The gatekeepers at HBO Max have one of the deepest catalogs of any streaming service, thanks in large part to their access to libraries from Warner Brothers, TCM, and Studio Ghibli, along with being the home for everything playing on HBO that month. Naturally, this means they’re going to have a diverse array of options in various genres too, and horror is no exception. If you’re a fan of things that go bump in the night, there are plenty of choices on HBO Max, although most of them tend to classics from previous generations, with a nice mix of current horror flicks now playing on HBO. If you’re looking for indie horror, head over to Shudder or even Netflix, but stick with HBO Max for horror classics like most of the films below.
Science fiction changed forever with the introduction of Ellen Ripley and the rest of the crew of the Nostromo. Critics write all the time about how certain movies play as well as they did when they came out, but this may be truer about Ridley Scott’s game changer than any other classic flick. It kills every single time.
Everyone loves the surreal horror of David Lynch, but it feels like not enough people have appropriately honored the crazy vision of Ken Russell, who adapted the novel of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky into this totally bonkers thriller about the impact of sensory deprivation. This 1980 flick features the film debut of William Hurt, who plays a psychopathologist who experiments with altered states of mind with terrifying results. (It also marks Drew Barrymore’s debut, for all the trivia nuts out there.)
An American Werewolf in London
John Landis is widely recognized as a comedy guy because of films like Animal House and The Blues Brothers, but he also pioneered horror with projects like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and this make-up masterpiece, a movie that holds up today because of its emphasis on incredible practical effects. David Naughton and Griffin Dunner play a pair of American backpackers who travel to England and discover that werewolves are very real. The original tagline: “From the director of Animal House…A different kind of animal.”
There’s something so timeless about the image of an actual slimy blob crawling through a small town. Horror filmmakers have been remaking the bare bones of The Blob over and over again (and the 1988 version is great too), but it’s the original 1958 genre classic that’s on HBO Max, known for its icky killer stuff but also because it’s the film debut of Steve McQueen, who plays the only guy who can stop an interstellar entity that grows bigger with each life it takes.
This thriller is one of David Cronenberg’s best, the story of a controversial psychologist (Oliver Reed) whose treatment of a mentally ill patient and her ex-husband gets, shall we say, intense. A series of brutal murders takes place against this twisted, very Cronenberg backdrop. It was only mildly received in 1979 but has become a cult classic in the four decades since.
Carnival of Soul
One of the best horror movies ever made, Herk Harvey’s 1962 film is an early cult classic, a film made for almost no money that became an influential masterpiece. Candace Hilligoss plays a woman who starts having terrifying visions after surviving a car accident. These visions lead her to an abandoned carnival. You can see this film’s DNA in hundreds of horror movies to follow, but it’s still wonderfully creepy when judged on its own terms.
The Conjuring 2
James Wan followed up his smash hit franchise-launcher with a sequel that was arguably even more confident and accomplished. Note the incredible sound design and use of space in this smash hit, a movie that made over $320 million worldwide on positive reviews. Remember horror blockbusters? Yes, we miss them too.
Long before winning awards for Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, the brilliant Guillermo del Toro made his directorial debut with this 1993 Mexican vampire film. A low-budget stunner, this film instantly announced Del Toro as a major voice in the genre (and started his working relationship with Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman).
Day of the Dead
The brilliant work of George A. Romero is too thinly represented on streaming services, so take the chance to watch this entry, the third film in his Dead series after the breakthrough Night of the Living Dead and masterful Dawn of the Dead. The third film in the series is an examination of how authoritarianism and the military machine might respond to a world-ending crisis. In other words, it’s strangely timely in 2020.
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly made Psycho because he wanted to make a movie that scared him as much as Diabolique. Don’t you owe it to yourself to see a movie that can boast that trivia? The final act of Diabolique is a beauty, anchored by a wonderful horror movie twist that no one saw coming when it was released but has been copied dozens of times since, including by the masters of the form.
Mike Flanagan, the king of Netflix horror with projects like The Haunting shows and films like Gerald’s Game, got his biggest theatrical budget for this 2019 adaptation of the Stephen King-penned sequel to The Shining. Flanagan’s task was to merge what people knew about the Stanley Kubrick classic and the diverging narrative of King’s books, resulting in a film that sometimes felt like it was paying homage more than doing its own thing. However, people already seem to be coming around on this movie, recognizing the daunting task that lay in front of Flanagan and how much he rose to the challenge.
Before he won all the Oscars for the Lord of the Rings series, Peter Jackson directed his last horror film in this 1996 action flick about a ghost hunter with special powers. Michael J. Fox stars as the man with the power to talk to ghosts, who are friendly enough at first that he can use them to help his business — until he discovers that a malevolent ghost is in the mix and killing people. Clever and visually inventive, this is a better movie than it was given credit for back in 1996.
From an era of slasher films about kids going to camp or getting haunted in their dreams, Robert Harmon’s 1986 thriller stands out today. Almost ignored at the time, it built a large enough following to produce a remake and has a loyal fan based. One of the reasons for that is the unforgettably menacing performance from Rutger Hauer as the title character, a hitchhiker who makes life hell for the guy who picks him up, played by C. Thomas Howell.
