As noted philosopher Danny Elfman once wrote, “Tender lumplings everywhere; life’s no good without a good scare.” But why stop at just one good scare? We want scares spilling on us like blood rain, especially here in the abundant days of home-streaming services. We live in a world where, with the push of a single button, we can switch from sightless cave-dudes swinging off stalactites to Broadway veteran Tammy Blanchard wielding a butcher knife like nobody’s business.
Indeed, whether your preference is for slasher-killers, devil-girls, or something uncannily in between, there’s too much blood-curdling content to choose from nowadays. So we’ve gone and sliced and diced the crowd down for you. Narrowing the entirety of what’s available to one unforgettable collection of spine-tinglers, this list here has got something ghoulish for every soul—as long as you’re ready to not sleep tonight… or ever again!
1. The Descent
Experiencing Neil Marshall’s spelunking nightmare The Descent in the cinema was truly a singular experience, especially if you had no idea you were in for a nasty little thriller about six female friends who reunite one year after a tragedy to explore an underground cave system together—as you do—only for it all to go terribly horribly wrong—as it does! The theater walls themselves seemed to close in on you as the film grew tighter, more constricted, and claustrophobic, and that was even before any of those creepy crawlers showed up.
Even at home, the film still plays like gangbusters. Just wrap a blanket over your head and turn off all the lights, and you will feel like you’re right there in the Bava-esque underground alongside former besties Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), third-wheel Beth (Alex Reid), sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring)—and who could forget the smidge-too-enthusiastic Holly (Nora-Jane Noone)?—as the walls close in and the blackness starts blinking, then biting, back.
How to watch: The Descent is streaming on Max.
2. The Queen of Black Magic
Some of the best horror happening in the world right now is coming out of Indonesia. While I don’t want to say it’s all due to one man, you would be remiss to be unaware of the name Joko Anwar. Two of his recent directorial efforts, Satan’s Slaves from 2017 and Impetigore from 2019, are streaming on Shudder, and they’re both highly recommended—the latter has one of the greatest, freakiest opening sequences to a horror film I’ve seen in some time. But for the sheer scare factor, I’m recommending instead a movie that Anwar only wrote the script for, with Kimo Stamboel directing.
The Queen of Black Magic is a rollicking rollercoaster of a horror flick about a group of relatives and friends who’ve returned to the rural orphanage where they were raised to say their goodbyes to their sickly caretaker, only to find that things at the orphanage have gone a little haywire. It’s the sort of bonkers throw-out-all-the-stops ride that brings to mind Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films or Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Hausu. It throws everything at you, and I do mean everything. By the time a character starts stuffing fistfuls of furry caterpillars into their mouth, you’ll be the one crawling up the walls to escape.
How to watch: The Queen of Black Magic is streaming on Shudder.
3. Gerald’s Game
Before The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, and most definitely before The Fall of the House of Usher—even before he adapted Stephen King’s The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep—writer-director Mike Flanagan turned in one of the very best King adaptations with his 2017 take on one of King’s very best stories.
Flanagan players Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood star as a married couple whose attempt at spicing up their stale sex life with some kink at a remote cabin goes very, very, very wrong. This film manages to capture the horror of what King laid forth in a perfect and precise fashion. Exquisitely simple and terrifying, and a terrific showcase for what an underrated marvel of a performer Gugino can be.
How to watch: Gerald’s Game is now streaming on Netflix.
There are loads of legitimately terrifying TV movies from back in the heyday of the format. (Ghostwatch and Salem’s Lot both pop straight to mind!) But none will leave you shuddering in the corner in shock quite like 1984’s BBC-produced nuclear war horror Threads.
Directed by Mick Jackson, the man who also somehow gave the world the scarf-light pleasures of The Bodyguard and L.A. Story (human beings sure contain multitudes, huh?), Threads dropped on the unsuspecting populace of Great Britain on Sept. 23, 1984, like, well, several megaton bombs. And it’s been melting our faces off ever since. Aiming for as much realism as they could achieve at the time, what the film lacks in modern whizz-bang special effects it more than makes up in dire nihilism, despair, and oodles of unrelenting cruelty piled on every single character that it spent its first hour kindly introducing. (Mum!) It’s a disaster movie for those who snark at the outrageously unlikely happy endings that the genre typically embraces—threads ain’t playing around.
5. The Blair Witch Project
There were plenty of found footage horror films before Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project, like Cannibal Holocaust, The McPherson Tape, and the aforementioned Ghostwatch. But this wicked indie is very much the line in the sand, the Anno Domini come-to-Jesus moment for the genre, if you will. For me, it’s not even about the widely celebrated extra-textual elements, like the website and word-of-mouth about onscreen filmmakers Heather, Josh, and Mike really being missing people.
