Slasher movies rank among the most enduring, and most consistently reinvented, subgenres in the horror canon. Ghost stories and tales of vampires and werewolves might be older, but there’s something about the slasher film that gives it its own sense of brutal vitality.
Though they’re often dismissed as a bunch of movies about a crazy guy with a knife, there’s a sense of near-constant creativity at work within even the most low-budget, opportunistic slasher films. And if you know where to look, you can find absolute masterpieces of the form that rival the best films in any other horror subgenre. So, from early proto-slashers to modern classics, here are 30 of the greatest slasher movies to ever pick up a weapon and pull on a mask.
1. Peeping Tom (1960)
Though proto-slasher stories go back much further to things like Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925), 1960 is arguably the year that the slasher movie as we know it started to take shape thanks to two horror classics. With Peeping Tom, celebrated filmmaker Michael Powell (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) introduced the story of a killer who’s also a voyeur, inviting the audience to look through his brutal lens for terrifying point-of-view shots and memorable kills with one of cinema’s most memorable unconventional weapons. Though the movie is now considered a masterpiece, it was largely reviled upon its release—so much so that it essentially killed Powell’s career.
2. Psycho (1960)
Long revered as the godfather of slasher cinema, Alfred Hitchock’s iconic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel is so much more than one unforgettable murder in a motel shower. Rich with subtext and tension and driven by Anthony Perkins’s phenomenal performance as Norman Bates, Psycho digs deep to prove the dual life of one of cinema’s most famous villains far beyond the shower scene, which took a whopping 7 days to shoot.
3. Blood and Black Lace (1964)
The beautiful and the brutal often go hand-in-hand with slasher films, and few horror filmmakers have ever mixed the two better than Italian legend Mario Bava, who often shot his own films, including this one. With this early giallo classic, Bava explored the exquisite terror of a fashion house terrorized by a masked killer, and in the process created one of the most influential slashers ever made.
4. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Speaking of influential slasher films directed by Mario Bava: There’s also A Bay of Blood, the story of a string of murders committed in the battle for an inheritance. Featuring special makeup effects by the great Carlo Rambaldi, it’s Bava’s bloodiest film, and proved so important to the future of slashers that you can see certain kills replicated almost shot for shot in future Friday the 13th installments, to name just one example.
5. Torso (1973)
The Italian giallo films of the 1970s were hugely important to the development of North American slasher films in the ’70s and early ’80s, and while directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento most often get the credit for that, we should not overlook Sergio Martino. With Torso, Martino dove deep into the brutal mind of a misogynistic killer targeting a group of young women for an early slasher so gruesome it puts some films made decades later to shame. The blending of violence and sexuality, and the often beautifully filmed death scenes, still stand out almost 50 years later.
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
In the early 1970s, writer/director Tobe Hooper took a small cast and crew out into the central Texas summer to shoot a film about deep country cannibals, and created a cinema legend along the way. Though its reputation remains infamous, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not nearly as violent as its detractors would often suggest. Instead, what makes the film so hard to watch is its seat-of-your-pants docudrama feel, which is so immediate and frightening that it can still make you feel like you’re watching something forbidden.
7. Black Christmas (1974)
Years before he directed a family holiday classic with A Christmas Story, filmmaker Bob Clark crafted this horror classic that features many of the hallmarks later slasher films would soon adopt. Featuring several frightening POV shots, an unforgettable final girl in Olivia Hussey, and several death scenes that will stick in your head forever, Black Christmas is a deft blending of the bright lights of the Yuletide season and the dark shadows of a mysterious killer’s power. Its final shot remains one of the most chilling in the entire genre.
8. Deep Red (1975)
Director Dario Argento, who is arguably the most famous practitioner of the giallo form, broke new ground within his own horror career with Deep Red. It follows many of the same genre conventions of his previous films, but there’s a layer of sophistication in this story of a composer caught up in a string of brutal murders that makes it feel as if Argento had hit a new level of filmmaking power. From elaborate death scenes to the film’s use of color to his first collaboration with star Daria Nicolodi (with whom he was involved both professionally and romantically for more than a decade), it’s a touchstone of both his career and the history of slasher cinema. And as an added bonus, it also features one of horror’s greatest creepy dolls.
