Ever since Jason Vorhees' mother slaughtered a bunch of camp counselors in the classic 1980 slasher flick (Jason didn't go on the warpath until the second film), Friday the 13th has been a holiday for horror fanatics. Tradition dictates that you watch at least one "Friday the 13th" movie, but they only run 90 minutes on average and tend to leave you hungry for something more substantive. Fortunately, the major streaming sites are riddled with horror movies; unfortunately, there's an inordinate amount of trash to sift through. If you're looking for a guide to the good stuff, we've got you covered. Here are 25 classics that'll hit your scary sweet spot.
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is not the first slasher film (1974’s “Black Christmas” gets that honor, and it’s on streaming, too!), but it unquestionably launched the slasher craze that took over the horror genre for most of the 1980s. Forty-two years later, it’s still the class of the genre. Carpenter’s widescreen compositions and stalking steadicam heighten the viewer’s terror at every turn. The white-masked Myers often lingers in the backgrounds of scenes while his young, soon-to-be victims carouse without a care in the world. It’s the classic boogeyman yarn. He’s out there, and as we’ve learned via multiple sequels, remakes and reboots, he’s unstoppable.
Ari Aster’s follow-up to his pitch-black horror comedy “Hereditary” (also on Amazon Prime – and, yes, it’s a comedy) finds a group of twentysomethings heading off to attend a once-every-90-years midsummer celebration in central Sweden. It’s a slow-burn piece of folk horror with a relationship drama thrust that lulls you into thinking you’re watching regular, wounded people grapple with a crumbling romance. They may seem regular, but these wounds run deeper than you can imagine, and when the film takes a hard turn, you’re in for one of the roughest rides since Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” (only available to stream via rental). Florence Pugh gives a powerhouse performance as a young woman working through her trauma in a strangely triumphant way.
Now is the perfect time to find out why fright fans are so stoked about a return to Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing projects. Bernard Rose’s eerily atmospheric take on Clive Barker’s short story features one of the all-time great horror scores (from minimalist master Philip Glass) and a socially conscious narrative that wrestles with issues of poverty and discrimination. In the end, it’s largely content to be an elevated slasher film, but it excels within the parameters.
Trigger warning: This gleefully gory South Korean horror flick is about a zombie pandemic that breaks out while passengers are traveling to the title city from Seoul. It might not be the kind of scares you’re looking for in the midst of a real-life viral outbreak. Or maybe it’s just the ridiculously entertaining scare-fest you need! Yeon Sang-ho orchestrates the undead mayhem with fiendish élan and manages to smuggle in class-related subtext as the train zips along. If you’re hungry for more Korean horror after “Parasite," this is as good a place as any to start.
Starz won’t like this, but if you want to check out one of the most underrated horror movies of the 1980s, do the one-week trial subscription and watch Sidney J. Furie’s “The Entity." Based on a real-life account (one that you needn’t acquaint yourself with beforehand), this white-knuckler of a ghost story stars Barbara Hershey as a single mother being preyed upon by a sexually violent poltergeist. The subject matter is problematic, but it’s thankfully sympathetic to Hershey’s character; as in Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” remake, it’s about a woman driven to the brink of madness because the world refuses to believe what she knows to be true. Furie was a journeyman director who churned out a good deal of dreck, but this film proves that when he was on his game, he was a master.
Folk-horror fun from the director of the raucous “The Raid” films. Dan Stevens stars as the ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy family dispatched to a Welsh island to track down his sister, who’s been kidnapped by a cult. What he finds is a verdant land kept fertile by blood sacrifices meted out by its charismatic leader (Michael Sheen). It’s one-half mystery, one-half gore extravaganza, but it’s carried off with such conviction and classiness that you forget you’re watching a movie with the same trashy DNA of Michael Armstrong’s witch-hunter endurance test, “Mark of the Devil” (available on Shudder if you dare). This is strong stuff, but it’s incredibly rewarding if you can handle it.
Roman Polanski’s follow-up to “Chinatown” stars the filmmaker as a Polish émigré who rents an apartment with a troubled history. There are no Satanists this time out, and the film doesn’t really work its way into being a thriller until the second half, but when Polanski starts to tighten the vise, the movie leaps to the level of “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby." It’s the most psychologically complex film in Polanski’s oeuvre; it’ll leave your mind reeling by its stunning conclusion.
