5. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Yes, found footage is often used as a gimmick. Yes, many of the sequels that followed were (supposedly) awful. In Paranormal Activity you have found footage at its peak, used to maximum effect to scare the lights on for many a customer, including yours truly. I had to keep the lights on for a couple days after watching this. That is a feat in of itself, but the movie isn’t just all style and no substance. There’s an inherent tragedy permeating the film as we watch a marriage crumble at the invisible feet of a demon that’s decided to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting family.
4. Scream (1997)
Is it as scary as Paranormal Activity or The Descent? Hell no, but the original Scream is another Wes Craven masterclass in blending horror and comedy. Scream is the film that paved the way for something like The Cabin in the Woods. Featuring a 90’s smorgasbord of fresh-faced pretty boys and pretty girls before they made it to the big time (or didn’t make it at all), it’s a subtler subversion of the genre as Ghostface slashes his way to final girls Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox. Best-in-show is undoubtedly David Arquette as a doofus cop just trying to do the right thing, although nutty Matthew Lillard certainly states his case before falling off a Hollywood cliff years later.
3. Psycho (1960)
Just as Jaws made people afraid to swim in the ocean, Psycho made people afraid of their own shower. A highlight of Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary career, it was the first studio picture to delve into the psyche of a deranged individual, the mind of a serial killer, and for that it holds a special place in Hollywood history. Also, you know, it’s pretty great. Anthony Perkins defines creepy and Janet Leigh’s character is something of an anomaly in the movie business. The true stars of the show are Norman Bates and his mother, a relationship that eventually informs an entire sub-genre of killer thrillers.
2. The Conjuring (2013)
Some might lambast me for placing something so recent so high on the list, but The Conjuring truly is that good. It’s a traditional ghost story that uses traditional tactics (plenty of “jump scares”) to frighten the audience, but it executes these tactics effectively and with such originality that The Conjuring easily surpasses the myriad others of its ilk. It doesn’t hurt that director James Wan brings his A-game, with inspired 70’s musical choices, long-take cinematography, and the gall to cast real actors Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as true-story ghost-hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren.
1B. The Sixth Sense (1999)
A modern masterpiece from a filmmaker who has since gone off the deep end. M. Night Shyamalan’s Hollywood debut is one of the greatest horror films of all time, featuring one of the greatest child performances of all time by young Haley Joel Osment, and starring one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time Bruce Willis. It’s unfortunate that all three aren’t what they once were, but The Sixth Sense, unlike some of the others on this list, does indeed raise the hair on the back of your neck. It’s equal parts tragic tearjerker and horrific ghost story, and of course there’s that twist, which still works even when you know it’s coming.
1A. The Shining (1980)
I’m cheating here, I know, but I couldn’t decide. The Sixth Sense is a modern masterpiece, and The Shining is a classic masterpiece. Quite different from the Stephen King novel, but no less terrifying, Stanley Kubrick’s film is far more abstract and therefore far scarier than most everything that Hollywood produces today. The identical twins, the quiet chant of “redrum,” the wave of blood cascading from an elevator, and obviously Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance as a man possessed by something that’s difficult to fathom. Not a ghost, not a demon, not a monster…just evil incarnate.