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In October 2004, a $1.2 million-budgeted R-rated horror film starring Danny Glover and Cary Elwes was released into theaters and immediately established a cult following, thanks to its gruesome creativity and shocking finale. Directed by James Wan (Insidious, The Conjuring) and written by Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, The Invisible Man), Saw was a smash hit that pulled in $104 million worldwide, made us all wary of puppets on tricycles, and spawned seven Rotten sequels that turned off increasingly more critics even as it delighted audiences, who in turn helped the eight films collect $450 million domestically and $982 million worldwide.
With the upcoming release of Spiral: From the Book of Saw, we wanted to know which long-running horror franchises are the best, statistically speaking. We pulled the data on horror franchises that have at least five theatrically released films (Sorry Evil Dead and Scream, you’re out) and came up with 16 competitors. We counted sequels, remakes, reboots and prequels as part of each franchise, and sadly, we had to leave a few popular ones out because they didn’t have reliable box office or Tomatometer data.
All of the 16 franchises were ranked in each of the six categories below. The winner was the franchise who had the lowest total score (think closest to the #1 spot) from the six categories. The lowest possible score would be 6 (if a film placed first in every category), and the highest would be 96 (if it placed last in every category). Here’s what we looked at:
Without further ado, let’s dive into the numbers and see which Horror Franchise is the bloody best.
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Seeing the Halloween franchise at #10 certainly doesn’t feel right, as it’s been such an important part of the horror landscape for 40-plus years. Whether it’s John Carpenter’s instantly recognizable score or the William Shatner mask (or masks; there have been several variations) that was spray painted white, the majority of the cinema-going public possesses at least a superficial knowledge of the long-running series. The franchise has given us Michael “The Shape” Myers, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and about 48 timelines thanks to retconned sequels, remakes, and reboots that brought Laurie Strode back to life, and somehow rendered the underappreciated Halloween H20: 20 Years Later non-canon.
However, only Halloween (1978) and Halloween (2018) have Fresh Tomatometer scores, while the other nine films that make up the franchise are Rotten. It also doesn’t help that Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Halloween: Resurrection, and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers all score below 15%. The saving grace for the franchise is John Carpenter’s iconic 1978 original, which has a combined Tomatometer/Audience score of 92.5%. It’s an excellent champion for the franchise, and it’s the reason why it cracked the top 10.
Make sure to check out the Rotten Tomatoes Versus episode that pits Halloween (2018) up against Halloween: H20 – 20 Years Later (1998). The correct winner is crowned the champion.
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In 1987, the John Mctiernan-directed Predator introduced the world to a Yautja (aka the Predator) hunter who stalks and murders an overmatched group of muscular heroes led by Arnold Schwarzenegger in its quest to bring home some sweet human bone trophies. The film leaned heavily into the action genre for thrills, but they also feature an alien monster who rips spines from human bodies, skins them, and hangs them upside down for all to see. Created by Stan Winston, the predator became instantly iconic, and it was far too cool to limit to just one appearance. The problem is, with sequels come diminishing returns, and the Predator movies have been hit or miss since 1987, with only 2010’s Predators, the Robert Rodriguez-produced sequel, achieving a Fresh Tomatometer score at 65%.
There is fun to be had in the series, though. Watching Danny Glover battle a one-armed monster aboard its ship in Predator 2 was a world-expanding delight, and seeing Sanaa Lathan become an honorary Yautja in Alien vs. Predator was amazing. Also, Predators features Walton Goggins, Danny Trejo, Mahershala Ali, Alice Braga, and Laurence Fishburne, which is pretty cool, if you ask us.
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Despite not having a single film with a Fresh score, the Saw franchise guaranteed itself a spot in this list with a solid audience score average of 64%, which had it ranked behind only the Hannibal and Underworld franchises. One of the neat legacies of this franchise is that it has an average domestic box office average of $75 million (8th highest average of the 16 franchises) on an average budget of $9 million. It’s a critic-proof property that tells a wildly inter-connected story that has kept the saws spinning since 2004. It’s noteworthy that the film’s main antagonist John Kramer (Tobin Bell), was killed in Saw III (sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it’s been 15 years), and the following films manage to continue his legacy while introducing new villains who all make sense, more or less, in the overarching plot. Check out the timeline; it’s a wild web of murderers, victims, and surprise villains who all belong in the world because of John Kramer’s knack for planning. It’s like he saw it all coming…
Note: This ranking was compiled before the release of Spiral, so it’s difficult to say where the franchise would end up if we took its latest chapter into consideration.
