While the Pirates of the Caribbean movies all include some horror elements in their creative DNA, only one of the franchise’s outings could be considered a full-blown scary movie. The tone of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was never entirely clear even before the series started to lose critical favor with its third sequel. From the second movie (2006’s Dead Man’s Chest) onwards, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies lurched between tragedy, comedy, and horror without much in the way of warning.
For example, Dead Man’s Chest was the movie that introduced two of the most dangerous villains in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Bill Nighy’s sadistic Davy Jones and the Lovecraftian monster that he controlled, the Kraken. These supernatural threats were both far more dangerous and devious than The Curse of the Black Pearl’s Captain Barbossa (who became a full-blown hero by the third movie) but, despite this, Dead Man’s Chest itself was far sillier and less scary than the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie. This reflects the tonal inconsistency that plagued the series as a whole, one of many issues that held the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels back from critical success.
Each of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies featured horror elements, whether they were zombie pirates, sea monsters, or ghostly apparitions. However, while each of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels added more monsters to the growing rosters of ghouls and villains that the franchise boasted, this did not necessarily mean that the movies got darker and scarier with each new outing. On the contrary, the tone of the Pirates of the Caribbean series veered wildly throughout its five-movie run, making it a tricky task to work out which of the movies is the scariest of the franchise, as the first film can be considered the most horror-like of the roster in many regards.
The Curse of the Black Pearl
The skeletal zombie pirate villains of 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl make the original hit a strong contender for the title of scariest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The streamlined plot and surprisingly high body count also ensure that there are no distractions from the movie’s scary elements, although The Curse of the Black Pearl loses points for comedic moments and characters like Pintel and Ragetti. The Pirates of the Caribbean supporting stars might be the most un-scary and ineffectual villains in the entire franchise, and no amount of impressively creepy effects can make their goofy comic relief villainy any more threatening. Nonetheless, The Curse of the Black Pearl remains a rare family film where a zombie pirate slits a man’s throat, so this hit is still a strong contender.
Dead Man’s Chest
Davy Jones is technically a lot more evil and cruel than Captain Barbossa, but the movie that he appears in is a DayGlo cartoon with extended Tex Avery homages and broad daylight dominating its cinematography. One of the many major problems with Dead Man’s Chest is the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel’s failure to recapture the sense of dread that permeated the scary scenes of the original movie, and the visual shift to daytime scenes is only part of the problem. Director Gore Verbinski also prioritized bigger set-pieces, action sequences, and more elaborate chases in this sequel over dark, nighttime suspense scenes, resulting in a movie that is fun, silly, and in no way scary. Even the Kraken’s attack, which (temporarily) kills off Jack Sparrow himself, is more chaotic than chilling, and Dead Man’s Chest ultimately ends up as the least scary Pirates of the Caribbean movie by design, because the sequel has no interest in scaring viewers.
At World’s End
There is plenty of death and violence (and plot holes) in 2007’s At World’s End movie, including a wildly misjudged mass hanging sequence that opens the movie’s action. However, for viewers who make it through the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie’s shocking depiction of a small child being killed in the very first scene, this sequence soon proves to be misleading. At World’s End is more tragic than scary, despite its gloomy cinematography, and provides a sad ending to the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy without mustering much in the way of frightening scenes. It’s definitely darker than Dead Man’s Chest, but it would be a stretch to call any of the tragic romances in At World’s End scary.
On Stranger Tides
Almost as zany and cartoony as Dead Man’s Chest, 2011’s On Stranger Tides had no intention of recreating the creepy tone of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – something that is evident throughout the more light-hearted adventures of the film. Luckily, Ian MacShane’s Blackbeard is a genuinely threatening presence in this standalone sequel, meaning the low-stakes misadventures of Jack Sparrow do at least have some tension thanks to this leering, lethal antagonist. Still, one good villain doesn’t have for a scary horror movie, and On Stranger Tides remains the second least-scary Pirates of the Caribbean movie after Dead Man’s Chest.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Javier Bardem’s Captain Salazar is a well-designed and creepy villain in 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, with the actor seemingly playing into the more sinister aspects of the role. However, the long-delayed Pirates of the Caribbean 5 makes the same mistake as its immediate predecessor when it comes to tone, hampering its scary potential. Dead Men Tell No Tales is more of a goofy romp than a horror-influenced thrill ride and, while Bardem’s villain chills whenever he is onscreen, the cluttered plot and constant chaotic action mean that he never gets much of an opportunity to make an impression. Where Captain Barbossa was a threatening figure even before his rotting true form was revealed, Salazar is barely given a minute to speak in the non-stop silliness of Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Pirates of the Caribbean Never Outdid Itself
The original Pirates of the Caribbean movie – The Curse of the Black Pearl – is the scariest of the series, despite its routine injection of comedy into the proceedings. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies never recaptured the unique appeal of the 2003 hit but, credit where it is due, the franchise did avoid the trap that many blockbuster sequels fall into by not making each new movie darker and more self-serious than the last one. However, in sidestepping this problem, the Pirates of the Caribbean series fell into another quagmire as the series never decided on a tone and stuck to it, resulting in a franchise that feels deeply tonally inconsistent. Thus, while the first Pirates of the Caribbean promised a series that would chill viewers as well thrilling them and make them laugh, The Curse of the Black Pearl ended up being the only one of the movies to fulfill this goal.