With one single film, director George A. Romero revolutionized the horror genre with the introduction of the modern zombie. A cheap independent made for little over one hundred thousand dollars, Night of the Living Dead followed seven people trapped in a rural farmhouse in Pennsylvania trying to fend off wave after wave of the living dead. The film was legendary for its use of onscreen gore and tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The film has since been praised by analysts for dealing with such important issues as racism, sexism, and group-think. In addition to introducing the modern zombie, Romero gave us the idea of the zombie as a metaphor for human society, a theme which would permeate the rest of his work.
The most recent film on this list, Saw carried on the proud tradition of horror films. It added a new level of psychology heretofore unheard of in the genre. The victims are placed into elaborate “traps” by a criminal mastermind named Jigsaw who has terminal cancer. Realizing how much he has squandered his life, he plans on making those who have wasted their lives fight for them by having them solve their traps…However to do so usually requires mutilating themselves or killing somebody else to save their own lives. Made on a shoestring budget, it would become an international phenomenon, spawning a massive franchise and legions of fans and followers.
F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is considered by many to be one of the first vampire films and one of the first genuine horror films. The plot is basically a reworking of the Dracula story. The studio was unable to obtain the rights to the novel, so they adapted it with different character names. Dracula becomes Count Orlok, ruler over a massive castle in Transylvania who hires Thomas Hutter to aid him in purchasing property in the German city of Wisborg. When he arrives, he starts a reign of terror, feeding off the locals. A piece of German Expressionism, which featured and emphasized overdramatic performances and deliberately skewed sets, it helped establish the feel and atmosphere for countless horror films to come.
With the infamous tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream,” Alien shocked and thrilled audiences when it was first released in 1979. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film created a universe out of the spaceship Nostromo where a crew of unaware astronauts find themselves being stalked by a terrible creature. One by one, the alien picks off members of the crew, first impregnating them with a baby that bursts out of their chests that goes on to grow into a murder machine. The ship provides plenty of claustrophobic crawl-spaces for the creatures to hide, making it a perfect deathtrap. In this film, we are also introduced to Warrant Officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who would also be the protagonist in the film’s sequels.
Friday the 13th took the basic formula laid down by Halloween and expanded on it, throwing the slasher genre to a whole new level and introducing one of the most iconic and memorable villains in film history. The film follows a group of teenagers working at a newly reopened camp site named Crystal Lake. Soon, the various teenagers start dying in gory, horrific ways. The killings are blamed on a resurrected young boy named Jason who drowned one summer in the nearby lake. But soon, the campers realize that something even worse is afoot. Filmed on an incredibly meager budget, the film would go on to be one of the most profitable slasher films in history.
John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece is largely responsible for the birth of the slasher genre. It was one of the first films to feature an unstoppable iconic killer that could not be stopped. It established many of the tropes and themes that would dominate slasher films for years to come, including excessive gore, elaborate death scenes, a damsel in distress, and a massive body count. The film follows teenager Laurie Strode who finds herself being stalked by Michael Myers, an escaped mental patient who fifteen years prior to the film murdered his older sister. Now on the loose, Myers kills everyone in his path to Laurie who must fight him off herself in the film’s devastating climax.
While earlier slasher films hinted at the possibility of the supernatural, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street dived right into the realm of the strange and paranormal. The cast is predictably made up of young, promiscuous teenagers. But this time, the killer is a little different. His name is Freddy Krueger and he has the power to kill people in their dreams. Killed years ago after being discovered as a child murderer by the members of his community, he has sworn revenge on their offspring, murdering them as soon as they fall asleep. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to blend what is real and what isn’t real and keep the audience guessing as to the nature of reality.
In an era dominated by slasher films that were only concerned with a high body count, Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining returned the genre to its roots by focusing on creepy storytelling, scary sets, and an emphasis on psychological drama. We meet the Torrence family who has been hired to be the caretakers of an isolated inn in the mountains. After they are completely isolated by a huge storm, the father, Jack Torrence, slowly loses his mind and starts to hunt his own family. Meanwhile, his son possesses a psychic ability, a “shining,” that lets him see ghosts and spirits. It all leads to one of the biggest twist endings in the history of the genre. There may not be much blood and gore, but The Shining definitely delivers on big scares.
While remembered primarily for its iconic shower scene, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho should also be remembered for its daring innovation of the horror genre. It follows Marion Crane, a secretary who embezzles money from her employer and goes on the run. She stops at a hotel owned by Norman Bates, a man with an unusual fixation on his mother. But there’s something else wrong with Norman…a deeply embedded problem that can only be sated with complete control and bloodshed. Without giving too much more of the plot away, suffice it to say that Psycho was revolutionary for its time with its graphic death scenes and amazing plot twists. It has been called the first psychoanalytical thriller.
The Exorcist holds an important distinction among other horror films: it is one of the few that was not only critically and publically acclaimed, it also was nominated for and won mainstream awards. After viewing the film, it is not hard to understand why. Based off a terrifying true story of the exorcism of Robbie Mannheim, the film follows the demonic possession of a little girl named Regan. To save her, two Catholic priests come to her aid to perform an exorcism. One of the film’s strongest attributes is how it leaves room for doubt about the authenticity of both the possession and the exorcism, leaving the audience to decide whether or not it was real or staged. It also featured some of the most terrifying special effects of the era, making it unforgettable for all who see it.