There’s so much great new horror that it’s hard to keep up, but these five genre staples never go out of style and may never be topped.
With Halloween just around the corner, we know many of you are planning your seasonal watch list to make the most of the best time of the year. So, we’ve curated five of the most essential and beloved horror movies to add to your lineup.
Even if you’ve seen these films more times than you can count, their impact never fades — the mark of a true horror classic. If, however, you’ve never seen one or more of these treasures, we humbly suggest you take this time to experience some of the best the genre has to offer.
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1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is shockingly violent from the outset while actually showing very little on-screen gore.
Five young people journey into dusty Americana is a movie that is a disturbing test of endurance for viewers. Hooper’s influential masterwork relies on the power of suggestion, forcing the viewers to imagine what is happening without actually showing the horrific events, such as people being placed on a meat hook or gored with a chainsaw. This has the added effect of making the viewer share headspace with the characters, significantly ramping up the visceral impact.
Decades after this tiny slasher film —falsely marketed as “based on a true story” — shocked and terrified audiences, it remains one of the most influential films in modern horror history.
Upon its release, TCM was a huge blockbuster success, crushing the record as the highest-grossing indie horror film ever. That record would be beat four years later by another of the genre’s most influential films, John Carpenter’s Halloween, whose Michael Myers was undoubtedly inspired by Leatherface.
The DIY, low-budget horror film (unheard of at the time) — filmed, produced, and marketed for under $300,000 — is now known as one of the most groundbreaking and, still to this day, terrifying horror films of all time.
Fortunately, you have a lot of options when it comes to streaming this undisputed horror classic.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available for free if you have any of the following platforms: Showtime, Shudder, fuboTV, DIRECTV, Spectrum On-Demand, AMC Plus. It’s also free with ads on Tubi.
2. Halloween (1978)
What list of horror essentials would be complete without one of the most hallowed and recognizable films of all time, Halloween.
Directed by master of horror John Carpenter, the film introduces the boogeyman in the form of Michael Myers, an escaped psychiatric patient who killed his sister while just a little boy. Wearing a now-iconic white mask he picks up at a Haddonfield hardware store, he returns home and begins terrorizing the small-town.
Released on October 25, 1978, Carpenter’s second major film was released and, through word of mouth, went on to become the highest-grossing independent film of all time (for a while). More than 40 years later, and the film is still considered one of the most effective, innovative, and influential slasher films of all time — almost singlehandedly launching the birth of an entire sub-genre that still thrives to this day.
Shot in just 20 days on a $325,000 budget in Southern California, Halloween grossed over $70 million at the box office and set the bar for modern horror while influencing young filmmakers for generations to come. It’s now a horror staple and continues to play to sold-out audiences across the country, even as the recent rebirth of the franchise (beginning with 2018’s Halloween directed by David Gordon Green and the upcoming sequel Halloween Kills) proves Michael Myers is still box-office gold.
Halloween leaves viewers constantly guessing what will happen next, creating a palpable tension and unease that’s just as effective today as when it was first released.
Stream now on Shudder, Hoopla, AMC Plus, or watch for free with ads on The Roku Channel.
3. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s seminal genre classic has been long hailed by horror and sci-fans as a cinematic masterpiece, and for good reason. The legendary Swiss artist H.R. Giger won an Oscar for his part in bringing to life the terrifying alien creature in its many hideous states.
Based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Alien follows the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo, who encounter the eponymous Alien, an aggressive and deadly extraterrestrial set loose on the ship. The film features some stellar acting talent, including Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, and the incomparable Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the last woman standing. Weaver’s smart, riveting, tough-as-nails performance helped catapult her career into the stratosphere following this film. And it also made Ripley one of the most iconic final girls of all time.
Alien premiered May 25, 1979, as the opening night of the fourth Seattle International Film Festival, presented in 70mm at midnight. It received a wide release on June 22 where it was met with critical acclaim and box-office success, winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, three Saturn Awards (Best Science Fiction Film, Best Direction for Scott, and Best Supporting Actress for Cartwright), and a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, along with numerous other nominations.