Sick and tired of zombie movies? So is writer-director Shinichiro Ueda, whose brilliantly inventive “One Cut of the Dead” assumes the viewer has seen every variation on the flesh-eating genre out there. The film kicks off with a 35-minute single take in which a film crew’s inept shooting of a low-budget zombie flick crashes into an actual, ongoing apocalypse. This might sound awfully forced, but the execution is so exuberant and imaginative that you giddily go along with it. The movie doesn’t end as strongly as it started, but it’s still a wild ride well worth taking.
All of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations are worth your time (Dave Kehr rightly hailed him as the “chief interpreter” of the author’s work), but this lush reworking of a tale about an Englishman (John Kerr) investigating the mysterious death of his sister (horror queen Barbara Steele) is undeniably the best of the bunch. The film belongs to Vincent Price, who’s in glazed-ham form as the maniacal inquisitor responsible for Steele’s death. The finale is terrific, as is the deliciously nasty final twist.
The classic. Sam Raimi’s shoestring-budgeted debut took the horror world by storm in the early 1980s with its inventive stop-motion gore f/x and wild canted angles. An entire generation of fright-minded filmmakers learned their craft at Raimi’s feet, and his resourcefulness beat a DIY path all the way to a box office sensation like “The Blair Witch Project." Whereas the sequels were unabashed slapstick horror-comedies, the original prioritizes scares over laughs. The card scene, in which Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) calls out the exact numbers and suits before bolting away from the window and levitating is nightmare fodder for anyone who’s seen it.
Another zombie comedy, but this one stars Lupita Nyong’o as a kindergarten teacher protecting her charges from the undead apocalypse, which vaults it way over the pack of pretenders. Alexander England costars as a washed-up musician who’s hurtled into the fray along with a kids’ show host (Josh Gad), but Nyong’o and the kids are the highlight of this delightful zom-com that you can watch with (most of) the family.
Takashi Miike’s classic about a good-natured Japanese businessman who, wallowing in grief after the death of his wife, gets talked into “auditioning” potential new brides by his movie-producer buddy starts out as an amiable romantic comedy. If you know nothing about the movie, just pretend that’s all it’s up to and throw it on. It’s fun to let movies surprise you. Obviously, “Audition” has a few tricks up its sleeve, but if you can handle, say, “Cannibal Holocaust” (also on Shudder), this is a cakewalk. (Seriously, this is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. You owe it to yourself and the glory of cinema to check it out.)
“This is no dream! This is really happening!” Roman Polanski’s chilling adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestseller was one of the pivotal works of the New Hollywood era, and it’s lost none of its power 52 years later. Mia Farrow is perfectly cast as an expectant mother who discovers her apartment building full of eccentrics may be a Satanic cult. Even if you know every twist and turn of the story, treat yourself to a revisit of this immaculately crafted film.
A bit of roleplaying between a husband (Bruce Greenwood) and wife (Carla Gugino) starts to get out of hand when the former initiates a perverse fantasy after handcuffing the latter. Just as things reach an uncomfortable point, the husband drops dead of a heart attack, leaving the wife chained to a bed in a country residence where no one can hear her scream. This is Stephen King’s cruel/clever reworking of “Misery” and director Mike Flanagan executes it flawlessly, aided immeasurably by a bravura performance from Gugino.
The slasher film craze had reached critical mass when Wes Craven put this ingenious spin on the subgenre. What if the revenge-seeking killer was dead and could stalk his teenaged prey only via their dreams? Freddy Krueger’s been with us for 36 years, but he’s never been more terrifying than he was in the original movie, where he quipped less and killed more viciously. Johnny Depp being dragged into a waterbed that spurts a blood geyser to the ceiling is a moment that’ll stay with Gen Xers forever.
This is another one for the Strong Stomach Club. Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West-Reanimator” received an X rating in 1985 due to its relentless gore, but its impish tone lightens the impact of the blood and guts and bone-sawing and you get the picture. Jeffrey Combs is a mad delight as the title scientist who’s pioneered a serum that can bring the dead back to life. The only problem is that they tend to come back as largely insensate zombies (depending on how long they’ve been expired before getting injected with the rejuvenating juice). You might want to eat before you watch this one, but by all means watch it. Movies like “Re-Animator” make life worth living. And reliving.
