13 is just a start. Believe me, there are plenty of horror movies I can happily recommend to you, but I’m going to limit myself to writing about the basics, the barest of necessities. This isn’t even necessarily a list of my own personal favorites, although there is a fair amount of overlap. For the purposes of this article, I just sat down and thought to myself, “If I wanted to write a textbook about the best and most influential horror movies of all time, if I had to tell horror directors which movies should be in their mental canon, if I had to tell movie fans what their dream homework assignment would be, and if I had to narrow it down to just 13, which 13 movies would those be?”
Here’s what I came up with (in chronological order):
Nosferatu is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It’s not technically the first vampire film ever made, but in terms of influence and impact, it might as well be. And after almost ninety years (!), it’s still scary. Max Shreck’s performance as the cadaverous Count Orlok is so bizarre and creepy that an entire movie was made with the premise that he wasn’t entirely acting (Shadow Of The Vampire), and it’s hard to not consider the eerie believability of that premise while re-watching Nosferatu. [Follow the link to watch the movie.] For the record, it’s Wes Craven’s choice for the best horror movie ever. So, you know, there’s that. Kind of a major endorsement.
Again, I didn’t just make this list in terms of influence, but in terms of shelf life. Does the movie still hold up? If you haven’t seen Tod Browning’s hugely influential rendition of Dracula, you may be surprised to find out that it absolutely holds up. It’s true that Bela Lugosi’s incarnation of the mythical Count is so iconic and so imitated that there’s no way his first appearance can have the same impact as it surely did in 1931, but as the movie continues, he still manages to grow creepy on you. And Dracula is just plain entertaining, a virtue that scores of subsequent vampire movies have neglected to manage since.
James Whale’s Frankenstein is another movie that, if you revisit my essay from this time last year, has an unparalleled cinematic legacy that also happens to be entirely deserved. Along with Dracula, Frankenstein helped solidify the Universal monster films as the definitive incarnations of these legendary creations of literature for generations of filmgoers. The Monster brought to screen by Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce is an unforgettable face, one you are bound to see all over this weekend when trick-or-treaters come knocking.
Entire books have been written about the genesis, the making, and the impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. There will probably be more. It’s a movie that does so many amazing things – turning an oft-told real-life account into the most iconic cinema, switching protagonists halfway through the movie, convincing audiences to (temporarily) side with the villain, and serving as the primary genesis moment of every slasher movie to come. And of course, there’s the Bernard Herrmann score, forever etched in our collective cultural memory, yet just one more perfectly-rendered element of this flawless movie. Like every other movie on this list, once you clear away all of the backstory and the accolades and the countless cultural references, this movie still has the power to unsettle you, to haunt you.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
Like Nosferatu, this is a movie in the public domain, which means that you can watch it online without guilt, and if you haven’t seen this pivotal movie before, maybe you’ll consider using this article as a bridge to doing so. Night Of The Living Dead is a centrally important movie in the horror genre, since it really is square one for the popularity of zombie tales (which today are literally inescapable), and in my opinion, it’s as watchable and as sturdy as it ever was. Sure, it’s as shaky and crude and as limited by budget as it ever was, but to me that’s always been part of its appeal. Because it’s not as polished as most other movies of its time, it carries a proto-documentary feel that makes it more effective than any horror movies of that time and many since. I don’t want to go into the political context, because that could be and has been a book (I recommend this one), and also because director George A. Romero has suggested that some of the movie’s most haunting real-world correlations were unintended. But sometimes a movie can become more than it was even meant to be. This one sure did.
Further reading: This comprehensive article, published today on Entertainment Weekly’s website, has some great quotes from modern directors about Night Of The Living Dead’s influence.
Further viewing: Well you have to go right into Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978), the sequel of sorts, which is a landmark horror film in its own right and a close contender for this list. (Without Night, there’d be no Dawn. Came down to that.)
The Exorcist (1973)
Because it’s probably the scariest horror film ever made. Is that even in debate? (Wink, wink.) John Landis named The Exorcist the greatest horror film of all time. So did the man who played Jason Voorhees. I stand with those guys. The Exorcist isn’t one of my favorite movies, because how could it be? But there’s something about this movie that is chilling down to the very soul. It haunts. That’s due to the much-acknowledged cinematic mastery of William Friedkin and legendary camera-genius Owen Roizman, and the unforgettable performances of Max Von Sydow and especially the haunted Jason Miller (God, if only he’d been in more movies) – but it’s also due to the simple idea of the movie: Father Karras is given back his lost faith in God by learning that the Devil exists. What happens on screen is disturbing enough, but that simple notion goes beyond disturbing – it’s upsetting on a psychological and intellectual level. You don’t have to buy into all of that big talk, but just try to name a scarier movie…!
It’s definitely open to debate whether or not Jaws counts as a horror film. It owes more to the American nautical tradition than anything else – it’s more Moby Dick than monster movie, ultimately. But I ended up including it because A) There are few movies I’d rather watch, B) There’s not much more frightening on a primal level than the idea of soulless teeth coming up at you from the ocean depths, and C) You really do have to factor in the cultural and creative impact of Jaws. There isn’t a horror filmmaker alive who hasn’t studied Jaws intimately, and if there is, they probably don’t make very good movies. Jaws is masterful in its creation of enduring suspense and indelible imagery – it’s so good that, unlike every other movie on this list, few imitators even dare to go near this one. There are hundreds of zombie films and vampire films released every year, but how many great-white shark films?
