Even the worst horror films have a defining moment which reminds us why we choose to hunker down in the dark to scare ourselves silly. Other horror movies do something else. They fundamentally change the movie landscape, and sometimes even pop culture in the process.
The following 9 films did just that. They didn’t simply leave us breathless. They redefined the entire genre of horror.
1. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock defied conventional wisdom with 1960’s “Psycho” in more ways than one. Respected auteurs weren’t prone to the horror genre, and that’s being generous. Plus, the unwritten production codes of the era prohibited filmmakers from dabbling in blood, gore and other horror movie essentials.
Hitchcock clung to the era’s limitations and still left us clutching our arm rests.
The iconic shower scene alone stunned audiences, and for all the right reasons. A signature score that’s synonymous with horror. Implied violence, but nothing grotesque. Black and white blood circling the drain, more chilling that gallons of red liquid oozing from any “Friday the 13th” victim. And a comely heroine checking out long before the end credits. That decision alone makes “Psycho” a one-of-a-kind thriller.
Director Gus Van Zant attempted a shot-by-shot remake in 1998, a cinematic stunt with little payoff or urgency. The original remains an essential Halloween treat, leaving a trail of artists to parody or pilfer from its shock value, but never equal it.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero kickstarted his career on Pittsburgh’s iconic kiddie show “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Yes, really. Years later, Romero created the template for the modern zombie movie. Talk about range.
His 1968 feature film debut, originally dubbed “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” cemented his status as a go-to shock auteur. Only “Dead” didn’t immediately launch our current zombie craze. It took time, two “Dead” sequels from Romero himself and a culture obsessed with dystopian stories to make that happen. Romero simply lit the flame on that slow-burning fuse. Directors, and a certain AMC series, have been tracing his template ever since.
“Night of the Living Dead” holds up beautifully despite its microscopic budget and archaic FX. The zombie elements are all there, from the staggering hordes to the heroes trapped in a house that’s no match for the zombie invasion.
Lather, rinse, repeat. It almost never fails, and it’s all thanks to Romero’s horrifying “Night.”
3. Halloween (1978)
It’s the movie that mainstreamed the “slasher” sub-genre, for better and certainly worse.
Director John Carpenter, who also created the film’s unforgettable score, told the tale of a young man who does his dirty work on All Hallows Eve.
Everything clicked for Carpenter, from a game “final girl” (Jamie Lee Curtis) to choreographed scares that endure after multiple viewings. It’s a master class in suspense, tension and pacing.
That signature mask – crafted from William Shatner’s inimitable mug – did the rest.
“Halloween” made Carpenter a Hollywood legend, even if his subsequent films ranged from inspired (“The Thing”) to insipid (“Ghosts of Mars”).
What the director indirectly did, though, is unleash a stream of inferior slasher movies on an unsuspecting public. Sadly, about 8 in 10 are either awful or a fraction as good as “Halloween.”
Carpenter set the bar too darn high, but his imitators keep on trying.
4. Alien (1979)
In space, no one can hear you scream. It’s the perfect tag line for a perfect sci-fi/horror mashup.
Director Ridley Scott’s masterpiece launched a massive movie franchise and one of the best film sequels of all time (1986’s “Aliens”). The original film remains a pristine shocker, deftly blending character beats, claustrophobic sets and a heroine as good as any in the modern era – Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.
The film also left us with arguably the greatest movie monster of all time. And, year after year, horror films copy that xenomorph critter with poor to middling results. Films as recent as this year’s “Sputnik” attempted to upgrade the “Alien” model.
Nice try. Nothing compares to Scott’s vision, and nothing likely ever will.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Why does Jonathan Demme’s film matter? Let’s start with Oscar. The film swept the major Academy Award categories for the year, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins, although his modest screen time suggests a Best Supporting Actor was more appropriate).
All that Oscar love came for a gruesome movie that doesn’t check any of the standard awards season boxes. It was too good, too unsettling, to ignore and, in the process, it gave horror a well-deserved credibility boost. A year later Coppola returned to the genre with “Dracula,” attracting an A-list cast in the process.
