A few weeks ago a close friend emailed me and a few others to say he had some time on his hands and wanted  to fill some of the holes in his knowledge of horror films. This came after I was asked in an interview by the Arkham Files Podcast a similar question.

So I used the opportunity to create a master list of what I consider to be Must-See Horror Films of various types.

There is a story my parents say of me when I was about 3 years old about food where I took too much to eat and my mom said “that’s too much Arthur,” and I replied, “but I want too much.” I take that same approach with horror movies…I watch too much horror. All genres and sub-genres and micro-genres, all levels of quality (and the range of quality is vaster in horror than any other cinematic genre), all eras and time periods, and from everywhere in the world. And there are some true obscure gems out there that are not well known.

But today is for those who are just beginning to wade into the seas of terror.

Below are some subgenre groupings that make sense to lots of folks, with some of the greatest and most famous films for each listed. I tended to avoid (with some exceptions) sequels. I would certainly include a few sequels without this rule, but the first should always be seen first.

Unfortunately, “horror films” is such a broad category I’m forced to exclude an incredible number of deserving films. (And you still may consider this list overlong!)  I really did try my best to keep each subgenre list to the absolutely must-see films for each. I also generally avoided the innumerable “monster films” of the 1950s and 60’s – things like Tarantula (1955), and anything else at the yummy intersection of science fiction and horror that was prevalent for a few decades. This is because the friend who initially asked is plenty aware of those films!

And one final note, you may find a slight over-representation of Italian horror. I don’t believe it’s due to any particular bias…rather an outsized proportion of the actual must-see horror films happen to have been made by Italians! (I mean, by contrast it would be equally reasonable to question why there are even more American films represented on this list, right?).

So without further preambling…

The 10 Must-See Early Classics 

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1920) – If you watch a good print (such as Kino’s bluray release) this film is striking and will stay with you for a long time.
  • M (Germany, 1931) – Just watch it.
  • Dracula (US/Mexico, 1931) (Spanish version) – while the English one has Bela who is a far better Dracula than Carlos Villarias, its pacing is atrocious and it has a few other flaws. The Spanish one is better than you’d expect.
  • Frankenstein (US, 1931) – Perhaps my favorite adaptation of a book, ever, even though I still like the book more (and as an aside, if you haven’t read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you must. It deserves to be as famous as it is).
  • The Mummy (US, 1932) – This mummy (played by Karloff) is so awesome he kills someone from a distance by choking them. Darth Vader totally stole that trick.
  • Freaks (US, 1932) – Stupendously creepy film, with a story ranking it among the best cinema (of any genre).
  • The Invisible Man (US, 1933) – He is super evil and kills more victims in the course of this film than all the other Universal monsters combined (!!)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (US, 1935) – the only one in which the Monster actually speaks, and what lines he has!
  • Night of the Demon (UK, 1957) – also called “Curse of the Demon”, each version with some slight differences (the original cut of “Night” is better). This truly eerie film has everything to recommend it, based on a short story by M. R. James, the greatest ghost story writer of all time.
  • Psycho (US, 1960) – Recently my brother Grant saw this for the first time (with me and Sandy), and he was astonished at how good it was (and luckily he went in not actually knowing all the plot points, which is preferable to do, if you haven’t seen it).

 The 6 Must-See 1970s Classics

  • The Exorcist (US, 1973) – One of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, to this day, and even with the mountains of horror my eyes and brains have sucked in.
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (US, 1974) – Its reputation as gory is apparently from folks who haven’t seen it. It is highly disturbing and truly horrific in a very real sense, but the bloodshed actually on screen is surprisingly light compared to what you might expect. Its sheer bleakness is hard to match by any film.
  • Jaws (US, 1975) – jabootu.net has an incredible breakdown of this classic.
  • Suspiria (Italy, 1977) – Perhaps the greatest horror film about witches, by Italian master of horror Dario Argento. Also has one of the all-time greatest tag lines for a film: “the only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.”
  • Halloween (US, 1978) – A classic and trendsetter for a reason, establishing “the shape” (Michael Myers) as one of the all-time creepiest horror icons.
  • Alien (US, 1979) – Although it adeptly took elements from two prior, lesser known monster movie classics (It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires), this movie shows how scary outer space can really be.

