Horror movies, once you’ve seen around 1,000 of them, tend to telegraph the moment when something scary is going to jump out at you. However, the rare few make you lose bladder control in certain scenes and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. These films are the reason we take our ladies to midnight horror movies, in hopes they will snuggle up close to us, and they’re also the reason we look like fools when we end up screaming louder than anyone else in the theater.
The following list is comprised of films which may or may not be shining examples of the genre, but they do have moments you just can’t be ready for the first time you see them.
13. The Horror Show (1989)
The plot: “Meat Clever” Max Jenke (Brion James) does some pretty horrible things to earn his nickname. When he’s put to death in the electric chair, something goes horribly wrong and his spirit haunts the detective, who thought he’d ended the reign of terror (Lance Henriksen in a rare good guy role).
Where you wet yourself: It happens when Detective Lucas McCarthy (Henriksen) is in bed with his wife. It has since been done to death, but the genuinely frightening features of James’ face will burn the scene into your memory.
The rest of the story: The Horror Show becomes a supernatural mess by the end, but it has some really great moments in the first 30 to 45.
12. House of the Devil (2009)
The plot: A young college student (Jocelin Donahue) in the ‘80s takes a babysitting gig way out in the country and soon discovers that she will not be watching a child at all. Terrifying developments follow in this terrific throwback film that salutes a simpler time when the worst could happen and we were afraid of everything.
Where you wet yourself: A supporting player gets 187’d in a most unexpected way. Terrific sound editing and use of sudden violence gets the blood moving and ratchets up the intensity for the rest of the film.
The rest of the story: Solid movie that takes great care of the ‘80s source material from which it is inspired, and really makes you believe the horror genre is alive and well.
11. Friday the 13th (1980)
The plot: A psychotic killer offs campers in the woods.
Where you wet yourself: The death of Kevin Bacon’s character is still a hard one to plan for. It follows none of the standard cues. No prep time or red herrings—just one moment he’s there and the next, boom, he’s getting sliced up! Nice work from director Sean S. Cunningham and effects man Tom Savini.
The rest of the story: The original Friday is still a fun ride from beginning to end. Feelings of nostalgia aside, the kills are in-your-face and creative, and as gruesome as it was for the time, it still did a fine job of playing to the imagination as you don’t even see the killer till the end of the movie.
10. Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
The plot: Since the events of the first movie, Camp Crystal Lake’s lone survivor has disappeared and a new group of campers set up close to the original murder site. More mayhem ensues, but this time, Jason wields the machete.
Where you wet yourself: Not many horror films of the time had the audacity to kill a young handicapped person on screen. Director Steve Miner not only shows the guts to do it, but he also features, in graphic detail, the damage a machete can do to a human face. Ick!
The rest of the story: Just as good as the first!
9. The Exorcist III (1990)
The plot: A police investigator (George C. Scott) tries to catch the elusive Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), but slowly discovers the evil he is after is much more dangerous than flesh and blood.
Where you wet yourself: William Peter Blatty directs his own work this time around, and does a fantastic job with it. There are several disturbing scenes in this underrated sequel, but the best comes via the use of a long shot that he holds for around seven minutes before cutting in with the violence. It takes place in a hospital corridor, and it capitalizes on unbearable tension.
The rest of the story: Lots of good gore and imagery worthy of William Friedkin’s original make this perhaps one of the best horror films to not get its due from critics and audiences alike.
8. The Descent (2005)
The plot: A group of female outdoor enthusiasts explore a cave and discover a new race of creature intent on their destruction.
Where you wet yourself: As nasty and disturbing as the creatures waiting in the caves are, nothing gets you hopping out of that chair more than the car crash that Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) experiences in the film’s opening moments, which continue to haunt her after the initial tragedy. (Video is grainy.)
The rest of the story: Director Neil Marshall awards two camps of the horror genre with this disturbing effort that at once plays against the eerily dark surroundings of the cave allowing imagination to fill in the gaps, while also reverting to good old fashioned gore. It does both extremely well, and as such, ranks as a modern horror classic, especially when viewed with the original ending that is a lot less Hollywood and a lot more thought-provoking.
7. Suspiria (1977)
The plot: A young ballet student (Jessica Harper) suspects that her academy is a witch’s coven intent on murder and bringing Hell to earth.
Where you wet yourself: Heinous murder scenes come out of nowhere in the opening moments and continue to liven up the party throughout. The most startling comes as an ill-fated blind man and his seeing-eye dog go out for a nighttime stroll when evil strikes at a most unexpected time.
The rest of the story: Director Dario Argento’s effort is weak on story, but delivers the bloody goods in a stylish and evocative manner that makes it required viewing for horror fans everywhere.
6. Tenebre (1982)
The plot: A popular American horror author (Anthony Franciosa) comes to Rome for an international book tour and becomes the target of a killer recreating the murders of his latest novel.
Where you wet yourself: The last 20 minutes of Tenebre are among the most classic examples of the genre, marrying bloody horror with nail-biting suspense in a way seldom seen over the last 28 years since its release. The axe through the window that slices off the arm of one character, who then paints the wall with her own bloody stump, and the surprise waiting behind our detective as he stoops down to examine a piece of evidence add up to director Dario Argento’s true masterpiece.
The rest of the story: Argento’s films are always experiments in excessive sex and violence, pushing the envelope to the brink of what the genre can stand. In 1982, he was in his prime, and Tenebre is a perfect horror movie for modern sensibilities.
