Spooky Season fright fest: 31 key horror movies from the last 31 years
The best, most influential and scariest horror movies from 1991 to the present.
The air is crispy, the leaves are turning and jack-o'-lanterns are starting to show up on front porches.
October has arrived, kiddos. Which means horror movie season is officially here.
It's the best time of the year to sit back with a scary movie, or a whole lot of them, the jumpier the better.
But without checking off the same-old, tried-and-true same-olds — "Halloween," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," etc. — we wanted to do a list of horror movies with some strict parameters: one defining horror movie per year for each of the last 31 years. (Why 31? Look at a calendar, man!)
Some years are stronger than others, and some favorites didn't make the cut ("Cabin Fever," we are truly sorry!), but what follows is a very worthy and diverse list of three decades of killer movies.
Which one are you firing up first?
'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
Hello, Clarice. The only Best Picture winner on this list — because it's the only horror movie to ever win top honors at the Oscars — Jonathan Demme's serial killer classic is such a prestigious affair that some don't consider it a horror movie at all. But it most definitely is one, and the fact that it's still giving people the willies all these years later is a testament to that. To see it once is to never forget it. Available on Paramount+.
Look, it's probably a safe bet that nothing's going to happen if you say his name into a mirror five times, but who's willing to take the risk? "Candyman" spawned a couple of sequels as well as a somewhat muddled 2021 follow-up, but in this case it's best to stick with the OG, which follows the urban legend of a spirit who kills anyone who speaks his name five times into a mirror, and which made Tony Todd a horror movie legend. Available on Peacock.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)
"Horror" may be a stretch here, but it's definitely a Halloween movie, and it's long been considered a seasonal rite of passage. It follows Jack Skellington, the "Pumpkin King" of Halloween Town, who throws elaborate Halloween celebrations which are rendered beautifully in director Henry Selick's stop-motion animation. When people talk about celebrating Halloween on Christmas (or living like Jack and Sally), this is their reference point. Available on Disney+.
'The Crow' (1994)
We try not to talk about Devil's Night in Detroit anymore, but it was immortalized on screen in Alex Proyas' adaptation of the popular comic book, which follows a murdered musician who comes back to life to avenge the death of his bride-to-be. Star Brandon Lee (son of Bruce) was accidentally killed during the film's production, which has only added to the lore surrounding the film, a mystique which is all its own. Available on Paramount+.
'Demon Knight' (1995)
Back in the '90s, HBO's "Tales from the Crypt" was a powerful enough brand that horror titles were released under its banner. "Demon Knight" was the first ("Bordello of Blood" would follow), and it traces the Collector (Billy Zane), who wants to initiate a world-ending apocalypse by attaining an ancient key from a hardened ex-soldier (William Sadler). It's campy, bloody fun, bookended by appearances by the Crypt Keeper himself. Available on Peacock.
The one that rewrote all the rules going forward. Wes Craven's "Scream" acknowledged all the slasher movie clichés that everyone already knew, but by putting them up on screen and playing them out through characters that had grown up seeing all the same movies the audience had, it created a through-the-looking-glass world where horror movies became self-aware. Beyond that, it stands on its own as a damn good horror movie. Available on Paramount+.
'Event Horizon' (1997)
"In space no one can hear you scream." That was the tagline for 1979's "Alien," but it also applies to this slice of sci-fi horror insanity, about a spaceship that goes missing under mysterious conditions and eventually turns into something that resembles "The Shining" at zero gravity. Sam Neill returned to the "Jurassic Park" franchise earlier this year, but this is the one horror movie fans remember him for, and are still spooked out by. Available on Paramount+.
In the '90s there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. But there was "Blade," an adaptation of the Marvel comic, which follows the world's coolest vampire hunter, played by Wesley Snipes at his most badass. "Blade" is a throwback to when comic book movies weren't such serious business, and didn't have to prop up the entirety of Hollywood's bottom line. It's a gloriously bloody romp, with Stephen Dorff having a ball in the villain role. Available for rental.
'The Blair Witch Project' (1999)
You kinda had to be there, when the hype and the marketing had people believing what they were watching was real. We were so naïve! But beyond the buzz, "The Blair Witch Project" is an important piece of the Hollywood puzzle, pioneering the "found footage" genre that became a new mode of storytelling and a fresh way to mess with people's heads. And it's still pretty scary. Available on Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, Peacock and Paramount+.
