Horror movies have long been a source of thrills and entertainment for us all, especially around this time of year. While sometimes they can be misconstrued as films that rely on cheap scares and over-the-top monsters in lieu of plot-driven stories, the genre is full of great movies that could satisfy even the staunchest movie buff. From the early days of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff to the “scream queens” and documentary-style scarefests of the last few years, the horror genre has been nothing if not persistently popular.
It would be hard to rank any one film as having the most impact on the film making side, especially considering the genre has so many sub-genres within itself. However, there are a select few that have helped to definitively shape the horror culture as a whole.
It’s fitting to open up the discussion with a film from the suspense master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Much like House on Haunted Hill did one year earlier, Psycho utilized masterful story telling to create high-stress situations for the audience. From the moment of the famous “shower scene” the audience is driven down a nervy road where no one can be sure of what is about to happen. If you were to watch the film now it would be hard to truly grasp its impact. However, the theater-goers of the 1960s had never seen that sort of violence before. According to an article by Stephen Robb of BBC News, Hitchcock’s thriller was deemed worthy of an “X” rating upon its UK release.
Besides testing the boundaries of decency in the 60s, Psycho was also one of the first to walk the line of morality as well. One of the things that the film doesn’t always receive credit for is it’s ability to make the audience accept the fate of some its characters. For example, Janet Leigh may have been a far more sympathetic character had she not stolen money from the bank, and the detective’s overall demeanor made his loss more easy to cope with as well. Psycho gave many of its characters flaws that made them seem less like victims to the audience. This ploy worked well for Hitchcock’s film and serves as a model today in just about every slasher or horror movie.
Speaking of slashers, the character of Norman Bates is one that has stayed with us for a long time. You only have to look at other killers from movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th and even the 2012 movie House at the End of the Street to see a little bit of Bates’ influence. Psycho is the godfather of all slasher movies—plain and simple.
If Psycho pushed the envelope in the 60s, the world didn’t have to wait too long for another horror classic to up the ante. The Exorcist personified everything that movie makers thought they couldn’t put on screen. While there have been plenty of films made about demonic possession, this one will always be the golden standard for how to pull it off.
The Exorcist took everything that was holy, literally, and twisted it…literally. For a film to mutilate religion through the possession of a young girl, it took a lot for the movie not to get rated “X” in the 70s. Add that to the disturbing imagery and you have quite the nightmare. You would be hard pressed to find too many people who actually made it through the entirety of the movie in theaters and even fewer people who wouldn’t tell you that The Exorcist is still the scariest movie they’ve ever seen.
As a self-admitted horror movie lover, I have to say that the modern day slasher has nothing on its predecessors. But aside from my own preferences, the earlier versions or installments of horror movies often used mood, music and setting over blood and gore to scare audiences. Perhaps that’s why John Carpenter’s Halloween is arguably one of the creepiest horror films ever made. The emotionless Michael Myers is a far more brutal and methodical killer than Norman Bates, and his never-ending drive to kill the movie’s heroine Laurie Strode (played by a young Jamie Lee Curtis—ironically the daughter of Psycho alum, Janet Leigh) is one of the most iconic story arcs of the genre.
However, what makes this movie so great is the simple fact that it more or less played on the fears of the generation and translated it perfectly to the big screen at a relatively low cost. Whether it was being the babysitter on a dark night, the kids being at home by themselves or even not knowing if you’re alone in the dark; Halloween prays on all of these ideas until everyone watching has to check the closet for the “Boogeyman” before going to bed.
The 70s were truly a scary decade. Having given us demonic possessions and relentless killers, audiences were left with one last parting gift to help them “sleep better” at night. Alien helped breath life back into an almost forgotten star of the early horror movies—the monster. With the exception of Jaws in 1975 and John Carpenter’s The Thing in the 80s, no other movie featured such a terrifying killing-machine like Alien did.
