It is now time to break out the big guns of horror, just in time for Halloween. In my previous article, I detailed the best the horror genre has to offer in the modern era, that being 2000-present. Now, we go back to the beginning, everything before the year 2000 to mine the best of the best in the genre, the ones that changed the game and caused sleepless nights for people by the thousands. As with the previous article, there will be many left out, and so I will have an exhaustive list in the honorable mentions section. For most of these films, it helps to put yourself into the perspective of someone watching these films when they came out. In the modern era, we are incredibly desensitized, and it takes the most horrendous depictions to shock our senses. Audiences in this previous era were far more susceptible to shock and awe, and many of these movies literally left psychological damage to people in their wake. Without further introduction, let’s take a look at the heavyweight champions of horror.
6. Halloween (1978)
The film that set the template for quite literally hundreds of “slasher” flicks and left audiences looking over their shoulders for years, this John Carpenter masterpiece still holds up in the modern era brilliantly, with one of the most memorable killers, music scores, and suspenseful moments of any horror film in existence. Michael Myers is one of the most iconic killers in all of cinema, and despite many awful sequels (including Rob Zombie versions) Michael retains his quiet and expressionless brutality behind the Captain Kirk mask after all of these years. I cannot wait to see the 2018 Halloween sequel, and will likely review it as well. Interestingly, the Halloween franchise its home to one of my personally most underrated movies of all time: Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which is absolutely worth watching, despite the lack of Michael Myers.
5. The Thing (1982)
Very few can claim the credentials of John Carpenter, a true horror legend, as evidenced by him having the first two entries on this list, and a horror resume that would make anyone proud. In addition to these masterpieces, he was also responsible for another Lovecraftian masterwork, In the Mouth of Madness, which I loved as well. The disgusting practical effects and claustrophobic mystery element place The Thing in the top echelon of horror and manages to do it in another way unique to this and the next title on the list.
4. Alien (1979)
What is unique about both Alien and The Thing, is that they manage to be two of the greatest movies of all time in two genres simultaneously. An incredibly difficult feat to achieve, both manage to be two of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, while at the same time achieving the same in horror. Claustrophobia and tension rear their heads once again, along with one of the most iconic creature designs in all of cinema, the Xenomorph, courtesy of H.R. Giger. Even after all of these years, and innumerable attempts, the original Alien and the Thing stand together at the pinnacle of Sci-Fi horror.
3. The Shining (1980)
I admit it: I have never been a fan of Stephen King. As heretical as that sounds for a horror connoisseur, his books just never resonated with me, and frankly, nor have most of the movies based on his books. There is one exception: the time genius filmmaker Stanley Kubrick got ahold of one. King’s writing combined with Kubrick’s masterful filmmaking created a magical combination for one of the greatest films of all time. Kubrick took the subject matter and used flawless cinematography, casting, sound editing, and framing to create an exemplar of top-tier filmmaking. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have known people, in real life, that had psychological problems after watching this film. I could go on for hours about the genius of this film and all the techniques used, but I will leave it at this, and just say that it is incredibly hard for me not rate this number one, as I consider the top three virtually interchangeable due to subjective style preference, given how they are so radically different.
2. The Exorcist (1973)
Every single movie that has any demonic element owes its existence to this movie. For every Hereditary or Conjuring, as genius as they are in their own right, the Exorcist did it first and still holds up incredibly well. Try to imagine seeing this film in 1973. The country was far more religious back then, and there was no internet to spoil things or prepare people for the sensory assault this movie was about to bring. I saw this film for the first time later in life, and even then was shocked at how over the top some of the scenes were. There are segments in this film that are still disturbing to this day, and though exorcisms and demonic possession have been done hundreds of times, Regan’s possession still stands alone at the pinnacle of the genre.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
How many movies can claim to have invented two sub-genres on their own? Every slasher flick that brutalizes teenagers, and every backwoods psycho redneck story you’ve ever heard originate here, with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Setups that have been used a thousand times or more since have yet to equal Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece. He starts with one of the best ideas in cinema that has been used incessantly since: the fake true story. He lies right up front to the audience and tells you that this story is real, which it isn’t. It takes a few small elements from Ed Gein, the serial killer, but this movie is in no way authentic, however, the technique of telling you that it is, anchors in your mind the plausibility that it might be, which ratchets everything up a notch in intensity.
Then there’s Leatherface and his family.
One of the most effective and iconic villains of all time, he does not linger in the shadows like Michael or Jason, instead runs at a full sprint after his quarry while wielding a roaring chainsaw and wearing a dead skin mask on his face. Interestingly, Leatherface isn’t actually evil, he is mentally challenged, and these teens just happened to set foot in his home uninvited. Every story you’ve heard about getting lost in the woods and hacked up by some deranged rednecks originates here (and with Deliverance). The second half of this movie is relentless in its intensity, as Leatherface and family set about inviting the teens to dinner. Tobe Hooper, on a shoestring budget, creates a setting and characters that still feel authentic and suitably brutal. This movie has been remade multiple times, and even though the 2003 and 2006 remakes are excellent on their own, the original still carves it’s way to the top of the horror mountain and has inspired countless derivatives.
There you have it; between this article and the last, you should have more than enough ammunition to give yourself and everyone you know nightmares for the foreseeable future.
Happy Halloween, and as promised, here is a comprehensive Honorable mentions list stacked with quality.
Psycho: I feel a bit dirty leaving this off the list, undeniable greatness and influence.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula: I love gothic horror, and this is as good as it gets.
Blair Witch Project: Invented an entire subgenre on its own, found footage.
Black Christmas: Arguably the most underrated slasher of all time.
Deep Red and Tenebrae
Friday the 13th Part 2 and 4
Hellraiser 1 & 2
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Omen (Original)
Night & Dawn of the Living Dead
The Universal Monsters
Dead and Buried
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