'Final Destination' (2000)
It's like the board game "Mouse Trap" but in horror movie form, where one small action leads to another and suddenly someone is being impaled. (It's probably not what Rube Goldberg had in mind with his machines, but it's what we got.) "Final Destination" led to a series of sequels, best known for their elaborate death sequences (the car accident in "Final Destination 2" is a series high) and the creepy presence of Tony Todd. This one is how it all began. Available on Starz.
'Jeepers Creepers' (2001)
Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers were all running out of gas once the '00s got here, and it was time for some fresh blood in the horror game. Enter the Creeper, a demonic winged creature who pops up every 23rd spring to feed on humans for 23 days. Um, OK? "Jeepers Creepers" spawned a handful of follow-ups — including last month's "Jeepers Creepers: Reborn" — but ultimately never threatened the legacies of Freddy, Jason or Mr. Myers. Available for rental.
'The Ring' (2002)
The legend of a cursed videotape (remember VCRs?) flipped fans inside out when "The Ring" became a sensation upon its arrival 20 years ago. Starring Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson, "The Ring" traced the story of a mysterious tape that would kill whomever watched it seven days later. A remake of a Japanese horror title, it caused a wave of J-horror remakes, including "The Grudge," which entered the chat two years later. Available on Paramount+ and Shudder.
'House of 1000 Corpses' (2003)
Rob Zombie's debut film is his entire brain spilled onto the screen, and he pays homage to monster movies, slashers, haunted houses, the 1950s, cross-cuts, tourist traps, demented clowns, the 1960s, Slim Whitman, the 1970s, the very concept of evil and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. He'd go on to create the leaner, meaner and much more disturbing "The Devil's Rejects," but that movie removes all the campy fun he built in his original "House." Available on HBO Max.
Before the series became shorthand for dreary torture porn, the original "Saw" presented a rather ingenious concept: two men awaken to find themselves chained to pipes inside a dingy basement, and the only way to free themselves involves a saw, and it's not quite as easy as cutting the chain. The series is still going — "Saw 10," yes, 10, lands next year — but for a clever good time, the original stands on its own, and still holds up. Available for rental.
'The Descent' (2005)
Anyone with a fear of enclosed spaces need not apply. "The Descent" follows a group of women on a spelunking adventure where they traverse some intensely tight spaces; it's enough to rack your nerves and trigger your claustrophobia fears, and that's before the cave-dwelling troll monsters even show up. A scary movie that is on the short list of movies that are really, truly scary. Available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.
James Gunn would later bring his love of nostalgia and his twisted sense of humor to the mega-budget "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Suicide Squad" franchises, but his debut outing follows an alien parasite that infects a South Carolina town, and it plays out as a sicko homage to B-movie gore with Gunn willfully, gleefully pushing the limits of good taste. With Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker. Available on Peacock.
'Paranormal Activity' (2007)
Picking up where "The Blair Witch Project" left off, "Paranormal Activity" also utilized low budget visuals and smart marketing to trick people into thinking what they were watching was real. It worked, and a slew of sequels followed, but the domestic horror of the original, with its security cam-style presentation, best captured the fear that something strange and unexplained was happening inside your house. Available on Paramount+, Amazon Prime Video and Epix.
'The Strangers' (2008)
A couple is away for the weekend when they receive a knock on the door and someone asking if Tamra is home. Neither of their names is Tamra. So begins this terrifying nightmare, with a trio of masked crazies toying with the houseguests for no reason in particular, but simply because they can. It's their lack of motivation that makes this one so frightening, and the idea that horror could be lurking in the darkness, just because. Available for rental.
'Drag Me to Hell' (2009)
After cranking out three "Spider-Man" films (and setting the course for Hollywood for the next two decades), Sam Raimi went back to his "Evil Dead" roots and made an all-killer, no-filler horror ride that moves like a speed demon and never looks back. Alison Lohman is put through hell as a loan officer who denies an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage and pays the price, and Raimi proves that no one does horror quite like him. Available on Peacock.
Director James Wan ("Saw") helms this supernatural haunted house thriller that led to three sequels, as well a fourth, due next year. Three years later, Wan reteamed with his "Insidious" star Patrick Wilson and kicked of "The Conjuring" and its affiliated universe, which has spawned eight films. All horror roads lead through Wan, and "Insidious" set the template for much of what horror would look like for the next 10-plus years. Available on Netflix and Hulu.
'The Cabin in the Woods' (2011)
Like "Scream" before it, "The Cabin in the Woods" knows that horror viewers have seen it all before. So writer-director Drew Goddard (who co-wrote the screenplay with his "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" boss, Joss Whedon) offer up a house of mirrors and a commentary on horror movies and the buttons they push inside of us. It's a clever (maybe too clever?) journey that dines on its big "gotcha!" moment. Available for rental.
