Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.
They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went 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 era and then many more. While there are smaller trends within this time, 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 ten this year to represent the heyday further.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). Part of the ‘holy trinity’ of early folk horror, this film perfectly encapsulates so many of the themes and ideas that continue to make that particular subgenre resonate with fans. In this instance, Ralph Gower discovers a fiend in the furrows and, slowly, the nearby village becomes possessed in a battle for the souls of its children. The film immediately discombobulates its viewers as the action and madness starts early; you’re never given much time to settle before something new and terrifying is unraveling. I admire how there really isn’t a central character. We jump from sympathetic person to sympathetic person, watch as they fall victim to the newly-formed cult, and feel a sense of growing apprehension. We may see the cult (lead wonderfully by Linda Hayden as Angel Blake) or The Judge (Patrick Wymark) more, but the age-old good vs evil battle still feels unclear in whom we’re supposed to side with. Some of the more terrifying sequences—including a rape scene that obviously inspired Ari Aster—aren’t overly gory or full of the jump scares we’re used to today, but it’s the looming threat of something bigger than all this, something unknown that gives the film an existential weight. As far as time period accuracy goes, it doesn’t have the same oomph as The Witch but, for its time, feels like a blend of Shakespearean performance and a moment of history. The design of ‘the fiend’ as well, not quite fully shown, is a creature of nightmare. Overall, this is a classic that deserves its moment in the spotlight and appreciation; it shouldn’t be buried in the ancient fields of horror.
Black Christmas (1974). An early film of the slasher genre that would later go on to inspire many of the tricks and tropes of bigger films such as Halloween, this cult hit still delivers quite a few scares decades later. A sorority house is terrorized by mysterious and obscene phone calls before those same girls are picked off one-by-one by an unknown killer. The basic plot is relatively simple and timeless, but it’s wrapped up in a classic atmosphere, beloved urban legends, and some excellent suspense that builds it all toward a haunting climax. The phone calls—escalating in creepiness—first seem like relatively harmless pranks played by some lonely pervert; however, as the phone continues to ring it eventually becomes a harbinger of violence in its own right. Olivia Hussey delivers a wonderful performance as Jess, our leading sorority girl, but the other girls (each a vague kind of “type”) stand out in their own ways. Although the film is Canadian and its setting feels like it could be any college town, its timely pro-choice subplot and handling of difficult conversations in the wake of Roe v Wade continues to be relevant. And as far as slashers go, this one delivers in its own unique way: the killer is never really seen (which only makes this scarier), we have an iconic twist before the climax, and many of the shots are filmed from the killer’s perspective. Additionally, a few of the deaths are cinematically beautiful: Christmas choral music with the glint of light on bloody glass cut between children’s faces and contorted pain. Also, I have to give a shout-out to the costuming department for this film because they are amazing. Such a vibe, an era, a moment. This film has so many layers to it that it wouldn’t be impossible to watch repeatedly and find new things to appreciate each time. So if you’re looking for a slasher film to enjoy from Halloween to Christmas then check this out. You’ll worry if the night is too silent.
Jaws (1975). It has been four years of OcTerrors now and I am finally done putting off this film. It felt too obvious, you know? Like, of course, Jaws is a horror film and should be watched by one and all. But now it is time. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last 46 years, Spielberg’s thriller is about a small beach town terrorized by a killer shark and the three men who hunt it down. So much of this movie is iconic: the opening scene of Chrissie Watkins, the score by John Williams, Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”… It is, for better or worse, the best shark horror movie we have, and the shark itself is barely in the film. Even though the mechanical shark looks a bit aged these days, it still looks better and more realistic than most CGI. The performances from Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss mesh incredibly well. The cinematography, especially of underwater scenes or in moments to build suspense, heightens everything. The writing and pacing of the film moves at a good clip and with clear stakes that help create tension (crowds + killer shark = bad idea). We can also see, as we have in certain economies over the past year, the ongoing conflict of the need for tourist versus the potential danger of a deadly entity and what should be done about that. It captures so much of the 19th century novels sense of adventure and terror blended into one. At the same time, it also pushes aside women and people of color and if you’re young you’re most likely to be a victim so, really, the only people who matter in Jaws are middle-aged white men. Despite that, Jaws is ultimately a classic film, not only of the killer shark subgenre but of cinema as a whole. If you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet then give it a bite.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977). If you’ve ever driven US 95 through the Nevada desert then you’re familiar with the desolate, haunting yet beautiful landscapes that cover the state. The horizon yawns open, stretching as far as the eye can see and, yet, the idea of what could be lurking—watching—in that openness is just as scary as the idea of being stranded in it. Wes Craven’s second feature plays with his idea as the Carter family, searching for a silver mine, break down in the middle of the desert…and soon discover they’re not alone. There’s plenty to appreciate about this film and it wears some of its influences on its sleeve, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the audience perspective of the film helps balance between the Carters and the hill folk. In this way, we can understand, on some level, where both families are coming from, even if one is clearly our ‘hero’ and the other our ‘villain.’ The performances are all around solid with special note to Michael Berryman, Virginia Vincent, and Susan Lanier. It’s amazing the latter didn’t lose her voice from the amount of screaming and shouting during certain scenes. The violence feels appropriately brutal but never overdone, and the overhanging threat from the hill folk isn’t necessarily onscreen much so the revulsion there is mostly mental. This is another horror film that has excellent animal roles and both Beauty and Beast were highlights onscreen. That said, this does feel like one of those plots where miscommunication is the biggest device and if people would just talk to each other or not spare feelings here and there things would get done. It’s also interesting when you consider what information the audience is given versus the characters and how that plays out in what decisions are made, particularly when it comes to brutality and barbarianism. The ending is a bit abrupt in a “wait, then what?” kind of way, but I can see what kind of effect it was going for even if I don’t generally like it. Overall, this is another cult classic that holds that title for a reason and uses the situational horror to its fullest effect. So if you’re planning a road trip through the southwest desert, why not see what waits in the hills?
