From the genre’s origins with Norman Bates to lesser-known B-movies, here are EW’s picks for the most essential best slasher films.
By Steven Thrash October 27, 2022 at 05:24 PM EDT
As sure as the potato sack wasn’t the right mask for Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2 , slasher movies reached their zenith in the 1980s. However, good films like Switchblade Romance (2003), You’re Next (2011) and The Stylist (2020) keep the subgenre alive and kicking — which is more than most stereotypical slasher-flick characters can say.
Many of the best slashers bleed over into lucrative franchises, but fans won’t find any sequels on this list, even with their worthwhile contributions to horror history. Nevertheless, The Shape still lurks in the following paragraphs.
Now, enjoy EW’s list of the 20 best slasher movies of all time.
20. Tourist Trap (1979)
Molly (Jocelyn Jones) and her friends stumble upon Mr. Salusen (Chuck Connors) when their vehicle breaks down and he offers to help them, but things go from bad to worse when a mysterious masked man embarks on a killing spree.
Nearly 30 years after his first film role in Pat and Mike (1952), Connors agreed to be in Tourist Trap with the hope he’d introduce himself to a new generation of fans as a horror villain. But Connors didn’t become a scary movie maestro, and he constantly fought with Jones on set over their different approaches to the work: Connors taught himself the craft, and Jones practiced method acting. No, they didn’t get along.
Be sure and check out EW’s interview with Dawn Jeffory, and find out how shooting Tina’s death scene “almost traumatized” the actress.
You’ll also enjoy Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988).
19. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
He’s not Santa Claus, and there won’t be visions of sugar plums dancing in anyone’s heads, but Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is coming to town. 5-year-old Billy’s trauma comes from watching his parents being murdered by a man wearing Old Saint Nick’s wardrobe. And, as a young adult, Billy himself becomes a serial-killing Kris Kringle.
Silent Night, Deadly Night differs from other slashers because of its juxtaposition of iconography. Seeing a Santa imposter commit heinous acts amidst the backdrop of powdery, white snow and the glow of Christmas lights was jarring and mostly novel for the time, though 1974’s Black Christmas was of course ahead of that game. Still, the scandalous imagery is unforgettable, and it’s haunted audiences in a way most slasher films couldn’t.
You’ll also enjoy Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987).
18. Happy Death Day (2017)
Much like Bill Murray does in the comedy classic Groundhog Day, Tree (Jessica Rothe) relives the same day over and over again. And each time, she is killed by a mysterious assailant, leaving her no choice but to use the time loop to unravel the mystery of her murder before she succumbs to her repeated attacks.
Happy Death Day is a sterling representation of not only modern-day slashers, but the subgenre as a whole. Much of the film’s success is owed to its blending of horror and comedy, and Rothe herself described the picture as “it’s kind of Groundhog Day meets Scream.”
You’ll also enjoy Happy Death Day 2U (2019).
17. Pieces (1982)
Ten-year-old Timmy (Alejandro Hernández) overreacts when his mother (May Heatherly) scorns him for playing with a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman, to which he kills her with an axe and decapitates her with a hacksaw. Forty years later, Timmy lives a normal life under his assumed identity (no spoilers here!), but his murderous appetite reignites when he witnesses a roller skater crash into a mirror.
The final scene is beyond shocking, and it left unsuspecting audiences with one of the most cringeworthy movie memories, particularly for men. Pieces is a worthy entry in the annals of horror history — and it happens to be Eli Roth’s favorite slasher film.
You’ll also enjoy Beyond Evil (1980).
16. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Six-year-old Angela (Colette Lee Corcoran) and her brother Peter (Frank Sorrentino) are hit by a speedboat while spending the day on the water. 8 years after Peter’s tragic death, Angela (now Felissa Rose) lives with her aunt (Desiree Gould) and Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Ricky joins Angela at Camp Arawak, but the cousins get more than they bargain for when a killer strikes.
The film’s final scene is the perfect embodiment of the twist endings horror movies are known for, and Sleepaway Camp’s last hurrah lifts the movie from average slasher to unforgettable status. “It was clear to me that it was an intense moment,” Rose said in an interview. “And it was clear to me that this was going to be shocking.”
You’ll also enjoy Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988).
15. The Prowler (1981)
The prowler sports military fatigues and an advanced combat helmet, but he uses a pitchfork as his preferred instrument of death. After a couple is murdered in 1945, the elusive killer emerges 35 years later to wreak havoc again.
The film’s narrative structure plays out much like Friday the 13th (1980) as a horror/whodunit with the identity of the prowler remaining a secret until the end of the movie. The slasher later connected to the Friday franchise through its director, Joseph Zito. Zito would later direct one of the series’ best installment three years later, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984).
You’ll also enjoy Night School (1981).
