Illustration: Tim McDonagh
Even when horror films get some respect, they get no respect. Since the dawn of cinema, they’ve been banned, reviled as filth, and dismissed as lowbrow entertainment made for freaks, weirdos, and ghouls. “It’s a great horror film” meant that a movie could only be so good — that there was a threshold of greatness it could never reach. And if one dared to reach, or (gasp) exceed that threshold, it was greeted with an even more dismissive qualifier: “It’s not really a horror film at all!” Thus were the slashers and monsters and psycho killers prevented from staining the good name of cinema by association.
And yet, as New York Magazine recently declared on the cover of its October 1 issue, “Scary movies are the movies of our time.” Similar to the transformation of comics from niche nerd concern to ubiquitous mass cult force, horror films are in the middle of their own boom. Studio pictures and small releases alike are being critically praised while accounting for an increasingly bigger percentage of annual box-office totals. In the past several years titles like It, A Quiet Place, Split, and Halloween have set new records, while films like The Babadook, The Witch, Hereditary, and It Follows have garnered awards and captured the public’s imagination. (Meanwhile, Get Out did both.)
The genre has always flourished during times of great social and political unrest. The genesis of the American horror tradition came at the height of the Great Depression, while hard-core violence broke through to the mainstream during the Vietnam era, and the “torture porn” craze coincided with the Iraq War and the real-life horrors of Abu Ghraib. Contrary to the recent emergence of the term “social thriller,” horror has always been one of our most dynamic filmic methods for processing the human experience.
So with the horror fan base expanding and mainstream interest in the genre booming, Vulture spent the past few months identifying the 100 Scares That Shaped Horror Movies, with the help of dozens of academics, historians, critics, filmmakers, and journalists. Think of it as your best at-a-glance guide to more than a century’s worth of terrifying films. From the shape-shifting creatures of Georges Méliès’s “The Haunted Castle,” to the arrival of the Universal Monsters, to the birth of the slasher, to the present-day rise of the art-house indie horror and everything in between, these scenes built the language of the genre as we understand it today — complete with the politically charged themes, incisive social commentary, and virtuoso violence that have defined horror since the very beginning.
While the list includes films from all over the world, we focused specifically on how they have affected trends in American production. Some directors are represented across multiple films, but each movie was limited to a single scene, and selected for its traceable impact on pictures that came after. Some films introduced techniques or tropes that would later become common; others perfected them.
As this is a genre of violence, graphic scenes of abuse and exploitation are at times included, but we’ve provided context for why they are vital to the larger conversation about horror. We were also very aware throughout about the lack of diversity in this genre — both in front of and behind the camera. A lot of effort went into broadening the points of view included here, but we hope the results serve as a reminder that after 100 years of progress, a lot of work remains to be done.
And now, without further ado, we present Vulture’s road map to the evolution of horror cinema. Buckle up and lock your doors, because there are many terrors along the way.
Directed by Georges Méliès
Any survey of the supernatural on film will have to pay its respects to the great French pioneer Georges Méliès, whose obsessions with all forms of cinematic trickery set the stage for subsequent attempts at effects-driven fantasy and science fiction. While it’s only about three minutes long, “The Haunted Castle” is a speedy journey through the supernatural that makes you feel as if you’re watching an entire genre being born, which is why some consider it the first horror film. It may not be all that scary, but it really is inventive and wonderful, and still kind of eerie. You can see so many elements that are still with us today in its handmade cavalcade of creepy effects — skeletons materializing out of nowhere and turning into bats, beautiful women transforming into witches, and mysterious, cloaked figures emerging from the shadows. —Bilge Ebiri
Directed by Robert Wiene; written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
When this German expressionist film made its American debut in 1920, author and art critic Willard Huntington Wright told Variety, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represents the inevitable line along which the cinema must evolve,” adding that U.S. motion pictures, which were perceived at the time as having gone stagnant, “have reached an impasse.” But while critics exalted the film, many citizens and ex-soldiers protested the proposition of spending their hard-earned American dollars on a film made by a German. Caligari, however, was too good to be stifled. In his book The Monster Show, film historian David J. Skal put the artistic leap of the picture on par with the arrival of sound. The image of Cesare, the haunted somnambulist, attempting to stab the film’s sleeping heroine was a true turning point in terror, wrapping classic images of the genre — the man invading the woman’s bedroom, the sunken-eyed proto-zombie figure, the monster animated by a madman of science — in one of the most stunning cinematic presentations ever witnessed at the time. It’s worth noting, too, that the Los Angeles Examiner decried this foreign invader and called for a ban on German films all together. That paper had the slogan “AMERICA FIRST” emblazoned on its masthead, but such rank nationalism didn’t stop German filmmakers like F.W. Murnau and Paul Leni from leaving their mark on American horror. —Jordan Crucchiola