The Changeling (1980). For about the first half of this film, you might forget what its title is or think something was mistranslated but, no, it just takes its sweet time warming up to a pleasant twist. I say that not to spoil anything—it is the title—but because each half of this film delivers on almost two separate premises that somehow mesh together perfectly which not that many films can do (eat your heart out M. Night). After a sudden tragedy, John Russell, a composer, moves to a historical Victorian home and begins noticing strange occurrences that lead him to believe it may be haunted; what he discovers will lead to a burning quest to fulfill a long-held wish. While none of the performances in this film standout, I will say they’re all of the same caliber and mesh well together as an ensemble. There is a particular scene in the second half of the film where Senator Carmichael, our antagonist, gives an impassioned speech that genuinely moved me because it gave depth to the character in a way I hadn’t imagined. And—as you’d expect—for a film about a composer the sound design and score are top notch. There are some genuinely chilling melodies, a haunting lullaby, and great use of a creepy voice and moans. The design of the haunted house itself felt lacking at first but gradually grew on me and I think it’s meant to do that. The house initially seems like a sanctuary to John so it is underwhelming as a haunted house, but as its presence grows so does the atmosphere. The history and backstory lend nice weight to the plot and what jump scares there were were surprisingly effective for a film that’s 40 years old. It has a lot of the tropes and clichés you’ve either come to love or hate in a haunted house movie, but they’re effective enough and swapped out for something new in the second half that makes this film feel refreshing. If you’re a fan of ghost stories or tired of slashers, then this classic might be just the one for you.
An American Werewolf in London (1981). The werewolf subgenre of horror isn’t quite as prolific as its other supernatural cousins. That said, we continually return to these stories because the werewolf can be both scary and sympathetic as a monster. John Landis’ horror-comedy clearly shows this as two American backpackers are attacked while in England. The surviving friend, unsure whether he’s being haunted or is going insane, is scared he will transform into a werewolf on the next full moon. The film unwinds and paces itself well, going from one moment to the next in a way that makes sense, and it also makes the dream sequences all the more horrifying and jarring when they interrupt. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David and Jack play off each other so well, establishing a solid friendship in the beginning that turns into something more beyond death. The makeup by Rick Baker, shown in beautiful detail during some hallucinatory scenes, was fully deserving of the first Academy Award for Best Makeup; it’s stunning and disgusting at the same time. The werewolf change is perhaps one of the top moments of transformative body horror in cinema. Additionally, you have to love how this film found every excuse to shove songs with ‘moon’ into its soundtrack. The sense of humor within the film leans more toward comfortable jokes and absurd moments rather than over-the-top gags, and that balances with the scares and horror (particularly in the climax). I think there’s also something to be said about how the film interprets survivor’s guilt, trauma, and grief along with its more supernatural plotline. Overall, this is a must-see of the horror genre and a werewolf movie that is a howling good time.
The House on Sorority Row (1982). The 2009 remake of this film was not only one of my first “real” horror movies but has continually held a special place in my heart. I have no idea why it took me over ten years to see its mother. This sorority slasher shows a singular weekend where seven sisters celebrate their graduation, attempt to cover-up a prank gone terribly wrong, and suffer the horrifying consequences. While there isn’t much character development given to each of the sisters outside of the two foils of Katherine (the good girl) and Vicki (the bad girl), the acting for the ensemble isn’t bad and naturally felt like what one might find in a sorority. Some girls are closer than others, one takes the lead, and others follow. Lois Kelso Hunt as house mother Mrs. Slater is a suitably Gothic figure and there’s a particular montage of old class photos that was particularly striking as the girls around her change and, yet, she doesn’t. The slashing and deaths themselves aren’t particularly creative or overly terrifying, but they do have a good sense of suspense and build-up and a few of them are creative in their emotional impact or how they’re shot rather than method of death. The pacing of the film also works well once the prank goes wrong as a lot of things begin to happen at once. At first, the film focuses on the suspense of the girls’ secret, then moves to terror and confusion, before honing in on horror. While the secondary plotline is a bit out-there for my taste, it’s also a sign of the times and not a reveal I wouldn’t expect to find in other 70-80s films. As far as slashers go, it gives the audience exactly what they expect and want without being too exploitative (especially for a majority female cast). I’d actually recommend it as an Introduction to Slasher films: not too more gore, the perfect amount of terror, and a little bit of titillation too. Call it your initiation ceremony.
