As a devoted horror movie fan, I’ll be the first to admit that the market is glutted with horror movies, most of them terrible. And not in an enjoyable, over-the-top kind of way.
If you are a horror movie novice searching for a good horror movie, the simultaneous breadth of availability and lack of choice entertainment can be discouraging. Horror fans feel that way all the time, but we know enough that we can make solid recommendations.
With Halloween fast approaching, I decided to compile a list of horror movies that are both scary and accessible to a wide audience. The following films are perfect for a Halloween watch party because 1) they are relatively easy to find on streaming services, 2) they’re well-made films, and 3) they scare audiences in thoughtful, enjoyable, entertaining ways.
Even if you’re a horror movie buff, this list is a nicely packaged bundle of great horror movies that present a strong argument for the merits of horror. These movies are harrowing, smart, witty, and funny. They are heartbreaking and profound. They reinforce the magic of telling stories through the medium of film and legitimize a genre that critics loves to hate.
Let’s get to it (HERE BE SPOILERS):
- Halloween (1978)
“On Halloween night of 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers stabbed his sister to death. After sitting in a mental hospital for 15 years, Myers escapes and returns to Haddonfield to kill.”
What better movie to watch during Halloween than THE quintessential slasher movie, also set on Halloween? Close to forty years after its original release, Halloween is still one of the scariest and suspenseful slashers around, rightfully earning its place in the Horror Movie Pantheon. It is a violent movie but doesn’t depend on gore—rather, scenes are so shocking because of Director John Carpenter’s expert use of atmosphere, suggestion, and brutality. Of all the slashers inspired by Halloween, very few have ever come close to achieving the level of tension and heart-pounding exhilaration of this film. The prolonged confrontation between protagonist Laurie Strode (credited with originating the Final Girl archetype) and Michael Myers will keep you on the edge of your seat.
- Alien (1979)
“After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as distress call, their landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious lifeform. Continuing their journey back to Earth with the attacked crew having recovered and the critter deceased, they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.”
Despite what some people tell you, this is not a sci-fi movie. Alien is a horror movie with science-fiction trappings.
I absolutely love this movie. I love its attention to detail. I love the story. I love the balance between horror and terror. I love it’s examination of difficult topics like sexuality, pregnancy, fear of the unknown, and the ruthless pursuit of knowledge. And I love Sigourney Weaver as the badass Warrant Officer Ripley.
Alien has something for everyone. The production value is top-notch, with amazing sets and practical effects that build a detailed, visually engrossing world. H. R. Giger, who did the character design for the Alien, created a monster so truly otherworldly and terrifying that I doubt the movie would have been successful without his contribution. The acting is amazing. The scares will make your skin crawl. There isn’t much gore (since Ridley Scott likes to suggest enough to make imaginations run wild), but when there is gore, it’s sudden and disgusting and awesome.
- Poltergeist (1982)
“Strange and creepy happenings beset an average California family, the Freelings — Steve, Diane, teenaged Dana, eight-year-old Robbie, and five-year-old Carol Ann — when ghosts commune with them through the television set. Initially friendly and playful, the spirits turn unexpectedly menacing, and, when Carol Ann goes missing, Steve and Diane turn to a parapsychologist and eventually an exorcist for help.”
If you or a guest at your Halloween Movie Watch Party pauses to choose between the original Poltergeist or the 2015 remake, please, for the love of God, chose the original.
The remake failed to capture the energy of Tobe Hooper’s classic haunted house movie. And what energy Poltergeist has! The film has come to encapsulate a sort of nostalgia for the innocence of the early 1980s at the same time that it’s a film about the devastating sense of loss felt by both children and adults when the world reveals its horrors. The fear of losing a child, the fear of being captured by literal boogeymen ghosts, the helplessness to protect one’s home and family—these are all themes that resonate with everyone. Poltergeist does an excellent job weaving them into one of the best mainstream horror films ever.
- An American Werewolf in London (1981)
“David and Jack, two American college students, are backpacking through Britain when a large wolf attacks them. David survives with a bite, but Jack is brutally killed. As David heals in the hospital, he’s plagued by violent nightmares of his mutilated friend, who warns David that he is becoming a werewolf. When David discovers the horrible truth, he contemplates committing suicide before the next full moon causes him to transform from man to murderous beast.”
I feel like not enough people talk about this film when they talk about great horror movies, which is a shame. So I’m going to take the opportunity to talk this one up, since it’s a great example of a horror film that strikes a wonderful balance between violence and wit.
