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The 40 best horror movies of the last 40 years (and where to stream them)

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Michael Myers

Forty years ago, John Carpenter took Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence and $300,000 to Southern California to make what would become one of the most influential (i.e., imitated) horror movies of all time, a bloody bolt from the blue that would go on to gross $50 million — about $180 million in today’s dollars — and spawn eight sequels and a remake (with its own sequel!). 

“Halloween” is the only slasher movie selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, and it remains one of the most profitable horror films of all time. But it was not the first slasher movie. (That would be 1974’s “Black Christmas.”) "Halloween" was, however, the movie that ushered in the dawn of the genre.

Fusing the techniques and aesthetics of Hitchcock and De Palma (but also Welles and Hawks), Carpenter created something new: a thriller stripped of all extraneous elements but the boogeyman and his victims. The simplicity allowed Carpenter to fully embrace (and develop) his filmmaking hallmarks — his inimitable use of perspective and shot composition, camera movement and musical score.

(Indeed, the iconic “Halloween” piano score launched an unlikely musical career for Carpenter. His scores are among the best of the ’70s and ’80s, helping found their own modern music genre: synthwave. This makes Carpenter the only artist I can think of to be a major influence in both filmmaking and film scores.)

Just as essential to the film’s success, by the way, was “Halloween” co-writer and producer Debra Hill, who helped make Laurie Strode a character you could root for.

For the film’s 40th anniversary, Blumhouse Productions has made another “Halloween” sequel, which hits theaters Thursday. And the film is a bit of a cheat, pretending that the seven previous sequels never happened. (Probably wise, though I am a “Halloween: H20” apologist.)

In the new “Halloween,” Laurie (Curtis) returns as a PTSD-suffering survivalist, awaiting the return of her old masked foe, Michael Myers. David Gordon Green directs a script co-written by Danny McBride(!), and Carpenter returns: as creative consultant, executive producer and film composer.

It’s a momentous return to the fold for Carpenter, the man who’s left the biggest mark on the modern horror film coming home to the franchise that started it all.

In the 40 years since the original “Halloween,” the horror genre has seen its heydays, and it’s seen its slumps. But Carpenter has continued to be a major influence through it all, his sinister synth scores playing on loop.

Here, then, is the history of the horror movie between “Halloween” (1978) and “Halloween” (2018), told through the best (or most influential) films the genre had to offer in each of the intervening years. (Years are based on U.S. release date.)

* * *

The best horror movie of each year since "Halloween"

A note on the trailers: Many are gooey, gross, lurid and scary. Viewer discretion advised, etc., etc.

1979

The best horror movie: “Alien”

Where to watch: Available to rent on Amazon, Vudu and iTunes.

They took the premise of a slasher movie and set it on a spaceship, in the process creating the most obscene monster in movie history and setting the mold for the female action hero.

Our creative consultants Mike’l Severe and Dave Elsesser lobbied for “Amityville” over “Alien.”

Severe: “It is so iconic that the phrase ‘get out of the house’ was used in everything from ‘SNL’ to Richard Pryor stand-up. It was a game-changer when it came out.”

Me: "I respectfully disagree that it's better than 'Alien.'"

Honorable mention: "Phantasm"

 

1980

“The Shining”

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix. Available to rent on various services.

Or, an alternative offered by creative consultant Matt Haney: John Carpenter’s “The Fog.” Carpenter, imho, had the best run of any director, starting with "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) and ending with "They Live" (1988) or, if we're being generous, "In the Mouth of Madness" (1994). In any case, he's my favorite filmmaker of all time.

Honorable mention: “Friday the 13th,” among the most successful of the “Halloween” ripoffs.

 

1981

“The Evil Dead”

Where to watch: Streaming on Shudder and Roku. Available to rent on various services.

Sam Raimi’s DIY cabin-in-the-woods movie would later be improved upon (by Raimi himself), but the plucky, can-do spirit of the original still holds a special place in horror.

Honorable mention: “An American Werewolf in London,” “My Bloody Valentine”

 

1982

“The Thing”

Where to watch: Streaming on Starz. Available to rent on various services. 

A remake of the Howard Hawks’ 1951 alien thriller is Carpenter’s best movie and the pinnacle of practical movie FX. If you disagree, please recall the scene in which a severed head grows spider legs and scurries across the floor.

Honorable mention: “Poltergeist” (I know that many of you will rank this above “The Thing.”)

What my wife (a creative consultant) said: “‘Poltergeist’ is better than ‘The Thing.’”

Me: "I respectfully disagree."

 

1983

“Possession”

Where to watch: Someone uploaded the full movie on YouTube, if you dare. 

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill star as a couple going through a divorce in the wake of her increasingly erratic behavior. Featuring: Monster sex! Doppelgangers! And arguably the most disturbing scene in movie history!

