Lists like this one are both fun and nerve-racking to write because they are so objective. As a cinephile with a particular interest in the horror genre, I think I have come up with a solid criterion list of the horror movies that everyone should see before they turn thirty. Whether you are looking for a great horror movie for the weekend or trying to navigate your way through a genre that is ripe with grenades, there is something for everyone here.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920
This German film is widely thought to be the first horror film ever made. While you can imagine that it is rather tame by today's standards, I could see how it would give people in the 1920s quite a fright. What is more impressive is the ending of this film which is about one hundred years before its time.
2. Nosferatu 1922
I maintain that Nosferatu is still one of the creepiest horror movies of all time. Its mystique partially comes from the incredible performance from Max Shrek and partly from its rudimentary yet effective use of practical effects. The fact that it is a silent film adds to the creepy ambiance of the entire piece. The Cabinet may be the first, but this is the film that made horror movies a thing.
3. Freaks 1932
So here's the thing, politically correct was not a thing in 1932 and it shows. Still, this movie is incredibly important to the horror genre and surprisingly holds up. It is not jump out of your seat scary, but the ending is rather terrifying, and it has little to do with how the "freaks" look. I have to say that Freaks is not the kind of movie that should be shown in schools, but it is practically PG by today's standards and manages to tell a frightening story without the gore that movies rely on today. Like the two films above, Freaks was influential in laying the groundwork for modern day horror.
4. Psycho 1960
There is no way to measure how influential Alfred Hitchcock was to the horror industry, but many of his films are in the horror criterion collection. Out of all of his films, the one that almost every person knows is Psycho. Not only was Anthony Perkins' performance close to perfect, but the movie gave us the classic violin sounds that have been the basis of music for almost every suspenseful scene since then. If this were a top five list Psycho would still have been on it.
5. Night of the Living Dead 1967
Night of the Living Dead pretty much created zombies as we know them today. This film tackled some hot-button issues of the day and while some of the ideas are a little outdated others are still argued today, unfortunately. It could be argued that this film is the grandfather of modern horror and while there are others that have had more influence on contemporary horror, Night of the Living Dead is the movie that paved the way for the rest.
6. The Last House on the Left 1972
Wes Kraven was a master of horror, and The Last House on the Left was his first masterpiece. Out of all of the movies on this list, this film is by far the most cringe-worthy. What makes this entirely made up movie so scary is that it is something that could happen to anyone at any time. Though many more brutal films have come since there were a lot of practical effects in this movie that were ground-breaking at the time and disgusted movie-goers of the time. I think all you need to know is that the previews to Last House on the Left told audiences "Keep telling yourself, it's only a movie."
7. The Exorcist 1973
Looking back, The Exorcist is nowhere near as scary as people thought it was in the 1970s, but that doesn't mean it doesn't belong on this list. This is still a classic film and left a mark on horror forever - even if it was cheapened with a bunch of sequels. The Exorcist has weaved its way into the deepest parts of pop culture and is still referenced 45 years later. Fun fact, in its original run, filmmakers recorded slaughterhouse sounds and played them at subliminal levels to increase the feeling of terror.
8. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974
Texas Chainsaw Massacre was unlike anything anyone had seen at the time. Tobe Hooper took a loose idea from real-life serial killer Ed Gein and turned it into a masked villain that would haunt people's nightmares. This film was the ancestor of the found footage film and took slasher movies to a place where they had yet to go. Even though more than forty years have passed since this film was in the theaters, it is still scary today which is a testament to how great Texas Chainsaw Massacre is.
9. Jaws 1975
Jaws may be the most watched "horror" movie of all time thanks to many factors. You could argue that this is more of an action movie than a horror movie and the blurred genre combined with fantastic acting and legendary directing created one of the most perfect films to ever grace a screen. The more you learn about Jaws, including the fact that its most iconic lines weren't scripted, the more endearing it becomes.
