13 Horror Movies to See Before You Die (Horribly)

Nosferatu

With Halloween almost upon us we are firmly in the thick of horror movie season. Here are thirteen classics guaranteed to chill the bones.

The horror film reaches back to the very beginnings of cinema. It seems that as soon as people learned how to commit moving images to film they felt a compelling impulse to use those images to horrify. One of Thomas Edison’s first films was a bizarre adaptation of Frankenstein, and horror films are chief among the prime examples of German Expressionism, cinema’s first major artistic movement. As Hollywood transitioned from silents to talkies their first blockbusters included Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, figures of such resonance that their profound impact on popular culture shows no sign of waning.

Despite the lasting power of these archetypes much about the genre has changed. What shocked and horrified audiences in the 1930s has little impact in 2015, however the progression of horror cinema involved more than devising increasingly creative ways to kill people. Different countries provided fresh perspectives on the traditions of the genre, and as the horrors of the real world became increasingly worse than any movie the horror film acquired new levels of meaning. The cultural upheavals of the late 1960s gave rise to a wave of filmmakers who proved that the horror film could be a legitimate method of social comment. Then the slasher subgenre came along, and despite a promising start in the late 1970s, it paved the way for the horror film to devolve into empty spectacle and parody. Today the mainstream seems content to offer up endless regurgitation, but there is quality horror out there if you know where to look.

What follows is a list of thirteen horror films you should see before you die. It’s not meant as a definitive “best of all time” list, nor am I trying to impress anyone with obscure, unknown masterpieces. I also don’t define an effective horror film strictly by the carnage it wreaks upon the human body. Think of this article as a primer, a solid foundation upon which someone could begin an exploration of the horror genre.

1. The first real horror movie is perhaps the genre’s greatest artistic accomplishment. The world almost lost Nosferatu (1921, F.W. Murnau), an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, when Bram Stoker’s widow Florence attempted to have all copies destroyed. Luckily, a few slipped through the cracks and this masterpiece of German Expressionism exists today. The film is a nightmare-logic version of Stoker’s novel, and its pestilential vampire is the most horrifying image of early cinema.

Nosferatu-image

See also: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine), Faust (Murnau)

2. Even though sequelitis eventually turned the horror film into an exercise in marketing, The Bride of Frankenstein (1934, James Whale) belongs on any list of essential horror flicks. Whale was among the first directors working in America to make his name with horror, and this mix of fright, camp, and pathos is his best, most personal film. It takes elements of Mary Shelley’s novel and mixes in a flamboyantly ghoulish mad scientist, a lovelorn monster, and Elsa Lanchester’s brief but memorable performance(s) to create the first American horror masterpiece.

See also: Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House (all Whale)

3. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were the DeNiro and Pacino of horror movies. While most of their collaborations were not much better than Righteous Kill, The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer) is one of the more underappreciated classics of early Hollywood horror. Regarded as the first psychological horror movie, this unrelentingly morbid revenge tale features a disturbing performance from Karloff, strangely stylized sets, and levels of insanity and perversity that were uncommon for horror movies of the time.

Karloff-Lugosi

See also: The Raven (Lew Landers), Murders In the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey)

4. It used to be that there were two special effects available to horror filmmakers: light and shadow. The effectiveness of a black and white horror film depends on how well it suggests what is lurking in the darkness, and few such films are as effective as those masterminded by producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. Cat People (1943, Jacques Tourneur) was his first and best horror film, and tells the story of a cursed woman who turns into a panther at, let’s say, inopportune times. Tourneur was the most talented director to work with Lewton, and they turn this film into a textbook on use of light and shadow.

See also: I Walked With a Zombie (Tourneur), The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther V. Fritsch)

5. No horror survey is complete without an entry from Hammer Studios. This British company dragged horror, kicking and screaming, into the 1950s by revamping (heh heh heh) the genre’s standbys: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc. Horror of Dracula (1956, Terence Fisher) is the most emblematic of the Hammer style: Technicolor bloodshed, swooning damsels in distress, and a clearly delineated struggle between good and evil. It also features actor Christopher Lee, a Dracula more sophisticated than satanic, beginning to carve out his iconic identity as cinema’s greatest villain.

See also: The Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf (all Fisher)

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero) changed everything about horror movies. It did away with antiquated notions of good and evil, as well as the safety zones that assured viewers that the innocents were going to make it out alive. The setup is simplicity itself: the dead are coming back to life to devour the living, and a group of people sequester themselves in a farmhouse and hope to make it through the night. However, the flesh-eating zombies outside are hardly as dangerous as the threats these people pose for each other. The disintegration of order is the film’s biggest shock, as it provides the realization that horror can come from within your family, from your neighbors, and from the forces you depend on for salvation.

