You're going to be seeing a lot of "best of" horror movie lists today. With that being said, here's mine. I really love the horror genre, at its best it can truly give you a cinematic feeling like no other. The jolts you experience from watching a spook-fest are akin to being in "fight or flight" mode, your body's natural ability to react to a harmful event, attack, or threat for the sake of survival. Thus the action of covering your eyes or looking down when what's happening on-screen is too much to take. The fact that you can't do anything about it, except watch, makes it all the more torturous. Of course, I don't wince, I man-up, eyes glued to the screen, I live for the adrenaline-pumping high of top-notch horror. The following ten are not necessarily my favorites, but they're the most important, most groundbreaking, and without them, horror wouldn't be where it's at today.
1) The Exorcist
The Granddaddy of all Horror movies. William Friedkin's spooky, brilliant film was one of the first to tackle exorcism, gore and psychological terror with such tightly-knit fervor.
A girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her terror-stricken mom decides to hire a priest to perform an exorcism: "The Power of Christ Compels You!" All jokes aside, and there are many detractors of the film, taken as a straight-up tackling of the fervent strip down of a young girl's innocence, the film will likely leave you in a shaken state of perpetual horror. This tale of a young girl's plight with Satan is the ultimate battle between heaven and hell, good v evil. What more resonant and timeless a topic can a movie have? The fact that all it's played with a straight face and Friedkin's artfully effective direction makes it worthy of the cinematic time capsule. I can't say many movies in my lifetime have actually given me nightmares, but this one did.
2) The Shining
Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece was met with lukewarm reviews upon its release nearly 37 years ago, now it's considered an essential addition to his canon of films. Who can forget little Danny Torrance uttering REDRUM or a frighteningly possessed Jack Nicholson huffing an puffing his way into the bathroom door with an axe and delivering a menacing "Here's Johnny!"
"The Shining" not only refuses to play by the rules of the horror genre, it just refuses to play by the rules. Based on a Stephen King novel, the film has Jack Nicholson's besieged writer, and off-season caretaker of a hotel, being filled with malevolent spirits. His descent into demonic madness isn't just horrifying, it's hypnotic, especially when he goes over the edge and attempts to kill his wife and, possibly telepathic, son. Kubrick went so far as to design the sets in the hotel to take advantage of the his new favorite toy's potential: The Steadicam. The heavy usage here of the then-experimental camera has a smooth, calculatingly precise and steady focus - it would be used even more extensively in his later two films ("Full Metal Jacket" and "Eyes Wide Shut.")
1960 saw the release of "Psycho" "Peeping Tom," two groundbreaking movies that, needless to say, shocked mainstream audiences to their core. These two taboo-breaking movies were met with inauspicious reactions. "Psycho" was unprecedented in its depiction of not just violence, cue the famous shower scene, but sexuality as well. For example, in "Psycho" we saw two lovers sharing, oh my gosh, the same bed, with the woman wearing just a bra, something that was undeniably taboo back in the day. Timid minds were warped, a sexual revolution was just around the corner.
Sure there's the incredibly realized "shower scene," and Bernard Hermann's iconic, screeching score, but Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is so much more than that. Hitchcock seemed to have no pity for his main characters, introducing them and then killing them off, Anyone was a target. Traditional plotting was thrown out of the window. An anything goes atmosphere can be the most frightening narrative imaginable.
4) Rosemary's Baby
A young, newly married couple sets foot into a new apartment only to have weird, troubling occurrences start happening to them. Much to her surprise, the wife becomes pregnant, which leads to paranoia over the unborn child's safety and well-being. Roman Polanski's tale of satanism and pregnancy is masterfully carried by a great Mia Farrow performance. The frights are relentless, but so is the psychological horror of never knowing what is real and what is not. Polanski's decision to never show any on-screen terror pay dividends as "Rosemary's Baby" ends up playing with your imagination's darkest thoughts. One can only imagine how the baby looks like, but it's probably something that is best left off-screen, for the betterment of all of us. Just like Polanski's best films ('Repulsion," "Chinatown," "The Pianist") the tension and dread is almost too unbearable to take.
5) Night of the Living Dead
I remember watching "Night of the Living Dead" for the first time on late night cable TV, transfixed, amazed by its black and white horrors, and that is absolutely the way to see George Romero's landmark 1967 classic: in the wee-wee hours of the morning when the streets outside your window feel damn-near apocalyptic. Romero can now be deemed a prophet as his film has a panic-stricken country filled with zombies, cue people glued to their smart phones, and a group of characters barricading themselves in an isolated house, trying to keep safe from the horrors of the outside world.