Or, an alternative offered by creative consultant Cory Gilinsky: "'Videodrome,' if only because I want to believe in a world where James Woods is part-VCR. (And its prescient look at the impact of mass media on modern-day society, I suppose.)"

Honorable mention: “Sleepaway Camp,” “Videodrome”

 

1984

“A Nightmare on Elm Street”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Still such an ingenious concept and so imaginatively executed. Freddy remains the best of the horror movie villains. (Apologies to Michael Myers.)

Honorable mention: “Body Double”

 

1985

“Re-Animator”

Where to watch: Streaming on Shudder, which is just a really good streaming service to have this time of year. "Re-Animator" is also available to rent on various services. 

Few horror directors besides Stuart Gordon are so adept at balancing laughs with vomit-inducing practical effects.

Honorable mention: “Fright Night”

 

1986

“The Fly”

Where to watch: Streaming on Hulu. Available to rent on various services. 

Unforgettably vile but also, in a way, really touching. The most accessible entry of Cronenberg’s body horror movies, and the most commercially successful of his career.

Honorable mention: “Aliens.” This is a better movie, but I’d count it more as an action film than a horror movie.

 

1987

“Evil Dead II”

Where to watch: Streaming on Starz. Available to rent on various services. 

An endlessly inventive horror comedy that splits the difference between the first “Evil Dead” and a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Honorable mention: “Near Dark,” "Hellraiser"

 

1988

“The Blob”

Where to watch: Playing at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 at Alamo Drafthouse. Available to rent on various services. 

This remake is an unsung classic of ’80s splatter, starring Kevin Dillon and co-written by Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”).

Honorable mention: “Child’s Play” and “They Live,” which is actually my favorite film of that year, but isn’t exactly a horror movie so much as a hilarious satire of capitalism.

 

1989

No great horror movie that year. The closest would be … “Pet Sematary”? “Shocker”? “The Burbs” is great but not quite a horror comedy. In any case, "The Burbs" is streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

1990

“The Exorcist III”

Where to watch: "Streaming on Amazon Prime and Shudder. Available to rent on various services. 

Of course it doesn’t compare to the first one, which is, no question, the best horror movie ever made. But this movie is scary as hell, features a terrific George C. Scott performance and boasts two all-time great jump scares.

Honorable mention: “Tremors”

 

1991

“The Silence of the Lambs”

Where to watch: Streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go. Available to rent on various services. 

The only honest-to-god horror movie ever to win best picture.

Honorable mention: “People Under the Stairs”

 

1992

“Candyman”

Where to watch: Available for purchase on Vudu.

A horror villain forged in the fire of American racism.

Honorable mention: “Society”

 

1993

“Dead Alive” (a.k.a. “Braindead”)

Where to watch: Gonna have to get the DVD for this one.

The ultimate slapstick comedy horror movie, Peter Jackson’s third film is also easily one of the goriest movies ever made. Moments like the breakfast scene, the zombie baby’s day out, the lawnmower finale — all forever stamped on my brain as though they were memories of real formative experiences in my own life.

Honorable mention: “Army of Darkness”

 

1994

“Cronos”

Where to watch: Streaming on FilmStruck. Available to rent on various services. 

I’m old enough to remember Guillermo del Toro when all he wanted to do was freak you out. His feature debut, a twist on the vampire mythos, is wonderful.

Honorable mention: “Interview With the Vampire,” “Body Snatchers”

 

1995

“Seven”

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix. Available to rent on various services. 

Yeah, it’s a procedural. But it’s also a superb horror movie.

Honorable mention: “In the Mouth of Madness,” probably the last great-ish John Carpenter movie.

 

1996

“Scream”

Where to watch: Streaming on Starz. Available to rent on various services.

Wes Craven’s meta-horror movie cleverly deconstructed the genre’s past (and Carpenter’s influence on it) while paving the way for its future. A box office smash that resurrected the slasher movie, for better and for worse.

Honorable mention: “The Frighteners,” “From Dusk Till Dawn”

 

1997

“Mimic”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Another gooey, gothic delight from Guillermo del Toro, starring Mira Sorvino, Josh Brolin and a bunch of giant killer bugs.

Creative consultant Cory Gilinsky: "'Event Horizon,' because 'where we're going, we won't need eyes to see.'"

Honorable mention: “Scream 2,” “The Devil’s Advocate”

 

1998

“Halloween: H20”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Not a great year for horror, obviously. But I stand by "Halloween: H20" as being decent.

Honorable mention: “Blade,” “Bride of Chucky,” “The Faculty”

 

1999

“The Blair Witch Project”

Where to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Vudu and Shudder. Available to rent on various services. 

It has to be this because it’s the most influential horror movie (and the most successful since the first “Halloween.” But this was a peak year for the genre. We also had …

Honorable mention: “The Sixth Sense,” “Stir of Echoes,” “Ravenous” and the grade-A shark schlock “Deep Blue Sea.”

