Halloween is nigh. And you know what that means: It's time to bust out the popcorn, turn the lights down low and throw on a scary movie — if you dare! Which is where Movies for Grownups comes in. We culled this month's long list of scary pictures streaming online and handpicked 15 really worth your evening, whether to revisit or screen for the first time. Just make sure you look under the couch first.
No autumnal list of horror flicks would be complete without John Carpenter’s jump-scare masterpiece about a certain masked maniac named Michael Myers. Most of the sequels in the franchise are disposable junk food that you forget about the moment the end credits roll, but the 1978 original is still a tensely paced, bloodcurdling exercise in pure terror thanks to the breakout performance of future scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis (now 63) as an innocent but quick-thinking babysitter battling the all-too-real bogeyman on Halloween night. Halloween kicked off a decade of bad slasher copycats that you’re probably better off avoiding. Instead, go back to the beginning. It will put you in the mood for what may be Jamie Lee’s final bout with the masked killer in Halloween Ends (in theaters and on Peacock Oct. 14).
The Witch (2015)
There’s something sinister in the woods of New England. No, this isn’t another Stephen King Maine scarefest. Director Robert Eggers’ The Witch is actually set in 1630 and centers around a God-fearing family struggling with a string of misfortunes that may or may not have something to do with satanic possession. The film isn’t particularly gory; it’s more of a chilling mood piece whose scares comes from the creepy, folkloric time and place of the film (it also features a mesmerizing breakout performance from the young actress Anya Taylor-Joy). Not only will it scare the Pilgrim bonnet off your head, you’ll never look at goats the same way again. Buckle up.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
From out of nowhere — well, Pittsburgh actually — George A. Romero scraped together a few bucks and a handful of friends to make what has since become the alpha and omega of zombie movies. Released during the height of Vietnam and the civil rights struggle, the movie has more on its mind than just the walking dead terrorizing the living. The presence of a Black hero (Duane Jones) was downright revolutionary. But even if you glaze over all of the political subtext, this is a suffocatingly claustrophobic nail-biter whose black-and-white cinematography only seems to heighten its unrelenting mood of dread.
Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele's Get Out is obviously more than just a horror movie. It's a meditation on white privilege and race in America. But yes, it's also deeply unsettling and scary as all get out. Daniel Kaluuya's performance as Chris, a Black photographer who's brought to the swanky suburbs to meet his white girlfriend's liberal parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both perfection) is harrowing and layered. The rare horror show that doubles as stinging satire, Get Out never lets you off the hook for a second.
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Honestly, what is there left to say about Psycho? This is the movie that reinvented all of the rules of horror by breaking them. When that knife came swooping at the showering and vulnerable Janet Leigh, Alfred Hitchcock was announcing that absolutely no one was safe. Even the main star of a movie could be butchered before the film was half over. Add Anthony Perkins as the essence of creepiness as mama's boy Norman Bates and what you're left with 60 years later is the movie that officially launched the modern age of horror.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
"What have you done to its eyes?!” Roman Polanski's deal-with-the-devil thriller has aged impeccably well thanks to its eerie score, vise-tightening pacing and the performances of Mia Farrow (now 76), John Cassavetes, and 70-year-old Ruth Gordon as the quintessential nosy neighbor from hell. Pregnant and increasingly paranoid (or is she?), Farrow's Rosemary is haunted by the suspicion that she's the victim of a conspiracy of devil worshippers coming for her unborn child. A master class in hysteria that, in the end, proves to be all too real.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Overshadowed by Dracula, The Wolf Man and the original Frankenstein in the pantheon of classic Universal monster movies, director James Whale's dark, tongue-in-cheek horror comedy may actually be the best film in the bunch. The bolt-necked Boris Karloff returns as Colin Clive's lumbering reanimated giant, but it's Elsa Lanchester (and her shocking-locks hairdo) who steals this wildly entertaining monster mash. This is the rare horror sequel that not only lives up to its predecessor, but actually surpasses it.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter scared a generation to death with his 1978 cult classic, Halloween. Here though, the killer isn't some lunatic in a mask. Scarier, still: It could be any one of us. A gripping sci-fi meditation on paranoia and sub-zero dread, The Thing (a loose remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World) is the story of a group of scientists shut off from the rest of the world in an Antarctic research station where something alien is assuming the bodies of its victims in very messy ways. Kurt Russell (now 70) heads up a stellar ensemble that will make you break out in cold sweats and shiver with fear.