Directed by F. W. Murnau; screenplay by Henrik Galeen
The most iconic scene in the most iconic vampire movie was apparently never in the screenplay. Henrik Galeen’s script makes no mention of Nosferatu, or Count Orlok, making his way up the stairs to Ellen Hutter’s bedroom, where she has willingly sacrificed herself to the vampire in an attempt to trap him. But director F.W. Murnau was notoriously obsessed with shadows. “Art consists in eliminating,” he often said, noting that creating shadows and darkness was much more important in film than creating light. And here we have one of cinema’s greatest usages of darkness, as the slinking, demonic shadow of Max Schreck as Orlok slowly makes his way up the stairs, where Ellen beckons, and where he will eventually meet his doom. It’s a perfect example of creeping dread. The angle of the light as it hits the wall distorts the vampire’s silhouette so that it’s even more unreal and menacing than before; watch how his claws are extended in shadow, as if they’re stretching out all by themselves. Shadows creeping along walls would eventually become one of the building blocks of horror, but it took a visionary like Murnau to perfect this motif before it truly took hold. —BE
Directed and written by Benjamin Christensen
If it weren’t for the fact that it’s a silent film, it would be nearly impossible to believe that Häxan was released in the year 1922. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, this unsung entry in the witch-horror subgenre is a strange brew. Part reenactment by actors, part history lesson, part early exploitation flick, it also arguably stands as the first true “mockumentary,” leading the way to cult classics such as This Is Spinal Tap, Walk Hard, and What We Do in the Shadows. The film shows four different plots: a scholarly dissertation of witchcraft through the ages, a series of short segments of witches riding broomsticks and buying love potions and being seduced by Satan, a long narrative about a woman being tortured until she admits to being a witch, and a final plotline that seeks to illustrate how far we’ve come from the days of pointed fingers and supposed damnation.
The most memorable scene in the movie is when the witches gather around their cauldron, their incantations stirring the ghastly sights within a heated chalice. Up until this point in the film, all of the footage has been factual evidence of the history of witchcraft. Now, suddenly, there’s a supernatural show on display. It’s a wickedly beautiful scene that makes the idea of sorcery almost appealing in its raw power and sinful playfulness. Although the film was widely panned by critics upon its initial release and denounced as pure blasphemy, filmmakers and cinema lovers alike now recognize its significance in the horror genre, forever changing the landscape of how we look at witches, and inspiring the genre-blending structure of countless screenplays for years to come. —Kalyn Corrigan
Directed by Rupert Julian and, uncredited, Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle, and Edward Sedgwick; screenplay by, uncredited, Walter Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace
Known as the Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney became one of the biggest stars of the silent era through his ability to transform himself — not just with elaborate makeup effects, but also through punishing physical control of his body. While this 1925 version of the Phantom of the Opera isn’t the most suspenseful or artful of the Gaston Leroux classic’s many adaptations, it may well be the most notorious, thanks to Chaney’s legendary appearance. The star did his own makeup, reportedly using products he could purchase at the drug store across the street from his home — a combination of spirit gum and wires to flare and raise his nostrils, and black eyeliner to make his eyes look like the holes of a skull. When the film finally opened, after a troubled production and post-production (directors were replaced, releases were aborted, different cuts were scrapped), it became a hit, largely thanks to its central scene. The unmasking of the Phantom’s misshapen face reportedly sent viewers fainting back in 1925, and it still hasn’t lost its ability to shock. Chaney’s makeup effects were revolutionary — they inspired many later pioneers of gore — but what really sells the scene is the performer’s stunned expression, which strikes a note of both menace and vulnerability. The man could just plain act. —BE
Directed by F.W. Murnau; screenplay by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
At its best, German Expressionism conveys abstract, emotional, and psychological concepts through haunting, symbolic imagery. And there are few images more indelible than that of Mephistopheles’s enormous figure looming over an unsuspecting German village, his giant black cape slowly consuming the town as the people below are devastated by plague. Not to mention prophetic: German cinema of the period is filled with tales of charismatic, menacing individuals exerting coercive power over common people; in Mephistopheles’s monstrous hold over this town, director F.W. Murnau happened to find a visual metaphor for an entire century. The filmmaker had already proven himself a master of horror with Nosferatu just four years earlier, and the international success of The Last Laugh in 1924 had prompted him to head to Hollywood. (His first American effort, 1927’s Sunrise, is still one of the greatest films ever made within the studio system.) With the massive, budget-busting, and surprisingly disturbing production of Faust, Murnau was essentially saying farewell to Germany. —BE