 The 6 Must-See 1980s Classics

  • The Evil Dead (US, 1981) – Although later films in this series made their mark as comedies, the original remains one of the scariest – and goriest – films of all time.
  • The Thing (US, 1982) – Much truer to the original novella than the 1951 adaptation, and far scarier, adeptly combining excellent story, dialogue, and acting with a chilling atmosphere of pure paranoia amidst an awful alien monster with special effects far beyond its time.
  • The Terminator (US, 1984) – The final sequence is pure terror, and is so full of great moments it needs to be included.
  • Demons (Italy, 1985) – Directed by the son of Mario Bava, my earliest memory of being scared by any film is this one – when I was only 5 or 6 and snuck a peek while Sandy and friends watched this in our living room in California. The story is meta, one of the masterpieces of 1980s horror.
  • The Fly (US, 1986) – In the further subgenre of “body horror” this film possibly takes the cake. Far and away David Cronenberg’s best film (more so even than Scanners or Videodrome).
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (US, 1986) – One of the most chilling films ever put to screen, epically portrayed by Michael Rooker.

 The 6 Must-See Films Featuring Ghosts and Hauntings

  • The Haunting (US, 1963) – An astonishing classic of sheer terror (based on Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House).
  • The Gates of Hell AKA City of the Living Dead (Italy, 1980) – Despite its title, the “living dead” in this are clearly supernatural and more ghost-like than zombie-like. The plot is dreamlike and surreal in a way that only Italian horror ever is, by master Lucio Fulci.
  • House (US, 1985) – though darkly comic, this is a true haunted house classic.
  • Hellraiser (US, 1987) – Despite reputations, “Pinhead” isn’t the primary antagonist or “monster” at all (though he is central to the plot). This is a ghost story, and one of the all time greatest.
  • Ringu (Japan, 1998) – The first of the two or three films that helped set off the “J-horror” craze of the early 2000s.
  • Ju-On: The Curse (Japan, 2000) – at only 70 minutes long, this film probably has the highest “sheer terror per minute” of any film in history, despite being “made for tv.” (Note this is NOT the later Japanese remake called Ju-On: The Grudge from 2002, although that is an absolutely terrifying film as well).

 The 8 Must-See Undead Films

Corporeal – not ghostly – undead. Zombie, vampire, and Frankenstein films can certainly all be separated, but for brevity I’ve combined them:

  • Nosferatu (Germany, 1922) – Creepier than Universal’s Dracula.
  • White Zombie (US, 1932) – Bela Lugosi’s best role, and one of the creepiest scripts ever put to film.
  • The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, 1957) – Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together.
  • Horror of Dracula (UK, 1958) – Again Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together.
  • Night of the Living Dead (US, 1968) – This film by George Romero literally invented flesh-eating zombies as a new type of monster in the cultural zeitgeist (previously they were only the voodoo slave type). The story is excellent; the characters and dialogue are some of the most realistic portrayals of humans in any film (of any genre).
  • Dawn of the Dead (US, 1978) – George Romero returns again, this time to invent the zombie apocalypse (after first inventing the flesh-eating zombie in his prior film), continuing with greatly realistic characters thrown into a nightmare world.
  • Zombie (Italy, 1979) – Probably Italian director Lucio Fulci’s masterpiece, this is the only zombie film that deserves to be listed aside from White Zombie and George Romero’s trilogy.
  • Day of the Dead (US, 1985) – The final film in George Romero’s “original trilogy”, this is the darkest zombie film by him, and one of the grimmest films of all time, while the characters and dialogue continue to be astoundingly realistic (for a horror film).

 The 4 Must-See Giallos (the subgenre to be familiar with instead of slashers)

(You’ll notice I don’t have a “slasher” sub-genre among these lists, despite the fact that it is one of the more famous subsets of horror films. They’re often boring, and if you’ve seen two, you’ve seen almost all of them (with some exceptions, naturally). Giallos, on the other hand, offer the funnest elements of slashers (the gruesome kills), but combined with excellent mystery and cinematography, among other superior characteristics). Italy wasn’t the only place that made giallos, but it is the place where they were invented and where the best ones came from.

  • Blood and Black Lace (Italy, 1964) – Mario Bava at his best.
  • A Bay of Blood (Italy, 1971) – Sometimes listed as the “first” slasher film, but really it’s a giallo.
  • Deep Red (Italy, 1975) – usually tops lists of the best giallos, although I slightly prefer Tenebrae.
  • Tenebrae (Italy, 1982) – My personal favorite giallo, and often ranked among the best or scariest in lists of giallos

