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 the early 1970s 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 multiple 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 ten more this year to represent the heyday further.
- The Omen (1976). The Devil was alive and well in American horror cinema in the late 1960s and 1970s as stories of demonic impregnation, possession, and interaction jumped off the screens and into people’s nightmares. After the wild success of The Exorcist, audiences were eager for more Satanic threats against family values and their next danger came from within. The Omen follows the ‘ominous’ and mysterious deaths that surround the life of an adopted child, Damien, and the prophecy of the Antichrist. The idea of dangerous children wasn’t new to cinema, but it hadn’t quite been taken to the levels that The Omen took it. There are some rather disturbing scenes that continue to stick with audiences even long after the film is over—the nanny suicide for example—even if the film itself isn’t quite jump scare or traditionally terrifying in the same way The Exorcist was. A classic film in the demon/devil subgenre, it’s worth a watch this holiday season.
- Carrie (1976). Made two years after the novel was released, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first book is, in many ways, faithful to the freakiness of puberty, adolescence, and self-discovery. The film follows our titular ‘heroine’ as she’s bullied by her peers, alternatively sheltered and abused by her mother, and as she discovers telekinetic abilities after her first period. Sissy Spacek is wonderfully weird as Carrie, both endearing and creepy in her oddity, and Piper Laurie plays Margaret White, the mother from hell. You’ll notice a lot of familiar faces—like a young John Travolta—and the effects hold up fairly well. The ending, a visual masterpiece of tragic horror, is beautiful whether you know it’s coming or not. A classic piece of cinema that heralded the rise of a King.
- Alien (1979). We welcome one of horror and cinema’s best heroine/final girls to the world in the form of Ripley. Prior to Alien, a lot of the science fiction/horror genre crossovers dealt with aliens coming to Earth, the effects of radiation, or a Frankenstein-type scenario with experimentation. Now humans were in space, unfamiliar terrain, and they were being hunted by something, well, alien. Not only is this one of the best monsters in horror, but it’s a great setting that’s well utilized with the characters inside. Sigourney Weaver stands out as Ripley, but the rest of the cast deliver noteworthy performances as well. The effects, particularly in the “chestbuster” scene, are amazing and everything on the film works together in near-perfect harmony. For those unsure of science fiction or those unsure of horror, this might be the ideal film for elements of both.
- The Shining (1980). Based on the Stephen King novel, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation has been both lauded as a cinematic masterpiece and criticized for being unfaithful to the source. Either way, the film provides startling and stunning visuals of The Overlook Hotel as it guides viewers through the story of the Torrance family. Jack, Wendy, and their son, Danny, spend a winter at an empty hotel. Cabin fever quickly sets in as Jack’s writing devolves, Danny suffers from psychic visions, and Wendy worries about the state of their family. The film does an excellent job of expressing the claustrophobia the family feels, as well as the paranormal/psychological pressure that they’re under, and the actors worked incredibly hard under Kubrick to make this intense film. While it does not fall into the category of perfect-adaptation-of-a-Stephen-King-novel, it is certainly not the worst adaptation, and there are many parts of the film that may cause nightmares, shivers, and plenty of fear.
- The Evil Dead (1981). A product of Sam Raimi’s love, it’s hard to imagine a world without what The Evil Dead has given us. Even though it plays on many of the tropes of the horror genre—five friends go to a cabin in the woods—it introduces many new elements and tones that hadn’t really been seen before and does a lot with practical effects. Plus there’s a lot of gore. It plays on some of the demonic possession that had been a little overplayed in the genre by then, gives it a spicy flavor, and cranks the crazy up to eleven. Bruce Campbell plays our hero, Ash, as he tries to figure out what’s happening to his friends, fights off evil entities, and tries to survive and save the day. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this film and, while it’s not as funny as later sequels, it still provides some nice laughs to go with the blood, guts, and bad times.
