From a game-changing, low-budget tour de force to this year’s most hotly anticipated terror, these five films deliver scares in spades.
Maybe it’s a testament to how utterly insane the world is — or how it often seems we’re only one more disaster away from end times. But activities that make our hearts beat fast while simulating risk or peril are wildly popular. Horror films, car races, rollercoasters, haunted houses, action and survival horror video games, and high-stakes online gambling like Everygame mobile casino are all ways we safely seek that coveted adrenaline surge typically only offered in life-or-death circumstances.
The horror genre is very diverse, but its main objective is always the same: to frighten you (whether that’s through overt scares or the kind of horror that gets under your skin, makes you think, and lingers in the back of your head for weeks and months to come). Some horror films are best watched with a friend or loved one, lest you find yourself up all night with the lights on, wondering what that noise was in the other room or that shadow in the corner you’re sure you saw.
Of course, if you truly want to be terrified, watching these films alone in the dark is a great way to do it.
1. The Blair Witch Project
I have a cardinal horror rule: never trust anyone who thinks The Blair Witch Project is boring and unscary.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could watch this absolutely chilling low-budget gem that sent the found footage subgenre into the stratosphere without being completely freaked out. Of course, this is a film that uses its limited resources to maximum effect, and it’s a great example of less is more when it comes to horror. That explains why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The film relies heavily on the viewer’s imagination and willingness to become immersed in the plight of three film students whose ordeal feels painfully real. With The Blair Witch Project, it’s not what you see that’s so disturbing but rather what you don’t see.
The reason it works so well is that it feels authentic in every possible way. We truly believe that we’re watching a found videotape from young people who went into the woods to film a documentary about the Blair Witch lore, only to disappear and never be seen again.
Even before things take a decidedly nasty turn, the movie maximizes fear by recreating the sensation of being lost, alone, afraid, and powerless. Most of us can imagine how harrowing it would be to find ourselves lost for days on end in the dark woods, fearing we’ll never find our way back out. Those woods don’t have to be haunted by the vengeful spirit of a cursed witch to make that prospect feel nightmare-inducing. However, when it becomes clear that dark forces are at play, the situation goes from unnerving to unbearably frightful.
This was a challenging movie for some to watch due to the shaky hand cam used to give the film authenticity. But the real challenge for others was enduring the incredibly tense buildup and jaw-dropping ending.
2. It Follows
Just when it seems everything under the sun has been done, rehashed, remade, and done again, the genre occasionally provides us with something fresh and unexpected. It Follows managed to be surprising, surreal, artful, and thought-provoking — all while being legitimately terrifying.
The premise is unique and deeply unsettling. A college girl named Jay (Maika Monroe) becomes the target of a supernatural terror following a sexual encounter with her new lover. Only Jay has the ability to see the entity, which can appear in a variety of human forms. This makes it nearly impossible to escape. It also significantly amplifies fear and dread since nowhere is safe, and no one can be trusted. Every person Jay encounters could be a threat. Even when she’s not alone, surrounded by friends and loved ones, she still can’t let her guard down.
It Follows masterfully exploits the horror of the unknown and the relentless march of death that feels inescapable. It’s also a provocative allegory for sexually transmitted diseases and the fear of being victimized by a romantic partner.
Though polarizing, It Follows was part of a modern crop of beautifully executed horror films (along with another film on our list) — with stellar production values, intelligent scripts, breathtaking cinematography, and memorable performances — that came to be labeled elevated horror. Whether you agree with that term or not, it’s hard to deny that films like It Follows bring something special to the table without sacrificing the frights we all crave.
3. The Conjuring
Sometimes, when we talk about game-changing horror, we’re not always talking about films that do something wildly different and unexpected. Sometimes, we’re talking about films that do something we’ve seen a million times and do it better than almost anyone else.
The Conjuring, the first entry in the well-known Conjuring Universe and helmed by renowned horror director James Wan, is widely regarded as one of the best horror films since The Exorcist. It is based on the real-life experiences of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and is inspired by the hauntings the couple studied.
The Perron family, who are undergoing unsettling unexplained occurrences in their farmhouse in Rhode Island, are helped by the Warrens at the start of the series. The use of outstanding photography and time-honored but potent horrors in the movie won it high accolades from critics and fans alike. In fact, The Conjuring became one of the most profitable movie franchises of the 21st century, grossing close to $1 billion.