The typical Romero zombie was a slow-moving thing, which fit quite well with the tense and slow pace of the films. He was the director that created the typical "zombie" monster as we know it. Romero was prophesying the notion of a soulless world with his living dead, but this generation has embraced the sprinting zombie as the scarier monster. In a way it is, but it also makes for a less brooding experience.
6) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Produced on a scant $300,000 budget, Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is still one of the creepiest things ever captured on celluloid. It set a new standard for slasher films, breaking down barriers and taboos that to this day are still too frightening to tackle. The family of cannibalistic psychopaths portrayed felt too real and Hooper directed the film with a documentary realism that had people believing the events depicted actually did occur. The timing of its release couldn't have been more apt, released in the summer of 1973, as the Vietnam war was winding, but more horrors were coming through the news: the Munich Olympics massacre,
the Watergate scandal was reaching its apex and the shootings at Kent state shook a nation. Suffice to say, the group of young individuals in the film, returning to the home of their childhood, were about to encounter the cruelty and horrors of the modern world.
Michael Myers' relentless pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) makes him the killer who will never stop or as Laurie so eloquently states in the film's, now much copied, climax, he's the bogeyman. Highly influenced by "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," director John Carpenter made his own horror movie classic with "Halloween." A film that was largely responsible for the relentless amount of slasher films to come in the 80s, it also popularized many tropes that we are now used to in the genre: the last girl standing, killing off unlikable characters, a killer theme song and the camera following the killer from his own POV. It's also just a great movie that can easily creep itself into your thoughts. If you think its impact on cinema has diminished just watch 2015's "It Follows" or this year's "Get Out."
8) Don't Look Now
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christine star in a film that dares you to head into the unknown. One of the most underrated movies ever made is also one of the scariest. Nicolas Roeg's film about a couple's tragic loss and the depths they go to gain back their sanity has dread lurking in its every frame. The unspeakable is all around this movie's frames as director Roeg plays with our instincts, with our inner voices, and challenges us to take notice. Based on a Daphne Du Maurier's book, this is the most primal example of a atmospheric work of art, as a grief-stricken couple go to Venice to heal but end up being warned, by a creepy set of elderly twins, about an impending doom lurking just around the corner for them It's an acute study of grief that delves into the supernatural with devastating effect. How can we ever forget that dwarf in the red cape?
A shy, friendless girl, with a creepily abnormal mother, decides to exact revenge on school bullies. If David Fincher has been channeling Hitchcock for the last two decades, Brian De Palma has been doing it for the last five decades. De Palma has referenced Hitch by constantly casting blondes as his leading ladies, but in Carrie" it's a redhead. De Palma is one of the very best filmmakers for the tracking shot and his constant use of the split screen has been nothing short of revolutionary. His familiar obsessions still linger to this day but "Carrie" is a special kind of gift from him, a full-on horror film. De Palma not only went all-out in the film's legendary climax, which involved pig's blood, telekinetic powers, split screens and fully-fledged mayhem, but he brought much depth to his allegory filled tale about the downs of high-school life for a shy, sensitive outsider. In a way, it's as realistic a depiction of the coming-of-age story. as we've ever gotten.
10) The Blair Witch Project
The most influential horror movie of the last 20 years. Film critic Michael Dodd has argued that the film is an embodiment of horror "modernizing its ability to be all-encompassing in expressing the fears of American society," acknowledging its status as the archetypal modern found footage feature, he noted that "In an age where anyone can film whatever they like, horror needn’t be a cinematic expression of what terrifies the cinema-goer, it can simply be the medium through which terrors captured by the average American can be showcased." The most recent film on this list is also the most ridiculed. Why? Because directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez' ground-breaker started one of the most influential cinematic movements of the 21st century: The "found footage" movie. It set the standard for how the next 15 years of horror movies would look like ("Paranormal Activity," "REC," Cloverfield," "Trollhunter,” “V/H/S,” “The Last Exorcism”) and even leaked into drama ("End of Watch," “Chronicle”). Ironically it also is responsible for the recent indie horror new wave as it influenced "The Witch," which is the best movie of that movement thus far.