Night_of_the_Living_Dead_b

See also: Dawn of the Dead, Martin, Day of the Dead (all Romero)

7. Many horror films allow you moments to catch your breath; for example, a spring-loaded cat might be the scariest thing to leap from the shadows. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) has no such moments. In fact, watching this film feels more like an endurance test than entertainment, an effect due in large part to the gritty, almost documentary-style camerawork. This may be what fooled the first reviewers into thinking they saw unspeakable gore, when in fact the film is quite bloodless. As soon as the main characters cross paths with Leatherface (who isn’t even the most demented member of his family) the terror does not let up until the final credits roll.

See also: The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes (both Wes Craven)

8. Halloween is John Carpenter’s most iconic film, and it is a film of no small power, but one has to admit that power has been diminished slightly by 30 years of sequels, rip-offs, and Rob Zombie’s well-intentioned but misguided remake. Carpenter was also at the height of his craft for The Thing (1982), a remake of a 1950s classic in which a group of researchers in Antarctica encounter an alien that can imitate and infect anything it touches. This movie laid the blueprint for the so-called “virus” movie by enhancing the horror with the human elements of paranoia and distrust. It is also a special effects masterpiece, one of the high points of the pre-CGI era.

See also: Alien (Ridley Scott), Prince of Darkness (Carpenter)

9. Nowadays Sam Raimi is best known for his trio of Spider-man films, but back in the day he was out in the woods with B movie icon Bruce Campbell making cult horror classics. Evil Dead 2 (1987) shows that horror doesn’t always have to be doom and gloom. Both Evil Dead flicks deal with the unfortunate consequences of opening the fabled Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, but the second time around Raimi replaced grim violence with unbridled manic energy and sequences that border on Three Stooges slapstick. A careful eye could even discern how the action sequences in any of the Spidey flicks have much in common with Raimi’s low-budget roots.

See also: Evil Dead (Raimi), Dead Alive (Peter Jackson)

10. The Italians were particularly enthusiastic about horror movies, and Black Sunday (1961, Mario Bava) is their first masterpiece. Bava combined the best elements of black and white atmosphere and gothic dread with a particularly Italian emotional tone and sensibility for spectacle. The bizarre beauty of legendary leading lady Barbara Steele, in a remarkable double performance, enhances the story’s mix of witchcraft, possession, and bloody revenge.

blacksunday

See also: Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace, Whip and the Body (all Bava)

11. The Italian horror aesthetic found its fullest expression in Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento), an operatic assault on all the senses. Argento masterfully weaves together an overwhelming musical score, a vivid palette of colors, over-the-top violence, and virtuoso camerawork to make this a singularly intense film. The script, which centers on a German dance academy that serves as a front for a coven of witches, has its weaknesses. Nonetheless, Suspiria will wreak havoc on your nerves from start to finish.

See also: Everything Argento made up to 1987. Then just pretend he died.

12. You know a horror film is doing its work when it can take an absurd premise and scare you stupid with it. In a sense all horror is absurd, but weaving it seamlessly into the mundane world is perhaps the most important part of a horror filmmaker’s job. Hence Ringu (1998, Hideo Nakata), in which the wronged spirit of a murdered girl kills people with a video tape and a phone call. Somehow it works, and Ringu is perhaps the high water mark for modern Japanese horror.

See also: Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi), House (Nobuhiko Obayashi)

13. Lucky number thirteen on this list is another Japanese film: Audition (2002) by the infamous Takashi Miike. Miike made his reputation with stylish, well-crafted movies designed to shock and offend, as his cameo in Hostel affirms. What is striking about Audition is its restraint, or at least, the restraint of its first half. The following succession of images will make you squirm, grimace, cower, hide your eyes, and wonder why you didn’t just watch some nice movie that doesn’t prominently feature acupuncture needles.

audition

See also: Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris (both Miike)

With these classics under your belt you should feel confident enough to explore what the rest of the genre has to offer – other works by these directors and studios, horror films from all around the world, and films that push all manner of boundaries. Just don’t blame me for nightmares, nausea, and / or pissed-off spouses.

 

Brendan O'Brien

Brendan O'Brien

When Brendan O'Brien was 17 he was sure he was going to be a rock star. At 37 he teaches English. Married with a daughter, in his spare time he's a film buff, a basketball junkie, and a cemetery enthusiast.

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