14. The House on Sorority Row (1982)
A cruel prank goes awry when sorority girl Vicki (Eileen Davidson) shoots the house mother, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt). Rather than report the accident, Vicki and her sisters decide to hide the body and keep quiet. Later that night, at the graduation party, a killer emerges and begins to wipe out the women one by one. In Black Christmas-style, the end of the film is a classic slasher twist that leaves audiences wanting more.
The film cost approximately $450,000 to produce, and the investment paid off. The House on Sorority Row made $10.6 million domestically, and it remains one of the most memorable of the subgenre despite its formulaic approach. The movie even garnered a RiffTrax commentary from the former stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 2018.
You’ll also enjoy Sorority Row (2009).
13. Prom Night (1980)
Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) suffers when her sister, Robin, dies in an accident at the age of 10. Six years later, her family still mourns — and someone wants revenge for Robin’s death. That means some heads are going to roll at the fateful senior prom.
Curtis’ co-star and on-screen father Leslie Nielsen began his storied career as a serious actor, but the role of Dr. Rumack in Airplane! (1980) changed everything for the thespian. Nielsen thus became known for his wonderful comedic timing, and he flourished in The Naked Gun film series with notable appearances in Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006).
You’ll also enjoy Prom Night 2: Hello Mary Lou (1987).
12. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
The parents are out of town, so of course young Trish (Michele Michaels) throws a slumber party. Unbeknownst to the teens, a murderer toting a power drill crashes the bash. Who will survive? And how will Trish explain the mess to her folks?
Slumber Party Massacre is the epitome of small time slashers produced in the 1980s, and it features Brinke Stevens, who starred in a number of exploitation films, and her prolific career included over 230 credits. Brinke also appeared briefly in Three Amigos! (1986) in the silent picture But in the Village There is Trouble which Carmen (Patrice Martinez) watches.
You’ll also enjoy Slumber Party Massacre II (1987).
11. Terror Train (1980)
A fraternity prank goes too far when Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis) is coaxed into luring Kenny (Derek McKinnon) into a sexual rendezvous, but instead of Alana, Kenny finds a corpse in the bed. Kenny is clearly traumatized, and three years later, New Year’s is anything but Auld Lang Syne, and the same group of friends who tricked Kenny now find themselves targets of a vengeful killer.
The film is essentially Friday the 13th (1980) set on a train, but famed magician David Copperfield makes a cameo to set the movie apart from other slashers. Terror Train was the last of three horror films Curtis appeared in during 1980 alone, and her reputation as a Scream Queen grew in Hollywood — a title Curtis revered.
You’ll also enjoy The Fog (1980).
10. The Burning (1981)
Cropsy (Lou David) finds himself on the wrong end of a practical joke, and the camp caretaker is horribly burned. In I Know What You Did Last Summer-style, the boys flee the scene rather than helping him. Five years later, using a pair of garden shears, Cropsy takes his revenge on another summer camp.
The film marks the feature film debuts of Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona), and Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit). Meanwhile, horror icon Tom Savini (of many Romero projects), who handles the special makeup and effects, actually turned down Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) to work on The Burning because he thought it was ludicrous that “Jason was running around” after drowning in 1957.
You’ll also enjoy Friday the 13th Part III (1982).
9. April Fool’s Day (1986)
A group of friends gather for spring break at Muffy’s (Deborah Foreman) island retreat, but the fun and games of April Fools’ pranks turn deadly when the teenagers fall prey to a mysterious killer — and the film’s ultimate prank remains one of the most underrated twists in horror history.
After working with Amy Steel on Friday the 13th Part 2, Frank Mancuso Jr. recommended her for the role of Kit in April Fool’s Day five years later. On set, Mancuso noticed Steel enjoying the caterer’s fresh salmon, and he suggested she cut back on her lunches. Amy replied, “F–k you, no way,” as she should.
You’ll also enjoy Slaughter High (1986).
8. Maniac (1980)
Abused by his prostitute mother, Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) turns to a life of crime as an adult and becomes a vicious serial killer. Zito’s modus operandi is scalping women and attaching their hair to mannequins, which probably has nothing to do with his mommy issues…
Tom Savini truly works his magic in Maniac, and the special makeup effects are haunting, but the film also gets a boost from a pair of genre heavy hitters. Spinell appeared in The Godfather and Rocky films, as well as Taxi Driver, and Caroline Munro was well-known as a Scream Queen, appearing in many horror films including The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dracula A.D. 1972, and Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter (1974).
You’ll also enjoy American Psycho (2000).
7. Black Christmas (1974)
A sorority is plagued by a killer’s prank calls, and the sisters are targeted by the murderer one by one. Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her friends must unravel the mystery of the stertorous slayer — or no one will be able to celebrate Christmas this year.
