The horror genre is often overlooked as a source of some of cinema’s most legendary pictures. In reality it has probably evolved more than any genre over the years to become one of the most versatile sources of cinematic art exploring the greatest fears and spookiest fantasies of human kind. A new highly touted horror offering called “Hereditary” hits theaters this weekend and it got me thinking about films in horror that really left their mark and pushed the genre to new heights. From history making blockbusters to transformative concepts, Oscar nominated classics and trend setters I looked at the history of horror and picked a handful of movies I felt helped transform the genre and even cinema in general to shed some light on their impact on the medium. These are my picks for the Top 10 Influential Horror Movies.
For this list I looked at the very best and most iconic films in horror and picked ten I felt helped set notable new standards, started new trends, or generally redefined the genre and/or cinema in general. While these films may not have been the first to explore new ground in horror they are the most notable to do so in my opinion and some made this list simply for doing something no other horror movie had yet to accomplish or at least accomplish effectively. To specify, I did not count thrillers like “Jaws” or monster movies like “Godzilla” or “King Kong” that were considered horror in some way mostly in hindsight but fit more with other genres upon their initial release.
Also I need to be sure there’s an understanding that these are not my picks for the best horror movies ever, only the ones that left the biggest impact through their legacy or influential and original ideas. Even if other films were better than these ten these are the movies that helped horror become the great source of social commentary and entertainment it is today and paved the way for the films that followed.
This is the kind of list bound to have mixed opinions and this countdown was cut from a shortlist of 20 fascinating genre pieces so I want to hear from you what your thoughts are. What horror movies do you think are revolutionary to the genre? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “Hereditary” this weekend.
The father of the divisive torture porn subgenre of horror “Saw” became a massive hit in 2004 and introduced horror fans to the modern master of the genre, director James Wan. “Saw” popularized a trope that became a modern genre standard as it showcased victims dealing with deadly traps usually themed around the sins of the subject. It wasn’t the first movie to explore the trapped victim concept, but it was the movie that made it a staple and it combined it with brutal, well shot death scenes layered with visuals of blood and gore. The terms “torture porn” was used to describe these often unapologetic and heavily criticized visuals but fans ate it up and “Saw” became the highest grossing horror series of all time spawning imitators like “Hostel” and “The Collector” as well as some quality remakes like “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Funny Games”. The torture porn approach to filmmaking eventually faded going into the 2010s as movies like “The Human Centipede” took the trope a bit too far. That said though, “Saw” left its mark on the genre in the new millennium by introducing the masses to a new brand of violent and somewhat symbolic cringe inducing horror.
“Scream” was an interesting project that made the self-referential horror movie concept popular. Even though it’s an approach to storytelling that isn’t necessarily the most widely used today it was still a revolutionary idea for the time. Director Wes Craven himself would utilize the same approach in other films like “New Nightmare” and planted the seed for movies like “Seed of Chucky” and “Urban Legend” to continue the trend of self-aware horror projects into the late 90s and the new millennium. In an odd way “Scream” established a new sense of maturity and respect for the viewer and while few films today use this trope as the basis for an entire story there are modern classics that employed the practice, like “Cabin in the Woods” and last year’s “Get Out”, that proved this take on horror can still work. “Scream’s” meta approach to storytelling helped connect to a generation of moviegoers that were seemingly uninterested in the genre and showed that horror movies could be violent and campy, but also smartly written in a way that audiences didn’t have to be spoon fed everything. Then there’s the obvious introduction of Ghost Face who became a Halloween staple and a modern slasher icon.
This film is an exception to my rule against cross-genre pieces as it was considered more horror than science fiction upon its release. While the “predator vs. prey” concept was already a popular trope in cinema by the time the 1979 classic “Alien” hit theaters, most of them had been considered thrillers or science fiction and leaned heavily on real-life predators. “Alien” was one of the finest cases of cross-genre storytelling that introduced the world to a whole new breed of animalistic killer. While multi-genre films were nothing new, “Alien” perfected the craft becoming both a science fiction staple and a horror classic at the same time that showed filmmakers that they didn’t have to stay within a box for the sake of a target audience. It also redefined the movie monster by introducing the world to the Xenomorph which sported an incredible and inspired design and was the stuff of nightmares. This was a very different kind of horror flick that brought the genre into the modern day and expanded the possibilities to include different genres and creative otherworldly concepts never before explored so perfectly. It broke genre barriers and opened new doors for what horror could become setting the stage for other great barrier-breaking pieces that continue to help the genre grow today.
7. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”
You might think this film makes the list for helping found the slasher genre, but no that honor goes to another film later on. Instead “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is here for helping establish a totally different cliché, the “based on true events” concept. A lot of movies had been based on real events before this 1974 horror staple, but as part of its marketing “Texas Chain Saw” was billed as a true story to bring more audiences into the theaters. In truth “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was not a depiction of real events but was merely “inspired” by reality. The movie’s horror was complete fiction, however Leatherface was inspired by real life murderer Ed Gein and the politics of the time helped inspire the story. This decision to essentially over exaggerate and mislead audiences has since become one of the most overused tools in the genre to fill seats and while it’s not as popular or effective today some films, like “The Strangers”, still use the approach with great results. Other movies like “Paranormal Activity” were produced to allow for the realism to speak for itself in a similar fashion so the idea of “this really happened” still remains a powerfully convincing advertising tool to this day even if the idea has evolved. Speaking of movies people thought were real….
6. “The Blair Witch Project”
This 1999 film is legendary mostly for one major contribution to film, the popularization of the found footage subgenre. Mockumentaries and early found footage movies did exist well before “The Blair Witch Project” but this film started a trend that spawned many imitators in the 2000s and 2010s and drew audiences to lesser known similar works of the past. The behind the scenes details of the low budget movie were kept a secret for a while so when the film finally hit theaters many believed it to truly be recovered footage from 1994 released to tell the world the story of its missing subjects. This led the film to become a runaway success that inspired more low-budget copycats and led to the establishing of an entire subgenre of ultrarealistic first-person films that would go on to include the likes of “Paranormal Activity” and science fiction classics like “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle”. Audiences fully embraced the opportunity to experience this revolutionary film and became addicted to seeing projects that felt real and played with the senses while avoiding straight forward answers. Although the found footage genre has died out due to oversaturation it has evolved to include more modern technology including social media. “The Blair Witch Project” will always be remembered for showing audiences that sometimes the scariest things are what you don’t see.
“Texas Chainsaw” and the “Friday the 13th” franchise helped make slashers a real thing in horror movies but “Halloween” made it a standard. By 1978 many different films, some good and some bad, had incorporated the slasher formula into their story but “Halloween” solidified the concept to make it a beloved cliché. The story of Michael Myers sparked one of the most legendary horror franchises in history and popularized the idea of a solo assailant stalking their victim leaving the motivations and mental state of the killer in question for the audience to interpret. The formula would be repeated in 1980s “Friday the 13th” which further built on the slasher film legacy, but it was “Halloween” that truly made it a genre staple with a memorable story set during the spookiest time of the year. Slasher films eventually became their own genre and ever since “Halloween” studios have tried to produce their own legendary franchises but only a few have ever truly succeeded. That said the slasher concept still remains one of the easiest go-to ideas for any studio looking to cash in and judging by recent successes like “Happy Death Day” it doesn’t seem audiences mind. No matter what comes around in the future though Michael Myers will always be the original terrifying killer who haunted the nightmares of those who braved the theater for his first film.