 

2000

“American Psycho”

Where to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Shudder. Available to rent on various services. 

In which Batman murders women.

Honorable mention: “The Cell,” “Pitch Black,” “Final Destination,” “What Lies Beneath.” Also worth noting: “The Exorcist” got a director’s cut re-release this year.

 

2001

“Audition”

“Only pain and suffering will make you realize who you are.”

Where to watch: Available to rent on Amazon and Vudu.

Honorable mention: “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Trouble Every Day” and the diner scene in “Mulholland Drive”

 

2002

“The Ring”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Just the way she moves, crawling out of that screen.

 

2003

“28 Days Later”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Danny Boyle’s non-zombie reimaging of the zombie movie. Come for the political commentary, stay for the eye-gouging.

Honorable mention for a great horror movie year: “Cabin Fever,” “May” and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake

 

2004

“Shaun of the Dead”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Up there with “Dead Alive,” “Evil Dead 2” and “An American Werewolf in London” as one of the best horror comedies ever made.

Honorable mention: “Saw.” I don’t like the movie, but I can’t deny its influence.

2005

“The Devil’s Rejects”

Where to watch: Streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go. Available to rent on various services. 

Rob Zombie’s trash masterpiece and grand statement.

Honorable mention: “Wolf Creek,” “High Tension.” Super-gross year for horror movies overall.

 

2006

“Hostel”

Where to watch: Streaming on Showtime. Available to rent on various services. 

Eli Roth continued his hot streak with a grotesque torture-porn comedy about how insufferable Americans can be.

Honorable mention: “Slither”

 

2007

“The Mist”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

One of the best Stephen King adaptations. America’s political divide played out in the microcosm of a small-town grocery store. That ending.

Honorable mention: “The Host,” “Trick ‘r Treat.”

 

2008

“Let the Right One In”

Where to watch: Streaming on Hul and Shudder. Available to rent on various services.

Sweetest, weirdest, most beautiful vampire movie ever made.

Honorable mention: “Eden Lake,” “The Strangers,” “REC,” “Martyrs”

 

2009

“Paranormal Activity”

Where to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu. Available to rent on various services. 

Creative consultant Michael Boehnlein: “It’s gotta be ‘Paranormal Activity.’”

Honorable mention: “The Loved Ones,” “Drag Me to Hell,” “House of the Devil,” “Zombieland,” “The Collector.”

 

2010

“The Crazies”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

A well-made remake and a preview of the next eight years of American political discourse.

Honorable mention: “The Last Exorcism”

 

2011

“I Saw the Devil”

Where to watch: Streaming on Hulu and Shudder. Available to rent on various services. 

South Korean action horror movie in which a grieving secret agent torments and tortures the serial killer who murdered his fiance. It’s awesome.

Honorable mention: “Insidious”

 

2012

“Cabin in the Woods”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s brilliant tribute to and criticism of horror movies and horror fans.

Honorable mention: “Kill List,” “Sinister”

 

2013

“The Conjuring”

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix. Available to rent on various services. 

An expertly made classical haunted house movie that brought horror back to the top of the box office.

Honorable mention: “The Purge”

 

2014

“The Babadook”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Metaphorical boogeyman in a tophat torments a single mother and her disturbed child. What former Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz said when he briefly worked for The World-Herald: “I hate that movie.”

Honorable mention: “The Guest”

 

2015

“It Follows”

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix. Available to rent on various services. 

The best horror movie since “The Blair Witch Project” and a film extremely indebted to John Carpenter.

Honorable mention: “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Unfriended,” “Bone Tomahawk”

 

2016

“The Witch”

Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Available to rent on various services. 

Sure, Satan is terrifying. But nothing is scarier than family.

Honorable mention: “Hush,” “Don’t Breathe,” “The Conjuring 2,” “The Shallows”

 

2017

“Get Out”

Where to watch: Streaming on Cinemax Go. Available to purchase on various services. 

Not so much terrifying as it is eerie and piercingly intelligent, Jordan Peele’s movie shows us that even the socially progressive elites are up to something wicked.

Honorable mention: “It Comes At Night,” “Mother!,” “Thelma,” “It”

 

2018

“Hereditary”

Where to watch: Available to rent on various services. 

Toni Collette’s dread scream is the image that perfectly encapsulates 2018.

Honorable mention: “A Quiet Place,” “Annihilation,” “Unsane,” “Mandy,” “Upgrade”

And we have yet to see: “Suspiria,” “Overlord” and, of course, “Halloween.”

 

The writer’s personal top 10 favorite horror movies since 1978’s “Halloween.”

1. “The Thing”

2. “The Silence of the Lambs”

3. “The Blair Witch Project”

4. “Halloween” (1978)

5. “It Follows”

6. “Let the Right One In”

7. “28 Days Later”

8. “Seven”

9. “The Mist”

10. “Scream”

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