While the 2019 remake was surprisingly solid, there’s no topping Tom Holland’s 1988 original. Like all slashers, Chucky quickly became shticky quip-machine, so it’s shocking to revisit this first film and realize that the doll possessed by a serial killer (with the voice of the great Brad Dourif) was legitimately terrifying. It’s a taut, 87-minute horror flick that never lets up. The Don Mancini-directed sequels (particularly “Bride of Chucky”) are a campy hoot, but this is the series’ apogee.
The dinner party drama subgenre gets cleverly subverted by director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi in this slow-burn thriller about a husband and ex-wife reuniting with their friends for the first time since their divorce (which was hastened by the death of their only child). If that sounds like a ton of backstory to choke down, it’s not. Every reveal feels organic to the narrative, which draws you in until you realize something isn’t quite right. This is another one of those movies that works best if you know next to nothing going in.
Horror musicals have been somewhat en vogue over the last decade (e.g. “Repo! The Genetic Opera”, “Anna and the Apocalypse” and “The Devil’s Carnival”), but the granddaddy of them all is not “The Rocky Horror Picture Show." No, it’s Brian De Palma’s 1974 riff on “The Phantom of the Opera,” starring the great Paul Williams, who also wrote the wonderful tunes for this cheeky tragedy. William Finley plays the title fiend, a gifted songwriter whose brilliant melodies get co-opted by Williams’s rock music impresario, while Jessica Harper is the honey-voiced chanteuse who sends the Phantom’s music to the heavens. De Palma parodies just about every genre of music along the way but manages to invest this familiar story with enough emotional heft to get you caring by the end. It’s a tone-swerving masterpiece from one of the greats.
If you’re at all claustrophobic, Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” is your Mount Everest, and you should absolutely try to scale it in the safety of your living room. The premise: Six women go spelunking in Appalachia and get trapped in an uncharted cave system after a freak collapse. Their precarious situation is compounded by the presence of cannibalistic humanoids, which are stalking them through every dark nook and cranny of the underground system. Marshall’s film functions as a harrowing drama about friendship and a go-for-the-jugular frightfest.
It is extraordinarily rare that a U.S. remake betters its foreign origin, but Gore Verbinski’s brooding take on Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” manages this mighty task. You know the drill: If you watch the cursed videotape of Samara crawling up out of the well, you’ll die seven days later unless you duplicate it and pass it on to someone else. It’s a simplistic moral quandary, but Verbinski gooses it with a dollop of studio gloss and a compelling lead performance from Naomi Watts. And, dear god, that horse on the ferry scene.
In the mood for an old-fashioned haunted house movie? You can’t do better than this Peter Medak-directed classic starring George C. Scott as a mourning composer who moves into a foreboding Victorian mansion that looks like it was built to be haunted. He gradually begins to learn about the tragic history of the house as he encounters all manner of creepiness: apparitions, a spooky wheelchair and a child’s ball that eerily bounces down the stairs of its own accord. The mystery behind the haunting is far more compelling than you typically get from this genre. It’s masterfully done, and, in case you needed extra encouragement, one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite horror movies.
This disturbing little number from Jonathan Glazer stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who stalks men on the streets of Glasgow and lures them to an abandoned house where they sink into a pool of translucent goo. This is very much a mood piece, but if you give yourself over to it, the film will do precisely as its title boasts and then some. It’s the work of a profoundly gifted filmmaker left entirely to his own devices, and Johansson has never been better.
If you’ve ever thought a Frank Frazetta painting on the side of a van would make an awesome movie, filmmaker Panos Cosmatos has the film for you. Nicolas Cage stars as Red, a logger who lives in rural solitude with his artist girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Their peaceful existence is unmoored by a Manson-esque hippie cult led by Linus Roache; Mandy is murdered, and a left-for-dead Red goes on a surreal quest for revenge with one absolute mother of a battle-ax. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s psychedelic score is one for the ages, and Cosmatos’ use of King Crimson’s “Starless” sets a beautifully hypnotic tone. You’ve never seen anything like “Mandy."
There are 10 "Friday the 13th" films and a remake. What to do? The seasoned fan of the Voorhees saga will tell you that the money spot is the Tommy Jarvis trilogy — i.e. Parts IV, V and IV — and they’re not wrong. But if you’ve just got time for one Jason flick, “The Final Chapter” is the Cadillac of the slasher series. Not only does it feature makeup f/x guru Tom Savini’s marvelously grisly swan song to the franchise, but you also get Crispin Glover dancing like a freak, Corey Feldman as a precocious gorehound and a horny coroner played by Fackler from the “Police Academy” movies. Consider yourself sold.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer, and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2020.