Directed by Paul Leni; adapted by Robert F. Hill and Alfred A. Cohn
The “old dark house” tradition had a strong influence on horror in terms of both style and the construction of suspense. These gothic mystery-thrillers, which superficially looked like haunted-house films until a more earthly explanation was revealed, would become a staple of 1920s and ’30s genre cinema. (They’re basically the template for the Scooby Doo trope: Is it a monster? No, it’s just a shitty guy in a mask.) Paul Leni’s 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary is surely the most influential, spawning no less than three remakes of the same name. It’s also a clear point of origin for what are now recognizable horror clichés, particularly the scene where a gruesome hand appears in ominous shadow over the sleeping Annabelle (Laura La Plante). She is the niece of the wealthy Cyrus West, whose nasty family unite in his “old dark house” 20 years after his death for the reading of his will. As his sole heir, Annabelle is now the eponymous canary surrounded by a family of greedy cats. While her family hope her belief that she is being terrorized by a monster is evidence of an inheritance-losing mental-health crisis, the truth is revealed to be good old-fashioned human villainy. —Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Directed by Luis Buñuel; written by Buñuel and Salvador Dali
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and co-written with the bizarre and surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou is a 21-minute, plotless short film of pure nightmare fuel. The first screening took place at Studio des Ursulines, with an audience of “le tout-Paris,” or the most fashionable and elite Parisians. Buñuel claimed to have put stones in his pockets “to throw at the audience in case of disaster.” Since its debut, no moment of the film has been debated or analyzed more than the infamous “eye slice” scene. In it, a man sharpens a straight razor while casually smoking a cigarette. He steps outside onto a balcony, and as he admires the moon above, we cut to a different scene: The man is now holding a woman’s face in his hands, opening her eyelids with his fingertips. He brings the razor blade to her eye, a shot of the moon quickly appears, and he slices open the eyeball, vitreous fluid oozing out of the wound. Thanks to some expertly placed lighting, the eye slice was achieved using the face of a dead calf, meaning a real animal eyeball was cut open on film. Thanks to the advent of the internet, this scene has remained one of the most memorable and GIF-able, even out of context. Strangely enough, both of the actors in this scene would later commit suicide. Pierre Batcheff overdosed on Veronal three years after the film’s release, and Simone Mareuil doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in a public square after World War II. While it’s unlikely these events are connected, the power of the urban legend now surrounding one of the earliest examples of a cinematic scare is hard to deny. —Brittney-Jade Colangelo
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by Samuel Hoffstein and Percy Heath
As a journeyman director who tackled a wide variety of genres — from musical to romantic comedy to period epic to horror to swashbuckler — director Rouben Mamoulian never quite got the respect he deserved from more high-minded critics. But he was one of Hollywood’s foremost innovators, and one need look no further than the transformation scene in his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale for evidence. For years, viewers and scholars wondered how Mamoulian had engineered Fredric March’s metamorphosis from the kindly Jekyll into the beastly Hyde right before our eyes; the director kept it a secret for decades, until finally revealing that he and legendary cinematographer Karl Struss had used a series of colored filters passing across the lens. But perhaps just as important to this transformation scene is its expressive and unsettling use of sound, which Mamoulian achieved by mixing together a recording of his own heartbeat, a reverse gong, and actual paint dabbed onto the physical soundtrack. That Jekyll experiences a series of sexualized flashbacks and visions right before he transforms (gotta love those pre-code thrills) just adds to the intensity of the scene. —BE
Directed by Tod Browning; screenplay by Garrett Fort
Horror cinema was largely imported from Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, but Universal put American studios on the genre map in 1931 with Dracula, directed by the legendary Tod Browning. Up until that point, the vampire was defined by Max Schreck’s craggy and repulsive Count Orlok in Nosferatu, but Dracula put a Hollywood coat of paint on him by casting the handsome Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi to play the part. When his soon-to-be familiar Renfield enters the vampire’s castle and Lugosi’s Dracula greets him with a smooth “I bid you… welcome,” it’s both titillating and terrifying, and it became the model for countless undead to follow in the subsequent 100 years of cinema, from Christopher Lee to Kiefer Sutherland to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.