The Invisible Man
The best horror film of 2020 is already on HBO Max in the form of Leigh Whannell’s brilliant reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic. Taking the story of a man who figures out how to become invisible and turning it into a story of possessive, toxic masculinity resulted in an instant classic, a status helped greatly by another incredible performance from Elisabeth Moss.
It: Chapter 2
Sadly, only the second half of the It double feature is on HBO Max, but maybe you own the first one and can do your own mini-marathon? Or maybe you never caught up to the sequel to the massive hit adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best books? Ignore the critics, this star-studded horror blockbuster works, thanks in large part to committed performances by Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy.
The movie that ushered in the blockbuster era is often viewed more in terms of how it changed the industry than the fact that it’s, well, perfect. Seriously, you don’t need to change a single frame, line reading, or edit in Jaws, a film that works to raise tension from its very first scene.
The Leprechaun franchise
Let’s get silly the next time the mood is right for a horror movie. Sometime horror fans want to be legitimately scared; sometimes they want to laugh at silly, impossible movies in which people die in creative ways. HBO Max is here with an entire franchise for the latter mood, starting with the 1993 hit that starred a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston. Believe it or not, there are six more Leprechaun movies on the streaming service, including Leprechaun 4: In Space and Leprechaun in the Hood.
Tobe Hooper followed up his smash hit Poltergeist with one of his truly weirdest flicks based on a 1976 novel called The Space Vampires. If you think that sounds awesome, you’re not wrong. People hated this totally insane story of a space shuttle crew that finds life-sucking humanoids in the deepest reaches of space, but it’s developed a cult following over the last 35 years.
Richard Attenborough directed and William Goldman wrote the most unforgettable horror film about a killer ventriloquist’s dummy ever made. Based on Goldman’s novel, this is the story of a ventriloquist named Corky (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who finds success with a dummy named Fats, also voiced by Hopkins, but can’t tell anyone that the dummy is actually doing more of the controlling in this twisted partnership.
Night of the Living Dead
The movie that changed it all. It’s really hard to overstate the impact that George A. Romero’s classic black-and-white masterpiece had on not just the zombie genre but DIY microbudget horror filmmaking in general. So many people have been chasing that game-changing impact of Night of the Living Dead in the half-century since it came out, but it’s the original that’s passed the test of time.
Most of the movies in this guide are about killers and victims, but this survival story is a different kind of horror. Loosely based on a true story, it’s the tale of a couple who end up stranded miles from shore after a scuba diving trip goes very wrong — and then they learn they’re not alone in the water.
If sharks aren’t your thing, how about killer fish? This B-movie classic from 1978 is more memorable for the impact it had on the industry more than the actual quality of the film itself. The story of genetically altered murderous piranha isn’t exactly original (and was a blatant attempt to replicate the success of Jaws) but it launched the career of the legendary director Joe Dante.
Ready or Not
The excellent Samara Weaving stars as a newlywed who discovers that her new husband’s family are a bunch of murderous lunatics. They hunt Weaving through the night as a part of a crazy Satanic ritual that, we learn, takes place after every family wedding. The script is clever, the direction is tight, but this is Weaving’s show.
Scott Smith followed up his excellent novel A Simple Plan with a right turn into horror with The Ruins, adapted in 2008 by director Carter Smith. It’s the story of two couples who go to Mexico on vacation and break the cardinal role of never going off the beaten path. They find an old Mayan ruin, and, well, things don’t go well.
More Cronenberg! One of the best films by Canada’s demented genius is this 1981 flicks most remembered for its exploding heads, but it also contains a politically charged narrative that still feels timely. The tagline really says it all here: “There are 4 million people on earth. 237 are Scanners. They have the most terrifying powers ever created…and they are winning.”
Do you want to know what’s in the box again? If you somehow have never seen David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, this is the story of two detectives (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) who hunt a serial killer basing his crimes on the seven deadly sins. It shook the movie world when it was released, and it’s still influencing thrillers released twenty-five years later.
One of Brian De Palma’w early breakthrough films was this Hitchcock homage about two separated conjoined twin sisters, one of whom is suspected of murder. Inspired by a true story, this stunner stars Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, and Charles Durning, but De Palma is the real star here, showing off his visual flair and style in a way that would reshape the horror/thriller genre in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
To be honest, this 2011 prequel to John Carpenter’s perfect original is better than it was given credit for when it was released. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton make confident leads in the story of Norwegian and American scientists who discover an alien in the ice. Ever wondered where the dog that opens Carpenter’s film came from? Watch this and fill in the gaps.
Jordan Peele followed up his Oscar-winning debut with one of the best horror films of the last few years, a stunning story of doppelgangers and the divided history of this country. Lupita Nyong’o is simply amazing as a woman who discovers the hard way that violent doubles of everyone are coming up from underground to claim their place above it. Visually striking and thematically fascinating, this was one of the best films of 2019.
Can black-and-white horror films from nearly a century ago still have power for modern audiences watching HBO Max on their tablets? We’ll see. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 horror classic contains some of the most striking imagery of its era in the story of a student of the occult who travels to a village in search of a vampire. He regrets it. Vampyr is nearly silent but it contains visuals that you’ll never forget.