Horror movies have generally gotten a bad rap. Let us guess: your idea of a horror movie involves some ghoul from the underworld devouring the brain of a screaming, large-breasted female. Or maybe what comes to mind is a slasher film, where a mad serial killer stalks a screaming, large-breasted female. If you're a little older, or if you watch late night TV, you may be more familiar with the old black-and-white classics, where a pale supernatural figure emerges from the shadows, first to frighten and then to seduce (you guessed it) a screaming, large-breasted female.

Well, the movies we're recommending here don't fit into any of those categories, although you'll find that they all share certain traits with these "traditional" (that is, traditionally bad) examples of the horror genre. Instead, we've selected a group of smart, psychologically sophisticated horror movies, ones that scared us without asking us to suspend all logic and taste.

All right, you'll still have to suspend some logic and taste. But that's what makes them horror movies, right?

1. THE EXORCIST (1973)

The Exorcist presents a fascinating exhibition of unlikely conflicts: The Devil vs. a small girl, religion vs. logic, modern times vs. ancient beliefs, medicine vs. faith, Hollywood fame vs. everyday problems. This constant opposition between dueling worlds and ideals is why The Exorcist brings such raw emotions to the surface for its viewers. You are never comfortable, and you can never relax, once the calm veneer of your normal life has been disrupted by unpredictable, external influences.

The Exorcist begins when Regan (Linda Blair), the 12-year-old daughter of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), becomes ill in some very strange ways. She gets thrashed around by unseen forces, she pees on the carpet, and she displays a sudden, prolific ability to spout vile and inventive profanity. Some suspicious deaths occur, and Chris can't help wondering whether her daughter, in moments of mental instability, is to blame. After taking Regan to every doctor in the Western world, and receiving no explanation for these bizarre phenomena, Chris's once-firm belief in reason is shaken. Desperate, she begins to consider whether Regan may be possessed by The Devil. Chris asks Father Karras (Jason Miller) to check her daughter out, and then, if necessary, to perform an exorcism to drive the spirit from Regan's body.

Sounds like schlock, eh? Well, audiences in 1973 didn't think so. Rumors sped across the country that people were vomiting in the aisles and women were scared into giving birth. Let us tell you, it's not THAT scary, but the film did bring audiences to an entire new level of disturbing realism. Throughout the course of her possession, Regan's head spins 180 degrees, she projectile vomits pea soup, and she says things that no 12-year-old (nor anyone else, for that matter) should be saying.


  • Followed by 2 sequels

  • Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for Miller, Actress, and Supporting Actress for Blair

  • Won 2 Academy Awards: Screenplay and Sound

2. HALLOWEEN (1978)

The 1980s gave rise to a proliferation of slasher movies. From Friday the 13th to Nightmare on Elm Street, making cheapo horror movies (along with many many sequels) seemed to be a sure-fire way to make money. But what started it all? Why did Hollywood put so much money into making so many bad movies? Many believe that it all started with Halloween.

The story is relatively simple: it's Halloween night, and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is babysitting two kids. Her friends, who also live in the neighborhood, are more interested in hooking up with their respective boyfriends. But psycho Michael Myers (who has just escaped from a mental institution and, naturally enough, always wears a mask) is out to kill them. Standard horror fare.

Halloween succeeds because it builds up genuine suspense. In fact, for a horror movie, it contains almost no blood and gore. It's not all about the "boo!" but about legitimately scaring you.

Any good horror movie is only as good as its villain, and this is really what makes Halloween so much better than all the other schlock horror films. The movie's opening five minutes are presented entirely from Michael Myers' warped point of view (some consider those five minutes to be among the creepiest film sequences ever). Michael doesn't have one line in the entire movie, so you never find out his motives. But this just makes him all the scarier; he's a killing machine that cannot be reasoned with. Case in point: as Laurie frenetically tries to get inside of a house to get help, she sees Michael walking calmly across the street with a knife. He shows no emotion, and does not rush over. Here's a movie that realizes that someone doesn't have to jump out of a bush to be scary . . . it's often scarier to know exactly what's coming.

The music is also effective in generating fear and suspense. Listen to the simplistic soundtrack, and observe how effective it is, despite using the same few chords for the entire film. Also, keep an ear out for the realistic conversations that the teenagers have with each other, and how natural they sound.

Try watching this one alone at night, and you'll see how good it is.


  • Made in 21 days for less than $300,000, it made almost $50 million in US theaters, becoming one of the most profitable movies ever

  • Followed by several sequels, most notably Halloween H2O in 1998, which also starred Jamie Lee Curtis

  • The mask Michael Myers wears is actually a William Shatner mask spray-painted white

3. PSYCHO (1960)

This movie is so freaky that almost forty years after it was first released, Gus Van Sant was moved enough to remake it shot-for-shot. Talk about an homage to our favorite obese Brit - no, not Churchill - Alfred Hitchcock.