4. “Night of the Living Dead”
The concept of a zombie has engrained itself in the zeitgeist over the years leading to many films and, of course, the popular and somewhat infamous “The Walking Dead”. But, it all started here with George A. Romero’s most legendary work “Night of the Living Dead”. This revolutionary horror classic originated the idea of the zombie as we know it today and combined it with memorable visuals to present the world with a whole new kind of horror laced with social commentary. Zombies became a cliché all their own in the aftermath of the film and earned their place as certified modern movie monsters. “Night of the Living Dead” spawned sequel after sequel and eventually some of the most respect remakes ever before the concept caught fire in the 2000s and 2010s leading the movie monster to become one of the most symbolic and respected in modern times. Just like “Godzilla” and “King Kong” before it, both movies that didn’t make this list because they’re not technically horror films, “Night of the Living Dead” brought something relatively original to the table and in the process created a phenomenon. It revitalized the appeal of the horror movie monster that had dried up long ago and even showed that socially relevant messages were still not only appropriate for the genre, but could add depth to a project without overshadowing the terror. It’s still a classic today and will forever be the original zombie classic.
I actually considered a few of Universal’s legendary monster movies for this list since they all pretty much founded what we know as horror today. However, the first of those movies to be truly popular was 1931’s “Dracula” which took the reins from previous Universal classics like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera”. “Dracula” proved to be a massive hit with viral marketing and a supernatural element of fear incorporated into the story, both fresh approaches for the time. “Dracula” was followed by the equally beloved and even more successful “Frankenstein” later that year, which I also heavily considered for this list, and together they spawned the Universal Monsters franchise turning Universal into the premier horror studio. “Dracula” gets the nod here though because it all truly started with the black-and-white classic’s debut that made it a phenomenon and approached horror with the unapologetic intent of leaving the audience uncomfortable and mentally scarred. No longer did horror films have to double back and settle for softer endings to comfort the audience. The genre could finally become what it was meant to be, a collection of films that explored human fear and the darkness of the unknown. If not for this film many of the movies on this very list may have never seen the light of day. Speaking of which…
2. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”
I couldn’t finish this list without acknowledging the original horror movie. Seen by many as the first true horror film and the one that sparked the genre 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was the first of its kind. It was a silent film that took humanity to a dark place in its depiction of a hypnotist that uses his patients to commit murders. Stylish, subtle and incredibly dark for its era this film showed that not only could horror hold up as a genre all its own, but it could be marketable. It proved that people weren’t afraid to see the darker side of the human soul and while it would be years before the genre delved into the worlds of monsters, gore and bloodshed this early example of horror greatness defined what the entire genre would be. The 20s were a different time. People had a different perspective of what was and wasn’t appropriate. However this piece of German cinema cemented its legacy by taking the action to a place few others had even contemplated going in their art. Horror fans owe pretty much everything to this film and no list of revolutionary horror classics would be complete without it. To call it revolutionary and innovative would be an understatement. However it misses out on the top spot here to a successor that arrived over fifty years later and one that not only took the genre to new heights, but proved once and for all that horror could be a respectable form of cinematic art.
1. “The Exorcist”
If you ask any serious horror fan about the greatest films of all time its likely most of them would include “The Exorcist” on that list and with good reason. “The Exorcist” debuted during an interesting time. Demonic possession as a story tool has just become a popular concept in the 60s while the 80s that followed the movie’s 1973 release were more focused on body horror and other revolutionary genre ideas. When “The Exorcist” arrived it was like nothing anyone had seen before. The visuals were nauseating, the religious symbolism was borderline blasphemous, and the unapologetic look at demonic possession was one of the most satisfyingly uncomfortable horror experiences ever put to film. But it’s not all this that necessarily earns it a spot here at the top of this list. The one factor that sealed that deal for me was its impact on how horror was viewed at the time. “The Exorcist” forced people to see horror as a respectable art form to the point where this movie became the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and only one of six horror films to ever be nominated in the category and one of only three that were considered true horror upon their release to earn such an honor. While yes Best Picture winner “Silence of the Lambs” was one of those six even that film may have not earned its nomination had “The Exorcist” not been received so well. Since “The Exorcist” horror has become the course of some of cinema’s greatest arthouse movies and the genre as a whole has become more respected and valued as a source of great works. In the 2000s and 2010’s along we’ve seen modern classics like “The Sixth Sense”, “Black Swan” and “Get Out” earn nominations for the top Oscar honor and this was all made possible by a film that revolutionized the public perspective on an entire genre.