An American Werewolf in London is one of the best werewolf movies ever, faithfully and unflinchingly portraying the horror of losing control of one’s human self. There’s nothing worse than enduring a gross, bone-crunching transformation into a vicious monster who commits all sorts of gruesome crimes, and then waking up the next morning with only fragments to piece together. This movie is legitimately disturbing in parts. The expected scenes of werewolf violence don’t hold back, but there are also several terrible nightmare sequences and jarring hallucinations that give this movie a lot of nuance and depth.
And even though some parts are super cheesy, the practical effects of this film are some of the best I’ve seen. The werewolf transformation scene is the stuff of legends, and I’ve yet to see anyone surpass the techniques used here for similar transformation scenes.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, a top student at the FBI’s training academy. Jack Crawford wants Clarice to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who is also a violent psychopath, serving life behind bars for various acts of murder and cannibalism. Crawford believes that Lecter may have insight into a case and that Starling, as an attractive young woman, may be just the bait to draw him out.”
Another horror movie heavyweight, The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best serial killer movies of all time, and one of the most quotable.
The movie is an excellent example of filmmaking, successfully weaving elements of horror and cop procedural into one movie. Make no mistake, however; this is a horror movie at heart. It forces the audience to confront both the ghastly aftermath of serial murder (which is too often given shallow treatment in entertainment). The Silence of the Lambs is also notable for how it forced audiences into the twisted minds of two formidable, depraved serial killers.
Really, the performances make the movie. Of course, Anthony Hopkins’ stunning turn as the brilliant, psychopathic cannibal Dr. Lecter steals the movie. He deserved that Oscar for calculating every mannerism, every uttered syllable, and every nasty expression in a way that the amplified the character’s presence. Hopkins created a completely menacing horror movie villain, and he’ll haunt you for a while after you see this movie.
Also, the night-vision scene is amazing.
- Scream (1996)
“The sleepy little town of Woodsboro just woke up screaming. There’s a killer in their midst who’s seen a few too many scary movies. Suddenly nobody is safe, as the psychopath stalks victims, taunts them with trivia questions, then rips them to bloody shreds. It could be anybody…”
Scream is equal parts unapologetic slasher and biting satire of the slasher subgenre, delivering both scares and laughs. It does a very good job of walking this line, but don’t think the movie goes easy on the audience. The multitude of murders range from savage to merciless to downright absurd. On one hand, the opening scene is hard to watch because of how maliciously a masked murderer taunts and eventually kills Drew Barrymore. On the other hand, that garage door murder is one of my favorite horror movie kills.
Scream balances slasher violence with actual plot and developed characters, which is refreshing to see in the genre. It is extremely well made for this type of film, but you shouldn’t expect anything less from horror heavyweight Wes Craven’s direction. Despite the all the murder and mayhem, Craven manages to keep a sense of levity throughout the film.
Simply put, this film is a lot of fun, calling out genre tropes, making fun of itself in the process, and then committing those very same genre tropes with a big ole wink to the audience. No one is safe in Scream, and it’s awfully enjoyable figuring out who will die next.
- 28 Days Later (2002)
“A group of misguided animal rights activists free a caged chimp infected with the “Rage” virus from a medical research lab. When London bike courier Jim wakes up from a coma a month after, he finds his city all but deserted. On the run from the zombie-like victims of the Rage, Jim stumbles upon a group of survivors, including Selena and cab driver Frank, and joins them on a perilous journey to what he hopes will be safety.”
Danny Boyle’s 2007 zombie movie is a genre-defining classic for two reasons. First, it changed the game by introducing fast zombies into the mix. Second, it demonstrated how the real monsters in epic disasters are other people, not the zombie hoard.
Full of intelligence and nuance, 28 Days Later succeeded where many, MANY zombie movies fail and examined survival in the face of ever worsening odds. It also took a hard look at how far a person would and should be willing to go in order to rebuild order and security. In this apocalyptic world, gone are the rules that kept in check man’s capacity of violence and destruction. Some people don’t handle the disintegration of civilization too well and the film does a really good job of showing how normal people would cope (or fail to cope) during a catastrophe.
28 Days Later also gave the zombie subgenre a much needed shot in the arm by depicting zombies as rabid, mindless eating machines capable of sprinting after prey, which is simply terrifying. If the zombie apocalypse ever happens and zombies turn out to be fast, we’re all dead.
- Paranormal Activity (2007)
“Soon after moving into a suburban tract home, Katie and Micah become increasingly disturbed by what appears to be a supernatural presence. Hoping to capture evidence of it on film, they set up video cameras in the house but are not prepared for the terrifying events that follow.”
