The slasher movie, if we’ll admit it to ourselves, is about our fears of teen sexuality. Whether you’re a teen made nervous by your own hormones or a parent afraid of what trouble those hormones will get your kid into, the slasher-movie villain is your fears made flesh. But with the release 30 years ago this week (November 9, 1984) of Wes Craven‘s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the slasher film entered a new dimension.
With the creation of Freddy Krueger (played indelibly by Robert Englund), who could kill teens in their dreams, the slasher villain proved there was no place that was safe, not even the subconscious.
In retrospect, the genre may have peaked with the release of this film; after all, how many other slasher villains since have been anywhere near as memorable? Unlike his predecessors, Jason Voorhees (of the “Friday the 13th” movies) and Michael Myers (of the “Halloween” series), Freddy could not only talk but wisecrack; by the time the third or fourth or eighth sequel or reboot came around, fans were rooting for Freddy to dispatch his victims with a vicious quip, making the series less about gore than guffaws.
As a result, horror has been forced to mutate and evolve like a mad scientist’s post-Frankenstein experiment. In the last 30 years, we’ve seen the rise of horror comedies, horror romances (notably, the “Twilight” films), and horror-action spectacles (everything from “Blade” to “World War Z”). We’ve seen innovations (like found-footage) and trends (zombies, vampires, aliens, microbes) rise and fall and rise again. After a decade of extreme gruesomeness and bodily mutilations, horror seems to be changing yet again, toward subtler, more atmospheric chills, though the pendulum will surely swing the other way eventually.
Here, then, is a tour through the best that horror has had to offer since Freddy first invaded our dreams.
29. “The Mist” (2007). After all those lofty Stephen King prison epics, Frank Darabont gets down and dirty with an old-school Stephen King monster movie, with satisfying and shocking results.
28. “The Descent” (2005). Guaranteed to put you off spelunking forever. Bonus points for its girl-power cast.
27. “The Host” (2006). Of all the toxic-waste-bred monster movies of the last three decades, this South Korean entry by Bong Joon-ho is the best.
26. “Child’s Play” (1988). Alas, like Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers before him, killer doll Chucky became more of a nasty and even comical folk hero than a scary slasher as the sequels rolled on, but the original remains oddly effective. And you can’t beat Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky.
25. “The Orphanage” (2007). Guillermo del Toro‘s fingerprints are all over a number of elegant horror films from the last two decades, many of which blend real-world terrors with elaborate fantasy creations. This one, though, is the scariest, hands down.
24. “Audition” (1999). Takashi Miike’s extreme body of work deserves a mention on this list, and none of the Japanese auteur’s films is more notoriously gruesome than this one, in which a widower auditioning for a new love gets more than he bargained for.
23. “Session 9” (2001). Brad Anderson directed this effective, low-budget chiller that places its protagonists in an abandoned insane asylum that’s not quite empty.
22. “The Vanishing” (1988). This Dutch chiller follows a man desperate to know what happened to his disappeared girlfriend, until he meets the mild-mannered psychopath who can answer his question — at a terrible price. George Sluizer’s original Dutch version is worthy of Poe, but avoid his American remake at all costs.
21. “Re-Animator” (1985). Stuart Gordon’s sly, satirical tale of a mad (well, obsessive) scientist and his Frankenstein serum gone wrong is a must-see for gorehounds.
20. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992). Francis Ford Coppola set out to make a film that was faithful to Stoker’s novel and an homage to the very first horror films, using the kinds of special effects that were available at the dawn of cinema. The results were surprisingly lush visuals, buckets of blood, and a movingly tragic performance by Gary Oldman as the lovelorn vampire.
18. “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012). It’s pretty hard to turn a clichéd premise inside-out and still keep it scary, so give credit to writer Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard for doing just that.
16. “Hellraiser” (1987). Clive Barker’s classy tale of poetic justice is the smartest occult movie of recent decades (though the sequels, naturally, offered diminishing returns), and it introduced a memorable villain in the grid-faced Pinhead (Doug Bradley).
15. “The Lost Boys” (1987). Joel Schumacher’s horror comedy is, for all its comic-book silliness, a masterpiece of tone, expertly juggling grown-up vampire gore, teen biker romantic melodrama, and kiddie gothic. There’s no reason a movie with the two Coreys, a brooding Jason Patric, a feral Kiefer Sutherland, and Blossom’s cranky grandpa should have worked, but it did.
14. “The Fly” (1986). David Cronenberg‘s fascination with body horror found perhaps its best pop expression in this remake, done as a doomed romance between Geena Davis and hunk-turned-horrifying hybrid Jeff Goldblum.
13. “Near Dark” (1987). Kathryn Bigelow’s down-home vampire drama remains an underappreciated cult classic and one of the first movies that showed how vampire tales could work in nearly any setting and genre, not just in elegant tales of Transylvanian counts.
12. “Saw” (2004). Sure, the series degenerated into self-parody by the umpteenth installment, but the first one was inventive and influential in the subgenre that came to be known (however dismissively) as torture porn.
11. “Insidious” (2010). After lopping off countless limbs in the “Saw” series, James Wan does an about-face and offers a nearly bloodless tale of ghosts, attics, and possession, thereby reinvigorating the ghost story and creating the template for horror movies throughout the 2010s.
10. “28 Days Later” (2002). Danny Boyle juiced up the zombie movie with a vengeance here, making use of millennial dread, viral panic, and shockingly fast zombies who run like the wind. Sequel “28 Weeks Later” deserves mention in the same breath.
9. “Ringu” (1998). The American remake that made Naomi Watts a star is nearly as good, but go to the Japanese source, Hideo Nakata’s movie about the killer videotape and the creepy little girl that started the whole wave of atmospheric J-horror films.
8. “The Sixth Sense” (1999). Yeah, the plot twist has been ruined for you, and so has M. Night Shyamalan‘s reputation, but once upon a time, he scared and startled the world with this ghost story, which takes place mostly in Bruce Willis‘s pained silences and Haley Joel Osment‘s haunted, liquid eyes.
7. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). Yes, it’s to blame for the entire found-footage horror subgenre, as well as a slew of deceptive online marketing practices and an execrable sequel. But stripped of its legacy and its mythology, it’s still a damn scary movie, all the more impressive for its minimalism.
6. “Paranormal Activity” (2007). For better or worse, it revived the found-footage genre and made everyone scared of moving into a new house once more.
5. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004). There have been a lot of good zombie spoofs since this one (particularly “Zombieland“), but let’s acknowledge Edgar Wright’s initial, influential, hilarious British frightfest.
4. “Evil Dead 2” (1987). Director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell essentially remade their original 1981 cabin-in-the-woods thriller, but with more money, faster action, and even more outrageous demonic antics.
3. “Scream” (1996). In which Wes Craven and then-newbie writer Kevin Williamson dissect and rewrite the rules of the slasher genre Craven helped invent. Managed to wink with one eye and wince in horror with the other.
2. “Let the Right One In” (2008). The U.S. remake was admirable, but stick with the original Swedish version that tells this freaky, sad, chilling story of an alienated boy who befriends a young girl who’s a vampire.
1. “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel casts a dark shadow over nearly every scary movie made since, from its grotty atmospherics to its interest in the psyches of serial killers to its willingness to go to creepy extremes. Plus, Anthony Hopkins‘s Hannibal Lecter is surely the most frightening movie character of the last three decades. As many times as we’ve seen this multiple Oscar-winner, the lambs have never stopped screaming.