What makes an effective horror movie? To whom do some horror movie directors today owe the potency of their films? Without further ado, let’s explore the ten seminal horror movies that defined the genre.
1. Frankenstein 1931
The monster in Frankenstein is one of the most indelible images in cinematic history. Despite the many adaptations, none can match up to John Wale’s 1931 version. Countless movies have referenced the brutish monster, the mad Frankenstein, and of course Igor. What is it that makes the film one of the seminal horror movies in the twentieth century? In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the beast was intelligent and hardly brutish in his speech. However, he was described as hideous, and throughout the story he encounters a number of people who abhor his vile appearance. As the novel progresses, the monster becomes more and more malevolent. The novel asks the question of whether such an evil, odious creature should be reviled for his actions or if society should bear the blame. Regardless of Shelly’s answer, the image of the monster in the 1931 film has become emblematic of the outcast.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ushered in an era of slasher films that doesn’t show any signs of ending, though audiences are beginning to become jaded toward the scares and even more unimpressed by the thematic content. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in particular fuels an urban fear of rural life. The film could be purely drawing from serial killers like Ed Gein, or Tobe Hooper could have had something else in mind. Much like how a more recent film like the Wolf of Wall Street seduces the audience with money, the Chainsaw Massacre could be condemning the very warped image of rural life it renders so effectively. Maybe that isn’t the most apt comparison though. I’m probably looking too deeply into it.
3. Halloween 1979
In truth, John Carpenter’s 1979 film, Halloween, would be extremely underwhelming for most movie goers today. But the film is one of the great seminal horror movies for a reason. The complete dehumanization of one of the central characters is something that was unseen in previous horror films. In the 2018 Halloween, Carpenter was commenting on a reversal in the roles between men and women, a generational shift in the dynamic that could be ultimately detrimental for both parties. His original intent in the 1979 seminal horror movie is unclear to me at least, but the aforementioned dehumanization and Michael’s animosity toward sexuality– female sexuality specifically– is worthy of attention.
4. Friday the 13th 1980
With Friday the 13th still fresh in our minds, I would be remiss if I didn’t add Jason to our seminal horror movies. The movie Friday the 13th may be par at best. Aside from some performances, the acting is bad, and the plot is unfocused. That being said, Friday the 13th is not just iconic for the goldmine that Jason would prove to be. The film also made the slasher’s antipathy toward sex all the more apparent. Sex is attached to neglect, and purity is critical to staying alive. The commonality between all these slashers is their hatred for human life. Sex constantly ends in death rather than birth. Essentially, these are stories about outcasts, killer’s whose hatred for human life can’t be satiated. And that’s scary.
5. Scream 1996
It is only fitting to end our slasher films with Wes Craven’s 1996 Scream, the slasher film about slasher films. Scream is enjoyably meta; it doesn’t go out of its way to seem self-aware or ruin the tense moments with obvious winks toward the audience. Personally, I don’t love this style of writing, as I still find it a bit obnoxious. But to each their own. Scream would inspire other films like Cabin in the Woods that play off of common horror movie tropes and attempt to escape their formulas.
6. The Exorcist
Distancing ourselves from slasher films though, let’s talk about one of the most disturbing and seminal horror movies, The Exorcist. The Exorcist is unrivaled in its relentless shock value. The film isn’t saturated with jump scares, but it certainly can’t be categorized as psychological horror. Director William Friedkin has to be commended for his merciless devotion to encompassing an image of pure evil. The approach may not be nuanced, but you can’t say it isn’t potent. The Exorcist gave rise to the actual depiction of demons and demonic possessions in film.
7. Rosemary’s Baby 1968
Rosemary’s Baby is one of the first films that engendered depictions of the occult in cinema. All the myriad of films utilizing satanism can be traced back to Rosemary’s Baby. Although the witchcraft and satanism are laughable today, the film was a perfect snapshot of the era. Pure evil was being recognized, and America was seeming to lose its innocence. Rosemary’s radiant innocence in the first half of the film is contrasted with her sickly appearance in the latter half. Her decision to coexist with the evil she’s given birth to is what many Americans were confronted with. A year later the film would prove to be prophetic when the Manson murders occurred, which Polanski was obviously heavily impacted by.
8. The Thing 1982
Let us digress to the best of syfy horror with John Carpenter’s 1982 version of the Thing. The Thing is so equivocal that I’m not going to even begin to attach any meaning to it. More importantly, the horror is effective. The thing is literally and metaphorically amorphous; it can transform into anything it wants to. The paranoia among the men translates into heart stopping suspense for the audience as they try to figure out what exactly the thing is. The instability and paranoia that permeates throughout this classic has been imitated in many other horror movies, rendering it one of the great seminal horror movies.
9. Alien 1979
It would be foolish of me to not add what may be the greatest horror movie of all time, Alien. Alien fuels our inherent fear of the unknown. The title of the movie itself, Alien, embodies this theme of the unknown. Similar to the slashers and the demons on this list, the alien isn’t meant to be understood as a character. It’s just an unnatural, bloodthirsty monster devoid of feeling. The meticulously crafted alien would be a model for many syfy horror movies to follow; few can truly hold a candle to the original though. Many cinephiles have commented on the similarities between the facehugger and violent sexuality. The Alien could be a metaphor for toxic masculinity or toxic femininity (harmful feminist depictions of men as intrinsically toxic). The facehugger specifically strips men of their masculinity and gives birth to a soulless monster without eyes.
10. Night of the Living Dead 1968
Lastly, it would be decidedly criminal to not end this list with what is probably the most seminal horror movie of all time, the movie that’s lead to countless pastiches and has catalyzed an entire genre, The Night of the Living Dead. George Romero probably couldn’t have anticipated just how influential this seminal horror movie would be. Today, zombie movies are the most cliched genre, though some movies have utilized the flesh eaters more creatively than others. Disregarding that minority though, the skillfully conveyed macabre of the film has been mostly superseded today by cheap gore, debasing the genre. Irrespective of the possible themes of anarchy, governmental suppression, and generational enmity, the film is visceral and cerebral at the same time, a quality that zombie films today fail to mimic.