The success of the film can’t be removed from the context in which it arrived, either. It was mauled by many for its poor taste: “a horrible thing” with no redeeming qualities that was “unwholesome and ghastly.” But it was the Great Depression, and people were desperate for cheap distractions. So of course it was a smash hit, and the modern American horror film was born — complete with salacious word of mouth, robust franchising opportunities, and heavy potential for crossover events. The year 1931 changed everything for horror, and the monsters were here to stay. —JC
Directed by James Whale; screenplay by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
Wait…No…They’re not gonna let him kill the little girl, are they??? James Whale’s Frankenstein has two of the most immortal scenes in horror history. The first, of course, is that crazy, over-the-top reanimation scene. (“It’s aliiiiivee!!”) But even that can’t quite hold a candle to the sheer unspeakable madness of the moment when the Monster (played with blunt, brute confusion by the great Boris Karloff) meets the little girl Maria, who just wants to play with flowers. Together, they toss some petals into a lake. The Monster, delighted at discovering this simple activity and this nice new friend, is concerned when he runs out of petals — so he tosses poor little Maria instead. It all happens so casually, as if the film has briefly decided to embody the Monster’s own carelessness. Regional censors at the time demanded that the scene be removed, so that we’d only see the creature reaching out to the girl, and her death would happen offscreen. But the moment still went down in history. Understandably so: In its cruelty, sadness, and horror, it perfectly encapsulates the tragedy of Frankenstein’s Monster. Subsequent films — including Whale’s follow-up The Bride of Frankenstein (in which the Monster also kills Maria’s parents!) — would lean into that blend of pathos and brutality. —BE
Directed by Tod Browning; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon
Fresh off the success of Dracula, Tod Browning’s Freaks became one of his most polarizing works. The film is set in a sideshow attraction and utilizes real-life “freaks” like Johnny Eck the Half-Boy, Schlitzie the Pinhead, Koo Koo the Bird Girl, and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton — all performers who continued their work after filming ended. The magic of Freaks, however, is that the sideshow performers are shown as fully realized people, with the “normal” performers — Cleopatra, the trapeze artist, and Hercules, the strong man — playing the dastardly villains. The performers accept Cleopatra with open arms when she begins a relationship with rich “midget” Hans, but when they discover that she intends to poison him and steal his money so she can run away with Hercules, they enact a justifiably gruesome brand of vigilante justice.