(Photo by Doane Gregory/©Warner Bros.)
What makes the Final Destination franchise unique is that Final Destination 2, Final Destination 3, and Final Destination 5 all have higher Tomatometer scores than the original Final Destination, with 5, the final Final Destination, actually earning the highest score of all. To be fair, Final Destination only has a 35% Tomatometer score, but it’s a rare occurrence in the horror world when sequels outshine the original. That said, you can’t bring up the franchise without mentioning that it has one of the most iconic horror moments of the 21st century: The opening freeway scene in Final Destination 2, which involves bouncing logs and exploding innards, is one of the most memorable horror movie moments in recent memory. You know the scene is effective because it made many travelers wary of driving anywhere near a logging truck.
The franchise also ended on a high note as Final Destination 5 managed to tie all the films together while featuring a bone-crunching gymnastics-themed death, proving that horror franchises can absolutely still find ways to be creative even in their later years.
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You wouldn’t think a franchise about a murderous, catchphrase-spouting doll would boast a nearly Fresh Tomatometer average of 54.3%. However, under the watchful eye of writer/director Don Mancini, the Child’s Play/Chucky movies have enjoyed something of a renaissance since 2013, as Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky guaranteed the franchise a spot in the top 10 with their 76% and 79% Tomatometer scores. It’s wild to think how Mancini, who admittedly doesn’t like the voodoo element of the series (that was director Tom Holland’s idea for the original), has expanded the lore, introduced new characters, and kept the story intact in ways the Halloween franchise couldn’t begin to understand. He’s been a great shepherd of the franchise that began with a tiny film about a serial killer inserting his soul into a doll after he’s been mortally wounded.
It’s also worth noting that, at 63% on the Tomatometer, 2019’s Child’s Play is a rare Fresh horror remake that joins the likes of Fright Night, Let Me In, The Crazies, Evil Dead, and Suspiria, helping to make up for the glut of Rotten ones we saw in the 2000s.
(Photo by New Line Cinema courtesy Everett Collection)
What separates the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise from its iconic counterparts like Halloween and Friday the 13th is that it produced Fresh sequels, namely A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. It probably could have lived off the goodwill of Wes Craven’s 1984 original that introduced the world to Freddy Kreuger (Robert Englund) and “final girl” Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). However, the series took chances and produced memorable sequels that introduced new storylines, likable characters (Kristen and Kincaid forever), and a meta-narrative that actually made Freddy scary again (New Nightmare) after he’d become a pop-culture spouting caricature.
Even the Rotten sequels like the Renny Harlin-directed A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (52%, which is honestly not bad for a horror sequel) featured all-time horror kills like the demise of Debbie (Brooke Theiss), the weight-lifting badass who is transformed into cockroach. Then, there’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a cult classic that recently enjoyed a second life with the release of Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, the 100% Tomatometer-rated 2019 documentary that focuses on star Mark Patton’s life after the sequel; it’s absolutely worth a watch.
(Photo by Michael Tackett/©Warner Bros. Pictures)
Not content with kickstarting the Saw and Insidious franchises, James Wan began work on The Conjuring in early 2011. The film would center around Ed and Lorraine Warren, a real-life married couple whose paranormal investigations during the 1950s and beyond became world renowned. Wan secretly might have wanted another crack at evil doll supremacy too, as his underappreciated 2007 film Dead Silence failed to hit at the box office, and he used The Conjuring to introduce Annabelle for a future spinoff.
In 2013, The Conjuring exploded onto the scene with a $41.8 million opening weekend and an impressive Certified Fresh 86% Tomatometer score. Starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens, the R-rated film was a blockbuster smash that cleared $300 million worldwide and opened up the door for a new universe of horror films featuring evil nuns, evil dolls, and an evil entity named Valam (lots of evil).
