Admittedly, it seems like it shouldn’t make sense. Why would we want to pay good money to
put ourselves in a dark room while images are projected before us that horrify us so much we have to look away? It might not make sense, but it’s absolutely the case. And anyone who has had the inimitable thrill of watching a truly horrifying film knows there’s nothing else like it.
Horror films can be gory, funny, ridiculous, smart, all of the above, and about a hundred other things. Few genres are so diverse while still being so identifiable. Fifteen minutes into any horror film and, more often than not, there’s no question what kind of film you are watching. There are a whole lot of horror films out there, some great and more than a few that are pretty awful. In order to help celebrate Halloween in the way it’s supposed to be celebrated, here is a short list of some essentials that helped make the genre what it is.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
This masterpiece from Roman Polanski is a must-see for one simple reason — it upends every horror stereotype you would expect. Take the premise, for example: A woman is impregnated by the devil. What in any other movie would be handled with a lot of loud evil laughing and teeth gnashing is made subtle, intriguing, and, above all, horrifying. This premise itself takes a while to unfold so that we ask ourselves, is this what’s going on? Or is she crazy? Or is everyone else? The acting is natural and believable, so that the characters almost seem relatable, like you or your own strange neighbors. And, if for no other reason, this film is essential for the strange, eerie “dream” sequences that, despite their horror, have a sort of beauty of their own.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Does any other line of dialogue better sum up Dr. Hannibal Lecter? He’s refined, a genius, and a cannibalistic monster. Silence of the Lambs is so powerful because it knows that sometimes the monsters are most terrifying when they’re not acting like monsters.
Lecter is that intellectual who, despite understanding completely what he’s doing and understanding the moral code it violates, plunges ahead anyway. His character has been so copied it’s become almost a stereotype, but return to Silence of the Lambs and you’ll see why.
Although he was portrayed before and after, this film is understandably the most iconic version. Jonathan Demme’s excellent directed classic doesn’t rely just on Lecter to keep audiences intrigued — the stories of Clarice and Buffalo Bill are equally well told. Lecter by himself would make this film important. All the elements together make it essential.
The Shining (1980)
It almost doesn’t seem fair; every time Stanley Kubrick tried a different genre, he redefined it. 2001: A Space Odyssey changed what a science fiction film could be. Full Metal Jacket spawned hundreds of imitators. And The Shining set a new standard in horror films.
Inspired by Stephen King’s classic novel, but not dependent on it, the film pushed the boundaries of what we expect in a horror movie.
From the very beginning it’s eerie. But as the film goes on, the bizarre, abstract, and strange build up but somehow don’t leave us behind. We’re drawn further in as the elements get more horrifying around us.
The effect of the film is so pronounced that it’s created a small litany of conspiracy theories around it. Filled with iconic images like the blood pouring from the elevator doors, or those twins staring at Danny, or that woman in the bathtub — the film builds toward a horrifying, almost surreal climax, and in the process changes what a horror movie can do.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Cabin in the Woods is the horror film for horror film fans. Not since Scream have there been this many levels of meta going on in a horror film. It takes a classic premise — five friends go camping in the woods — and plays with the fact that we think we know exactly what is going to happen. Systematically, the film peels back its narrative like layers of an onion.
Oh, we think, this is a horror film about a group of foolish twenty-somethings in the woods. Oh, we then think, this is a horror film about a government conspiracy. And then, finally: Oh, we realize, this is a horror film about horror films.
Somehow, through all of this, Cabin in the Woods doesn’t feel like it’s just tongue in cheek, or like it’s just for the film students and nerds out there. It keeps us roped in, having characters that are archetypes rather than stereotypes. You can watch it just for the film that it is, without thinking of all the films that it references. And then you can watch it again and again to catch all the references you missed.
Audition is the sort of horror film that sneaks up on you. A film director is looking for a new wife, and so casts the part as if it were a role for a film. As a viewer you think maybe you know where this is headed — probably not good, but you can guess. And then, all of a sudden, there’s something moving in a burlap sack near the prospective wife to be. You take notice abruptly.
After nearly 45 minutes of a normal film, Audition completely unravels into some of the most bizarre and shocking things put on film. You watch the remainder with one hand over your mouth, covering it in horror. To send shudders down the spine of someone who’s seen it, you only need to make the unforgettable sound of the wife as she performs some “acupuncture.”
How could a list of essential Halloween horror films not contain Halloween? Even if it were called anything else, it still would. Horror films don’t get much more essential than this one. From the eerie, slinky synth soundtrack, to the groundbreaking use of Steadicam in those long, wide-angle tracking shots, the film set the standard for the next thirty or so years.