From the inescapable “face-hugging” monster to the full grown Xenomorph that stalked the members of the crew, the film really leaves its characters (and audience) without so much as a safe place to sit. While the early renditions of Dracula or the Werewolf were always considered to be the prototypical movie monsters, Alien re-imagined what a monster really was: there were no stakes, no silver bullets and more importantly no motive for the creatures of this movie. That’s something that makes it truly unique, as most of the the monsters before and, to be honest, after at least had been given inklings of a soul.
What does it say about a movie so great that it hasn’t been copied or remade in today’s reboot-obsessed cinema? Quite a bit actually. The Shining is one of those stories that simply transcends the decade that it was created in. It takes a perfectly innocent situation (albeit with a morbidly twisted back-story) and let’s its characters brood in growing paranoia until the penultimate sequence.
The Shining proved to be horrifying without actually using too many of the established cannons of horror films of that time. The imagery and mostly bizarre circumstances that Jack Nicholson’s character finds himself surrounded by are what eventually drives him crazy. As you watch the film, you will almost feel as though you’re being pulled into the dementia with him. Every scene that passes adds brings with it another element of suspense that culminates as Jack picks up the axe…
Like Alien did, A Nightmare on Elm Street broke the traditional mold of horror films of that time and took the fear to a place it had never really been before—your dreams. One of the scariest things about this film is that the victims of this movie are practically defenseless – much like they were in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. The movie also does well to keep audiences guessing as to what’s real and what’s fake, which makes for plenty of surprises along the way.
With the horror films of the 80s being mostly slasher films (though many were not very good), it was only a matter of time before the industry churned out one of the all-time greatest slashers of the horror world in Freddy Krueger. The “dream stalker” has become one of the most universally recognized killers of all time, standing next to the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Although he became infinitely more chatty in later installments, the Freddy from the first “Nightmare” will always be one of the best.
This movie broke away from some of the recycled cliches of the slasher sub-genre by consistently deceiving the audience with seamless transitions into dream sequences and butchery that often came out of nowhere. A Nightmare on Elm Street brought edge-of-the-seat horror to an unsuspecting audience.
Notice the gap in years? After Freddy debuted, many horror movies became bogged down with the type of product that the general audience began to consider as the unfortunate mainstays of the genre. Enter Scream. While the movies that preceded it truly helped put together the genre, Wes Craven’s Scream did almost as much to deconstruct horror movies. The film took a lot of what had become cliche and let its characters play off of it on screen.
In fact, the opening scene with Drew Barrymore set the tone for what was to be a revolutionary way of approaching horror. Scream reached out to the audiences of that particular generation and offered them a witty and morbidly clever take on a genre that had honestly gone stale. It succeeded and ended up with 3 more installments, each with it’s own relative success.
From its satirical nature, the movie helped in transforming those cliches back into appreciated facets of genre. It’s one of the reasons why Scream could arguably be considered one of the most important horror movies of the 90s.
One of the many things that gets lost in horror genre is how the movies (good ones) allow the audience to suspend their own morality. Think about it: when you went to see a horror movie you expected to see people die, yet rather than it be an unfortunate circumstance of the film, it’s more or less the center of the entertainment. Saw took things a step further by essentially asking the audience not to feel sorry for the characters as it was their own actions that lead to their “unfortunate” predicaments.
Even though Saw sparked the frenzy of gory, blood-filled movies of the late 2000s, the movie itself was more about the story and its characters than the latter “torture porn” knockoffs (many of which were its own sequels). The ingenious misdirection of the film’s final scene is truly one of the classic moments in horror movie history.
Unfortunately, Saw is one of the last in this genre to incorporate a carefully crafted plot within a dark and twisted onscreen world. In an industry of remakes, reboots and copycat plots, it may be hard to find another movie that changes the way that audiences and movie makers look at horror. But while the world is still waiting for the next great classic, it’s these films that have gone a long way to keep us enamored with it all.