Just want to clarify, this is not a list of "scariest" films. It's a list of "best" films from a genre that usually includes scary movies. 10. The Blair Witch Project This movie didn't work for everybody (common complaints: motion sickness, bundles of sticks not scary), but for me it was great. It kicked off a trend of found-footage films that is still going strong today (Paranormal Activity 3, anyone?). I love the atmosphere the film created, and the final shot was a chill-inducing killer. Also, Blair Witch is the first movie I recall using a smart internet campaign to build pre-release excitement around a film.
9. The Ring
Any movie that can give crocoWife nightmares for a few days is a winner. I remember walking out of the theater feeling like I'd just seen one of the all time great horror films. So creepy and spooky, a really great time at the movies.
8. The Exorcist
One of the classics of the horror genre, and one of the biggest horror blockbusters ever made. This film scared the religion out of people. Actually, it may have scared the religion into people.
Another classic heavyweight from the scary movie division. This movie literally made people afraid of the ocean. Think about that for a second. Imagine something you're not all that scared of but that you recognize as having dangers, say, the desert. Now imagine the kind of film it would take to make you actually fear the desert. How impactful and amazing would that film need to be to make you avoid the desert at all costs? That's what Jaws did to a lot of people with the ocean.
One of the best taglines of all time: "In space no one will hear you scream." And that plays a part in why this movie works so well. We already fear the unknown and we already fear being helpless to protect ourselves. Combine those fears into the core setting of a movie, add an awesome alien creature design, and you've got yourself an amazing film.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street
I grew obsessed with Freddy Krueger as a teenager. I've dressed as him for Halloween 3 or 4 (or 6) times, featuring my homemade finger-knives glove. Freddy is an amazing creation; A killer who comes after you in your dreams. It's another case of taking something we already fear (not waking up) and ratcheting it up. Truth be told, I also really love parts II and III in the Elm Street series. I recommend you watch all three immediately.
I don't know if you remember how dead the horror genre was in the early-mid nineties before the release of Scream. I do; It was dead (Leprechaun 3 and The Craft were highlights). Scream was so good, it revived scary movies single handedly. By turning the old horror film cliches on their head, and doing it with wit and style (and scares), Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven made people excited about horror again.
One of Alfred Hitchcock's best pictures, it practically invented the slasher film. Anthony Perkins defined his career in the role of Norman Bates; a stroke of perfect casting genius. The Bernard Herrmann score is as iconic as Janet Leigh's shower scene. Scary movies don't get much better than this.
This Spielberg flick is amazing (okay it's credited to Tobe Hooper, but it's clearly a Spielberg-heavy production). Poltergeist is scary, it's got tremendous special effects, and JoBeth Williams plays a role so perfect that it's hard to know if she's acting. In general, the family feels like a real family, and both Williams and Craig T. Nelson are perfect. The best haunted house story ever made.
1. An American Werewolf in London
An American Werewolf in London unrolls scene after scene of riveting horror movie goodness. The Slaughtered Lamb, the attack on the moors, all the visits by Jack, the werewolf transformation, the subway, the zoo, the nightmare sequences, the Piccadilly Circus attack. Damn, just writing about it makes me want to watch it again. No other movie has matched this perfect blend of horror/comedy, and John Landis (with Rick Baker on makeup, of course) put to film the best human-to-creature transformation of all time. I love this movie.
Honorable mention: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
This movie is so raw it's practically a documentary. It somehow captures a brutality and horror that most films can't come close to. Leatherface is a rare iconic villain who never became a joke (see Jason, Freddy) at any point in his film career.
Honorable mention: Halloween
Without Halloween, there would be no Scream, no Friday the 13th, no A Nightmare on Elm Street. Halloween laid out the blueprint for serial killer madmen in modern film.
Honorable mention: The Shining
Stanley Kubrick captures Jack Nicholson on film as he goes crazy. It's atmospheric and weird and cool and creepy and suspenseful.
Honorable mention: The Thing
A desolate location, a scary monster, paranoia among the men being terrorized, Kurt Russel, John Carpenter. That is all.
Honorable mention: The Strangers
The Strangers sneaked up on me. I liked the trailer and wanted to see the movie, but I wasn't expecting much. Watched it one night after the kids and wife had gone to bed. Wow. I got creeped out to the point that I was checking the locks on my windows and doors half-way through the movie.