10. Carrie 1976
Stephen King is a master of horror who has created so many masterpieces that he pops up multiple times on this list. Carrie is a lot of things, but one of them is the ultimate anti-bullying PSA. Carrie is an essential movie for people to see because it is a masterpiece as well as a cautionary tale that will make you sleep with the lights on for a few nights after you watch it.
11. Alice Sweet Alice 1976
Alice Sweet Alice has the distinction of being Brooke Shields' first movie, but it is also important to the horror industry as a whole. There are a lot of precedences set by this film including its murder-mystery atmosphere and the creepy mask that the killer wears. Alice Sweet Alice was the inspiration to many horror films that followed it so it only makes sense that you should see the original before seeing the knock-offs.
12. Suspiria 1977
There are only a handful of people who have earned the honor of being called a master of horror, and Dario Argento is one of them. One of the true tests of a great horror film is Hollywood doing everything they can to reboot and ruin a classic, and the new Suspiria is set to come out soon staring none other than Anastasia Steele herself, Dakota Johnson. While the original film is a bit choppy and disjointed at times, it is still an attention-worthy film which inspired many of today's best horror filmmakers.
13. Halloween 1978
Halloween did not just spawn a litany of sequels and a reboot; it pretty much paved the way for the slasher boom of the 1980s. Before Halloween came out, the "slasher" genre was pretty much non-existent. The movie was iconic in other was too like launching the career of scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and that catchy theme that has influenced so many horror scores after it.
14. The Shining 1980
When you get Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King together, it is nearly impossible to make a bad movie. There are so many pop culture lines in this film including, "RedRum!" and " Here's Johnny!" that it should be considered required watching in schools. The movie is old enough now that it is a trip down nostalgia lane with some classic scenes and wardrobe and Jack Nicholson in his prime.
15. Friday the 13th 1980
When you think of franchises that can't be killed, Friday the 13th has to be at the top of the list. It happens to be my favorite franchise and a staple in the horror industry. I may be a little bias but I think that at least the first movie should be in everyone's list of horror movies they have seen.
16. Poltergeist 1982
Poltergeist is a rare film that is just as good today as it was when it was released in 1982. The story is solid, and the iconic, "Theyyy'rrree Heeerrre." line still haunts an entire generation's dreams. Of course, they went and ruined it with a bunch of sequels and a reboot, but don't let that stop you from enjoying the first legendary film.
17. Maximum Overdrive 1986
Anyone who has ever seen this movie is probably wondering why it made a list of horror movies to see before thirty, but there are a few reasons. First of all, this is not only another movie based on a Stephen King book, but King himself directed this film. The other reason why this is a must see is that it celebrates the over the top horror excess of the time including unnecessary buckets of blood and out of place dialogue. It also stars Emilio Estevez, so there's that.
18. April Fool's Day 1986
April Fool's Day may be the most underrated film of the 1980s. It has a few recognizable faces, but for the most part, it is a group of actors that have probably long quit Hollywood. The film is pretty standard on the surface with a group of college kids being picked off by an unseen villain, but as secrets begin to spill it turns out that there is much more to this story than it seems. When I meet people, who don't watch horror movies I always tell them that this is the place to start and people usually come back to me with positive things to say.
19. Night of the Demons 1988
Some people who have seen this movie may question why it is a must-see, but there are a few reasons. First of all, the special effects of this movie are arguably better than a lot of what you find in horror movies today because they are more practical which lends itself to realism. The second is that Night of the Demons was the first horror franchise to have a female antagonist as the face of the franchise. While its feminist status earns it a spot on this list, the whole franchise is one of those guilty pleasures that is not much more than a bit of mindless fun.
20. The Sixth Sense 1999
Who can forget the line, "I see dead people."? This was the movie that introduced us to M. Night Shyamalan's particular brand of horror. I remember this film being all anyone could talk about when it was released. If you have not seen this film, it sparked a whole style of writing that has even inspired some of my own creative works. Without saying too much, this is an absolute must watch for people looking to expand their horror acumen.
