12 Horror Classics You Have To See Before You Die

From A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th to Phantasm, these are the classic horror movies that set the Halloween movies.

Image via Complex Original/Sho Hanafusa

Illustration by Sho Hanafusa

Horror Classics Gif

With Halloween on the horizon that means there will soon be (if not already) an influx of horror movies—both new and old—flooding our timelines, screens, and streaming queues. These days the choices are endless and if you’re a newbie to the genre things can get overwhelming. But don’t fret as we’ve compiled an essential list of horror classics broken down by the four main sub genres (slasher, paranormal, ghouls & ghosts, and zombies) to help make your decisions that much easier. That way you can avoid picking a movie that is trash (like Saw), or one of those embarrassing PG-13 horror flicks (like Ouija). So whether you’re a horror buff or a horror virgin (which truthfully can be the kiss of death in these films), here are a few topline choices that you can’t go wrong in choosing this Halloween.


Halloween (1978)

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Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Moran

Director: John Carpenter

The word “classic” is an understatement when it comes to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film. Introducing the world to The Shape/Michael Myers and the tragic small town of Haddonfield, Halloween is a peek into the dark side of suburbia and the terror that comes from an uncompromising, and silent evil. This movie is not only just essential but the essential slasher film because it is much more than just a jump-scare factory, it spends ample time pacing the story and characters before the shit hits the fan. Jamie Lee Curtis (Laurie Strode) and the late Donald Pleasance (who played returning character Dr. Loomis) have star-making performances here and Carpenter’s score is still one of the most haunting pieces of art I’ve ever heard. If you’re looking for a good primer to get into the slasher genre, you can’t go wrong with Halloween.

Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)

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Starring: Dana Kimmell, Tracie Savage, Richard Brooker

Director: Steve Miner

Halloween spawned a legion of pretenders after its release, but none of the copycat slasher films stood the test of time like the Friday The 13th series. The gory adventures of its antagonist (or protagonist, depending on who you ask) Jason Voorhees has spanned 11 movies and a bucketload of bloodthirsty fans. The conceit of the Friday series isn’t about pacing, or character development—it’s a destruction derby that leaves the entrails and remains of its victims on screen in exciting new ways. These movies aren’t “good,” but by slasher standards they are consistent. They follow the same structure—teenagers stay by the lake, have sex, die, and a Final Girl slays Jason in the last 10 minutes—but its rigid pledge to the audience is the reason that they are so endearing. The best of those would have to be Part 3, the first (and last) 3D foray into the Friday The 13th series. It contains some of the best kills (thanks to the laughably bad 3D effects), character archetypes (including fan-favorite Shelly), and it introduced viewers to Jason’s iconic hockey mask. Even though the series may be on ice for the time being, you owe it to yourself to track down the 3D DVD version or attend a 3D showing of Friday The 13th Part 3 if you can.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund

Director: Wes Craven

The loss of horror icon Wes Craven is one that fans of the genre are still reeling from, because of his visceral understanding of the language between fear and storytelling. A Nightmare on Elm Street is perhaps his most fully realized vision of this—a movie that turns the slasher genre (which had been getting long in the tooth by the time of Nightmare’s release) and subverting it again. Using dreams and nightmares as a backdrop, Craven created a frightening concept: you could die inside of your own dreams, a place that’s more personal than your own house. Playing on this idea is something that he uses to great effect when setting up the lore of Freddy Krueger, the main baddie of the series. Admittedly, Freddy’s success caused him to become a bit of a punchline in later movies, but he’s at his horrific best in the first film—an unrelenting force of nature that knows his victims’ deepest pleasures and fears. A Nightmare on Elm Street didn’t just redefine horror, it made its most jaded fans afraid again—making it more than just another slasher film.


Paranormal Activity (2007)

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Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs

Director: Oren Peli

Raising the bar on the “found footage” genre that included movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity was a simple premise with a fantastic execution. Maximizing its extremely small budget by taking place in one area with a mix of first person and fixed camera angles, the film takes viewers into the home of a couple, Micah and Katie, who are trying to get to the bottom of the strange events that are happening in their house every night. The slow burn approach to the escalation of the story, from doors closing to the antagonistic ghost outright throwing them around the house will have you paranoid for most of the movie’s runtime—when you aren’t cursing douchebag boyfriend Micah for taunting the demonic force that wants them dead. If you’re looking for a movie that will add to the paranoia of things making noise in your house, Paranormal Activity is the right movie for you… just stay away from its inferior sequels.

Poltergeist (1982)

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Starring: JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Craig T. Nelson

Directors: Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg (uncredited)  

Poltergeist is the ghost movie to watch if you’re just trying to get into the paranormal horror genre. The concept here isn’t unlike any other movie involving dastardly ghosts (In this instance, an unseen force disrupts the quiet home of the Freeling family in an effort to abduct their daughter, Carol Anne), but the direction of Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and his visual language of the art of scaring the audience beyond just jump-scares are what made this a classic. Everything from appliances to toys are an enemy in the movie, and Poltergeist’s third act—which involves a lot of rotting corpses—is still talked about today. Again, you may want to avoid Poltergeist’s sequels and the godawful 2015 remake, but you can’t go wrong with the original.