Their true vengeance was originally butchered in the final film, and the footage is presumably lost, but audiences today are able to witness a condensed version, where the “freaks” ambush Cleopatra in the rainy, damp woods and make her “one of us.” The film cuts to a carnival barker, standing above a cage, telling audience members, “how she got that way, we’ll never know,” only to reveal Cleopatra — now a grotesque, squawking “human duck.” Her hands have been melted and morphed to look like duck feet, she’s missing the lower half of her body, and what is left of her torso has been permanently tarred and feathered. Freaks was a box-office disaster and became the only MGM film ever to be pulled from release before completing its domestic engagements. It killed Browning’s career, and the film was banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years on the grounds of exploitation. But its impact can still be felt today in popular media, most notably in American Horror Story: Freak Show. —BJC
Directed by Karl Freund; screenplay by John L. Balderston
In one of the tensest, most surprising “monster first appears” scenes in horror history, Boris Karloff’s millennia-old Egyptian mummy silently awakens in his sarcophagus upon hearing an ancient incantation uttered by an unsuspecting archaeology assistant. It’s a classic case of less is more. Karloff’s face, crisscrossed with lines and scars, is truly unsettling. He comes to life so, so slowly, and remains expressionless, until his ancient hand creeps across a desk. But what really makes this scene so nerve-racking is how quiet it is. You’d be forgiven for thinking that something has gone wrong with the soundtrack. And then, the capper: When confronted with the Mummy, the victim gives an understandable shriek, but then … starts cackling maniacally, because he’s completely lost his mind. As the Mummy leaves, all we see is a trail of bandages slinking out the door. Somehow, the fact that the monster doesn’t even have to touch or attack his prey — that by his sheer presence he can completely upend his victim’s brains — adds a whole other level of menace. —BE
Directed by Victor Halperin; written by Garnett Weston
Nowadays, zombies are as ubiquitous as death, taxes, and Fast & Furious sequels, but back in 1932, the term “zombie” was new, having been added to the American lexicon just three years earlier by way of William Seabrook’s sensationalistic travelogue book The Magic Island. White Zombie was the first portrayal of zombies on the big screen, spawning an enduring horror subgenre and setting the stage for modern incarnations of the living dead. Unlike most modern fare, however, White Zombie adhered to the Haitian origins of zombie lore, setting its story on the Caribbean isle, with a voodoo practitioner (Bela Lugosi and his impossibly evil eyes) commanding a battalion of catatonic slaves — an eerie sight early in the film as we catch our first glimpse of them shambling across the moonlit countryside toward their master. —Mark H. Harris
Directed by James Whale; screenplay by William Hurlbut
One of the most infamous shrieks in movie history: Elsa Lanchester, freshly reanimated, comes face-to-face with her intended mate — Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) — and lets out a blood-curdling scream that is at once terrifying and unfathomably sad, proving that a monster movie can express the most complicated of emotions. This is a scene that hurts. And the deeper you go, the more disturbing it gets. Despite the title, the Bride doesn’t appear until the very end, so the whole story has been building up to this moment, prompting us to wonder about both her appearance and her reaction. (Most of the film follows the sad-sack Karloff as he wanders the countryside, pursued by villagers and looking for shelter and friendship.) Even the question of who plays the Bride has been kept secret; the opening credits directly posit it as a mystery. Meanwhile, Lanchester also plays Mary Shelley, who, in a framing device, starts relating the story we’re about to watch one dark and stormy night. In other words, the moment of the Bride’s awakening could also be seen as the storyteller finding that she has become the victim of her own tale. And in a rather Pirandellian twist on the old concept of the Monster killing his creator, after hearing the Bride’s terrified shrieks, Karloff’s Monster blows himself up along with her. —BE
Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Garrett Fort
Horror can be sexy-dark, sexy-fun, and sexy-twisted, but rarely has the genre been as sexy-sad as Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter. Starring Gloria Holden in the title role as the famous vampire’s female offspring, Countess Zaleska, the film’s flimsy attempts to disguise metaphorical parallels between vampirism and the assumed “monstrosity” of lesbianism somehow made it past the otherwise notoriously uptight Hollywood censors of the time (an earlier version of the script wasn’t so lucky). Rarely do text and subtext collide as memorably as they do here when cold, hungry, and suicidal young Lili (Nan Grey) is “rescued” by Zaleska’s manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel) and brought home to the Countess. Zaleska famously kills the young girl, who memorably swoons out of frame, but the encounter is really more of a seduction. Far from a homophobic attack on the Countess, the scene endures because of Holden’s empathetic representation of the pain and suffering caused by social ostracization; she doesn’t want to be a monster, but culture and tradition has made her one. Trapped in an identity she knows society will not accept, her longing and loneliness render her one of horror’s earliest — and most important — queer female icons. —AHN
Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by DeWitt Bodeen
Cat People, like much of the work released by RKO, was distinctive, low budget, and brimming with character actors. The film, directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, received mixed reviews for its story of a Serbian woman, Irena (a pouty, slinky performance by Simone Simon), who descends from a race of people that turn into panthers when beset by anger or sexual desire — making her marriage to the upstanding Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) destined for tragedy. Thematically, it has only grown richer in the seven decades since its release for its heightened interrogation of what happens to women when their feelings are construed as monstrous. But the strength of this film is in how it keeps Irena’s panther form hidden, using sound effects and close-ups of those in terror to create its horror.
