Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The heyday of horror movies lasted from 1970 to the mid-90s. Most people can easily name five films that came out of this period and then many more. While there are smaller trends within this larger time period, the overall impact of the heyday on horror movies cannot be understated. This period created many of our modern tropes, introduced dozens of actors who would later rise to greater fame, and birthed multiple antagonists whose names we still recognize today. It also created the idea of the horror franchise as several films spawned up to twelve sequels. In recent years, many of the heyday films have been remade with varying success.
These are the films with busty babes who make poor decisions, trip over nothing, and die in terrible ways. They’re full of innocent virgins, dumb jocks, token minorities, and loose ladies who are there to die after satisfying the sex quotient. The villains will die, only to rise seconds later and kill again. They filled theaters with an abundance of horror movies and made the genre bigger than late night specials. Obviously, there are thousands of these films, but I’ve selected five.
- The Exorcist. This is the singular possession film that has inspired and been copied by others since it came out in 1973. A film that brought terror to a higher level and horrified audiences with its vulgarity and gross effects. Actress Chris MacNeil comes to realize that her daughter, Regan, has been possessed by a demon after medical tests and rationality have failed. She asks Father Damien Karras, a priest struggling with his beliefs, to help with an exorcism. What follows is a struggle between unholy devil and hopeful faith. While the classic ‘scary’ moments of the film don’t have the same effect they had on its first audience, there are other moments that still create cringing. It’s a horror movie that’s a must-watch for genre fans.
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Creating the horror genre as we know it, this 1974 film shocked audiences, was banned in several countries, and delivered many of the tropes of the slasher genre. Five twenty-somethings are driving through Texas when they encounter a bizarre family with dark tastes. The ultra-violence and sheer squick factor still hold up to this day, enforced by the low quality effects and realistic acting. While the image of a screaming, topless girl has become synonymous with horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre genuinely makes the viewer feel the girl’s pain instead of semi-cheer for it. The parent of the slasher genre still holds up after all this time.
- Halloween. Babysitters everywhere quake in fear at the name Michael Myers. Taking on the safety of suburbia and bringing horror to local doorsteps, this 1978 film is about an escaped killer preying on babysitters on Halloween night. It introduced the world to the wonderful Jamie Lee Curtis, and she makes for a wonderful heroine. This film solidified the have-sex-and-die trope and also scared audiences as Michael Myers stalks through the film with his own theme following wherever he goes. The beginning of the film is iconic and still plays with audience expectations even today.
- Friday the 13th. Spawning campfire legends for decades, the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake holds a special place in horror. Promiscuous camp counselors and a deadly curse make for good, slasher fun when a machete-wielding figure wearing a hockey mask starts killing everyone. While the film was not well received by critics upon initial release, it’s since become a cult classic. While there isn’t too much of a plot or character development, the musical score and antagonist make for good fun.
- Nightmare on Elm Street. The final element of the holy trinity of heyday horror makes for terrifying adventures in dreaming. After all, when you can be killed in your dreams when are you safe? It introduced audiences everywhere to Johnny Depp, horror poster child, and had a fantastic protagonist in Nancy. Freddy Krueger is a fabulous bad guy, dark and funny at the same time, and the effects that blur the lines between dream and reality work well to play with audience perception. The dark humor makes it unique compared to its brethren and the ambiguous ending leaves watchers terrified.
Each of these films has sequels, franchises, a few television shows, and fans galore. They’re the bigger hits of the heyday, but there are thousands of more to watch besides these. Still, at least one of these films is a must-watch each October in order to feel the true spirit of Halloween—unadulterated terror, relentless violence, and pure horror.