Top 10 Influential American Horror Films

Neal Damiano turns down the lights for an evening of the greatest American horror films ever made. From The Exorcist to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we take a look at the most influential movies to grace the genre.

10. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968)

Rosemary's Baby - Top 10 FilmsRoman Polanski directed a masterpiece of suspense with Rosemary’s Baby. The film stars Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, a New York couple who move into a mysterious studio flat in Manhattan and find they’re living next to a very strange older couple who seem to pry just a little too much. The young couple is expecting their first child and midway through the movie you’re not quite sure who the father is? There are subtle hints throughout suggesting it’s the devil himself. Mia Farrow’s character keeps having a reoccurring dream of a demonic force taking over her body. We are not quite sure if it’s a dream or not? The suspense build is brilliant and the ending is both comedic and frightening; a film that pokes fun at Roman Catholicism in a creepy way. Rosemary’s Baby was considered very taboo in 1968, its legacy based on the value of enigmatic mystery and a brooding atmosphere. If you ask me, it still holds up today as a total creep-fest.

9. An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981)

An American Werewolf In London, John Landis - Top 10 FilmsAn American Werewolf in London truly is a unique horror film, brilliantly combining a tint of humor with sheer terror, making it one of the most influential horror films. The unusual but genius aspect of the film being the protagonist who’s also the antagonist; an undeniably likable guy with a vulnerable charm. Two American best friends played by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are attacked by a werewolf vacationing in England. One dies and the other is bitten. He’s a nice guy stricken by unfortunate circumstances but continues to fight the turn to the very end. Naughton gives a very heartfelt performance and it’s easy to cheer for him in the incredibly tough battle to not turn and feed. Griffin Dunne gives an exceptional performance as the undead best friend that guides our werewolf through his adventures. John Landis teaming with the amazing visual effects master Rick Baker make An American Werewolf in London a visually impressive, smart cult classic. Now, if you’ll join me for a pint at The Slaughtered Lamb.

8. The Thing (Carpenter, 1982)

The Thing, Film, John Carpenter, Jack Russell,John Carpenter’s reboot of the 1950s sci-fi horror film The Thing From Another World was actually shunned by just about every critic upon its release. Going head to head with Spielberg’s cuddly E.T. did not help either. There are two types of people – E.T. people and The Thing people; I’m 100% a The Thing type person! One can’t deny the influential impact it’s had on many films through the years such as The Abyss, The Cave, Night of the Creeps, and The Faculty. The make up and special effects are absolutely stunning and the cinematography is beautiful. Kurt Russell is phenomenal as the leader of a group of scientists stuck abound in the Antarctic. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Thing is the unrelenting suspense built up around the key mystery: who exactly is the alien disguised in human form. The defining scene is when they decide to cut themselves and test each other’s blood. It leaves you utterly on the edge of your seat.

7. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) - Top 10 FilmsStanley Kubrick took a second rate book and made it into a masterpiece horror film. His use of lighting and camera shots along with symbolic suggestions made The Shining one of the most influential and terrifying films in cinema history. Jack Nicholson’s transformation into a man who is slowly slipping into hysteria so vividly portrayed on the screen is simply amazing. This film scared the life out of me watching it as a kid and quite frankly it still does today. It’s all about the madness of creation and solitude of the minds disintegration into alienation and darkness.

6. The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)

Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist, William Friedkin, Top 10 Films,William Friedkin directed one of the scariest films of all time with The Exorcist. It surprisingly was a blockbuster film with enough controversy to make a politician proud. The film was scary because it depicted a literal depiction of the ritual of exorcism and you saw it unfold in the theater or your living room right in front of your eyes. Linda Blair plays the demonically possessed fourteen-year-old who battles a priest for her soul. It continues to scare audiences and remains a pinnacle horror film influencing much of the paranormal craze of today. Combining state of the art effects with powerful acting, Catholicism never seemed the same again. It includes many iconic scenes, for example, the famous head spin and vomit projectile followed by chosen profanity. The Exorcist remains an all time classic.

5. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

Jaws, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Stephens, You're gonna need a bigger boat - Top 10 FilmsSteven Spielberg’s terror in the ocean brought a new kind of fear to horror. The film launched a nationwide scare that summer of 1975 and it was reported that the beaches were empty. The film was a blockbuster hit and quite enjoyable to watch with a crowd. The filming was plagued by mechanical failures and Spielberg was quoted saying the film would finish him off. Thank god it did not and in 100 days it was complete and ready to scare the life out of audiences. What makes Jaws so influential is the feeling of what is about to happen rather than simple killing with blood, guts, and gore. The suspenseful build up of the shark attack is brilliantly frightening. This style was highly revered and copied several times after Jaws.
Discover More: 10 Reasons Jaws Might Be The Best Film Ever Made

4. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)

Anthony Perkins, Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho - Top 10 FilmsConsidered to have spawned the slasher genre, Alfred Hitchcock created one of the scariest monsters of all time in Norman Bates. Taken from the true life horrors of real life serial killer Ed Gein, Hitchcock added a little Oedipus complex and Psycho was born. Anthony Perkins’ twitchy and soft spoken demeanor made it even more frightening. He wears vulnerability like a cape on his back – but don’t get Norman mad because he’ll get you in the shower. Psycho influenced just about every slasher film to come.

3. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)

Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero, cult classic horror movie film, zombies,George Romero’s horror classic launched the modern zombie craze; made on a shoestring budget it was a horror film for its era. The film was a poke at the times and what was happening in America. Romero had an underlying message on the waste of consumerism that was to lead the country to its downfall. The zombies represented the notion to follow and consume with no individual thought. The film was shunned by critics and media outlets not taking it seriously. It went on to become arguably the greatest cult classic in cinema. To me the most fascinating aspect is the verite aesthetic, shot in black and white and minimal make-up creating a surreal atmosphere. It continues to influence generations of audiences and filmmakers today.

2. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)

Halloween - Donald Pleasance - Top 10 FilmsHalloween is considered the film to usher the slasher movement to the forefront of mainstream cinema and it’s hard to argue that. Made on a very low budget with hardly any blood or gore the mere presence of Michael Myers scared people to death. Funnily enough, it was deemed an exploitation film by critics, little did they know that John Carpenter’s low budget thriller would become a masterclass in suspenseful horror filmmaking. The influence is countless: every slasher film made after 1978 copied the mechanics of Halloween. The use of shadows, lighting, and synth-score along with the perfect timing of jump out of your seat moments made Halloween the granddaddy of “stalk and slash” and one to model after. Michael Myers is one of the most fascinating and iconic horror figures in modern day cinema. The most definitive moment is the opening point of view shot as young Michael murders his sister.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Top 10 Films, Horror, Tobe Hooper, Leatherface, Sunset,Tobe Hooper wrote and directed arguably the most frightening horror film in modern cinema. Filmed on a shoestring budget and shot in 32 days exactly, it scared the life out of people and influenced so many films today. Hooper said he got the idea staring at chainsaws in a department store. Influenced by gory classic horror movies like Spider Baby and Seconds he wanted to make a gut wrenching film. I think he succeeded greatly.

A sadistic cannibal family armed with hooks, hammers, and power tools terrorizes five vacationing teenagers in rural Texas. The influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is immeasurable and changed the face of horror. It’s filmed in a documentary style with minimal blood and lighting. The raw feel of the film was groundbreaking and unseen in the genre at the time. It opened the door to shock suspense rather than the blood and guts type of horror. The idea of what is about to happen is more scary than seeing what is going to happen a mile away.

The definitive moment is when Leatherface slams the heavy cold steel door shut after they enter the house. The Texas Chaisaw Massacre is not a film driven by death in numbers like most of the slasher films of its time. It goes way beyond that, the sheer terror of what the main protagonist goes through and survives is far worse and far more terrifying. This influence changed the face of horror films.

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano

What are your top 10 American horror movies? Let us know…

About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. ArchE Reply

    Hu-Ah… the Americans know how to make a good horror movie don’t they Neal! This top 10 is a prime example of how filmmakers in the US perfectly dramatised the zeitgeist of the period and the 70s and 80s were an ideal period for some of these guys (Romero, Carpenter, Hooper) to come of age. I’m not sure Hooper did anything as good after Texas Chainsaw so it’s an ideal number one.

    The lack of any Wes Craven is the only thing I’d highlight as being a necessity when it comes to “great” American horror. Indeed, I’d drop Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby for either Last House, Hills Have Eyes or Nightmare on Elm Street.

    That said, few could argue with your choices or the order.

    • Dan Reply

      Agreed. Nightmare and Elm Street would be an ideal addition but I think Last House on the Left was similarly influential. I’d keep Rosemary’s Baby and drop The Thing as Carpenter’s on there twice.