“Silence’s” success gave actors an excuse to tackle genre material, something they may have avoided in a pre-“Silence” world.
Demme’s enduring legacy, aided and abetted by Hopkins, is Hannibal Lecter. The cannibal killer quickly joined pop culture’s rogues gallery of monsters, a place he cemented with two follow-up films, a dispiriting prequel and the brilliant NBC series, “Hannibal.”
“The Silence of the Lambs” also goosed our interest in criminal profiling, a passion that sparked Netflix’s successful “Mindhunter” series, among related projects.
6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Hate found footage movies? Abhor films that create faux online campaigns meant to boost their credibility? Blame this absurdly profitable shocker, one of the biggest Hollywood curveballs ever thrown, for both brief trends.
Three young, clueless filmmakers head to the woods to learn the truth behind an urban legend, and they get a crash course in the old saw, “be careful what you wish for…”
The low budget film used the main characters’ cameras to chart the action, meaning the filmmakers leaned on cheap, grainy footage without a hint of FX treats to keep us off guard.
The film’s production budget? An absurdly low $60,000. Its global box office tally? $248 million. For that we got a giddy sense of the unknown, and the growing horror felt by the filmmakers.
That “found footage” gimmick caught everyone by surprise at the time, and it allowed indie filmmakers to join the mainstream with their own micro-budgeted projects. The gimmick faded after a while, but not before sparking “Blair Witch’s” spiritual cousin, the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.
Part of “Blair Witch’s” success came from a fraudulent online campaign suggesting the film wasn’t fiction at all. Nonsense, of course, but it let Hollywood marketers tap into the emerging Internet culture.
We’re much savvier about online hoaxes today, but at the time plenty of people feared this “Project” was the real deal.
7. 28 Days Later (2002)
Romero is the godfather of the zombie film, but Danny Boyle deserves credit for fanning the undead flames. The director’s thriller took zombies seriously, and introduced a new wrinkle to the genre. These zombie could run.
The British film gave the sleeping zombie movement a wake-up call, paving the way for everything from a solid “Dawn of the Dead” remake (2004) to Max Brooks’ influential book “World War Z” (2006) and one of the horror comedy’s best mashups – 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead.”
The zombie craze really hasn’t stopped since Boyle’s vision reached the states.
8. Saw (2004)
Director James Wan’s feature film debut sparked one of the genre’s shortest trends to date, and thank goodness for that. Enter the Torture Porn era.
The genre leaned heavily on practical FX and our lust for blood, gore and more. While some horror films practiced restraint with the killings, these films zoomed in on that mayhem. You couldn’t look away.
The 2004 film “Saw” hit it big at the box office, sparking a never-ending franchise which returns in a new form next year with Chris Rock’s “Spiral.”
Eli Roth’s “Hostel” hit theater a year after “Saw,” solidifying the garish trend. His sequel, “Hostel II” trotted out similar tactics two years later but nabbed less than twice the box office receipts. The blood-soaked trend lacked legs.
The third “Hostel,” a straight to DVD affair, capped the trilogy and suggested the Torture Porn mainstream death.
The movement did deliver one of the most upsetting, and underrated, horror films of the 21st century. Yes “The Human Centipede’s” sequels were horrible in all the wrong ways, but the original film is a classic for those with cast-iron stomachs.
9. Get Out (2017)
What is a sketch comic like Jordan Peele doing in the horror genre? Reminding us that socially conscious horror movies can still make us scream. Peele’s film boasts a left-of-center thesis – woke liberals are capably of horribly racist acts. The film doesn’t coast on its progressive laurels, though. “Get Out” grabs us from the opening scene, and smartly deployed reveals keep our attention to the very end.
The film makes progressive horror hip again, and we’ll see how far the trend stretches. The recent “Antebellum” shows the “Get Out” formula isn’t easy to follow, and that’s being kind.
Peele isn’t the first horror director to add liberal messages to his movies. Romero’s work comments on racism (“Night of the Living Dead”), consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead”) and media overload (“Diary of the Dead”).
Great horror can send a message, but the best shockers make sure the scares come first.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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