5. Aliens (1986)
The plot: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) accompanies space marines to do battle with a horde of acid-spitting creatures from her original encounter on board the Nostromo.
Where you wet yourself: The nod goes to Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the crew’s newest android, who also happens to be much nicer than Ian Holm was in the original. This time around, Bishop survives a rather claustrophobic rescue mission only to get ripped in half in a jaw-dropping moment near the knock-down drag-out finale. It still has the power to jolt. Hats off to director James Cameron and the special effects wizardry of the late, great Stan Winston!
The rest of the story: Cameron’s film blends sci-fi, action, and horror with deep characterization and the captivating thread of motherhood to make this not only one of the best thrillers ever made, but also one of the best movies, period.
4. Alien (1979)
The plot: The crew of the mining ship Nostromo answers a possible distress signal and finds themselves shadowed by a ghastly creature of brutality, strength and intelligence.
Where you wet yourself: Two big scenes occur to really scare the willies out of you. The first is with an unexpected character death at the midway point, around the time the alien makes its first appearance. The second is the now legendary “birth” sequence involving actor John Hurt, a slimy and phallic looking monster, and a whole lot of blood.
The rest of the story: Completely different in theme from Cameron’s follow-up, this effort by director Ridley Scott is an amazing take on the horror film in space, a place where we learned that no one can hear you scream.
3. Don’t Look Now (1973)
The plot: A grieving couple mourns the death of their child until the husband (Donald Sutherland) begins to “see” the little girl roaming through the streets and alleyways of Venice.
Where you wet yourself: Sutherland tracks down the red phantom he thinks is his daughter for one final confrontation that proves bloody, terrifying, and heartbreaking all at once. It’s a hard combination to get right, but when the specter turns around and reveals itself to him, what you see will be burned into your brain forever [Spoiler alert in the video below].
The rest of the story: Based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier, this film is more of an erotic drama with horrific overtones than a full-blooded horror movie. Nevertheless, it stands out from other more direct interpretations of the genre, and will stick with you.
2. Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
The plot: A divorced Catholic woman works to prove her older daughter’s innocence when her younger child (Brooke Shields) is brutally butchered at first communion.
Where you wet yourself: The estranged father returns home to help solve the mystery of his youngest daughter’s death. He, too, doesn’t believe Alice (dynamite performance by Paula E. Sheppard) could be capable of such evil. His investigation leads him to a one-on-one confrontation with the masked killer. In a pivotal moment of truth moment, the mystery is solved, but not without first scaring us witless.
The rest of the story: The mask, likened best to a China doll, cannot hide the evil that hides underneath. When the killer wears it, genuine fear resonates from the audience. It’s the kind of face that makes you scared to walk into a darkened room alone.
1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The plot: A young American hiking through Europe loses his best friend (Griffin Dunne) in a werewolf attack. Bitten by the beast before its own demise, David (David Naughton) receives warnings that he will soon become a werewolf himself and continue the rampage.
Where you wet yourself: The opening attack on the English moors still works after all these years, as does the nerve-wracking finale in Piccadilly Circus. John Landis’ seminal work of horror features so many bright spots for fans of the genre: David’s bizarre fantasies of hunting deer in the woods or “changing” on his hospital bed; his “hallucinations” that Jack is a “walking meat loaf” encouraging him to commit suicide; the subway murder; and the changing scene that, thanks to the Oscar-winning FX of Rick Baker, still holds the title of “Greatest Werewolf Metamorphosis Ever.” But nothing quite gets you popping like those Nazi attack dreams that occur out of nowhere. And just when you think it’s over, Landis nails you again—influential, entertaining, and pulse-pounding.
The rest of the story: Quite possibly the best horror film ever made.
The Shining (1980): Forget the dreadful mini-series; the Stanley Kubrick original is as wonderfully perverse as it gets. Follow Danny on his tricycle if you dare as he rolls down the hallway and discovers a wicked surprise in the bathtub of room 237.
Halloween (1978): Michael Myers’ shadowy appearance from the darkness behind Jamie Lee may have lost a little in the last three decades, but it’s still a cool scene that has only weakened in effect from years of playback as a Halloween favorite.
Daybreakers (2009): Kick-ass exploding head scene and creepiest looking vampires in quite some time make for one wild ride.
Pet Sematary (1989): Little Gage Creed wasn’t the scariest thing about this classic horror from the mind of Stephen King. That would have to go to Zelda. Take your eyes off the screen and she can’t get you!
The Burning (1981): A young George Costanza does battle with shear-wielding killer. The raft massacre is a modern horror gem.
Black Sabbath (1963): Creepiest old woman teaches us to stay away from dead people’s belongings.
Psycho II (1983): When Mother is in the house, make sure you don’t look through the peephole.
Scanners (1981): Mind-bending David Cronenberg sci-fi thriller still delivers the goods on exploding heads.
Creepshow (1982): Watch out, Sylvia Grantham. One abusive daddy corpse wants his Father’s Day cake, and he’ll claw through the dirt to get it.
Poltergeist (1982): Get that damn toy clown away from us.
Carrie (1976): Don’t go near the rubble, Amy Irving!
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987): Whatever that thing is, keep it in the freaking basement even if it does look like your sweet old mother.
The Ring (2002): The terror comes straight out of your VCR. Hurry up and switch to DVD!