The Conjuring (2013)

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Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston

Director: James Wan

Director James Wan had a hot streak in the horror genre over the last decade, helping bring movies such as the SAW and Insidious series to life, but his most acclaimed work is his turn as the shepherd of the demonic Conjuring universe. As an introduction, The Conjuring gives audiences elements of everything—great characters, storytelling, and some of the most visceral scares you’ll ever see. Loosely based on the actual stories of husband and wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring is effective in eschewing the CGI obsessed nature of the paranormal horror subgenre and injecting practical effects that make everything look and feel real. The movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel so to speak, but Wan created a delicate balance of sympathetic characters and a sense of dread that no other movie has reached since possibly The Exorcist.


Phantasm (1979)

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Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister

Director: Don Coscarelli

One of the most acclaimed cult classic movies in the horror genre, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm is a trippy journey into the the fantastical and the macabre. Convinced that a devilish undertaker (lovingly nicknamed “The Thin Man”) is raising the dead to create his own army, a young boy, his brother, and his best friend seek to put a stop to this evil plan. Perhaps the most endearing part of Phantasm is how the independently financed movie leans into its feverish concept—going batshit crazy with alternate dimensions, a chrome sphere that can track and murder its victims (which leads to some memorable kills), and a cliffhanger ending that still haunts most people to this day. Even though Coscarelli’s labor of love may not have a plot that is in the least bit coherent at points, Phantasm is one of the most memorable B-movies of all time.

Suspiria (1977)

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Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci

Director: Dario Argento

Italian director Dario Argento is known for his pulpy “giallo” subgenre of horror, and Suspiria is without a doubt one of the best examples of his style. Mixing a number of vivid stylistic elements with some truly horrific scenes of gore, Suspiria looks and feels like The Wizard of Oz inside of an insane asylum. Following the story of an American dance student who transfers to what she believes is a top of the line dance school, she and the audience quickly find out that nothing is what it seems once the bodies start dropping. It’s a movie that is more visceral than thoughtful, with its pulsating music (provided by the band Goblin) and an excruciating attention to detail given to the amount of colors on screen.

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)

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Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks

Director: Sam Raimi

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies are some of the most beloved cult classics ever, and for good reason. His chemistry with leading man Bruce Campbell, and the sharp writing has spawned a generation of horror movies that have taken cues from it to this day. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is just as infamous for its dialogue as its zany moments, which help cover how absolutely brutal the carnage is within it. Retconning most of the first movie (in a move that Campbell calls a “requel”) completely, Evil Dead 2 shares the same beats as its less costly prequel, only maintaining Campbell’s Ash character returning to the cabin and reciting the forbidden passages from the Book of The Dead. From there, the movie gets bloody—and funny. Evil Dead 2 is the rare case of a horror movie that works as a comedy as well, breaking up the moments of terror by swinging from completely slapstick to deadly serious multiple times which. Evil Dead 2 might make some cover their eyes at the mutilation, but even the most scared viewer will certainly find something to love here.


Night of The Living Dead (1968)

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Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman

Director: George A. Romero

Accept no substitutes, George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead is the quintessential zombie movie. A staunch commentary on the Vietnam War, and the racial landscape of America at the time, Romero’s magnum opus takes a simple idea and adds in a terrifying concept—where do we turn when the dead return for revenge? Taking place in one location, he attempts to explain how society itself breaks down when faced with an enemy that we don’t know—giving the movie much more emotional and social weight than any run of the mill horror movie that came after it. From the frightening opening scene to the gutpunch of an ending, the movie is more than just the undead outside—it’s about the evil within man himself. Do yourself a favor, track down a version of Night of The Living Dead in Black and White this Halloween, you’ll love it.

Dawn of The Dead (2004)

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Starring: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer

Director: Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder may not be everyone’s favorite director, but you can’t deny that he can put on a hell of a show—as evidenced in his adrenaline soaked remake of George Romero’s Dawn of The Dead. Even by taking cues mostly from the setting of the movie and not much else, Snyder’s Dawn sets itself apart by being a rabid and violent re-imagining of a horror classic. Trading social commentary for buckets of blood sounds like a bad idea, but Snyder’s visuals are kinetic enough to carry what would have been a fairly empty movie without the subtext that Romero gave it. Snyder’s zombies move like they’ve been mixing cocaine and Red Bull—relentlessly chasing their potential victims, which is a ballsy move considering what we’ve all known about the plodding undead. Dawn succeeds in supercharging the zombie subgenre (which has only gotten worse since) with his own signature style, which is why I can’t fault his interpretation of Dawn of The Dead being the Gen X version of the classic.

Re-Animator (1985)

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Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton

Director: Stuart Gordon

You can’t be properly introduced into the zombie genre without Romero’s Night of The Living Dead or, in my opinion, Brian Yuzna’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator. This cheeky B-movie, which was at one time deemed too violent to be shown in theatres, is a sick dark comedy about an evil scientist (played by a scene-chewing Jeffrey Combs) who has found the key to immortality—through reanimation. The movie doesn’t shy away from mutilation, nudity, and gruesome death scenes, but what I loved so much about it is that its messiness is played completely straight. Re-Animator’s use of practical FX are used to great effect as well—specifically in the case of the reanimated and headless body of one of the central characters that remains one of my favorite sight gags of all time. Re-Animator isn’t for the squeamish whatsoever, but it’s still one of the most technically impressive cult classics I’ve ever seen.

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