Notwithstanding the benefits of modernity that come with a current version (like less embarrassing clothes and cooler cars), the classic version of this creepy flick is just that: a classic. This movie launched a whole new conception of fear upon the American public. Before Psycho, the source of evil in horror movies was usually a clownish-looking guy in a Wookiee outfit or some other outlandish and bogus Thing. Psycho showed us that the greatest potential horror doesn't come from the Deep, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000 buffoonery. Nope, the greatest threat comes from the guy next door.

The quintessential guy next door is Norman Bates, masterfully played by Anthony Perkins, and he's the reason we now all look twice at the well-groomed but shy geeks lurking at the back of science class. Filmed in Freudian psychology's heyday, this film is largely a story of a boy and his mother - and Norman is a very big part of that very dysfunctional relationship. Caught in the middle is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).

You'll be amazed at how current the plot twists and sinister behavior seem in this movie. In fact, you'll be tempted to conclude - like the proverbial guy who reads Shakespeare for the first time - that the film is just one cliché after another. Wrong. This is where they all came from, baby: ground zero of mental twistedness.

Alfred was a very sick puppy. As in the work of Stephen King today, Hitchcock had the unerring ability to identify precisely the most awful aspects of the seemingly familiar stuff around us. After viewing Psycho, we'll never look at showers, motels, or mothers the same way again.


  • Followed by many, many sequels

  • Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Director and Supporting Actress for Leigh

  • Leigh won a Golden Globe Award for her performance

  • During the famous "shower scene," chocolate syrup was used for blood, since it showed up nicely on black and white film

  • Janet Leigh's daughter also starred in a horror film: Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

  • Placed #18 on the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest Movies" List

4. SCREAM (1996)

We all know about those tired horror movie clichés from the 80s. Never have sex, or you'll get slashed. Never say "I'll be right back," or you'll get slashed. When you have the chance, run out the front door instead of up the stairs, or you'll get slashed.

Scream takes the uniquely postmodern perspective of having characters that are not only aware of these "rules," but are expert in them and revel in them. Instead of being passive dumb wimps, the main characters of Scream know exactly what's going on: a killer is on the loose, gutting high school students. But questions remain: Who is it? And why is he stalking Sidney (Neve Campbell), whose mother was murdered exactly one year ago, allegedly by a man who's now the subject of a sensational trial? Getting into the mix are Sidney's boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), a freshly green deputy (David Arquette), and nosey newscaster Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox).

Scream became the sleeper hit of 1996 for at least two reasons. First, it doesn't dumb itself down to its audience. Filled with "in jokes" and pop culture references, it says out loud what we've all thought while watching crappy horror movies. Things get a lot scarier when the victims are on the same playing field as the viewer - it means that the director has to stay a step ahead of the audience in order to scare it. And lucky for us, director Wes Craven does that. The movie's pretty scary. But that's not its primary attraction . . . what sets this flick apart is the self-referential humor surrounding the characters' knowledge of horror movies.

The second reason Scream was so successful is because of its casting. By using established TV stars as drawing power instead of established movie stars, the film was made for a lower budget, and still attracted large audiences already familiar with the stars' work. Neve Campbell, from the TV show "Party of Five," plays the lead, and other stars included Cox (from "Friends"), Drew Barrymore, Ulrich, plus other up-and-coming teen stars. Nothing like a built-in audience to help create a box-office hit. Countless movies copied this technique (including Varsity Blues, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and Dick), but none used it so effectively as Scream.


  • It cost only about $15 million to make, and grossed over $100 million

  • Followed by two sequels: Scream 2 and Scream 3

  • Won the MTV Movie Award for Best Movie and Actress

  • Launched the career of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who went on to create the TV show Dawson's Creek


Just when we were all beginning to believe that nothing in film could frighten us anymore, along came Hannibal Lecter to scare the bejesus out of us. Silence of the Lambs assembles one of the most powerful combinations of acting, writing, and direction in modern moviemaking to remind us of the infinite depth of human depravity.

Anthony Hopkins glides through his performance as evil incarnate with gripping understatement, unveiling for us everything we fear most about the dark side of the human psyche. He's no howling lunatic or crazed animal. Hannibal is intelligent, cultured, charming, and wholly devoid of any qualms - or at least he displays no qualms about slicing someone's face off and using it as a mask.

Jodie Foster is equally compelling as Clarice Starling, the perfect foil: a winsome and willing neophyte special agent who charms Hannibal. The dynamic between these two actors is tremendous; if you don't believe us, bear in mind that they both won Oscars for their performances.

The plot is addictive, as we watch Foster and her FBI team attempt to run a serial killer to ground. She coaxes clues from Hannibal - the incarcerated godfather of all serial killers - as to how the killer thinks and what he may do next. Much of the movie's plot focuses on this second killer, nicknamed "Buffalo Bill," but he's not really all that interesting, except for his rather extreme take on cross-dressing. There is no doubt that you'll leave this movie more afraid of Hannibal than of anyone else.


  • One of only 3 films to win the "Golden 5" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay. (The others were It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

  • The role of Clarice Starling was originally offered to Michelle Pfeiffer

  • Placed #65 on the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest Movies" List