Society (1989). For some reason, Brian Yuzna’s film kept popping up online. It wasn’t something I sought out; it found me. But I enjoy social commentary horror and satire so I thought I’d give it a go. Bill, the son of an elite family Beverly Hills, discovers something more sinister may be going on with the upper class he’s been born into. We can say this film is split into two halves: the first is a mystery which investigates the social elite and creates a sense of paranoia, and the second is straight-up body horror of the kind you will never forget. It will be seared into your brain for the rest of your life. You will be on your death bed and, all of a sudden, you’ll remember the last 15 minutes of Society. I, honestly, prefer the first half, but that’s me. The film does a nice job of creating this Rosemary’s Baby-esque feeling where Bill may or may not be crazy and even the viewer can’t be sure. And, yes, the body horror and effects are top notch disturbing. The late-80s wardrobe and costumes perfectly fit the social class of its time, which I love. The writing and pacing, overall, may wobble a bit throughout, but there are engaging moments. Billy Warlock’s performance as Bill is a nice balance of spoiled brat, jock, and losing his mind. Its satire and commentary aren’t overly hidden and would later be better nuanced in different ways in films such as Get Out, but the in-your-face attitude feels more relevant today now that these issues (such as the wealth gap) are more obvious. Was this the movie I thought it would be? Not at all. It was, however, an original enough concept and entertaining—even if I’m forever scarred by the climax.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). If you didn’t already know that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 -2003) was based on an earlier film then let’s rectify that. Both properties entail how Buffy, average cheerleader in high school, learns that she’s the Slayer, destined to destroy vampires and protect humankind. They differ wildly in their execution. Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, working off a script by Joss Whedon, and with Dolly Parton’s production company—this film best shows the idea of too many cooks in the kitchen. The concept is obviously a winning one, the cast (including Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, David Arquette, and Hilary Swank among others) are mostly fantastic, and you usually can’t go wrong with vampires. The issue is in how the film wrestles tonally with camp, horror, comedy, and drama. Additionally, some elements of the film (which, thankfully, were dropped from the TV series) make little sense in terms of purpose and, overall, seem like a reach (or sexist at worst). However, for its time, what I like most about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that our heroine is an ultra-feminine figure who likes fashion, cheerleading, and boys but can still kickass. Slayers prior to this were often men, usually super masculine, and invariably saving damsels. Buffy proves that women can be feminine but still save the day without sacrificing what they love. That said, the writing is often cliché and hadn’t quite hit the right pitch or banter—some of this is the script and some of it is adlibbing. Overall, this can’t quite be considered a cult classic but it isn’t a bad film and it’s certainly entertaining and full of vampire thrills. If you’re a fan of the subgenre or the show, then this may be a movie to watch when the sun goes down.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). After six rollercoaster films over ten years, Wes Craven returns to pen this outside-the-canon sequel that puts the final dot on Freddy (spinoffs aside). This notably picks up on Craven’s tongue-in-cheek take on horror, the industry, and filmmaking two years before he would release Scream, but a few of those similar elements are present. This meta movie follows Heather Langencamp as she begins to suspect the fictional Freddy Krueger of attempting to break into reality. Many cast members from the franchise make appearances such as Robert Englund, John Saxon, Wes Craven, Lin Shaye, and more. Tonally the film is a return to the earlier darkness versus the later campiness, although there are touches of that as well. Much of the focus is on the reality of how one would really react if a fictional character started breaking through reality, especially if it was a character from a movie you were known for. There’s an additional thread about whether or not children should be subjected to violent horror which I remember being a heavy topic of conversation in the 90s (before we moved onto video games being the cause of the downfall of humanity). My two cents there is that Nancy makes a point that kids know who Freddy is without ever seeing the movie and, in my own experience, that’s definitely true; I didn’t see A Nightmare on Elm Street until I was almost twenty, but I definitely knew who Freddy Krueger was and what he was capable of. The acting is a touch up from a few of the previous films, although Miko Hughes, who plays Heather’s son, was an interesting casting choice—definitely typecast as the ‘creepy kid’ type from his role in Pet Semetary, and not doing much different here. Overall though, this is the finale the franchise deserved: darker in tone, a bit absurd but in an intelligent way, with characters worth rooting for and a villain worth rooting against (and not for), and some wonderful scenes along the way. Craven does it 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.
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