Guillermo del Toro's movies are lovely, and full of atmosphere--but they're not scary. Ditto the other end of the spectrum, the good ol' fashioned gore fest. Gory movies aren't scary--they're gross. There's a big difference.
I love a good scary story, and I've spent years searching out the best ones. I've trolled lots of lists like this, but I've always been disappointed. Without further ado, here are my ten picks for the best of the genre, along with some bonus mentions. These movies don't rely on the gross-out factor in order to scare you--they're scary, not gory.
1) The Sixth Sense: Please, I beg of you, try to forget that M. Night Shyamalan made anything other than this masterpiece. The Sixth Sense strikes the perfect balance between scary mood-setting and excellent story-telling. I can't think of another movie in this genre where I care this much about the characters. If you've watched it a lot, you may not find it particularly scary anymore, but the first time you saw it, I bet you jumped out of your chair a few times. Arguably the best role Bruce Willis has ever had.
2) The Others: The classic haunted house movie with a twist. This came out shortly after The Sixth Sense, and it is brilliant. Once again, the focus is on building atmosphere and telling a great story.
3) The Changeling: You'll see a lot of movies from this time period on many top ten lists--The Omen, The Exorcist, The Entity. Well, this one is actually scary. Another haunted house story where a well-meaning man tries to help a ghost, with disastrous results.
4) Burnt Offerings: If you can get past the '70s cheese-factor, this movie is highly disturbing. A family decides to look after a rambling estate and an invalid woman for the summer.
5) Woman in Black: There are two versions of this classic angry ghost tale. One is a British mini-series
6) Pet Sematary: I love Stephen King, but this is the only movie adaptation of his books to make the list. The special effects are getting dated, but this is still a thoroughly chilling story of a man who will have his son back at any cost.
7) Cold Prey: This is the classic horror movie set-up. A group of goofy, sexed-up, irresponsible twenty-somethings spend the night at an isolated location where they have no business being. Of course a crazed killer is going to pick them off one by one. But because this is Norwegian, it kicks ass. Both of the sequels are sequels in the true meaning of the word (they continue the story) and are very good as well.
8) The Conjuring: I've been hearing about paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren since I was a little girl reading my Grannie's Enquirers. I was curious about this movie but didn't have high hopes. It is much scarier than expected, and wins for spookiest horror movie doll EVER. Sorry, Chucky.
9) The Possession: Another modern pick. This one didn't get good ratings, and I'm not sure why. It had me researching dybbuks for days. There is enough "based on a true story" background to make this movie truly creepy.
10) Based on a true story movies: A four-way tie between The Mothman Prophecies, The Haunting in Connecticut, Hostel, and Wolf Creek. Hostel and Wolf Creek slip too far into gory territory, and Hostel technically isn't based on anything real, but both these movies are disturbingly believable. The website for the Mothman movie (now defunct), which related all the genuine Mothman sightings/events around the world, was much scarier than the movie. And to truly get the creeps after watching The Haunting, be sure to watch the interviews with the real family afterwards.
Do you have anything to add to my list? Any "scary" movies you'd warn people to stay away from?