Lois Lane herself, Margot Kidder, appeared in the film prior to her Superman days. Second City Television alumnus Andrea Martin also stars as one of the sorority sisters, and another famous comedian, Steve Martin, told Hussey he’d seen the movie 27 times. Director Bob Clark is the mastermind behind this slasher, and beyond helming other holiday classic A Christmas Story (1983), he’s also credited for inspiring John Carpenter’s 1978 slashic sensation (you can guess the one).
You’ll also enjoy Black Christmas (2006).
6. Scream (1996)
Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson created one of the most memorable slashers, and they did it by satirizing the very subgenre that made them both famous. Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her friends must abide by the rules of surviving a horror film to outlast the masked killer, Ghostface, in a metatextual genre ploy that essentially launched the ’90s teen screamer renaissance.
While house-sitting for a friend, Williamson watched a television program about the “Gainesville Ripper.” The crimes of the real-life serial killer, Danny Rolling, didn’t have any bearing on Scream, but the eerie feeling Williamson experienced while watching the TV special reminded him of his favorite horror movie, Halloween (1978). That feeling, the phone call he had with a friend that night, and his dire financial straits became the genesis of Scream, and horror is better for it.
You’ll also enjoy Scream 2 (1997).
5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Narrator John Larroquette (Night Court, Boston Legal) warns viewers of the fate awaiting Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her friends when their day trip turns deadly. And in the harsh heat of that fateful Texas summer, the unsuspecting teens encounter a family of murderous cannibals, including the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).
Filmmaker Tobe Hooper‘s inspiration for the film partly came when he found himself in a busy hardware department, and he imagined using one of the store’s chainsaws as a means of cutting through the Christmas crowd. Hooper was also inspired to create Leatherface based on the notorious serial killer (and skin-lamp craftsman), Ed Gein.
You’ll also enjoy The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
4. Friday the 13th (1980)
Death threatens the workers of a lowly summer camp on Crystal Lake, and it’s up to Final Girl Alice (Adrienne King) to stop the mysterious killer. Amongst the teenagers in peril are Kevin Bacon, who stars in only his fifth film project, and the son of legendary crooner Bing Crosby, Harry Crosby.
The real casting coup was choosing who played the killer, but the biggest twist comes in the final minutes of the film (no spoilers!) which has established enough lore to justify at least some of its sequels. Friday, too, took Halloween’s horror formula and improved on it by adding the blood and gore which became synonymous with the slasher genre moving forward.
You’ll also enjoy Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984).
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
After being burned alive, serial killer Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) seeks revenge. In order to even the score with the vigilantes who torch him like s’mores, Freddy stalks their children on and off the titular Elms Street. However, Freddy is unlike other cookie-cutter slasher killers, as the preternatural villain slays his victims in their dreams.
David Warner was originally cast to play the man in the dirty brown hat, but a scheduling conflict opened the door for Englund. The actor brings the character to life thanks to his wit, and also presents a physicality through Freddy’s posture that he credited to studying Klaus Kinski‘s 1979 stint as Nosferatu and James Cagney‘s gangster swagger. Oh, and Nightmare is also not-so-little known actor Johnny Depp‘s film debut.
You’ll also enjoy A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).
2. Psycho (1960)
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) sits with the clerk of the Bates Motel, Norman (Anthony Perkins). Their conversation seems pleasant enough until she suggests putting Norman’s mother in an asylum. Later in Marion’s hotel room, as she takes a shower, Mrs. Bates takes her revenge in what’s still one of the most ubiquitous scenes in the history of film.
It isn’t 40 whacks like Lizzie Borden, but director Alfred Hitchcock still kills off his leading lady in the opening reel of the must-see slasher. Psycho was Hitchcock’s first horror flick, and the picture included a William Castle-style gimmick: Theater managers were ordered not to admit anyone who arrived late, not even the “Queen of England (God bless her).”
You’ll also enjoy Psycho II (1983).
1. Halloween (1978)
After slaying his sister as a young boy, a now-adult Michael Myers escapes from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to return to his hometown of Haddonfield, there taking a disturbing interest in Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her high school friends. Myers’ doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) pursues the speechless maniac, but even he can’t stop the carnage.
Halloween reigns as the first official slasher film — and the picture was produced by Moustapha Akkad for $325,000. The investment paid off, and the movie grossed over $47 million domestically, making it the highest-grossing independent movie ever for years. Unlike the slashers to follow, Halloween relies on suspense rather than blood and gore to scare audiences, a technique that still cements it as the greatest slasher film of all time. Fun fact: Myers wears a painted William Shatner, Star Trek mask, and director John Carpenter has said in interviews that his movie owes some of its success to Captain Kirk.
You’ll also enjoy Halloween II (1981).