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. The violence, gore, and revulsion reached new levels. 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 this year to represent the heyday further.
- The Wicker Man (1973). The late-60s and early 1970s were a particular heyday for religious horror, and nowhere is this more evident and obvious than in The Wicker Man. Sergeant Neil Howie, a devout Christian, arrives on Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. The mystery mounts as the locals shrug off the missing child and, to Howie’s horror, reveal they’re pagans. How is this all connected, and where is Rowan Morrison? The greatest aspect of the film is the mounting suspense and mystery as the investigation unfolds. Each time Howie thinks he has it figured out, the case changes and new information is revealed. Edward Woodward’s performance is pitch perfect and he commands respect as a man of the Lord and law, even as he is a complete fish out of water in this setting. The locals are friendly at first, but there’s enough off about them in the beginning to unsettle most viewers. Notable performances come from Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, the man in charge of the island and its bounty, and Britt Ekland as the landlord’s daughter. Lee in particular plays an excellent foil to Woodward’s Howie. The slightly odd thing about this film is that, in a way, it’s also a musical. In addition to the score by Paul Giovanni, there are multiple folk songs performed by various actors and the band Magnet. These songs augment the not-of-this-world feeling in this film as it’s not every day you see a group of naked women singing and jumping over a fire. However, the hallucinatory aspects of the film are one of its strengths and juxtaposes well against the straight forward nature of the investigation. If you’re a fan of folk horror that raises questions about religion and has some mystery as well then don’t be a fool and miss out on this excellent movie.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). A new adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel and an update on the 1956 film of the same name, this heyday movie hits all the right notes. Not only does it modernize the setting from small town Americana to San Francisco, but it also stretches out the timeline to maximize the suspense and paranoia that the characters and viewers feel. The story is, basically, the same: alien spores fall from the sky and begin to duplicate human beings. Our main protagonists, Elizabeth and Matthew, work for the Health Department; this provides not only a cool setting within the scope of the action, but also unique characteristics that were missing from the previous film. The performances are all around spectacular; Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams carry the film well with support from Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy. There are even some great cameos from actors in the 1956 film as homage to the previous invasion. The special effects work nicely to build the horror of the duplication process and a particular scene with a dog will be forever burned in my mind. The score by Denny Zeitlin helps build the paranoia, particular during the climax when the characters are basically on a never-ending cardio workout. There’s also a fantastic use of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes that I never would have imagined could fit so well in a horror film, but it works perfectly. The direction and cinematography work together to create this off-kilter feeling from the very beginning, using unique camera angles to tell us that something is wrong before the plot really gets going. Unlike its predecessor, this film changes the ending and, in my opinion, it’s for the better and provides an unforgettable scene to finish the film. If you enjoyed the 1956 version or you’re looking for an excuse to join the pod people then this is a film you must see.
- The Amityville Horror (1979). This granddaddy of horror has all the great hallmarks of the haunted house subgenre with plenty of sprinkles of Satan thrown in for fun. Based on a (supposedly) true story, the Lutz family moves into a house in Amityville, Long Island that was the site of multiple homicides the year before. Shortly after, they begin to notice odd things about the house that spell disaster for their happy lives. So, first off, there is practically every haunted house cliché you could encounter in a single film, but this is early in the game and they’re pulled off well. We’ve got insect infestations, fiery obsessions, the sense of being watched, chairs that rock on their own, etc. The effects are minimal and the events would be silly if it weren’t for the serious performances that sell them. James Brolin and Margot Kidder are believable as George and Kathy Lutz, the couple in question who have definitely gotten in over their heads with their first home as newlyweds. Although Kathy’s kids don’t get as much screen time, they serve their purpose as children in peril and Amy (Natasha Ryan) does her work as the creepy kid. The set design is memorable; most people know what those eye-like windows look like without ever having seen the film. The score by Lalo Schifrin was nominated for an Academy Award for good reason; it toes the line between haunted house and Satanism pretty well. While most films of this nature would culminate in an epic escape that takes forever, the film wraps up pretty quick and even throws in a second climax where we’re unsure whether George is going to make it out of the house with or without the family dog. That aside, we get many of our haunted house tropes, clichés, and homages from this film and it deserves its place in the Parthenon of horror.
- The Fly (1986). At its heart, this sci-fi horror film is a romance gone horribly wrong. An adaptation of George Langelaan’s short story and an update on the 1958 film of the same name, David Cronenberg’s body horror masterpiece takes the story to the next level. Seth Brundle, a scientist working on teleportation, shares his groundbreaking research with journalist Veronica in the hopes of changing the world. Inevitably, they are entangled in a romantic working relationship as they try to perfect the teleportation of living matter; however, things go awry when Seth tests the machine himself and, unknown to him, a fly enters the machine as well. Jeff Goldblum carries this film pretty damn well as an eccentric genius looking for a way to avoid motion sickness. He makes a believable romantic lead, a horrifying monster, and, yes, he’s shirtless in multiple scenes. Geena Davis plays off of his character well, embodying the everywoman in this crazy scenario and the heartbreaking climax between Veronica and Seth is pulled off mostly due to her acting and Cronenberg’s direction. The relationship between them, while a little cliché in terms of plot, is believable enough and really sells the climax in terms of suspense, terror, and emotional impact. While I understand the need for the character of Stathis, something about his supposed redemption arch didn’t really hit me right; it may be a lack of certain background information or my preference for Veronica and Seth as a couple. The ending is also a little abrupt, but seems to end in an understandable place and emotional note. The practical effects, as in most of Cronenberg’s films, are top notch and the ‘Brundlefly’ is a masterpiece of art-horror. It fully deserved to win an Academy Award for makeup as the slow descent really makes the film work rather than a single quick reveal.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991). As of 2019, this is the only definitive horror film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Shunning of our beloved genre aside, what makes this film so popular is its combination of detective thriller, psychological drama, and real world horror to make it an accessible film for horror fans and average movie-goers alike. Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee, is called in to interview a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, in the hopes of his assistance in the case of Buffalo Bill. What follows is a tense dance of information exchanges, a ticking clock, and ever sickening reveals as we learn more about Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill in turn. Not only is this a fairly decent adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, but it holds true to the characterization of these mesmerizing people and their backgrounds. The chemistry between Hannibal and Clarice as they do nothing but converse is a unique type of action that works great here. There isn’t a weak performance in the film. Anthony Hopkins cements his spot in horror history as ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’, part charming socialite and part cold-blooded psychopath. Jodie Foster endears the audience to Clarice, a woman who is both underestimated because of her economic background and gender. Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill is often overshadowed by the more charismatic Hannibal, but his performance is also brilliant. Brooke Smith also deserves a shout out for playing a smart victim. The cinematography and direction are fantastic as they turn the male gaze on its head for most of its film and then put the viewer in the killer’s gaze during the climax. A cursory watch does provide plenty of viewing pleasure, but this is a film with rich symbolic depth and deserves to be watched multiple times for new understandings each time. Grab a bottle of wine and be consumed by The Silence of the Lambs.
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.
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