. The Conjuring is far and away his best; a truly terrifying and refreshingly old-school haunted house picture starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.
The Battery (Jeremy Gardener, 2012)
Two former baseball players struggle to survive the zombie apocalypse in this surprisingly excellent indie horror. Shot on a budget of just $6,000, the carnage is very much in the background, which makes for a far more impactful experience.
Bone Tomahawk (S Craig Zahler, 2015)
A beautifully shot film of two halves, starring Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins. The first half sees a disparate group of gunslingers set out to rescue some kidnapped settlers. The second half…well. To say the s**t hits the fan is a considerable understatement. Cave-dwelling cannibals and extraordinary levels of wincing violence await.
Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)
Can we just take a moment to appreciate the great Rob Reiner? In the space of eight short years he directed This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and A Few Good Men. Honour Lord Reiner’s cinematic legacy by watching Misery this Halloween.
The Endless (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, 2018)
Two brothers return to visit the death cult they escaped as children. There’s nothing scarier than the unknown, and The Endless probes this fear in very clever, Lovecraftian ways.
The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Our brains respond to revulsion and fear in much the same way; Cronenberg’s absolutely disgusting body-horror blends those feelings entirely. Jeff Goldblum is the unfortunate shmoe turning slowly and painfully realistically into a big fly.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
Horror films that rely so heavily on hokey prosthetics generally don’t age well; A Nightmare on Elm Street is an exception. In part this is down to a great villain and Craven’s expert direction, but what makes this still such a scary proposition is the simple yet genius central hook – if you fall asleep, he’ll get you!
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
It is a universal truth that singing children makes any film 300 per cent creepier. Loosely based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (adapted by Truman Capote, no less), this British classic sees a Victorian governess looking after two children in what just might be a haunted mansion.
Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play grieving parents on a trip to Venice who begin (possibly) to see apparitions of their dead daughter. A haunting, beautiful, and ultimately terrifying film.
Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
Who the hell is this Ari Aster guy? Coming out of nowhere to direct the best horror film of the last 20 years. The cheek. The neck! Oh God … don’t mention necks.
The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Roger Ebert hailed The Night of the Hunter as “one of the greatest of all American films”, but lamented the fact that it was rarely celebrated as such because people just don’t know how to categorise it. It is a thriller, a horror, an expressionistic parable of good and evil, and it holds up fantastically well today.
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
A spider-crab hybrid jumps onto your face and extends a tube down your throat, laying an egg inside you. The egg hatches and a horrific, insanity-inducing alien bursts out of your chest, killing you in pure agony. That’s obviously scary. But do you know what’s even scarier? Being alone. In space, especially.
Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)
When you were young did you ever stand in front of the mirror and say “Candyman” five times? Maybe you said it once, possibly even twice. At an absolute stretch, four times. But five times? I’m sorry, but I simply don’t believe you. Nobody was that crazy.
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
It’s hard to exaggerate the chaos that surrounded The Blair Witch Project when it was initially released. A genius marketing strategy pushing the myth that the actors really did go missing caused what can only be described as mass hysteria. The final scene still sends goosebumps.
Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
From a buoy bobbing in the water to a late night skinny-dip, Jaws remains a masterclass in effective tension-building. David Fincher says it scared him so much he hasn’t swam in the ocean since. If you can permanently traumatise the director of Seven with a rubber shark, you know you’ve done something right.
Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
A truly heart-breaking, disturbing and essential film. This Soviet masterpiece chronicling the hellish journey of a Byelorussian boy through the atrocities of the second World War is very likely the most powerful anti-war film ever made. You will not sleep after watching it.
Gerald’s Game (Mike Flanagan, 2017)
Gerald’s Game is notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, seeing Henry Thomas, that sweet little boy from ET, play an emotionally manipulative abuser is just plain upsetting. Secondly, there is such an excruciating and sickening scene toward the end that your own screams may cause the neighbours to call the police. Give them a heads-up before watching.
The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, 2016)
Part police procedural, part supernatural horror, this South Koran mystery follows a police officer investigating a series of grisly murders in a rural village. It’s a long film, but patience is rewarded with a satisfying and disturbing pay-off.
Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a comfortable and cultured Parisian couple who have their bourgeois lives upended when a series of sinister videotapes turn up on their doorstep. Haneke’s thriller can be read any number of ways, but as an artefact of repressed memory it is superlative.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien seducing and killing men in Glasgow. That’s about as much as can be said about the plot of this extraordinary film, but you don’t watch it for the plot. It is a haunting, endlessly rewatchable work of visual and sonic art. Not to big it up too much or anything.
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
A grossly under-appreciated film, Zodiac follows, in forensic detail, the investigation to try and find the Zodiac Killer in 1970’s San Francisco. A slow-burn, dialogue-heavy examination of obsession and depravity that burrows into the dark part of your mind and stays there.
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
A brilliant high-concept take on hackneyed teen horror tropes, where a deadly curse is transmitted through sexual intercourse. It Follows surely would have spawned a multi-sequel franchise had a bigger studio gotten their greedy mitts on it.
The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
You don’t watch The Road; you endure it. You certainly don’t enjoy it. In a post-apocalyptic existence so devoid of hope, so drenched in cruelty and violence, the love between a father and son acts as a world-redeeming, bright-burning ember of hope.
The Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan, 1999)
It’s a shame The Sixth Sense is mostly remembered for the twist and Haley Joel Osment whispering, “I see dead people.” It is one of the most expertly crafted ghost stories of recent years (what do you mean it’s been over two decades?), with real emotional heft.
The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
The Mist is on this list for one reason and one reason only – the spectacularly bleak ending. For the most part it is a perfectly serviceable and predictable adaptation of the Stephen King novella, with some seriously bogey CGI. But then that ending comes along and just flat-out knocks you for six.
Near Dark (Katheryn Bigelow, 1987)
A modern vampire western, Katheryn Bigelow’s Near Dark is a strange, alluring beast. Watching it now you can’t help but think, man … I can’t believe Bill Paxton is actually dead.
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)
A fair and honest warning: you will, without doubt, deeply regret watching this film. Depending on who you ask, Martyrs is either the pinnacle of the New French Extremity movement, or depraved and hollow torture-porn masquerading as something deeper. Either way, do not watch it. It is borderline irresponsible to even mention it.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynn Ramsay, 2011)
It’s hard to imagine a better adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name. Ramsay’s impressionistic take is utterly bone-chilling, but also serves as a moving meditation on trauma and grief.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
A creepy children’s book monster haunts a mother and son in this excellent Australian psychological horror. But is the Babadook real? Part of the film’s brilliance lies in how creatively it portrays a fractured psyche.
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
If you were somehow still unsure how mindlessly cruel, evil, contradictory, violent and stupid humans can be, watch this documentary, in which Indonesian death-squad leaders of the 1965-66 massacres re-enact their atrocities. It is truly a horrific film.
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
Another children’s film far too scary for children to enjoy, this beautiful stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella is filled with genuinely disturbing ideas and images. A young girl discovers a parallel world where everything is superficially more appealing, but which hides a sinister reality.
Rawhead Rex (George Pavlou, 1986)
The great thing about horror films is they don’t even have to be good to be enjoyable. This Clive Barker-penned nonsense sees an absolutely gas-looking demon terrorise a small Irish village.
The Snowtown Murders (Justin Kurzel, 2011)
Based on a real-life spate of murders in Adelaide, Australia during the 1990s, The Snowtown Murders has a gritty, kitchen-sink realism that makes for incredibly tough viewing. You’ll need a shower after watching this one.
Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
Based on a true story about two young girls who conspire to commit murder, Jackson’s disturbing examination of obsessive friendship is one of his finest films. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey are both remarkable in the lead roles.
Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)
Splice is one of those films you stumble across late at night and as the credits roll you can’t help but think, “What in God’s holy name did I just watch?” Sarah Polly and Adrien Brody star as genetic scientists who accidentally create a human-hybrid creature in their lab. Things get weird.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
You might know what happens in Psycho, but that dreadful sense of the inevitable only makes it scarier. Hitchcock plays the audience like a fiddle throughout, without a single wasted frame. Best enjoyed in the dead on night with the lights off.
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