- Poltergeist (1982). This film toes the line between being a horror film and being a kid-friendly flick, but I put it in the former category because I didn’t get the chance to see it until I was older. The film was initially given an R-rating, but Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper managed to talk the MPAA down to PG (No PG-13 at the time of release)—hence why I put it in this category. The film follows your average American family as they move into a new suburb, only to discover that their house may be haunted. The youngest daughter, Carol Anne, begins talking to the static on the television, and shortly after furniture begins to move, a tree comes alive, and then she disappears. Part mystery, part family drama, and part horror, Poltergeist plays with American hopes and dreams in equal turns. There are a lot of quotable, memorable moments from the film, and fantastic performances (as well as an urban legend) from the cast. Definitely worth a watch this Halloween.
- The Thing (1982). Based on a novella by John W. Campbell Jr., The Thing is more along the traditional lines of sci-fi/horror films in that it deals with what happens when an alien is discovered on earth. What makes this film notable and different is what John Carpenter and his crew do with the story. A team of researchers in the Antarctic encounter a ‘thing’ that has the ability to assimilate and imitate other life forms. Paranoia and suspicion run rampant through the camp as friends turn on each other, deadly encounters abound, and a storm blows through. Kurt Russel provides a memorable performance as R. J. MacReady, the pilot for the research team, perpetually bored until things change. The effects, particularly in the defibrillation scene, are great, and this is a sci-fi/horror that holds up pretty well and focuses more on the characters and the story than on the need for fancy spaceships.
- Hellraiser (1987). This isn’t a horror film; this is a love story. It’s a tale about how far one woman will go to bring back her lover from the dead—adultery, seduction, murder. There’s also these creatures from another dimension called Cenobites that torture and subject their victims to the extremes of sadomasochism. Most of the horror that the film depends on is of the body variety—my least favorite kind—but it’s interesting to see a man redevelop before our eyes; he grows muscles and skin and bleeds. Kirsty, our heroine, must return this dead man to the Cenobites or else she’ll have to join them—the prize for solving a twisted puzzle box. The effects of the film are really nice, the design of the Cenobites, particularly Pinhead, is awesome, and the story itself works pretty well. While I wouldn’t call it a top heyday film, I’d say it’s definitely worth a watch.
- Child’s Play (1988). One of the last great villains of the 1980s, Chucky came over for a playdate and still hasn’t left our houses. Following the plethora of cheap paperbacks to draw inspiration from, it was only a matter of time before we had a decent horror flick about a possessed toy. A serial killer transfers his soul to a “Good Guy” doll via a voodoo spell right before he dies, only to be given as a birthday gift to a boy named Andy the very next day. What follows is a special kind of slasher film, as Chucky the doll kills, frames his owner for multiple crimes, and attempts to become human again. I mean, dolls are already creepy, but the idea that one is alive and murderous makes them that much worse, am I right? Still, Brad Dourif does a good job of making Chucky almost likeable in a way that makes the franchise understandable. If you like dolls, murder, and mayhem then bring Chucky home with you.
- Candyman (1992). Another Clive Barker film, this movie follows a graduate student named Helen as she diligently hunts down sources for her dissertation (and if that isn’t horrifying enough then you’re clearly not involved in academia) on urban legends. She’s particularly interested in the local legend of Candyman, originated in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago, and its implication on the residents of the area. However, once she encounters the real Candyman, she discovers that dabbling in other people’s horrors and beliefs isn’t a game. Once again, I get the feeling that this isn’t just horror; it’s a bit romantic. There are obvious racial implications as the white savior trope is put into play in an urban setting, but we also have conversations about race and gender in the horror genre as a whole as most of the film deals with a black antagonist and two female protagonists. If you’re not a fan of some gore, swarms of bees, or dark corners, then this might not be the film for you, but there’s a lot to be enjoyed here. It’s an original urban legend that can be enjoyed again and again.
Any of these films has sequels, franchises, remakes, and fans galore. They’re hits of the heyday, and 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.