 The 7 Must-See Modern Horror Hits

All of these are destined to be long-term horror classics

  • Scream (US, 1996) – Horror maestro Wes Craven’s trendsetter with such a gonzo meta-plot it deserved the many sequels it has gotten.
  • The Blair Witch Project (US, 1999) – Creepy and effective, established the (often derided) “found footage” horror subgenre (although it wasn’t actually the first film to utilize “found footage”).
  • Saw (US, 2004) – You can’t say you know “modern horror” without having seen this. There’s a reason this spawned one of the highest grossing horror franchises in history.
  • Paranormal Activity (US, 2007) – the only other “found footage” film worth mentioning as a must-see (although I was personally more scared by the later Grave Encounters of 2011).
  • Sinister (US, 2012) – Often listed in “scariest films” type lists, this is one of the few films that I’m actually scared to watch alone.
  • It Follows (US, 2014) – Intense, innovative horror: destined to be one of the most famous horror films of the 2010s.
  • Hereditary (US, 2018) – Incredible modern horror by a new auteur

9 Insane Classic East Asian Horror Films to Watch

If this “category” intrigues you at all, check these films out as the entrance to a fantastic universe of endless weird films from Eastern and Southeastern Asia. While a lot of these are from Hong Kong, there are plenty of non-HK films in this “subgenre”, but the most famous (and arguably best) tend to be from that one city.

  • Black Magic (HK, 1975) – This, and its 1976 sequel are foundational to the “weird” Asian horror sub-genre of the late 70s through the 80s that explores the uniquely east Asian take on magic, evil sorcerers, ghosts, undead, and possessions.
  • Hausu (Japan, 1977) – This film is basically unexplainable.
  • Encounter of the Spooky Kind (HK, 1980) – a must-see horror comedy.
  • Mystics in Bali (Indonesia, 1981) – There are lots of southeast Asian horror films from this period featuring penanggalans or similar monsters (witches or vampires with flying heads), but this is the one to see first.
  • Bewitched (HK, 1981) – Many crazy sequences of black magic.
  • The Boxer’s Omen (HK, 1983) – Even more crazy sequences of black magic.
  • Devil Fetus (HK, 1983) – If this name doesn’t make you want to watch it, then don’t.
  • The Seventh Curse (HK, 1986) – This movie could only have been made in the 1980s.
  • The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (UK/HK, 1974) – I am an incurable fan of this epic film. I doubt anyone else would ever put this on a “must see horror films” list, even though every moment, every scene, every character, every villain, every horror from start to finish is magical. It is a bizarre mix of kung-fu and vampire movie, a collaboration between Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers(!) and England’s Hammer Films(!), two studios that individually released masterpiece after masterpiece over decades.

 3 Films You Probably Expected but that I do not recommend as an absolute “Must See” 

  • Rosemary’s Baby (US, 1968) – What can I say, this film did not leave a mark on me the way it apparently did for so many others. Certainly worth a watch, but I cannot recommend it as an actual “must-see” horror film.
  • The Shining (US, 1980) – Except for a few key moments and the final sequence, this film is highly overrated. It’s not a bad film, but it routinely ranks very high on “greatest horror films” type lists. I don’t consider it absolutely essential viewing; it’s a solid second tier horror film for sure (i.e., it would be on a second pass list were I to make another horror film list after you’ve watched all the ones I put here).
  • It (US, 2017) – Lots of folks say this (or the original 1990 mini-series) is the scariest thing they’ve ever seen. I never understand that claim. Neither are very scary, or for that matter, very interesting or good films. I wouldn’t even recommend this in a “second tier” list!

10 Honorable Mentions

If I were to make a second-tier list of “must-see-horror-after-you’ve-seen-the-first-list”, these would be the first ones I add:

  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1978) – Nothing wrong with the original black and white version, but this remake is incredibly well done, and deserves a mention.
  • The Howling (US, 1981) – My favorite werewolf film of all time (even more than the great 1941 film starring Lon Chaney). A must see for werewolf fans.
  • The Beyond (Italy, 1981) – Filling out a thematic trilogy of sorts, by Luci Fulci, this is worth a watch, particularly if you like Italian horror.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (US, 1984) – While I very much adore this film, I couldn’t have everything, so this is an honorable mention.
  • Fright Night (US, 1985) – Guaranteed to be on the list if vampires were separated out from other undead; but just barely didn’t make the cut due to brevity.
  • Re-animator (US, 1985) – Probably the best film adaptation of any H. P. Lovecraft story.
  • Mr. Vampire (HK, 1985) – funnier than Ghostbusters, this is my pick for greatest horror comedy of all time.
  • The Lost Boys (US, 1987) – also guaranteed to be on the list if vampires were separated out from other undead.
  • Dead Alive (New Zealand, 1992) – The original (and best) “zombedy”, made years before Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland.
  • Audition (Japan, 2002) – Perhaps more “thriller” than a horror film, which barely moved it off to honorable mention.

