Horror movie franchises offer the deranged thrill of returning again and again to disgustingly good stories. So, which are the best of all time? Here’s critic Sarah Ward’s picks.
Death maybe everywhere in the horror genre, but few things ever truly die in this realm. It’s the genre of ghosts, zombies and vampires, and is responsible for a hefty list of franchises—because if a killer, curse or malevolent spirit can terrorise someone once, it can pop up again and again.
Some franchises start with a masterpiece, as Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (now on Shudder) reminds everyone about The Exorcist. Others span the full spectrum from great to average to terrible, which the latest US version of The Grudge (now on Prime Video) makes clear.
Horror aficionados could probably spend their entire lives watching the best and the worst spooky series committed to celluloid—but to make it easier, we’ve picked the 10 standouts.
The newest franchise on this list, Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie series takes a well-worn horror concept, ramps up the action and spreads it around three parts of South Korea. Thus far, it has done so engagingly and stylishly. It could’ve easily gone the other way—Train to Busan’s basic premise involves filling the eponymous form of transport with the ravenous undead, but avoids becoming a Snakes on a Plane-style addition to the zombie canon. Animated prequel Seoul Station and 2020 sequel Peninsula both expand the same apocalyptic, dystopian universe, and make quite the triple bill.
9. The Three Mothers
You can only ever watch Suspiria for the first time once, sadly. But Dario Argento’s 1977 film always feels fresh. The colours, the mania, the haunting score and lurid shots—as deployed to spin a story of witchy business in a German ballet school, they’re all part of a horror whirlwind. Argento will always be synonymous with the film, of course, but it’s just one title on his resume and is the first entry in his The Three Mothers trilogy. 1980’s Inferno continues the franchise with another tale about another ancient witch, while 2007’s The Mother of Tears wraps it all up. The latter is the lesser of the three, but it’s still entertaining.
8. Evil Dead
Whether he’s discovering that some audio tapes just shouldn’t be played, brandishing his boomstick or, on TV, battling the supernatural more than three decades after first finding the Naturom Demonto, Ash Williams is a standout character. Bruce Campbell clearly has fun playing him, and Sam Raimi also patently enjoys bringing his horror adventures to the screen—as the Evil Dead series has shown across three movies (Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness) and a TV spinoff (Ash vs Evil Dead).
Made in 2002, the first American Ring movie is eerie, effective and steeped in unshakeable dread. Its 2005 sequel doesn’t quite earn the same description, however, and the less said about 2017’s downright terrible Rings, the better. But even the most memorable US-made chapter in this franchise will always pale in comparison to the Japanese original—with Hideo Nakata’s 1991 Ring now spawning seven other Japanese films, the three aforementioned US remakes, and a Korean movie. All of this thanks to a very creepy tale about a cursed videotape that kills everyone who watches it seven days later.
‘Do you like scary movies?’, the Scream franchise first asked in 1996, when it initially unleashed its Ghostface killer upon high-school teens. Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson already knew the answer, of course. This slasher series is made with the utmost of love for the genre it sits within, and with an obvious eagerness to satirise horror tropes and deliver plenty of thrills simultaneously. When it’s at its best, it does both in a fierce and fun way. That said, when the fifth film arrives in 2022—starring franchise originals Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette—forgetting 2011’s Scream 4 is acceptable.
5. The Night of the Living Dead series
For the sum total of $114,000—and with hordes of hard work, obviously—George A. Romero made horror movie history. With Night of the Living Dead, he also made one of the genre’s defining entries, because no zombie movie has been able to top the filmmaker’s 1968 debut. And he kickstarted a franchise that has spanned six films across more than four decades, all filled with the shuffling undead and all making humanity face its mortality. While each successive instalment in the series post-1978’s Dawn of the Dead proves a case of diminishing returns, this will always be the quintessential zombie franchise.
If this list noted the best science fiction franchises, rather than horror, Alien would feature there as well. As Ridley Scott’s exceptional 1979 film demonstrates, this extraterrestrial-focused series impressively combines both genres—and its considerable doses of body horror and existential unease are as pivotal to the entire saga’s success as Sigourney Weaver’s inimitable presence across its first four films. Scott’s three Alien movies typify the franchise’s horror elements best. Including 2012’s Prometheus and 2017’s Alien: Covenant, his features stew in tension and terror, as films featuring chest-bursting critters really should.
It has the perfect horror title, and it started with a perfect horror movie. Indeed, when it comes to unsettling small-town slasher films—and formidable masked villains and plucky heroines too—the 1978 John Carpenter-directed feature that spawned the whole franchise has no equal. Not everything that’s followed has been great, but the best Halloween flicks easily drown out the series’ worst entries. Now 11 films in, if you count Rob Zombie’s two additions to the fold, the Halloween series also boasts an impressive capacity for reinvention, overcoming and ignoring past plot points to continue the Laurie Strode-Michael Myers saga.
It has been 66 years since Godzilla first wreaked havoc on Tokyo, and the kaiju horror series is still going strong. Forget the American movies; across both live-action and animated formats, Japanese filmmakers have been giving the towering creature the treatment it deserves. That’s apparent in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, and in 2017–2018 trio Planet of the Monsters, City on the Edge of Battle and The Planet Eater—all worthy additions to Godzilla’s 36 title filmography. Starting as a response to nuclear weapons, the franchise also features one of the savviest on-screen reflections of societal attitudes across its multi-decade run.
1. Universal Classic Monsters
For the past decade, Universal has been trying to revive its monster-fuelled franchise with mixed results. This year’s version of The Invisible Man is excellent, for example, but 2017’s take on The Mummy nearly sunk the whole idea. Thankfully, the original Universal Classic Monsters shared universe will always exist. It delivered a spate of movies across three decades that not only cemented but also established and defined many horror staples. Nothing beats Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, and while the entire franchise boasts both stellar and struggling entries, it truly is the genre’s biggest force.