Thinking of staging your own frightfest this Halloween? Well you could do worse than checking out the Top 15 Highest Rated Horror Movies on Rotten Tomatoes as inspiration for your line-up. Here, according to the film review aggregator, you’ll find the crème de la crème of the genre, spanning from the early days of cinema right up to the present day, with enough variety to suit the tastes of every scary movie aficionado.
Indeed, although you may not find any teenage slashers, torture-fests or found footage films, the critic-approved list isn’t as fixated on those golden oldies as you might expect. Alongside the seminal silent films that helped to shape horror cinema, the ultimate Hitchcock chiller, and not just one, but two '60s efforts directed by Roman Polanski, there are several more recent releases including contributions from Australia and Denmark, a US indie favorite, and a spellbinding fantasy from one of today’s true masters of horror. Let's get to it!
15 Pan’s Labyrinth (95%)
While Guillermo del Toro’s forays into more mainstream territory have been greeted with a mixed response (Pacific Rim, Blade II, the Hellboy franchise), his more left-field horror pictures have seen him hailed as one of the genre’s most visionary filmmakers. Indeed, only 1997’s creature feature Mimic (61%) blemishes his Rotten Tomatoes record, with Cronos (89%), The Devil’s Backbone (92%), and Crimson Peak (71%) all achieving impressive scores.
But it’s 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth (95%) which most consider to be del Toro’s crowning glory. Set five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Alice in Wonderland-esque fable sees a shy young girl (Ivana Baquero) escape her troubled surroundings by entering a fantastical world in which she’s convinced she’s a princess. Making even the darkest of the Grimms’ fairy tales appear saccharine in comparison, Pan’s Labyrinth explores the power of imagination in the most captivating and downright creepiest of ways.
14 Eyes Without a Face (98%)
“The sickest film since I started film criticism.” That was just one of the many disparaging reviews that acclaimed Cinematheque Francaise founder Georges Franju’s first foray into the horror genre received on its 1960 release. The adaptation of Jean Redon’s novel of the same name also reportedly saw audience members "dropping like flies" during the famous heterografting scene, but there’s far more to Eyes Without a Face than its grisly and gruesome reputation would suggest.
Indeed, the tale of a crazed surgeon (played by Pierre Brasseur) who tries to restore his disfigured daughter’s (Edith Scob) natural beauty in the most unnatural of ways is undoubtedly disturbing. But with its icy black and white cinematography, haunting score, and poetic nature heavily influenced by Jean Cocteau, it’s also absorbing, brilliantly absurd, and strangely alluring. Early reviews have dragged down its ranking somewhat, but a 2003 re-release, which saw it deservedly re-evaluated, has caused its Rotten Tomatoes ratings to rocket to 98%.
13 Freaks (94%)
Tod Browning’s startling insight into the world of the carnival sideshow pretty much destroyed his career on its 1932 release. The story of an able-bodied trapeze artist who becomes the target of the vengeful titular characters on learning that she plans to marry and then murder one of their own, Freaks was met with revulsion by the majority of the press. The film lost studio MGM $164,000 and was considered so shocking that nearly half an hour of its original version was cut, and ultimately erased from film history altogether.
Of course, like many great ahead of their time films, Freaks has since been re-evaluated far more positively. The movie became a regular at midnight movie screenings throughout the '70s and '80s, while critics whose grandparents weren’t even born during its shoot have hailed it as an unforgettable and surprisingly tender masterpiece of horror, resulting in a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 94%.
12 Aliens (98%)
The Alien franchise is nothing if not inconsistent when it comes to Rotten Tomatoes ratings. While the original has a rating of 97%, the third (Alien 3) and fourth (Alien Resurrection) entries in the franchise could only achieve a disappointing 44% and 54% respectively, while 2012 semi-prequel Prometheus landed somewhere in between with a score of 73%. But with a rating one percent higher than its predecessor, it is in fact Aliens which can be found at the top of the pile.
The James Cameron-directed affair eschews the slow-burning tension of Alien in favor of a relentless thrill ride approach, yet impressively doesn't sacrifice its intelligence. The result is one of those rare sequels that manages to improve on the original. Sigourney Weaver also picked up the first Oscar nomination of her glittering career with another typically fearless performance, cementing Ellen Ripley’s status as the most badass heroine in sci-fi horror.