9. Halloween (1978)
Arguably the film that cemented the slasher subgenre as we know it today, John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s classic tale of a masked murderer stalking babysitters in the Midwest has just about everything you could want in a slasher movie. It’s got a great opening scene, a great final girl in Jamie Lee Curtis, a killer with an unforgettable look, and of course, a creepy ending that sets up a sequel. It’s a masterpiece of the form that’s still regularly imitated today.
10. Friday the 13th (1980)
After seeing the box office success of Halloween, enterprising producer Sean S. Cunningham decided to capitalize by setting a new slasher film on another memorable day of the year. Though it doesn’t feature the franchise’s iconic slasher Jason Voorhees (not until the end, anyway), Friday the 13th still managed to set the tone not just for a single franchise, but for an entire decade of slasher imitators, setting off a boom that changed genre cinema forever via a whodunit horror film with plenty of unforgettable kills.
11. Prom Night (1980)
After starring in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis got plenty of offers to return to the horror genre in the years that followed, and one of her most memorable follow-up roles came in this early slasher by director Paul Lynch. A whodunit revenge story with a memorable killer and a fun high school setting, Prom Night set the tone for several slashers that followed, and to some horror scholars proved just as formative as Halloween and Friday the 13th.
12. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Thanks in no small part to the success of Friday the 13th, 1981 became the Year of the Slasher, with dozens of films attempting to follow in that film’s golden box office footsteps. Some, of course, stand out above the rest, and one of the best films to emerge from the pack is this Canadian slasher about a killer in mining gear who stalks a group of youths as they celebrate Valentine’s Day in a town that seems to be cursed by the holiday. My Bloody Valentine is full of brutal moments that remain bloody fun 40 years later.
13. The Burning (1981)
The Burning, another film that set itself apart from the 1981 slasher pack, follows Friday the 13th into slasher summer camp territory, but creates its own version of a monster in the form of a caretaker who fell victim to a prank gone wrong and set out to get his revenge. With that memorable backstory firmly in place, a great cast featuring a young Holly Hunter and a young Jason Alexander, and one of the most memorable death scenes in all of 1980s horror, The Burning feels like it was always meant to stand out.
14. Tenebrae (1982)
Dario Argento stepped away from the giallo genre in the late 1970s to work on other kinds of stories (including his supernatural horror classic Suspiria), but when he returned with Tenebrae, it was clear he’d lost none of his force as a master of movie brutality. The story of an author who realizes a string of murders might be based on one of his own novels, Tenebrae brings the classic Argento death scenes to beautiful crimson life, with an added layer of thematic oomph from the film’s exploration of the connection between story and storyteller.
15. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
One of the first and best examples of a revisionist and satirical take on the slasher genre, The Slumber Party Massacre is exactly what it sounds like, until it isn’t. Director Amy Holden Jones and writer Rita Mae Brown were very aware of the clichés of their chosen genre even after just a couple of years of the slasher boom, and the result is an extremely clever no-budget classic full of knowing winks (there’s a reason the killer uses a drill) which still delivers the slasher goods.
16. The House on Sorority Row (1982)
One of the best revenge slashers of all time, The House on Sorority Row removes the years-long legend-building of many comparable films in favor of a more intimate and immediate story of terror. The story of a group of sorority sisters who accidentally kill their house mother and then find themselves stalked by a killer later that same night, it’s both surprisingly atmospheric for a film of its scope and setting, and full of great kills.
17. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Though its best-remembered for its often-memed, infamous twist ending, Sleepaway Camp also works as a high-octane, brutal, straightforward slasher movie in the lead-up to that big reveal. The surprise ending lends an extra layer of meaning and horror to the entire movie, which only makes it more essential.
18. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Most early slashers were, at the end of the day, human beings with monstrous intentions, with no real supernatural power apart from their ability to murder numerous people in cold blood. That changed in a big way with writer/director Wes Craven’s slasher masterpiece, the story of a former child killer turned dream demon (Robert Englund) and the teenage girl (Heather Langenkamp) who sets out to stop him. Witty, violent, and full of great visuals, A Nightmare on Elm Street set a new standard for slasher inventiveness.
19. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
By the second half of the 1980s, Jason Voorhees and his hockey mask were horror icons, but Jason himself had been canonically killed off in the Friday the 13th film series. The solution? Reanimate him like Frankenstein’s monster and create one of the most exhilarating slasher films of the era. Infused with a heavy metal attitude and a large dose of wit by director Tom McLoughlin, Jason Lives gave us the version of Jason we most often think of in the modern pop culture consciousness: A hulking zombie with a machete who will beat you to death in your own sleeping bag, and look cool doing it.