Full disclosure: I really, really dislike most found-footage horror movies. I like the concept of capturing raw horrific events “as they happened”, but I find that these films often make critical errors, like contrived reasons for the camera to be in a scene, lazy plot holes, and waaaay too much CGI.
That being said, I really enjoyed Paranormal Activity. It is not your typical found-footage horror movie. It actually cares enough to develop its characters so that they feel like real people in a real life situation. Katie and Micah feel like countless couples I’ve hung out with before.
The film’s realism doesn’t stop there. Paranormal Activity’s attention to detail makes the whole experience seem hyper realistic, capturing the true mundanity of everyday life for a white, middle class couple. Their house isn’t decrepit or ominous. Katie and Micah are a cute, loving couple that playfully bicker.
It’s not until the thin fractures in Katie and Micah’s relationship begin to show themselves that the situation goes to hell in a hand basket. Their relationship drives more supernatural phenomena and the further disintegration of their relationship, which feels natural and organic. And because everything started off as calm and suburban and boring, the actual scares are truly unnerving.
- Let The Right One In (2008)
“When Oskar, a sensitive, bullied 12-year-old boy living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli, they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved with each other, Oskar and Eli slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.”
This tale of unlikely, dangerous love may be the most high-brow movie on this list, but don’t let that deter you. It’s a beautiful, sinister, compelling film that more people need to see. It’s one of my favorite vampire films ever, partly because it’s moody and shocking. I also love it because, even though it is a love story, this movie isn’t about goddamned Twilight vampires. The vampire doesn’t feel guilty for being a vampire and tries to assuage her guilt by becoming a “vegetarian vampire.” This vampire is harsh, calculating, manipulative, and unafraid to feed on victims or dismember teenagers.
This vampire isn’t messing around and neither is this movie. It explores themes like loneliness, isolation, friendship, love, and the complex and predatory nature of some relationships. It’s grisly but gorgeous. It’s contemplative but never drags. And it’s filmed with such skill the cold poignancy of each frame will linger with you.
- Zombieland (2009)
“After a virus turns most people into zombies, the world’s surviving humans remain locked in an ongoing battle against the hungry undead. Four survivors — Tallahassee and his cohorts Columbus, Wichita and Little Rock — abide by a list of survival rules and zombie-killing strategies as they make their way toward a rumored safe haven in Los Angeles.”
Zombieland is the funniest movie on this list by far. Like it’s cousin 28 Days Later, it has fast, rabid zombies and explores themes of loneliness in the face of societal collapse. However, it’s a hell of a lot more uplifting than 28 Days Later, making a perfect movie to watch with a bunch of people who don’t watch horror movies.
The movie stands firmly in the intersection between gross, hilarious, and kickass. It combines the best aspects of horror, comedy and action to deliver nasty jump scares, clever quips, and absurd, slow-motion zombie-slaying scenes worthy of any action movie.
- The Conjuring (2013)
“In 1970, paranormal investigators and demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren are summoned to the home of Carolyn and Roger Perron. The Perrons and their five daughters have recently moved into a secluded farmhouse, where a supernatural presence has made itself known. Though the manifestations are relatively benign at first, events soon escalate in horrifying fashion, especially after the Warrens discover the house’s macabre history.”
The Conjuring is the perfect blend of classic haunted house movie artistry and modern horror sensibilities. By evoking creeping shadows, ominous lighting, and a spooky setting, The Conjuring avoids cheesing pitfalls and cheap jump scares. But it includes a hell of a lot more actual scares and unsettling developments than your average black-and-white gothic thriller.
The acting is a major asset to this movie, as is the writing. The film spends a lot of time introducing us to the main characters, letting us see their strengths and their foibles, all the ways a malicious entity may try to harm them later. And the writing is great too, with a streamlined narrative that successfully weaves the Perrons’ struggle with issues the Warrens have in their relationship. Structured this way, the audience can’t help but identify with the main characters, which makes the horror all the more enthralling.
Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either The Conjuring or The Conjuring 2. They were both great horror films and I enjoyed both immensely, squealing with fright and shrinking into my seat. Personally, I have a slight preference for The Conjuring because I felt that the narrative was tighter and more thematically pure. But…my God…the Demon Nun from The Conjuring 2 is one of the most frightening horror movie villains I’ve seen in a long time.
Do you have any other suggestions for great and accessible horror movies? Leave your recommendations in the comments!