11 Let the Right One In (98%)
Released in the same year as Twilight, Let the Right One In was inevitably overshadowed by the hotly-contested battle between Team Edward and Team Jacob, but it was by far the more compelling of 2008’s adolescent vampire romances. Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel of the same name, the Swedish-language tale sees a bullied 12-year-old (played by Kare Hedebrant) befriend the only kid in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg who is more pale-faced than him; the young vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson).
A surprisingly sweet coming-of-age film which just happens to contain graphic facial disfigurement, throat-slitting, and copious amounts of blood slurping, Let the Right One In also received an English-language remake just two years later. However, in a surprising turn of events, the Chloe Grace Moretz-starring Let Me In somehow managed to retain most of the original’s strange charm, scoring a Rotten Tomatoes rating just ten percent less, at 88%.
10 It Follows (97%)
Arriving in cinemas around the same time as We Are Still Here, Starry Eyes, and the entry below just to name a few, It Follows helped to spearhead something of an indie horror boom in 2015. A brooding atmospheric tale in which a teenage girl is stalked by a mysterious supernatural entity after sleeping with her boyfriend for the first time, David Robert Mitchell’s third directorial effort was interpreted as a parable for everything from AIDS to existential dread.
It is also inherently scary, largely thanks to Mike Goulakis’ moody cinematography, Disasterpiece’s eerie electronic score, and a mysterious monster which proved that what you can’t see is often more terrifying than what you can. Throw in a star-making performance from Maika Monroe, a creepy ambiguous ending, and a refreshing play-it-straight script, and it’s easy to see why It Follows earned an impressive 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Don't be surprised if watching It Follows makes you paranoid about just walking down the street.
9 The Babadook (98%)
Based on the 2005 short film Monster, The Babadook is essentially a two-hander between grieving widow and exasperated mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her nightmarish, troubled six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). In The Babadook, the concept of motherly love is pushed to its limits. Brilliantly blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, this low-budget, claustrophobic Australian picture, like It Follows, has been interpreted in many ways.
But whether you believe the storybook character that escapes from Samuel’s nightmares is an actual entity or simply a manifestation of Amelia’s distress at her impossible situation, it’s difficult to dispute The Babadook’s Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98%. Surprisingly, Aussie audiences pretty much ignored the film on its 2014 release, but thankfully cinema buffs and critics elsewhere were much more enthusiastic, including The Exorcist director William Friedkin who, in possibly the highest form of praise, claimed he had never seen a more terrifying film.
8 Frankenstein (100%)
Mary Shelley’s most famous creation has had something of a difficult time on the big screen as of late, with the Aaron Eckhart-starring fantasy horror I, Frankenstein and the Daniel Radcliffe/James McAvoy mismatch Victor Frankenstein bombing with both critics and audiences alike. However, the iconic Boris Karloff vehicles of the 1930s enjoyed far more success, with two such films appearing inside Rotten Tomatoes’ all-time Top 10 horrors.
Karloff’s 1931 first portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster is the first up, with a perfect score of 100% from 44 reviews, thanks to the likes of Variety, who described its star’s performance as "a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism", and The New York Times, who hailed it as "far and away the most effective thing of its kind." Frankenstein's reputation was further bolstered in 1991, when it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
7 Rosemary’s Baby
One of those rare horror films recognised by the Academy Awards in the acting categories, Rosemary’s Baby saw Ruth Gordon pick up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her frightening turn as conniving cult member Minnie Castevet. Mia Farrow and Sidney Blackmer also received awards recognition elsewhere as the titular mother-to-be unwittingly impregnated with the spawn of Satan, and Minnie’s equally sadistic husband Roman, respectively. The pedigree of this 1968 classic's cast is virtually untouchable in the horror genre.
Based on Ira Levin’s devilish bestseller from the previous year, Roman Polanski’s fourth English-language feature (also his highest-rated at Rotten Tomatoes with a near-perfect 99%) also boasted a terrifying premise. The film managed to scare audiences witless without really showing any blood or gore, thanks to surreal cinematography by William A. Fraker, which brilliantly ramped up the tension, and a chilling score which sadly turned out to be one of celebrated composer Krzysztof Komeda’s last.
6 The Bride of Frankenstein (100%)
Four years after first wowing audiences with their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, director James Whale and horror legend Boris Karloff reunited for a second helping with equally glorious results. Indeed, like its celebrated predecessor, The Bride of Frankenstein also has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating from 41 reviews, making the pair the highest-rated monster movies of all time.