The scares are right there onscreen, starting with the willowy whispers about horse-haired fingers from interviewee slash legendary weirdo Mary Brown; the screams echoing in the forest in the middle of the night; and the children’s handprints up and down the hallways of that fateful shack in the woods. These are images that have haunted viewers for decades now and are still unsettled when they suddenly start popping up on social media timelines come Halloween time.
The mileage obviously varies on this film. Lots of naysayers see nothing scary about snot and little piles of twigs. But for those who are disciples of found footage, this is where lots of us learned how to worship the ways of the shaky cam. Bow down to that feisty Blair Witch! (Or else!)
A chimpanzee in a party hat A white shoe is inexplicably balanced on its tip. A dusty field full of inflatable tube men dancing in the breeze In just three films (Get Out, Us, and Nope), writer-director Jordan Peele has proven exceptional at creating iconic imagery out of truly ridiculous things. And his 2022 alien invasion terror set in the remote hills outside of Hollywood, where the movies were born, is his imagination unleashed on a larger-than-life scale.
Not that Peele doesn’t keep it grounded where it counts—the relationship between grieving brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) keeps the stakes and the heart real even as the skies pour blood and a crowd full of curious looky-loos find out just a hair too late that maybe it’d be better to turn away just this once.
How to watch: Nope is now streaming on Prime Video.
7. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
The greatest serial killer movie of all time is Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and that movie is streaming on Max right now. Have at it. But the scariest serial killer movie of all time is another beast altogether, with the sincerest apologies to Buffalo Bill and his little Precious.
This dubious honor belongs to John McNaughton’s relentlessly bleak Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which is inspired by the real-life gruesome twosome Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. It is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with all of the humor and the sheen lasered off, leaving a simple, bloody pit of filth and despair in its wake. Turning the viewer themselves into Henry’s ride-or-die, it’s like the shower clean-up scene from Psycho stretched out to one hour and 23 minutes. How far is the audience willing to empathize and commiserate with a cold-blooded psychopath? No matter how far you make it, we can only promise you that you’ll feel worse about yourself in the morning.
8. Green Room
Director Jeremy Saulnier’s relentless 2015 panic attack of a movie stars Anton Yelchin (RIP), Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner as a punk band on a cheapo tour who find themselves performing at a skinhead bar in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. And that’s not even the worst of it.
The worst comes when the band accidentally witnesses a murder in the green room. And their hosts don’t want to leave any witnesses alive. Barricaded in the beer- and piss-soaked back room of the title, the foursome find themselves besieged by a troupe of baddies, led by a terrifying Patrick Stewart, who is clearly relishing the opportunity to drop his StarFleet uniform for the cause of deeply freaking us out. Be warned, this one gets gruesome.
How to watch: Green Room is now streaming on Max.
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Before knife-fingered slasher Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) told one too many jokes only to become a joke himself, Wes Craven’s 1984 original presented the burned man in the boiler room who’s come to haunt your dreams as a true object of terror. It’s not at all funny when he slices off his own finger and green goo shoots out—it’s disgusting and awful, and we just want to wake up now, please.
Final Girl Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) watches as each of her friends is picked off, each in a more elaborate and gruesome fashion than the previous. Tina (Amanda Wyss) pulled up the wall and slashed ribbons. Rod (Jsu Garcia) strangled himself in his prison cell. Glen (Johnny Depp) turned into a geyser of gore. So, she decides to hunt down the red-and-green-sweatered horror icon once and for all, parents be damned. A Freudian teenage hellscape awaits—one two, Freddy’s come for all of us.
How to watch: A Nightmare on Elm Street is now streaming on Max.
Sometimes a single scene is enough. Writer-director Adam MacDonald’s crystal-simple survival horror flick from 2014 is much more than one scene, especially once that one scene happens, and the fallout tension from that one scene follows relentlessly through to the movie’s end. But you know those scary moments—those ones that get burned into your psyche like a terrible brand? Ones that you still see sometimes when you close your eyes? Backcountry has one of those—hoo boy, does it ever.
Telling the story of lightly bickering city couple Alex and Jenn (Jeff Roop and Missy Peregrym), who decide to take a hike in the Canadian wilderness only to stumble upon a strange hiker (Eric Balfour), and then a little later on, there’s that rustling in the bushes… We’re loath to give away too much. And while a statement like “This movie did for fill-in-the-blank as Psycho did for showers” always gives pause, Backcountry very seriously does this for camping. Seriously, the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts seem welcoming compared to this.
