Horror films. They’re as old as the cinema itself, with the golden age dating back to the Universal monster movies of the early 30s, the renaissance being the psychological horror films of the 70s, which ushered in the era of the slasher films of the 80s, the J-horror craze of the late 90s, and most recently, the torture porn of the early 2000s. With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I’d take some time to throw out my top five horror films, in the traditional sense of the genre (in other words, I disqualified films like Alien, Jaws & Salo, since those are scary, but not necessarily horror films).
Lots of films didn’t make the cut, and I could easily do a top 20, but I wanted to focus in on the films that scared me when I first saw them, and continue to unnerve me as an adult. They’re all scary on their own merit, but for younger audiences, raised on the anything goes aesthetic that’s ruled the last decade or so, they may no longer pack the same punch in this day and age. Nevertheless, I think these five have undeniably made their way into the horror hall of fame, and easily stand the test of time in spite of the endless sequels and remakes…
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)
A true product of its time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre dragged audiences kicking and screaming into a new kind of horror film. The film was made on a shoestring budget with a cast full of unknowns, and gave the film an immediacy that continues to make it frightening in a way few other films are. Shot on grainy film stock, it feels almost like a documentary, which was a departure for the horror genre. There’s nothing classy or polished about it, giving it an unmistakable creepiness. From the opening, with flash bulbs lighting up a gruesome murder scene, you know you’re in for something you’ve never seen before. The film is violent without ever being gory, and the suggestiveness of it makes it infinitely scarier than the blood-soaked 2003 remake. And if there’s a creepier scene than the family dinner, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
4. Poltergeist (1982, dir. Tobe Hooper)
I wrestled with this one for a bit, but as a family man, I think that this one scares me more now than it did as a child. Poltergeist is pure terror, the classic haunted house movie, where people are helpless to protect themselves from the horrors happening around them. There’s so much creepy imagery in the film, from the clown attack to the walking steak, and the creepy psychic lady (Zelda Rubenstein), it’s enough to make you check under the bed for a month. The films are perhaps now more legendary for their cursed productions, and for the persistent rumors that producer Steven Spielberg was actually the director of the film, but it’s undeniably unsettling, and even if it doesn’t scare you while you’re watching it, it will live with you in your dreams for weeks.
3. The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. While it diverts severely from its source material, Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining remains the ultimate in psychologically distressing horror. It’s the longest film on the list (142 minutes), but it needs that much time to get under your skin. You fell as trapped inside The Overlook Hotel as the Torrance family is. Kubrick capitalized on so many things, from Jack Nicholson at the height of his over-the-top deliriousness, to his tormenting of actress Shelley Duvall to get a more realistic performance from her to his groundbreaking use of the steadicam, it’s as unsettling a film as has ever been made. It’s slow moving and deliberately paced, but it rewards your patience with as suspenseful a third act as has ever been put on film.
2. Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
The trailers for the upcoming film Hitchcock got me to revisit this film the other night, and it still packs a wallop. Scandalous in its time, Psycho was the first true slasher film, and also the first “high art” horror movie. It could be enjoyed by intellectual film fans as well as average joes looking for a thrill. Its groundbreaking techniques (killing off the star 30 minutes into the film) may be lost on today’s audiences, but it’s still as shocking and unpredictable as it was 50+ years ago. A huge, and often overlooked, part of why the film works so well is Anthony Perkins performance in the role of Norman Bates. He’s as unassuming and delicate a villain as has ever been put on film, and his performance is crucial to the film’s success. Good luck showering in a hotel after watching this one.
1. The Exorcist (1973, dir. William Friedkin)
Hands down the scariest film ever made, and not necessarily for the reasons you might think, The Exorcist continues to be the high water mark for horror some forty years after it was made. The tale of a young girl (Linda Blair) possessed by the devil, a mother (Ellen Burstyn) who’s losing her mind and a priest (Jason Miller) who’s losing his faith, the film is as close to pure terror as has ever been committed to celluloid. The true horror comes not from the good vs. evil battle, but from the constant medical experiments being done on the daughter, and the havoc it wreaks on her and her mother. When the final showdown between good and evil happens, it’s as tense and gripping as anything you can imagine, and the ending is as iconic and rewarding as any that’s ever been made. For pure, unadulterated horror, nothing beats turning the lights down and cranking the volume up on William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. It will change the way you view horror films forever. Still not convinced? Check out the original teaser trailer which was pulled from theaters for obvious reasons. Good luck making it through the whole thing…