21. The Blair Witch Project 1999
The Blair Witch Project was not the first found footage film ever, but it is one of the best and brought the footage to the forefront and inspiring other movies including another one on this list. This movie was super creepy, and there was a debate for weeks after the movie was released that it was, in fact, real. Don't worry, it is just a movie, and the actors are still alive and well.
22. The Ring 2002
Some purists may tell you that you have to watch Ringu which is the original Japanese version of the movie, but the American version is just fine. I loved this film the first time I saw it, and it never stopped being one of my favorites. It has an excellent story which continues to get scarier as it goes without ever relying on gore. I almost never enjoy PG-13 horror movies because they are so mild, but this one is nearly perfect.
23. Saw 2004
Before Hollywood went all Hollywood and destroyed this movie with yearly convoluted sequels, Saw was the horror movie of a generation. It was such a fresh idea that came out of nowhere and was executed beautifully. If they would have left well enough alone this movie by itself would have been seen as a criterion horror film. Though the Saw franchise is known for its gore, the original movie was just as much about the story as it was about blood. Do yourself a favor and watch this one with no intention of watching any of the sequels.
24. An American Haunting 2005
An American Haunting shows that even an old story can have new life if told right. The Bell Witch haunting is one of the most well-documented hauntings in North American history. This film manages to flesh out the 200-year-old story while connecting it to modern times. Both the past and modern-day stories are captivating, terrifying, and filled with mystery. If you are easing into horror films, this is another great starter film.
25. Feast 2005
I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it. It was the last project that made it out of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's Project Greenlight. This movie is an absolute masterpiece when it comes to throwing conventional horror out the window. The filmmakers are blatant and bold in their writing and directing, and the movie is as raunchy as it is scary. Feast is one of those under the radar movies than many may not have even heard of despite starring some recognizable faces.
26. Paranormal Activity 2007
Paranormal Activity is easily the most boring yet sheerly terrifying movie of the 2000s. It was such an insanely well-executed yet straightforward idea that unfortunately spawned a franchise. If you can manage to sit through the first half of the movie, the second half rewards you with some masterful filmmaking.
27. Let The Right One In 2008
There is a U.S. version of this film called Let Me In which is pretty much an exact remake of the movie in English. That being said, nothing beats the original in this case even if the remake is pretty good. I'm not a big fan of having to read subtitles while trying to enjoy a movie but Let the Right One In is worth it.
28. Cabin in the Woods
I enjoy the Scream franchise immensely, but Cabin in the Woods is the most perfect horror satire of all time. Even the name of the movie is drenched in satire, and it only becomes more saturated through the writing. This movie is equal parts funny and disturbing and plays on almost every horror trope there has ever been. Even if you don't like horror movies, you should see this film because it is that great. My wife and I quote Cabin in the Woods to each other on a daily basis,
29. The Purge Anarchy
The Purge Anarchy is not only a great horror film it is a lesson in so many social ideas. This movie is heavily laden with politics without feeling preachy and shows that even in the worst of times there is good in people. I honestly believe that The Purge Anarchy is one of those rare films that outdoes the original.
30. Get Out 2017
It is rare that a movie gets 100% on rotten tomatoes and unheard of that it would be in the horror genre, but that is precisely what Get Out did. Whether he knew it or not Jordan Peele created a classic when he wrote this film. It teeters on the edge of so many genres but I its official filing is horror - not comedy as the Academy suggested - and it is one of the best in the past decade. Get Out is still fresh, but it will surely be on lists like this fifty years from now.
Being a fan of this genre, I hope that I can update this list for years to come with even better and genre-changing horror films. For now, if you are looking for a must-see horror movie tonight, this is a pretty solid list to start. Nobody's perfect if I egregiously left a film off of this list, please let me know so I can fix it.