How to watch: Backcountry is streaming on Tubi.
11. The Exorcist
Sometimes you just have to go with the classics, like vanilla ice cream, Levi’s 501s, or William Friedkin’s multiple Oscar-winning adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bombshell book about a child possessed by the devil. We don’t know for sure if the kids today are still finding the pea-soup shenanigans of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) and her little friend Captain Howdy scary after all these many years, or whether all of the countless riffs and rim-shots that the movie’s been subject to have dulled its impact. But for most of us, those have never been the scariest moments.
No, the scariest moments for us have always been the jittery, jerky spinal-tap scenes—the ones where a little girl is screaming and convulsing as the best doctors a movie-star mom can buy (holla, Ellen Burstyn, legend!) shred little Regan’s innocence off, one trauma on top of another on top of another. (Learning the onscreen technician was later convicted of murder and inadvertently inspired Friedkin to make Cruising just makes it that much more horrifying.)
I mean, who isn’t turned into a monster, their spirit relentlessly broken, by the American healthcare system?
How to watch: The Exorcist is now streaming on Max.
12. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
It was just one innocent little question: “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” Okay, perhaps not so innocent! But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s tagline sure is to the point, as is everything about this nitty-gritty proto-slasher classic, which deserves every grisly ounce of its legendary reputation and then some.
In 1974, director Tobe Hooper dragged his poor cast and crew into the sweltering desert outside of Austin, and he didn’t come back until he’d left his great big mark across horror history by leaving several more great big marks across the torsos and limbs of his cast of pretty young people. (And Franklin. Poor, annoying Franklin.
But, aye, that’s the rub—watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre again and revel in how very little on-screen violence we actually see. This movie is all atmosphere, all churning sound (that relentless gas generator), and chicken bones. Oh, and one iconic flesh mask grinning out from every doorway, no matter how much you run, scream, and run, and scream, and run…
The film that literally gave me my very first panic attack (ahh, memories), Cujo is one of those titles that has become so iconic it’s like Kleenex—an eponym standing in for all rabid dogs. So I probably don’t have to tell you what Cujo is about, but let’s. Based on Stephen King’s book, a sweetheart of Saint Bernard is out chasing a bunny when he gets bitten on the nose by a bat instead. And before you know it, it’s the whole foaming-at-the-mouth treatment for the pupster.
Cut to an unlucky (to put it mildly) lady and her little boy (Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro), whose car breaks down in the mad dog’s path, and what you’ve got here is the claustrophobic thriller to end all claustrophobic thrillers. The dog keeps them trapped in the car during what appears to be the hottest week in the history of the planet. Simple and absolutely histrionically terrifying.
How to watch: Cujo is now streaming on Max.
14. The invitation
Some of the greatest horror films prey on our societally bred instincts to play nice and not rock the boat until we’re well past the point of no return. But not many have tightened this veil of politeness as ruthlessly as Karyn Kusama did in her 2015 slow-burn nightmare, The Invitation.
The Invitation follows a group of estranged friends who have been invited to dinner by one of their own who’s been through it. only they don’t seem to have any idea what she’s come out the other side of “it” as. But they sure will, by dessert! The film boasts a top-notch cast, including Logan Marshall-Green, Michiel Huisman, and the aforementioned Tammy Blanchard. And like Zodiac before it, this movie knows how to use the mountainous John Carroll Lynch to his most terrifying effect. We’re all trapped at the world’s worst dinner party, watching as Kusama slams every exit shut tight, one by excruciating one. This one is a legitimate masterwork on how to build tension and then let it all out in one sudden, unbearable shriek.
This movie either works for you or it doesn’t—there seems to be no in-between whatsoever. I just happen to be one of the people who fell hard under its slow, slow, slow brand of hypnosis, and so I will continue recommending it in the hopes that others will make the effort and let Skinamarink wash over them until they too feel like they’re drowning in its unfathomable darkness.
The film’s ambiguous story centers on two children who get left home alone one night with some horrible, whispering presence sneaking around the hallways. Skinamarin demands extreme patience. Often, viewers are left to just stare at a corner of the wall or the floor for minutes at a time as disassociated voices and cartoon music loop relentlessly. But the weirdnesses keep piling up, and the eventual trance-like trapped-inside-a-nightmare effect, as the horrible whispering presence comes for us, is still rattling my bones.
How to watch: Skinamarink is now streaming on Shudder.
Most of the time you watch a found footage movie, you find yourself getting angry at the characters because they keep bungling into the path of horror and don’t run away. Or, even more unlikely, that they keep carrying the camera to document everything! The best solution to these narrative problems is simple: make the lead character a journalist. Because who else would be running toward the disaster while all the sane people ran away?
Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s 2007 found footage masterpiece is possibly the best, clearest example of this, and their film gives us one hell of a newsperson to root for with Manuela Velasco’s beat-reporter turned kick-ass Final Girl, Ángela. Of course, firefighters and police officers would also be running toward the disaster, so there’s a bunch of those, too. And although they’ll mostly be gobbled up by the zombie-demon things that have begun terrorizing a quarantined apartment building in downtown Barcelona, at least it makes sense! We certainly understand why Ángela keeps holding up that camera of hers, even in the most dire situations. You’d be surprised at how far these little touches of behavioral realism go toward making the zombie-demon things even scarier. And bonus points (a whole score of ‘em) for one of the most terrifying final scenes of all time, with a final shot that’s been aped too many times to count in the years since.
How to watch: [REC] is now streaming on Prime Video.
17. Lake Mungo
By far the most subtle film on this list (no caterpillar feasts here!), Joel Anderson’s 2008 “true crime mockumentary” out of Australia goes for the kind of scares that insinuate themselves into your brain rather than the kind that stab you in the crotch with a crucifix. But Lake Mungo’s scares will creep up on you, and Lake Mungo’s scares will refuse to let go once they have dug their fingers in.
The Palmer family is in deep mourning after the loss of their teenage daughter Alice, who mysteriously drowned, but their search for answers leads to more questions and strange discoveries. They enlist a parapsychologist who opens a whole other can of supernatural worms, and soon the audience is being treated to all sorts of clues, whispers, and glimpses of things we wish we could unsee.
Like all of the best ghost stories, Lake Mungo is steeped in pervasive sadness and grief, but there is a single shot in here that belongs in the Scariest Shots Hall of Fame. Anyone who’s seen this movie before knows which one we’re talking about just by looking down at all of the hairs standing on their arms right this very second.
How to watch: Lake Mungo is now streaming on Tubi.
18. Speak No Evil
One of the most reliable and yet underappreciated weapons in horror stories isn’t the scythe or the sickle. And it’s definitely not the football with a sword attached on graduation day. No, the weapon that gets them every time and will absolutely turn the audience’s stomach into gruel watching it get wielded is kindness. Manners. Politeness. Danish writer-director Christian Tafdrup gets that, and he weaponizes these seeming virtues to such an uncomfortable degree in this brutal 2022 horror thriller that the tension, as it builds, becomes suffocating.
The setup is simple. Two families meet on vacation and hit it off. So, one family invites the other to come stay at their country house for another much-needed getaway. But shortly after their arrival, the visitors realize that this was a very bad idea indeed. Not wanting to seem rude, this frightened family keeps ignoring red flags, even as every single member of the viewing audience is stamping their feet and screaming “RUN” in unison.
Watch the perfect original before the American remake with James McAvoy is released!
How to watch: Speak No Evil is now streaming on Shudder.
19. The Fog
People will fight about what scary movie is John Carpenter’s best. The master of horror has been so good at what he does that there are several correct answers. But for my buck, I just keep coming back to his utterly perfect vibe from the 1980 ghost story The Fog.
Set in the oceanside town of Antonio Bay in Northern California, The Fog introduces its vaporous villain through the sultry voice of DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), whose call echoes out across every house and nearby boat as she warns that that glowing green bank of fog just seems to be moving in the wrong direction. On one side, this spooky movie has waterlogged pirate ghouls, all seaweed and sinister intentions, on the hunt for their stolen gold. And on the other hand, it’s got Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, and Janet Leigh, all trying to survive the night. The dark. The fog.
How to watch: The Fog is now streaming on Tubi.
20. Funny Games
Despair, your name is Michael Haneke.
This 1997 home-invasion thriller cemented the acclaimed Austrian director as someone keenly interested in human brutality. It’s not just that Funny Games involves horrific acts, which are often performed with a harrowing shrug or off-screen, but that it wallows in the rippling outward effects that they have. Thus, the plight of the tormented characters bleeds through the screen, reflecting our indifference and our numbness to participate in this world.
Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar, and Stefan Clapczynski star as a family of three who go on what should be a carefree lakeside vacation. But almost immediately, they are interrupted by two disturbingly polite and well-mannered young men (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering), who say they’re friends of the neighbors. And before you know it, the neighborly act of borrowing some eggs has descended into horror.
Callous and as cruel as they come, Funny Games is built to make you furious, squirming in your helplessness, and boy, does it ever.
How to watch: Funny Games is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.