      • Neal Damiano Reply

        @Dan Stephens
        I completely see your point on having two John Carpenter films on here but there is no way I could drop The Thing from the list. On a personal level I absolutely love this film and the influence its had on horror films is immeasurable. The concept is still used today.

    • Rodney Reply

      Yeah, I’d have liked to see a Wes Craven film here too – Nightmare on Elm Street or possibly Scream, both two iconic franchises whose central villain figure is instantly recogniseable. That said, this is only a list of ten, so I’d say it’s hard to pick and choose the cultural impact of the ones left aside.

  2. Luke Reeve Reply

    Maniac or Henry: Portrait of the Serial Killer would be good additions for that gritty 1980s horror but great top 10 regardless.

    • Dan Reply

      I think Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left would knock these two down a peg or two when it came to grim, gritty realism. For me, I’d put Craven’s film ahead of them both. Good films though.

  3. Dan Grant Reply

    Terrific list Neal. You can’t deny the influence of any of these films. All are definitely American icons. Nice job.

  4. Dan Grant Reply

    I’ll comment more later, but I think I would have found a place for Friday the 13th here. As influence goes, no other horror film did the killer point of view slicing and dicing better than the original Friday. But that is just one small complaint.

    • Dan Reply

      Friday The 13th is a tough one. I’ve never really rated them myself but I can’t argue with the fact Friday the 13th had a heavy influence on the slasher genre. However, if it came to adding Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th to this list, I’d opt for Nightmare.

  5. Lazer Reply

    Missing Friday the 13th and last house on the left. Otherwise perfect.

    • Dan Reply

      Arguably missing those films…

      I think you could just as easily make a case for Dawn of the Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street.

      • Rodney Reply

        I wonder, could a case also be made for Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise? Arguably the poster child for what has evolved into today’s torture porn….

  6. Neal Copeland Reply

    still, to this day, The Exorcist.

  7. Michael Scoates Reply

    The Birds, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Blair Witch Project, Drag Me To Hell, Scanners, Hostel, From Dusk Till Dawn

  8. George Wetterer Reply

    HOMICIDAL. THE NIGHT WALKER. THE EXORCIST 1 and 3. THE BAT. PRIVATE PARTS. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

  9. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Arch
    It’s my only regret writing this list.I thought of Craven right after sending it off for publication and you’re right he should be on here I would of included Nightmare on Elm Street. Everyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Wes Craven fan and his work is absolutely influential.

    • ArchE Reply

      Wes Craven was influential, no doubt, but he wasn’t the only one and you’ve captured the best of a brilliant bunch right here.

  10. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Dan Grant
    I agree no other film does the first person point of view killing quite like and as good as the original Friday the 13th (1980) However I only had room for ten. Believe me it ranks up high on my slasher film list but as for true horror I’d say it’s a film that as been influenced by its predecessor giallo films more than a film that highly influences. And it does it justice. With that said it is a great slasher classic.
    I threw around this and Alien as a close consideration.

  11. bray Reply

    The exorcist and Texas Chainsaw are the best.

  12. Callum Reply

    Great piece Neal. It must have been tough getting this down to just ten films. I would have loved to have seen Nightmare on Elm Street as I think it is a classic horror but I don’t know how you’d get it into the top 10. I do love the ones I’ve seen.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      @Callum
      It was extremely tough narrowing it down to only ten, however I don’t get some of the recommendations mentioned here the topic piece is “Influential” key word being, not horror films one particularly likes. But that’s the great thing about film it’s subjective! Nightmare On Elm Street is deserving and my regret Friday the 13th strong mention as well. Again narrowing down to ten is tough.

      Thanks for the read!

  13. david pino d Reply

    Nightmare On Elm Street is missing….

  14. Bettie BOO Reply

    1408, Stir of Echoes, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Gift are the first ones that come to mind.

    • Rodney Reply

      I would posit that most people on the street have never heard of 1208, Stir of Echoes (which is a bloody brilliant film in any case) or The Gift (I assume you mean the Raimi one, not the recent one with Joel Edgerton?), making their “iconic” status dubious at best.

  15. David Minogue Reply

    Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street & Carrie. All the originals.

  16. CineGirl Reply

    Really good top 10 Neal. I’m happy to say I’ve seen all these films. The Exorcist is the best for me but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely up there. Love Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing and Halloween. Jaws is a great film, of course, but perhaps it did more for blockbuster movies than it did for horror. Because of this, I’d replace it with Nightmare on Elm Street.

