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)
Roman 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 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)
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)
Stanley 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)
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)
Steven 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)
Considered 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)
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 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)
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…