The seven Conjuring Universe films released since 2013 have grossed $1.9 billion, and only The Curse of La Llorona, which made $121 million worldwide (on a $9 million budget, so it still made money) failed to cross the $200 million milestone. It has become a legitimate juggernaut whose reputation is so strong that The Nun, Rotten at 24% with an Audience Score of 34%, was still able to make $363 million off of its association with the series.
What’s most impressive about the Conjuring universe are the Annabelle spin-offs. Annabelle: Creation and Annabelle Comes Home are both Fresh films that far surpassed 2014’s Annabelle in quality and scares. The producers could have phoned it in after seeing the $256 million worldwide haul (on a $6.5 million budget) of the first Annabelle, but instead they brought in directors David F. Sanberg (Lights Out) and Gary Dauberman (writer of It and It: Chapter Two), and they took chances (the finger snapping scene in Creation…) that were critically appreciated (68% Tomatometer average) and lucrative ($534 million combined worldwide haul).
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With Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of The Dead, Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead all being Fresh, it’s no shock that George Romero’s zombie franchise cracked the top five. Romero’s films, which started with 1968’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, are all-time horror classics that combine the thrill of undead flesh-eaters with commentaries on race relations, consumerism, and gentrification. Though other zombie movies predate Night of the Living Dead, this franchise kicked the craze into high gear, and you can see its imprint all over popular culture, from The Walking Dead to Shaun of the Dead and countless others in between.
One thing that makes this franchise unique is that two of its remakes are Fresh. The 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, directed by Tom Savini, is a Fresh delight that features a better Barbara (she is coming for the zombies this time) and showcases what happens when people realize the zombies are ridiculously slow. The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead is notable as it was Zack Snyder’s first film, and Certified Fresh at 75%, it’s still his best-reviewed movie. Both belong in the Horror Remake Hall of Fame, as they are companion pieces to their source material that branch out in their own directions and offer new twists.
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Between Scott’s direction, H.R. Giger’s monster creations, and Ellen Ripley, the all-time hero perfectly portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, Alien became one of the most influential horror films ever made. Imagine sitting in a packed theater and witnessing the reactions to John Hurt’s chest-bursting scene, or Ripley’s final battle with the acid blood spewing xenomorph (who is also impossibly goey). Now, imagine sitting in a theater in 1986, when Ripley squared-off against the Alien Queen in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, which earned Weaver a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Aside from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Alien and Aliens might be the most impressive back-to-back films in any horror franchise. They helped boost the horror genre to new heights (and not just because they took place in space), and pulled in loads of money during their theatrical runs. If it weren’t for what was to come, the franchise might have landed in the number one spot.
Unfortunately, the series did experience some lows in the 1990s and 2000s, as Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and the Alien vs. Predator films all earned Rotten Tomatometer scores. However, Scott turned things around in the 2010s with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, the Fresh prequels that explore the origins of the xenomorph and demonstrate what happens if you flee from large, tumbling objects in a straight line.
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In 1986, Manhunter, an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, introduced theatergoers to Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lecktor, a serial killer with a taste for human flesh. The Michael Mann-helmed film was a modest success that was praised for its style and performances, but it wasn’t until five years later, with the release of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, that Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) — now spelled correctly — became a household name.
The $130 million domestic haul ($284 when adjusted for inflation) of The Silence of the Lambs made it the fourth highest grossing film of 1991, and the five Oscars it won for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay made it not just the only horror film to win Best Picture, but also only the third film ever to sweep all five of the top Academy Award categories (It Happened One Night, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are the other two).
While Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, and Red Dragon (Fresh at 68%) secured the franchise a spot on this list with their excellent Tomatometer and Audience Scores, Ridley Scott’s (kudos to being featured in the #1 and #2 spots) 2001 sequel Hannibal ensured the number one finish here with its $165 million domestic haul; its 40% Tomatometer score didn’t discourage anyone who really wanted to see Anthony Hopkins eat Ray Liotta’s brains. Yes, Hannibal Rising (Rotten at 16%) kept the competition closer than Hannibal would’ve liked, but its comparatively high 55% Audience Score helped create some distance from the other franchises.
In the end, Hannibal Lecter (and Lecktor) won the day with his murderous charms (and excellent numbers), and that’s why his franchise is #1 on our list.
Disagree with our findings? Tell us about your favorite horror franchises in the comments!