  17. Dan Reply

    Brilliant piece Neal. As I initially started reading through it, every entry was a great big “tick” in the box for great American cinema. There are few horror films that resonate so well with audiences, or indeed other filmmakers, as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I can’t argue with its place at number one. I must admit my favourite horror film is The Exorcist but its impact was on the audience, not the industry. Texas Chainsaw achieved both. And on the theme of “influence” in American cinema, Halloween is a great number two – the blueprint of the slasher.

    An American Werewolf In London, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing, The Shining and Jaws are all big favourites of mine. I like Romero’s “Dead” trilogy a lot but don’t return to them as much as the others mentioned. I always fight with myself as to whether I prefer “Night” and “Dawn” the most.

  18. Dan Grant Reply

    Just out of curiosity, and not that I disagree with Nightmare on Elm Street (which is one of my faves) but can someone explain how it influenced horror? IMO, you can make an easy case for films like Jaws, TCM, Halloween and many others mentioned here. But besides being an incredibly scary film, what exactly did NOES influence?

    • Dan Reply

      I think Nightmare’s biggest influence was to say – in 1984 – that slasher film directors couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. Here was a film that mixed dream with reality – it took the seemingly unstoppable killer and gave him an even more frightening environment to stalk and slash in. If anything, it forced the genre to progress, and helped Craven himself move towards the postmodernism of New Nightmare and Scream (two other films that couldn’t have made this list).

      Another thing that Nightmare did was make the killer an even more prominent part of the story. Indeed, Freddy becomes the star. I think it influenced the sequels to Friday The 13th and Halloween in how Jason and Micheal Myers were portrayed and paved the way for films like April Fool’s Day to take the tropes and do something a bit different with them.

      • Rory Reply

        Wasn’t Nightmare the first time we saw slasher film action figures for kids? Slasher film villains became caricatures. In some ways, Nightmare On Elm Street’s influence was negative.

  19. Dan Grant Reply

    And how did 1408 or The Gift or Drag Me To Hell influence anything? If anything, those films are influenced by the films that Neal has listed.

    • Dan Reply

      Bear in mind some people are responding the question at the end of the article about favourite horror movies.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      @Dan Grant
      Exactly, I’m still trying to figure that out 1408, Drag Me To Hell? Stir of Echoes is not even a horror film ( laughing) but people add there own films they really like. Dan always asks at the end ” What are your favorite films- in whatever the list topic is.

      All good….thanks for reading and feedback everyone.
      Always much appreciated.

  20. Severan Reply

    Some cool movies on here. Did The Blair Witch Project ever enter your thinking?

  21. Poul Reply

    I’d argue if any director deserved to be on here more than once it would be the guy not featured at all: Wes Craven! Get rid of Carpenter, Polanski and Landis.

  22. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Severan
    Thanks, Blair Witch Project is a great scary film. I wouldn’t put it on this list but I know it’s high up on the great found footage list here and well fitting and deserving. It’s probably my third favorite found footage film.

  23. Rory Reply

    I think few could argue with Texas Chainsaw topping this list – great choice Neal. Love the inclusion of American Werewolf too – the greatest of the horror-comedy hybrids.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thanks Rory,
      Two favorites of mine in a long list of horror films. If you stop and think about Texas Chainsaw Massacre influenced so many films in the horror genre. It really did change the face of horror.
      American Werewolf in London, I fell in love with it upon first viewing as a kid growing up.

  24. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Poul
    Yes, we get it.
    I wouldn’t drop any from this list as far as influence goes. Craven was an influential filmmaker without a doubt.

  25. Neal Damiano Reply

    Poul,
    To add, we’re talking about influential horror films not directors.

  26. Sandy Reply

    great selection of influential horror. texas chainsaw and halloween are so scary

  27. Neal Damiano Reply

    I will include my close considerations since everyone seems interested to know!

    Alien
    Friday the 13th (1980)
    The Omen
    Amityville Horror
    The Changeling
    Don’t Look Now
    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (first remake)

    • Callum Reply

      Amityville is very scary, perhaps because it’s based on a true story. The Omen is brilliant.