20. Child’s Play (1988)
After Freddy Krueger made wise-cracking, supernatural slasher villains popular, Chucky came along to bring a pint-sized serial killer sensibility to the subgenre, and the result is another iconic horror villain. Created by writer Don Mancini and brought to life by director Tom Holland and voice actor Brad Dourif, Chucky became not just the driving force of Child’s Play’s success, but a touchstone for a whole generation of horror fans. No wonder he’s still slaying today.
21. Intruder (1989)
Directed by Evil Dead II co-creator Scott Spiegel and featuring both Sam and Ted Raimi in acting roles, Intruder kicks things off with a very simple premise: A mystery killer starts picking off employees working the night shift at a grocery store, one by one. What happens within that simplicity, however, is what makes Intruder an under-the-radar slasher classic. Spiegel and company use every inch of that grocery store to maximum, brutal effect, from the box baler to the butcher shop.
22. Popcorn (1991)
A group of film students organize a horror film marathon to raise money for their university department, and opt to use all manner of old-school movie gimmicks along the way. The stage is set for a night of fun, until a deranged killer starts using all those cinematic tricks for evil in this darkly hilarious, wonderfully creative slasher film. Though it sat in relative obscurity for years, Popcorn has gotten a new lease on life with the rise of streaming, and proves that slasher films were still vibrant and inventive in the ’90s—yes, even before Scream came along.
23. Candyman (1992)
Based on a story by Clive Barker, Candyman retains the author’s ability to build sympathetic and even alluring monsters while morphing into a story about urban legends, forgotten corners of American lore, and ancestral Black pain. Tony Todd is magnificent as the title character, and the simple realism of the legend surrounding his character is so effective that the film birthed a genuinely scary sleepover game across America.
24. Scream (1996)
In the mid-1990s, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven teamed up for a movie about a string of murders in a small California town, and in the process reinvented the slasher genre for a cynical audience who thought they could see everything coming. Funny, scary, and full of wonderful stylistic flourishes from its writer, director, and cast, Scream is a modern horror classic that changed a subgenre forever.
25. Urban Legend (1998)
The success of Scream touched off a new slasher boom in the late 1990s, and while many of those films remain entertaining, Urban Legend stands out from the pack thanks to both its killer premise and its willingness to get a little wild. The story of a killer picking people off with deaths based around popular urban legends, it retains a sense of humor about its own gimmick and never holds back on the scares.
26. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
The postmodern slasher period ignited by Scream gave rise to all sorts of new fans of the subgenre, and along the way we got witty, very smart riffs like Behind the Mask. A mockumentary about a film crew following a would-be slasher as he tries to make his killing career a reality, it proves to be an intelligent reflection on the long history of slasher villains, and makes its own title character genuinely scary along the way.
27. You’re Next (2011)
As Scream fans know all too well, slasher films don’t always have to have just one masked killer. In the case of You’re Next, there’s a whole group of them descending on a secluded family mansion, and the result is one of the most thrilling horror films of the 2010s. Throw in Sharni Vinson as one of the all-time great final girls, and you’ve got a must-see slasher.
28. Tragedy Girls (2017)
Tragedy Girls takes the “horror fan who knows how it all works” angle of Scream and pushes it to much more macabre extremes, telling the story of two best friends (Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand) who’ll do just about anything for true crime supremacy in the social media age. There’s a certain tightrope act the film has to walk to capture the emotion behind the slaughter, but Tragedy Girls pulls it off, becoming both frightening and endearing in the process.
29. Freaky (2020)
What happens when the body swap company includes a relentless slasher? Freaky happens. Christopher Landon and Michael Kennedy’s wonderfully clever slasher comedy about a teen girl (Kathryn Newton) who swaps bodies with the local boogeyman (Vince Vaughn) is as deliciously violent as it is funny and heartwarming, and manages to deliver both for slasher fans and for viewers who want a little comedy with their horror.
30. X (2021)
Writer/director Ti West’s ode to independent filmmaking and the dirty slasher vibes of the 1970s, X follows a group of young people as they head out into the Texas countryside to make a dirty movie. What they find instead is one of the most unlikely killers in the whole slasher canon, and a nightmare that unfolds with beautiful intensity thanks to West’s wonderful design choices and haunting dual performances by Mia Goth.
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