If you didn't fit in in high school, you'll identify with Carrie White. Played by Sissy Spacek (now 71), Carrie is an outcast who's hazed by the popular crowd at school and tormented by her religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie) at home. Something's gotta give. And when it does, at the prom, no less, hoo boy, the pig's blood goes flying! Brian De Palma's masterful adaptation of Stephen King's horrific novel is a metaphor for puberty, teenage rebellion and what happens when you're pushed too far. But it's Spacek's quiet vulnerability that grabs you like a hand reaching out from the grave.
Between this and 2019's Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster may be the most innovative (and deeply disturbing) new voice in American horror. Still, Hereditary is the more traditionally effective of the two when it comes to pure joy-buzzer scares. Gabriel Byrne (now 71) and Toni Collette (now 48) star as a couple whose family starts to experience a bizarre string of terrifying cautions and curses. Hereditary works its way through a checklist of tried-and-true scary-movie ingredients — seances, shock scares, supernatural weirdness — but it's the performances that get under your skin and raise goose bumps, especially Collette's.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Scary movies rarely get a date with Oscar. But Jonathan Demme's serial-killer thriller virtually swept the Academy Awards back in 1992. It's not just a great horror film, it's a great film, period. Jodie Foster (now 58) absolutely soars as the determined FBI novice Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins (now 83) is an unshakable waking nightmare of seductive depravity as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. It's also a corker of a police procedural, too, peppered with macabre details and twists that all snap together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Plus if you're so inclined, we hear it pairs well with a nice Chianti.
The Shining (1980)
It's true that Stephen King, upon whose novel it's based, isn't a fan of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation. Oh, well. He may be the only one. Jack Nicholson (now 84) gives the most haunting — and haunted — performance of his career as a snowed-in writer who neither works nor plays but becomes anything but a dull boy as he descends into madness and terrorizes his family in an abandoned hotel. The Shining is wall-to-wall with hallucinogenic visual images that continue to plague our nightmares: Ghostly butlers, creepy twins, blood elevators, whatever happens in Room 237, “Redrum.” It may be the closest thing we have to an encyclopedia of terror.
The Exorcist (1973)
How on earth did this movie ever get an R rating? William Friedkin's The Exorcist goes beyond scary, messing with the sacred and profane in ways that popular entertainment normally isn't allowed to. This is a transgressive masterpiece that messes with your head by putting Satan inside the body of a sweet and innocent 12-year-old girl (Linda Blair). There is no taboo line that The Exorcist doesn't walk up to and then defiantly step across. It should be objectionable and offensive and awful. Yet, it remains one of the most powerful and viscerally blood-curdling movies ever made.
The Conjuring (2013)
Just when you thought it was safe to go into the basement. Director James Wan's haunted house scarefest centers around a husband-and-wife team of ghost hunters (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, both 48) who take on a case of a family staring down possession in their creaky old home in Rhode Island. There's the usual array of fetid stenches, inexplicably slamming doors and apparitions of dead people. But the real showstopper comes when the home's owner Lili Taylor (age 54) is playing hide and seek with her daughters in the basement and — oh, just watch it for yourself. But not if you plan on getting any sleep afterward.
The Descent (2006)
What starts off as a female-bonding weekend in the great outdoors quickly spirals into a nerve-shredding nightmare. Shauna Macdonald stars as Sarah, a woman who recently suffered a severe emotional trauma and is trying to heal with her pals by doing some spelunking in a remote corner of North Carolina. The setup may sound like Deliverance, but the threat here isn't local yokels, but rather pasty subterranean homunculi with a sweet tooth for human flesh in a dark, cramped setting. This is a gripping, all-female white-knuckle workout that will definitely steer you and your pals to a lazy beach resort for your next girls’ trip.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Oct. 15, 2020. It has been updated with additional movies added to the list.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.