John Carpenter’s classic slasher film is both the spiritual heir to Hitchcock’s Psycho and a monstrously influential masterwork in its own right. In Psycho are the seeds of the slasher genre, but Halloween opened the floodgates. It also happens to be better than any similar movie that followed. What distinguishes Carpenter’s movie is probably actually two things: 1) The layer of mythology that Carpenter applies to a fairly simple story about a masked psychopath, delivered in ominous phrasing and hushed panic by British actor Donald Pleasance (he talks about Michael Myers the same way that Quint talks about the Indianapolis in Jaws), and 2) Carpenter’s simple score, with that unforgettable piano refrain and the pitch-perfect way that the sweeping synth sounds are layered on. I don’t know if you could make such a sparse, effective score today. Most movies insist on a broader orchestral palette. Carpenter had the intelligence and the confidence to do more with less.
Here’s another movie that really counts more towards another genre – Alien is science-fiction before it’s anything (future, spaceships, aliens = sci-fi) – but it plays like straight-up horror. It’s a haunted-house movie, a ghost story, just one where the supernatural being stalking a trapped bunch of people happens to be an alien of the kind no one’s ever seen in movies before or since. The Alien is one of the iconic movie monsters, one of the few from the second half of the twentieth century. And Sigourney Weaver is the ultimate “last girl” – like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, she plays a character of depth and resourcefulness that is rare for genre films. She’s a true survivor. Well, her and the cat.
The Shining (1980)
It bothers me just to have to include this movie on this list – not because of any doubts over its greatness and its importance, but just because typing the title makes me flash back to certain things that I just plain don’t want to think about. The Shining is psychological horror of the first degree. There’s an unnatural yet deliberate pacing to every frame that sets this movie apart from all movies of similar ambition. And then there’s this guy. Stephen King reportedly has some issues with how his novel of The Shining was adapted, but it would take someone on that level of popular-cultural importance to be able to question a Stanley Kubrick movie. I’m sure not going to. I love Stephen King, but I also love what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining. Actually, I don’t love it at all. It freaks me the hell out! But there’s no list of essential horror films that could conceivably be complete without it.
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
Look, it kills me not to have The Wolf Man on this list. (For that matter, it kills me not to have The Creature From The Black Lagoon on this list.) But An American Werewolf In London is the greatest werewolf movie ever made. There’s not all that much competition for the title, for better or worse, but all movies since John Landis’s movie have had to contend with the unflattering comparison. I can only think of one other director who can balance comedy and horror as well as John Landis did in this movie, but Landis (and composer Elmer Bernstein) found a relatability, a humanity, and a sense of romance even, which are all very rare attributes for the horror genre. And Rick Baker is a king when it comes to this stuff – good luck to the CGI company that thinks it could improve on this miracle, and not only that, but his wolf designs are legitimately frightening. I’d love to see more movies like An American Werewolf In London, but it’s genuinely inimitable. As long as I have just the one to watch, I’m pretty damn happy.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter is the only director who landed on this list twice; that should tell you in what regard I hold his work. (As if the volumes of articles and references I’ve previously written didn’t already make the point.) The Thing is more successful than any movie in history at finding the horror in the cold. Forget the fearsomeness and the paranoia at being plagued by a nasty, shape-shifting extraterrestrial – even if you manage to beat that guy, you’re still stuck in the middle of Antarctica with all the electricity gone. But yeah, the alien is pretty scary too, for the record. The dark humor and the gross-out moments of The Thing are pretty terrific and important too. In the end, the most memorable scene just might be the final scene, a talk in the snow between two characters who may or may not be anything we can trust. It ranks with some of the best American filmmaking ever, beyond even any confines of genre.
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
This is the guy who I was referring to a couple paragraphs ago, the guy who knows how to scare you and to make you laugh in equal measure, the guy who has impacted world cinema more than even his beloved reputation would suggest, the genius, the savant, the world’s greatest Three Stooges fan: Sam Raimi. This movie is magic. I don’t even know where it came from, really. I mean, I understand that Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell and all their co-conspirators got together somewhere in the woods and made this movie happen – but where does this level of insane inspiration come from? Dig up some clips, watch them in any order, and be astounded: There’s no movie like this one. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been shouted near-orgasmically at full volume by everyone who truly loves movies? A fool tries to recreate the story or the technique of Evil Dead 2; a true disciple of Raimi and Campbell takes their example to heart. Be original, be yourself, and push the pedal to the floor.
So there’s my list. Obviously it’s just a start, and there are many directions to go from here. Want to find a couple of suggestions? Here’s a link to my 31-day horror-movie-viewing project from 2009; I haven’t had the time to repeat the act this year, but I’m going to try to put up as much fun stuff as I can between now and Halloween. I really hope that you enjoy what you read!