The horror genre is easily the most diverse genre in all of film. Whereas action, humor, and drama are generally limited in their scope and tone, horror has the ability to cross over into any number of other stories. A truly terrifying movie can double as a sci-fi epic, or as a cerebral, psychological thriller, or even as a whodunnit murder mystery. The possibilities are nigh endless, and the genre has given us some of the greatest horror movies ever made.
That being so, it can also be daunting to try and figure out what the essential entries in the genre actually are. There’s certainly no shortage of options out there. The only question is what classic horror movies you should dive into first, and we have that answer for you right here.
1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Back in 1968, the idea of a Satan-centric horror movie was nearly unheard of. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, kicked the door wide open for that particular subset of the genre, spawning a series of imitators in the ensuing years. The story follows a mother (Mia Farrow) who slowly discovers that her husband has made a deal with a Satanic cult to give away their child once it’s born. Things culminate in a shocking twist that had audiences reeling, but we won’t spoil the ending here in the interest of letting you be truly surprised.
2. Halloween (1978)
A large portion of the slash movie tropes we recognize today were first popularized by John Carpenter, beginning with Halloween in the late-’70s. It’s the first time we ever see the story of Michael Myers take life on-screen, while single-handedly defining the craft when it comes to the whole “indestructible force killing teens” motif. The story has since been rebooted into oblivion, but there’s little denying the original Halloween‘s place in the pantheon of the genre.
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Believe it or not, there was a time in just the last 80 years when zombies weren’t a fixture in the world of horror monsters. That all changed with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film that set virtually all the ground rules for zombies we recognize as common today. Romero went on to make a series of other sequels and spinoffs, each continuing to build on the rich universe he created in 1968. Simply put, there would be no 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead without this one, singular movie.
4. Psycho (1960)
Even today, Alfred Hitchock is recognized as the one, true “Master of Suspense,” with a resume of films unrivaled in the realm of horror movies. A strong argument can be made for Psycho as his defining work. It was a quintessential telling of Robert Bloch’s original novel by the same name. Everything from the use of music to the shocking introduction of Norman Bates into pop culture, made Psycho a film that can terrify a 2016 audience as much as one in 1960. Other Hitchcock films like The Birds and Rear Window would be equally worthy of this list, but if we’re talking iconic, oft-imitated cinema, Psycho reigns supreme.
5. Nosferatu (1922)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel predates Nosferatu by a full 25 years, but in terms of standard-setting vampire stories, the latter still deserves credit where it’s due. The 1922 silent film was actually meant to be an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s book, with slight details altered to avoid crossing over into copyright infringement territory. Stoker’s heirs later sued the filmmakers anyway and won the ruling in court, leading to a ruling that all copies of the film should be destroyed. Thankfully, enough remaining prints survived the purge. The film is now public domain, making it easy to track down on YouTube if you’re interested in watching the genesis of vampires in the film medium.
6. Cat People (1942)
Val Lewton’s Cat People was revolutionary for a couple of huge reasons. First, it saved RKO Studios, who was nearing bankruptcy following the box office disaster that was caused by a little movie called Citizen Kane. In an effort to make some easy cash, the studio tasked Lewton with making a series of low-budget horror films, the first of which was 1942’s Cat People. It ended up hauling in a whopping $4 million on a $150,000 budget, starting a trend of low budget and high reward horror cinema that still persists today.
The second reason for Cat People‘s revolutionary impact involves a horror technique known popularly as the “Lewton Bus.” In one of the film’s scenes, our protagonist is being followed a woman who the audience is certain is about to attack. The soundtrack then cuts out briefly, only to have the silence shattered by a loud hiss. It turns out to just be a bus coming to a stop, birthing a fake scare tactic that modern directors still utilize today. As Wikipedia puts it, a Lewton Bus technique can be attributed to “Any scene in which tension is dissipated by a mere moment of startlement.”
7. Suspiria (1977)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a horror movie that utilizes its soundtrack better than Dario Argento’s Suspiria, a film that in 1977 pioneered the craft of music feeding into the scares. As a director, Argento blazed the trail for the use of violence and gore in horror movies, beginning with this first entry in a trilogy that would later come to be known as “The Three Mothers.” Movies like Saw and Hostel owe much of their existence to Suspiria, a film that’s been memorialized in music and cinema repeatedly in the years since its release.
8. Jaws (1975)
Jaws is Steven Spielberg at the peak of his suspense filmmaking. Throughout his career, the talented director has run the gamut in terms of the tone and genre of his movies. He’s done “whimsical sci-fi” with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and even “rollicking adventure epics” with the Indiana Jones saga, but it’s Jaws that holds up as the crown jewel of his already accomplished career. If you want to watch a horror movie that will make you never want to go to the beach again, then odds are this one is for you. It’s that kind of profound effect on its audience that defines the influence of Jaws.
9. The Shining (1980)
Even if you haven’t seen The Shining per se, there’s a good chance you’ve heard many of its most famous lines quoted by those who just can’t get enough of classic horror cinema. Stanley Kubrick’s dense, psychological thriller tells the story of one man’s slow descent into insanity, tortured by the vicious spirits haunting a hotel. In his madness, he attempts to kill both his wife and son, leading us to that famous moment where Jack Nicholson shoves his face through a shattered wooden door, screaming “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!”
10. Alien (1979)
There a lot of factors that play into what it is that makes Ridley Scott’s Alien such a great movie. First, consider the fact that a horror film set in the far reaches of space wasn’t on anyone’s radar in 1979, especially two years after the release of the first Star Wars. Second, there aren’t many other tag-lines that can beat Alien‘s, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” This all comes together to create a truly horrifying movie and one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever told.
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