50 More From the Second Tier

Here are fifty films off the top of my head that would be in a second tier – the ones to watch after you see the “must-see” list but want more horror in your life (and why wouldn’t you?). I semi-organized it from less obscure to more obscure, at least based on my understanding here in the US. Also, naturally a second tier is a much longer list (and this is far from complete, as there are likely hundreds, if not 1000 or so films that could be listed as second tier).

  1. The Return of the Living Dead (US, 1985)
  2. Black Christmas (Canada, 1974)
  3. Rec (Spain, 2007)
  4. Slither (US, 2006)
  5. Splinter (US, 2008)
  6. Feast (US, 2005)
  7. The Plague of the Zombies (UK, 1965)
  8. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (UK, 1973)
  9. Society (US, 1989)
  10. The Deadly Spawn (US, 1983)
  11. Opera (Italy, 1987)
  12. Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (Italy, 1959)
  13. Black Sabbath (Italy, 1963)
  14. Kairo AKA Pulse (Japan, 2005)
  15. Tombs of the Blind Dead (Spain, 1972)
  16. Pontypool (Canada, 2008)
  17. Lovely Molly (US, 2012)
  18. Carved (Japan, 2007)
  19. Pieces (Spain, 1982)
  20. Black Magic 2 (HK, 1976)
  21. The Theater Bizarre (US, 2011)
  22. Basket Case (US, 1982)
  23. Bewitched (HK, 1981)
  24. Matango: Fungus of Terror AKA Attack of the Mushroom People (Japan, 1963)
  25. The House by the Cemetery (Italy, 1981)
  26. Inferno (Italy, 1980)
  27. The Queen of Black Magic (Indonesia, 1981)
  28. Zombie Holocaust AKA Dr. Butcher M.D. (Italy, 1980)
  29. Banshee Chapter (US, 2013)
  30. Baskin (Turkey, 2015)
  31. The Evil Within (US, 2017)
  32. The Signal (US, 2007)
  33. Spider Baby (US, 1967)
  34. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (Brazil, 1964)
  35. Red Spell Spells Red (HK, 1983)
  36. Slime City (US, 1989)
  37. The Wizard’s Curse (HK, 1992)
  38. Biozombie (HK, 1998)
  39. The Boneyard (US, 1991)
  40. Baby Blood (France, 1990)
  41. La Bruja (Mexico, 1954)
  42. Infection (Japan, 2004)
  43. Beast of Blood (Philippines, 1970) [be prepared to laugh…]
  44. Evil Dead Trap (Japan, 1988)
  45. Coming Soon (Thai, 2008)
  46. Organ (Japan, 1996)
  47. Long Dream (Japan, 2000)
  48. Spider Labyrinth (Italy, 1988)
  49. Tears of Kali (Germany, 2004)
  50. Guzoo: The Thing Forsaken by God (Japan 1986)


If you’ve read this far, here’s what I watched for my annual “Month of Horror” wherein I create rules for myself and watch lots of horror movies in October. I’ve bolded the standout ones that I recommend.

MONTH OF HORROR 2022: 31 days, 31 Horror Films

[Rules: Watch every horror film on my 3 streaming platforms’ watchlists, which happens to be 31 (some switched to DVD if cheaper than buying on Prime, or if rented from RedBox)]


  1. The Summoned (2022)
  2. Nope (2022)
  3. Barbarians (2021)
  4. Bodies, Bodies, Bodies (2022)
  5. The Invitation (2022)


  1. Inhuman Kiss (2019)
  2. Incantation (2022)


  1. Hellraiser (2022)


  1. Trick or Treats (1982)
  2. Sole Survivor (1984)
  3. Cemetery of Terror (1985)
  4. Wake Wood (2009)
  5. A Lonely Place to Die (2011)
  6. She Will (2022)
  7. Grave Robbers (1989)
  8. Speak No Evil (2022)
  9. Dark Glasses (2022)
  10. Deadstream (2022)
  11. Moloch (2022)
  12. V/H/S/99 (2022)
  13. Dark Cloud (2022)
  14. Morbid (2022)
  15. After She Died (2022)
  16. The Collingswood Story (2002)
  17. Blackwood (2022)
  18. Juan of the Dead (2011)
  19. P. Lovecraft’s Witch House (2022)
  20. The Medium (2021)
  21. Devil’s Workshop (2022)
  22. House of Darkness (2022)
  23. The Accursed (2022)