The Bride of Frankenstein tells the story of Henry Frankenstein being forced into constructing a female of the species by his mentor Dr. Pretorius and original monster. This 1935 picture manages to be just as suspenseful and fantastical as its predecessor, while also adding a stronger emotive quality and sense of playfulness. Karloff would return to his signature role for Son of Frankenstein (and later take on different parts in House of Frankenstein and Frankenstein 1970), but perhaps sensing that he could never improve on perfection, Whale decided to leave the horror genre behind following its release.
5 Psycho (96%)
Alfred Hitchcock didn’t exactly need to justify his Master of Suspense title circa 1960, but if there was anyone still sceptical about the director’s ability to unnerve, then his iconic chiller would have immediately left them feeling rather foolish. Of course, the shrieking strings and shadowy figures of Psycho's brutal shower scene have become part of horror folklore. Like Drew Barrymore in Scream over three decades later, no one ever expected the film’s biggest star, Janet Leigh, to meet her maker so early on. Hitchcock even ran an ad campaign pleading with viewers not to reveal the surprise.
From Bernard Herrmann’s brilliantly sinister score to Anthony Perkins’ mesmerizing lead performance as the motel owner from hell, Psycho contains so many more indelible moments that even the terrible sequels and Gus Van Sant’s utterly pointless shot-for-shot remake can’t detract from its genius. Despite dated effects, the chair-spinning reveal retains its power, even today.
4 King Kong (98%)
Okay, so the special effects may now be considered rudimentary compared to both the much-maligned 1976 Jessica Lange/Jeff Bridges remake (46%), and Peter Jackson’s 2005 big budget epic (88%), but at the time, the 1933 original King Kong, and its use of stop-motion animation in particular, was a horror pioneer. The film delighted and scared audiences in equal measure.
It’s fair to say that the iconic monster’s climb up and subsequent fall from the Empire State Building is a far more memorable image than anything the more technologically-advanced King Kongs have since mustered. Of course, with a star-studded cast featuring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Wilkson and John Goodman, next year’s Kong: Skull Island certainly sounds promising. But it still faces a gargantuan task if it is to beat the 98% rating that Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s joint effort currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes.
3 Repulsion (100%)
Three years before Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski ventured into the English-language market for the first time with a psychological horror that is arguably even more unsettling. Repulsion tells the story of an unhinged young woman (played by Catherine Deneuve) who slowly begins to lose her mind after being left home alone by her sister. The film first premiered at Cannes before achieving glory at the Berlin International Film Festival and receiving glowing reviews across the globe, resulting in a highly impressive rating of 100% at Rotten Tomatoes.
The first instalment of Polanski’s The Apartment trilogy, which concluded with 1976’s The Tenant, this black and white 1968 picture was one of the first horrors to feature a female character as the killer. It has since inspired everything from music videos by The Cardigans and Metric to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Black Swan, as well as lesser-known films such as 1991’s Scissors and 2002’s May.
2 Nosferatu (97%)
The history of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (also known as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens) is almost as intriguing as the groundbreaking silent movie itself. Filmed in 1921, F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionist horror was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite changing various names and details from the original, the production company was still sued by the Irish author’s heirs, ultimately leading to the destruction of nearly every copy.
Thankfully, a handful remained intact and, after being released in the States seven years after its German premiere, it developed a reputation as a seminal work of the horror genre. Max Schreck’s chilling performance as the vampire Count Orlok, Murnau’s distinctive point of view shots, and its inherently creepy visual style all proved it was worthy of such a label. Despite approaching its 100th birthday, few other bloodsuckers have since come anywhere close to replicating Nosferatu's overarching sense of dread.
1 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (100%)
And so the highest-rated horror in Rotten Tomatoes’ extensive database turns out to be what many consider the first horror movie ever made. Filmed in 1920, silent movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells the story of a deranged hypnotist (played by Werner Krauss) who orders a sleepwalking patient (Conrad Veidt) to carry out a series of gruesome murders in a small German town. However, not everything is as it seems.
Robert Wiene’s German Expressionist classic didn’t just pave the way for the horror genre, it also shaped cinema as a whole. Its dark shadowy cinematography is credited with inspiring the crime film noirs that dominated the '40s, and its twist ending gave everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to M. Night Shyamalan at least a few ideas. It’s little surprise, therefore, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sits right at the top of the RT pile with a perfect score of 100%.