The horror genre has been around since the silent film era. Since people have been wanting to watch films in theaters they have also wanted to be scared. Throughout the history of the horror movie genre there have been the standard fare meant to satisfy someone with a buck in their pocket and then there have been the gems. These are the films that came along and really changed the way people looked at horror and, in most cases, they spawned endless imitators.
One note, this article was agonizing for me to write. And, I know, that those of you who are fans of horror out there who will scream that I missed dozens of films that they considered game-changers. But, after much deliberation, here are 11 films that I think changed the horror genre:
Nosferatu - the silent film era classic created the template for not only vampire horror films, but the horror film in general. Mostly, I defy you to see Max Schreck as the vampire in this film and not be terrified. He really set the stage for all vampires forward with this film. F.W. Murnau, the director, utilized how black and white should be used by creating creepy shadows, creating mood and terror with each shot and scene. If you watch it today, you might find it quaint, but if you look at it through the lens of when the film was made, you realize that this really laid the groundwork for modern horror and it still chills.
Freaks - a movie that was actually banned in many places and, has since, become a horror classic. Actual people who performed as circus freaks were used in this film and, for many, that was more disturbing than anything else that a filmmaker could have done. The tale itself is very simple. A man who performs in the circus sideshow falls in love with a beautiful woman who is a trapeze artist. She pretends to love him back when she learns he has inherited a fortune. Some of the scenes are now iconic such as when the sideshow actors hold a banquet for the couple and decide to let the beautiful trapeze artist into their ranks by raising their glasses and chanting "One of us! One of us!" She later murders the sideshow performer and the rest of the “freaks” get their revenge. The film studio made extensive cuts to this film before its release, but it has now since been restored. Chilling and, now, a classic. And outstanding example of movies in the pre-code days.
Frankenstein - James Whale brought the iconic version of Mary Shelley’s novel to the big screen and set the tone for the horror films of the 1930s. Watching this film now, of course, it is easy to dismiss it, but for an entire generation, this was the definitive horror film of their lives. This movie was also reissued and put back into theaters again and again and it was a hit each time it was. Just watch this film and realize how much of the set design, acting and filmmaking style was used again and again for years to come. Without this, Boris Karloff would not have become a celebrity and there would not have been Dracula or The Mummy or The Wolfman. Whales came back and created the Bride of Frankenstein a few years later and some even say that one is the more subversive and greater film, but without this one, that one would not have happened.
Psycho - the grandfather of the slasher film from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Yes, everyone knows the story now, but at the time no one had seen anything like this film. Groundbreaking moves in this film include introducing the heroine of the movie and then killing her off with more than half of the movie still to go. Only two people are actually killed by Norman over the course of the film, but the ways in which they are done in are still terrifying because, in both cases, they are still shocking. The shower scene so traumatized actress Janet Leigh that she supposedly never took another shower. If this movie had never happened then the entire slasher horror genre never would have existed.
Night of the Living Dead - the mpvie that brought zombies into the world in a way that they have today. George A. Romero brought this movie to the big screen on a shoestring budget and it is still one of the most terrifying movies ever made. So many things that have since become cliche in the world of horror happen here, but are done better. You have the horror of the walking dead who want only to consume human flesh. Then you have the survivors trapped in a house, adding that claustrophobic effect. Then there are the scenes of the survivors fighting the never-ending hordes of the living dead as they relentlessly attack the house, pounding and pounding on the windows. The scenes of the zombies consuming human flesh (in reality chunks of ham covered with chocolate sauce) are still gruesome and terrifying. No one had seen anything like this before and few have since to such effectiveness.
The Exorcist - the movie that sparked an entire obsession with the devil as the villain. Yes, Rosemary’s Baby might have touched upon this subject first, but it reached new levels with the story of the little girl who is possessed by a demon. To many, this is still the scariest horror movie of all time. It seems that the world was waiting for this film because it proved that horror was not just the genre for the B-movie list, but could be a headlining, marquee genre and it became one of the highest grossing films of that year. People waited in line to be utterly terrified during a movie that pulled out all of the stops to repulse them and terrify them. This movie has become iconic in so many ways that it’s hard to imagine horror without it.
Jaws - to me this is an action/adventure movie more than a horror film, but it is still classified as horror. Again, nearly every scene and every line of this film has become iconic. And, because the mechanical shark just refused to work, Spielberg was forced to build the tension by not showing so much, leaving things to the imagination. This proves, once again, that leaving it up to the mind of the audience is more terrifying than showing it. It also became the first summer blockbuster, setting the stage for film studios to come up with key summer films from there on out. Every time you hear about the big summer movies, you can thank Jaws for making that something moviegoers and movie studios care about.
Halloween - again, showing that a small budget often leads to huge horror. John Carpenter turned the entire horror genre upside down and launched a thousand imitators with one of the most terrifying movies ever filmed. Again, much of the movie, when you look back at it, is left up to your imagination, but the concept of the unstoppable killer who goes after horny teenagers with endless brutality was imitated again and again and again throughout the 1980s. This one completely changed horror, for better or worse, since so many of the imitators were of such lower quality.
Alien - it’s hard to understand just how many imitators this film created. It was like Jaws set in space, but somehow director Ridley Scott managed to ratchet up the tension and horror. I very distinctly remember when this film came out and overhearing a conversation between my parents and my aunt and uncle talking about the famous chest-bursting scene. No one had seen anything so terrifying and gory in films up until that time. Scott turned the outside-the-body monster into something that could burst right out of your own chest, adding a whole new element of tension, suspense and terror.
The Thing - John Carpenter again, and this time remaking a classic from the 50s. However, he made a film that many have been influenced by since. He turned the claustrophobic setting to his advantage and then added special effects that spawned a whole series of movies. The gore factor was much larger than any film that had come before. Without this, David Cronenberg’s The Fly might not have come about. The movie bombed at the time thanks to family-friendly aliens such as E.T., but subsequent years and constant showing on cable television have turned this into a classic. It has also influenced dozens of horror directors and filmmakers since.
The Blair Witch Project - a movie that is reviled by so many horror fans that it is sure to get a derisive snort when it is seen on this list. However, there is no denying that the “found film” genre really got its start with this film. Yes, Cannibal Holocaust may have tried something similar, but this movie made it successful. It was also the first film to successfully launch and online viral marketing campaign that left many people wondering if the movie was real or just fiction. That kind of buzz is still sought after by modern horror films and was duplicated by Paranormal Activity years later. If you separate the hype from this film and just watch it for what it is, an effective little horror movie, it works. Again, what is not shown is scarier than what is, and this film proves it once and for all.
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