  28. Mark F Reply

    Great list Neal and a difficult one to argue with. However, after mulling over things a bit, I’ve reached my inescapable conclusion that the first Evil Dead should be on there …. if I was going to bump anything off to accommodate it, it would be either The Thing (which is my favourite Carpenter film) or Jaws. Plus, all things considered, I think The Exorcist should have been higher.

    I’m not really a fan of the man, but I agree with Dan that there are a couple of Wes Cravens that could be contenders – not so much Nightmare, but more so The Last House on the Left and, arguably even more so, The Hills Have Eyes (after all, what would the French horror new wave be without human mutants?).

    I liked George Wetterer’s suggestion that The Bat might have also been a contender – I watched this for the first time on late nite TV a few months back and couldn’t believe how snazzy the lighting was (it was shot by Aldrich regular Joe Biroc – pity the director didn’t exploit this DOPs abilities for his 1970s movies).

    One of my favourite American horror films is The Sentinel, but I don’t think it influenced too much (and it was directed by a Brit).

    • Dan Reply

      “I’m not really a fan of the man, but I agree with Dan…” – when did we fall out, Mark? 🙂

      If we’re simply talking about favourites, The Hill Have Eyes tops both Nightmare and Last House but I get the feeling Last House had more of an impact on American filmmakers during the period.

      Craven could also make the list with A new Nightmare (the self-referential theme way before he mastered it with Scream and even further in advance of Cabin In The Woods which everyone – apart from me and Neal – salivate over).

      *NB. I think Cabin In The Woods’ fandom comes from Joss Whedon’s involvement – he’s flavour of the month (decade?).

  29. Evan Crean Reply

    There are some films on this list that I know I’ve been neglectful in not seeing like Rosemary’s Baby, American Werewolf in London, and Psycho, but I love every other movie on the list and totally feel like they belong. My personal top 10 would have The Thing and The Shining closer to the top though. Clearly I’m also 100% a The Thing type of person. Haha.

  30. Neal Damiano Reply

    In response to Dan S , Dan G, and Mark F and their friendly little argument. My opinion is when it comes down to influence in Wes Craven’s work. I have to side with Dan Stephens Last House on the Left had an incredible influence on violent horror we see today with films like Hostil, Saw, Tourista, Wolf Creek, etc……the list is long. And it probably should be on this list somewhere over Nightmare On Elm Street , again, as far as influence goes. But I absolutely love Nightmare On a Elm Street (the original)

  31. Rodney Reply

    Yup, a solid list. Hard to fault many of the choices but….

    I continue to argue that Jaws isn’t a horror film.

    I reason that by suggesting that a horror film must contain a human, or humanoid villain (ghost, demon, serial killer, whatever). If we include a shark, why not include a rabid dog (Cujo) or bird (The Birds) or the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. I’d suggest that perhaps Jaws is less horror and more thriller (an entirely different category) with subtle horror elements (the moment ol’ Quint gets chomped is pretty horrific), but it’s not quite in keeping with the rest of the villains on this list.

    I’ll also throw my two cents into suggesting Wes Craven’s influence, perhaps more than any other, has shaped modern horror since the 80’s. His work on Nightmare On Elm Street was influential in multiple genres – not just horror – and coupled with his Scream franchise, surely he’s deserving of a gong for “cultural influence”. Sure, Kubrick’s Shining and the inclusion of Leatherface and everyone else on this list is solid, can’t deny it. I know it’s been debated above, but I’d consider both the original Nightmare and the first Scream movie to be instantly iconic, and indeed continue to permeate the horror genre (look at all the remakes!), so for sheer legacy, Craven’s work can’t be denied.

  32. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Rodney

    To me horror is any just cause entity,physical being or object that inflicts harm or terror on another and evokes a terrifying reaction from an audience. Jaws is not my favorite horror film by far but I consider it a horror thriller. The film certainly is influential in fright.

  33. Dan Grant Reply

    Rodney: Jaws scared the poop out of me when I saw it. That automatically qualifies it as a horror film. Cujo of course is horror too.

    The great thing about horror and our opinions on them is that so many of us have so many different opinions and I find them fascinating. Also interesting is that it seems the top tens than get the most interest here contain some kind of horror theme to them. We’re all a bunch of nerds who love being scared. 🙂

  34. Neal Damiano Reply

    Although not necessarily driven by evil both Jaws and Cujo are both considered horror to me.both evoke extreme terror and fright in its audience. In my opinion horror is a fascinating genre of film because of its reaction taps into the dark side of human nature.

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