Star Ethan Hawke and director Scott Derrickson, who also teamed up for this year's "The Black Phone," fortified their relationship on this twisted horror tale, which contains some certifiably disturbing scares in the form of old Super 8 movies. Hawke plays an author who goes too far in his quest to write his masterpiece, moving his family into a home where a horrific tragedy occurred years earlier, disrupting a pagan deity in the process. Whoops. Available on Peacock.
'The Purge' (2013)
What if for one night a year, all crime was legal? It's a simple premise, and it's rich enough that it has (so far) led to five films and a TV series. Ethan Hawke, again, leads the cast as a man trying to keep his family safe while chaos rages outdoors, in the government-sanctioned Purge, a way for citizens to blow off some steam by partaking in a single night of anarchy. The premise is better than the execution, but at least it's got great masks. Available on HBO Max.
'It Follows' (2014)
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell, a Clawson native, shot this unnerving horror thriller in and around Metro Detroit, and the suburban setting is all too relatable for local viewers, since it's our own backyard. Maika Monroe plays a teenager who is beset with a curse after she has sex, and it's on her to pass it on to someone else, solidifying the longstanding ties between sex and death in horror movies in an inventive, malevolent way. Available on Netflix.
'The Witch' (2015)
This folk-horror tale, the debut film from writer-director Robert Eggers ("The Lighthouse," "The Northman"), played the film festival circuit in 2015 before going wide in 2016. It marks the feature film debut of Anya Taylor-Joy, who stars as the daughter of settlers in New England in the 1630s whose baby is stolen by a witch. It strikes a wicked spell, all the more impressive by Eggers' commitment to period language, mood and detail. Available on Paramount+.
'Don’t Breathe' (2016)
Detroit, again. A couple of reckless kids break into the wrong home when they try to rob a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) expecting an easy score. Not so fast. Director Fede Álvarez, who also directed 2013's "Evil Dead" remake, ratchets up the scares of this fast-paced thrill ride, which sets its pieces in motion and lets it rip. Skip the 2021 sequel, but the original packs a serious punch. Available for rental.
'Get Out' (2017)
Jordan Peele's "social horror" experiment nearly joined "Silence of the Lambs" in Best Picture winner territory (it was nominated, but lost to "The Shape of Water"), but it went on to make history in other ways. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) goes off to visit the parents of his girlfriend (Allison Williams) for the weekend, and things go south from there. "Get Out" cleverly uses a horror playbook for social commentary, and makes its point loud and clear. Available for rental.
The great Toni Collette shines in writer-director Ari Aster's grim horror fable, about a family dealing with the unsettling secrets of their ancestry. Well, maybe shines isn't the right word, it's more like Collette rattles the screen and everything around her to their very foundations. "Hereditary" is the kind of movie that imprints itself on viewers' brains after one viewing, and going back for seconds is not for the faint of heart. Available on Paramount+ and Showtime.
'Doctor Sleep' (2019)
This sequel to "The Shining" stars Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance, all grown up, and still dealing with that trip to the Overlook Hotel all those years ago. Based on Stephen King's 2013 novel, "Doctor Sleep" doesn't sound like a great idea, but writer-director Mike Flanagan — a King regular — fashions the film into a tale of trauma that stands on its own, right up until it plays a few too many of "The Shining's" greatest hits. Still, worth a watch. Available for rental.
'The Invisible Man' (2020)
How to update a horror classic for modern times and audiences? Follow this blueprint. Writer-director Leigh Whannell — a key player in the "Saw" and "Insidious" franchises — brings the story into the #MeToo present, with themes of domestic and psychological abuse, alongside tech gurus run amok. Elisabeth Moss gives an intense, emotionally wrought performance that gives the movie the grounding in reality it needs. See it. Available for rental.
James Wan, again, breaks off from his multiple film universes with this one-off that is truly bananas and needs to be seen to be believed. Annabelle Wallis is a pregnant woman who suffers intense physical abuse at the hands of her husband, and the pain from her mysterious past comes back to manifest itself in a wild way. Stick this one out, because you don't know where it's headed, and once you find out, you'll be glad you did. Available on HBO Max.
A crew sets out to make a porno movie on a Texas ranch in the 1970s, and how were they to know the property owners are a bit, shall we say, off? Ti West pays homage to horror standbys such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in this campy, crazy thrill ride, which stars Mia Goth in a double role which she built on in "Pearl," a prequel to "X" which is currently in theaters and makes for a glorious double-feature companion. Available for rental.