Now widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, its success has spawned a media franchise of films, novels, comic books, video games, and toys. Fans, along with many major brands, even celebrate Alien Day every April 26th (the date was derived from the moon landed upon in the follow-up film, Aliens: LV-426).
Alien even has Freudian and feminist subtexts which continue to fascinate to this day. And with actors providing performances of extraordinary intensity that match the jaw-dropping cinematography, it is no surprise that Alien is considered a masterclass in tension.
Currently, you can stream Alien on fuboTV, Sling TV, DIRECTV, Spectrum On Demand, or AMC Plus. It’s also widely available to rent or buy.
4. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece hints at horror as the Torrance family finds themselves stranded for the winter at the beautiful but dangerous Overlook Hotel. The film is based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name and stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd.
The film’s central character is Jack Torrance (Nicholson), an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the isolated historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, with his wife, Wendy Torrance (Duvall), and young son, Danny Torrance (Lloyd).
Danny is gifted with “the shining”, psychic abilities that enable him to see into the hotel’s horrific past. It’s Danny who quickly realizes the family is not as alone in the haunted hotel as they were led to believe. After a winter storm leaves the Torrances snowbound, Jack’s sanity deteriorates due to the influence of the supernatural forces that inhabit the hotel.
The film was released in the United States on May 23, 1980. Reactions to The Shining at the time of its release were mixed. Stephen King himself famously criticized the film due to its deviations from the novel. But even with that pan from the King of Horror, the film is beloved by most horror fans and is now widely considered one of the greatest and most influential horror films ever made and a staple of pop culture. Who isn’t familiar with images of the Grady girls in the hallway, the word “Redrum”, the blood spilling out of the elevator doors, and — of course — Jack sticking his head through the hole in the bathroom door, saying, “Here’s Johnny.”
Director Tim Burton, who credits Kubrick as an influence, even modeled the characters of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in his 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland on the Grady girls.
The tease of horror means you never feel safe when you watch The Shining. That tension is amplified by elevator lifts full of blood, creepy children, sinister spirits, and a chilling performance from a delightfully unhinged Nicholson. All these years later, it’s a film that continues to shock and scare audiences.
If you have HBO Max, you can currently stream The Shining for free. Otherwise, it’s widely available to rent or buy on VOD platforms.
5. The Thing (1982)
Once again, the legendary John Carpenter finds his way on this list with another magnum opus, The Thing.
In this tense and unforgettable horror movie, we follow a team of scientists at an Antarctic research station who take on an alien that infects the blood. It is not so much the creature that causes the true feelings of horror, but rather the paranoia of all the scientists when it is introduced — since the alien can shift its shape into any life form, including any member of the crew. Thus, no one is safe and no one can be trusted.
Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, the film stars Kurt Russell as the team’s helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady. Production began in the mid-1970s as a faithful adaptation of the novella. The Thing went through several directors and writers, each with different ideas on how to approach the story.
Filming lasted roughly 12 weeks, beginning in August 1981, and took place on refrigerated sets in Los Angeles as well as in Alaska and British Columbia. Of the film’s $15 million budget, $1.5 million was spent on Rob Bottin’s creature effects, a mixture of chemicals, food products, rubber, and mechanical parts turned by his large team into an alien capable of taking on any form.
Although it’s hard to imagine now, The Thing was released in 1982 to very negative reviews. It was described as “instant junk”, “a wretched excess”, and proposed as the most-hated film of all time by the film magazine Cinefantastique. It also failed to make an impression among audiences at the time and nearly ruined Carpenter’s career.
In the subsequent years, however, it was reappraised as one of the best science fiction and horror films ever made and has gained a massive cult following. Filmmakers have noted its influence on their work, and it has been referred to in other media such as television and video games. The Thing has also spawned a variety of merchandise, as well as a 2011 prequel film of the same name.
With its nihilistic tone and spectacular special effects, The Thing is an unnerving exploration of paranoia rife with symbolism that demands to be seen and appreciated.
Watch it now on Starz, DIRECTV, Spectrum On Demand, or rent or buy it on most major VOD platforms.