If, looking back on it now, it doesn’t seem quite so horrifying, that’s only because pretty much every horror film since has been taking the tools it invented and turning them into tropes. Even Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, made only 3 years later, makes a tongue in cheek reference to Halloween’s iconic opening shot with its own version of it. Spawning dozens of sequels, remakes, and imitators, it doesn’t get much more essential than Halloween.
The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly is his most defined and most entertaining depiction of body horror. A genre all of his own, established with films like Videodrome and Scanners, The Fly cemented both its and his reputation. It’s also, without a doubt, one of the best roles of Jeff Goldblum’s career. So often cast in supporting roles or as a character part, Goldblum here gets center stage and handles it without a hitch.
After getting his DNA crossed with a fly’s, Goldblum’s character slowly starts to turn into one. What could be campy or silly instead turns bizarre and almost hypnotically horrifying, as only Cronenberg can make things. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle starts to act more and more neurotic and then, gradually, his body starts to morph as well.
Geena Davis’s performance is great, as well — the woman we desperately want Brundle to end up with even though it increasingly becomes obvious that is impossible. Look, too, for a small role from Cronenberg himself as the gynecologist.
It Follows (2014)
The most recent movie on this list, It Follows still earns its reputation as an essential horror film. This horror film from 2014 plays with the tropes of many 80s classics (just give its soundtrack a listen) but is able to go above and beyond these because it uses them as tools rather than support.
Even its premise, that you can catch a deadly curse by sleeping with someone who already has it, is a sort of in-joke among horror films and fans (and made explicit, as such, in the Scream series). There are many political or intellectual statements the film could try to make with this horror curse/STD but it, for the most part, steers clear of these (except, perhaps, for a few statements about Detroit).
What really makes the film so essential, though, is its flawless execution. Its slow ghouls and dead walkers gradually making their way toward their victims, both unhurried and unstoppable. The film is confident in its execution — but still not afraid to be weird (like that strange clam shell with Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot). It Follows is one of those rare immediate classics.
“Do you like scary movies?” Wes Craven’s classic is one that knows all the rules of horror films, as it very clearly lays out. More or less inventing the meta horror film, Scream also infused a much-needed dose of comedy into the horror genre. Scream works in part because it never takes itself or horror films too seriously. It understands them almost as games, with strict rules you have to abide by, and attempts to provide a little commentary on those rules all while remaining within them.
The mystery plot line keeps you in thrall to the story of the film, the comedy keeps you laughing, and the slasher, gory kill scenes keep the emotional level set to intense. A thrill ride that isn’t afraid to play with tone or subvert genre standards (even as it is literally defining them), you can’t think about essential horror films without thinking about Scream.
The Exorcist (1973)
If Scream is famous for its self-referential jokes, and Rosemary’s Baby for its understated subtleness, The Exorcist is famous for being unabashedly over the top. There isn’t a chance to shock, gross out, or horrify its audience that William Friedkin’s classic doesn’t take. From projectile vomit, to profanity screamed at religious figures, to children’s heads doing 360s, The Exorcist goes after it all. And, somehow, it seems to make all of this work.
While the unrestrained horror film can often feel desperate or inauthentic — as if its attempt to go after any and everything to scare its audience only succeeds in showing how ill-equipped it is to scare its audiences — The Exorcist is the exception to this rule. Rather than feeling overstuffed, it feels energetic, electrified. Perhaps that is because Friedkin is so adroitly able to direct all this energy, all of these elements, into the steadily building suspense of the narrative.
An unqualified success when it was released, The Exorcist can still hold its own (even if Friedkin has never again come close to matching it). What it lacks in subtlety or complexity it makes up for in originality and bravado. There’s nothing this horror film isn’t afraid to try.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Night of Living Dead might have been George Romero’s first zombie iteration but, for our money, Dawn of the Dead just might be his best. Much like Night of the Living Dead, Romero (intentionally or not) has carved out plenty of space for political commentary. While in Night of the Living Dead this is because he, in a film from 1968, has a young black man and white woman trapped in a house as zombies rage all around them, Dawn of the Dead takes a little more suburban route. Its characters hide out in that most commercial of places — the shopping mall.
But, while both films open up space for a political conversation, neither starts hammering home dialogue full of platitudes or heavy-handed plot points. Instead they simply happen to be just great horror films that more or less created the entire zombie genre. Blockbuster films and shows (like The Walking Dead or Fear the Walking Dead) wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for these originals. Romero kept the series coming, with Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and others, and even if none of those have yet reached the heights of these first two, two should really be enough, shouldn’t it? We think so.