But it’s not its box office potency that makes this film so memorable. Rather, it’s the sheer quality of the film — a legitimately haunting ghost story with an impressive amount of atmosphere, jump scares that feel earned and not cheap, and a reverential homage to classic Hollywood horror.
Rather than try to reinvent the genre, Wan leans into what makes the genre so great in the first place. It’s the perfect example of less is more. He strives to grab the viewer’s attention from the earliest minutes and quickly plunge them into tense, nail-biting horror that relentlessly terrifies them for 90 minutes. Wan also infuses his film with humanity; the characters are well-written, and you care about what happens to them while facing unholy supernatural terror. It doesn’t hurt that he hires some pretty stellar actors to add believability and gravitas.
James Wan is a true master of modern horror. The brains behind the immensely successful horror franchises Saw and Insidious, he knows how to keep horror fans coming back for more time and time again.
Horror fans are always buzzing about how maligned the genre is in the broader cinematic community and how often truly exceptional films and standout performances in the genre are ignored by the establishment. In fact, rising genre star Mia Goth recently bemoaned this fact while discussing the absence of genre talent from the Academy Awards, explicitly speaking on how the brilliant Pearl was snubbed by the Academy.
Perhaps at no point in history was the outcry from the horror community louder than when Hereditary and its phenomenal lead actress, Toni Collette, were absent from the Oscars and other mainstream awards ceremonies. It’s hard to watch a performance like the one Collette gives in Hereditary — gut-wrenching, terrifying, nuanced, and emotionally annihilating — and not consider it at least worthy of a nomination. I contend that had she delivered that performance in a traditional drama rather than a dramatic horror film, she would have been a lock for Best Actress.
It’s unbelievable to think that this was Ari Aster’s directorial debut, and it’s not surprising he quickly became of indie horror’s most respected filmmakers. Hereditary does deliver traditional horror elements and some wickedly unnerving twists and turns. The ending is absolutely unhinged, and unless you’re made of stone, it’s almost guaranteed to strike terror in you.
But that’s not what makes it such an instant horror classic. Where it really shines is the way it mixes devastating family trauma with supernatural scares. Aster shines at making you feel the tragedy and heartbreak of the family’s predicament. And the film adeptly illustrates how suffering and a lack of support can break down a person’s defenses and leave them open to evil.
There are moments in this film that are absolutely jaw-dropping. They hit you like a brick wall and leave you dazed and bewildered. After the credits roll, you might have to go to bed with the lights on because the feeling of dread doesn’t go away.
5. Evil Dead Rise
I know this film hasn’t been released yet. But I was fortunate enough to catch a preview at SXSW, and trust me when I tell you; it’s as terrifyingly intense as it is wildly entertaining.
It’s not easy bringing new blood to a beloved horror franchise, but director Lee Cronin effortlessly steps up to the challenge and gives fans exactly what they’re craving on every possible front. It’s the perfect blend of 2013’s Evil Dead nastiness and Sam Raimi’s campy, humorous trilogy of sequels. The practical effects are plentiful and mightily impressive, and Cronin literally dumps buckets (and gallons upon gallons) of blood at the proceedings. Yet, it still manages to retain plenty of heart, with characters you truly want to invest in and a meaningful family drama that helps raise the stakes.
Rise is intensely brutal and relentlessly ferocious, with each scene more grisly and gruesome than the last. And just wait until you get to the show-stopping third act. Cronin has his foot on the pedal the entire film. Still, he really pushes it into overdrive with his morbidly fascinating final creation that will have you simultaneously shrieking and howling at the screen.
It’s a pitch-perfect love letter to the franchise that’s sure to thrill Evil Dead fans. But it’s also an inventive and fresh take that promises to bring new fans into the fold and thrill even those who aren’t rabid connoisseurs of Raimi’s gory demonic legacy.
Rise is thrilling from beginning to end — unquestionably scary, often hilarious, adrenaline-fueled, crowd-pleasing mayhem. See this one in a theater full of fellow horror fans if you can. The energy at the SXSW screening was through the roof, and it definitely elevated the excitement and heart-palpitating horror.