It is these attributes that power Cat People’s most iconic scene, which comes past the halfway point. Oliver falls in love with a woman named Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), leading to Irena’s ire. When Alice and Oliver part on a desolate street, Irena follows her through the inky darkness. The patter of each woman’s heels creates a distinct rhythm, growing ever more frantic and heightening the tension. At one point, Alice freezes in place, peering into the empty street behind her, wordlessly communicating her suspicion that someone is following her. A growl cuts through the dark, but it isn’t Irena in panther form as we expect — it’s just the roar of a bus. The scare is intense until it dissipates in the face of the mundane. This trick, referred to as “Lewton bus,” has gone on to influence more than just horror films, but literature, comics, television, and cinema as a whole. Some of the more fascinating examples include Aliens, the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first-season episode “The Witch.” The scene proves one of cinema’s greatest arguments — letting audiences use their imagination in order to heighten horror. —Angelica Jade Bastién
Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Edward Dein
Jacques Tourneur’s many films for producer Val Lewton used tension and suggestion instead of overt scares, and this beautifully understated horror mystery, about a serial killer in a small New Mexico town mimicking attacks by a runaway circus leopard, was no different. But these filmmakers also knew how to shock us when they needed to. In one of the earliest kills in The Leopard Man, a young girl is pursued in the middle of the night by the dark figure of a huge, terrifying cat. She runs, and the beast appears to give chase. She finally arrives home — but her angry mom refuses to let her in! The suspense gives way to sadism, and finally to outright shock: We hear the girl’s cries for help from the other side of the door, and then we see a trickle of blood appear beneath the door. For its time, this was a deeply disturbing depiction of killing. That it’s also a supremely artful one somehow adds to its discomfiting quality. —BE
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer; screenplay by John Baines and Angus MacPhail
What’s better than a scary story? Two scary stories? Nice try, but the answer is actually five scary stories. That’s the sort of “more is more” philosophy that has ingrained anthologies within horror cinema and television for decades, bringing the “campfire tales” dynamic to the screen. The U.K.’s Dead of Night, whose now-familiar portmanteau structure features five people taking turns telling tales (in a wraparound story that serves as a sixth tale), could rightly be considered the first horror anthology, if you don’t count Germany’s genre-fluid Waxworks. Regardless of what came before it, though, Dead of Night laid the groundwork for the Golden Age anthologies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Tales of Terror, Black Sabbath, and renowned Amicus anthologies like Tales from the Crypt — which in turn inspired anthologies like Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, Tales From the Hood, and Trick ‘r Treat, not to mention classic TV series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Tales From the Darkside.
If it weren’t enough to set the standard for anthologies, Dead of Night also mastered the “evil doll” trope for decades to come with its segment, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” Basically putting a sinister spin on the antagonistic ventriloquist-dummy relationship from The Great Gabbo, the tale stars Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who’s driven mad by his sentient dummy and eventually committed to an asylum where, in a haunting finale, his voice is taken over by the doll. Chucky and Annabelle owe a debt to Hugo. —MHH
Directed by Robert Siodmak; screenplay by Mel Dinelli
If you were doing the Running Man in the ‘70s or tried to make “on fleek” a thing in the ‘90s, then you know what it means to be ahead of your time. Meet your kindred spirit, The Spiral Staircase, a lurid blend of noir and gothic horror that would seem more at home in sordid ‘70s cinema than in the Hays Code–era ‘40s. Despite being set in a posh estate in the first decade of the 20th century, it’s apparent from early on that this is no stuffy parlor drama. During a seemingly innocuous scene of a mute woman dressing for bed, we zoom in on her closet to see a deranged eye peering from behind her clothes before cutting to the first-person view of the madman as he emerges from the closet and murders her in cold blood.
It’s a shocking scene that, with its silent, anonymous serial killer, female victim, and point-of-view camerawork, is a forerunner to the Italian giallo thrillers of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the American slashers of the ‘80s. Indeed, the close-up of the maniacal, voyeuristic eye would be a key element of the slasher classic Black Christmas, while the assailant’s choice of handicapped victims hints at the sort of twisted fetish that characterized gialli. —MHH
Directed by Charles Barton; screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein created the most successful early template for one of horror’s most surprising and satisfying subcategories: the horror comedy. Before Shaun of the Dead, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and the Scary Movie franchise skewered the genre’s tropes for laughs, there was this monster mash-up from Universal. The shine of the studio’s legendary characters, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy and the Wolfman, had faded by the end of the 1940s, and Universal needed to freshen things up a bit. The beloved comedy duo Abbott and Costello had already made a few farcical spook pictures like Hold That Ghost and Ghosts on the Loose, so the movie house that invented modern horror franchises recruited them for a crossover event that was pretty epic by 1948 standards.
In the climactic chase scene, Abbott and Costello try to barricade themselves behind a door, but since the hinges are on the outside, Frankenstein opens it right up and attacks them. It was the perfect combination of madcap miscalculations and horror iconography that the subgenre is built on. The film was a commercial and critical success that legitimized the studio horror comedy. It even features Bela Lugosi reprising his role as Dracula for the first time in 17 years, and he reportedly took it very seriously. —JC
Directed by Ishirô Honda; written by Takeo Murata and Ishirô Honda
“Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head,” says one character in Ishiro Honda’s original film about cinema’s most famous radioactive giant lizard. It’s one of many references throughout the film to the atomic threat — not just to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier, but also to the American testing still going on in the Pacific, and to the uncertainty of life in the nuclear age. Which is why when Godzilla’s full power is unleashed on Tokyo in Honda’s film — in what is still one of the all-time great sequences of citywide devastation — it makes such a horrific impact. The whole film has been building up the metaphor, and now the metaphor is breathing radioactive heat, stomping buildings, and tearing bridges to pieces. The sheer scale of the destruction was deliberately meant to evoke the still-raw memory of the war at home — both the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the firebombing of Tokyo were among Honda’s reference points. Of course, American distributors butchered the film, defanging its message and adding new scenes with Raymond Burr. That’s just one of the reasons Godzilla became a bit of a joke over the years. Some tacky sequels and disappointing “reboots” didn’t help. But the brutal attack on Tokyo in Honda’s original version remains one of the cruelest, saddest, scariest things you’ll ever see. —BE
Directed by Gordon Douglas; screenplay by Ted Sherdeman
American 1950s sci-fi–horror hybrids were monster-centric invasion films that often functioned as thinly veiled Cold War allegories. In Them! Sandy Descher plays an abandoned 6-year-old child, simply called “the little Ellinson girl,” found in the New Mexico desert in a state of mute, staring shock. Interviewing the child at a local hospital, Edmund Gwenn’s entomologist Dr. Harold Medford suspects he knows what caused the disappearance of her family and the death of a number of locals. He jolts her back to reality by waving formic acid — a chemical found in ants — under her nose. Combined with his discovery of recent nuclear testing in the area, the mystery is solved: giant, killer ants are responsible.
Unlike Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) or The Fly (1958), the mysteries that permeate Them! are built into the very title. It is this lack of initial specificity that renders Descher’s awakening so shocking: Sitting almost catatonic in a wheelchair as she is violently snapped out of her stupor, screaming the word “THEM!”, the intensity of the moment is compounded only further by her fourth-wall-breaking stare, shot in intimate close-up, encouraging us to share her experience of this as-yet-unidentified threat. Her vagueness is crucial to both the impact of the scene and the film’s enduring potency; be it communists or killer ants, this “them” could be anyone. —AHN
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi
There’s something fundamentally terrifying about a bathroom being a place of violence, a violation when we are at our most vulnerable and exposed. Alfred Hitchcock did not disguise his love of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French horror classic Les Diaboliques; it was also the favorite film of Psycho author Robert Block. Hitchcock’s film adaptation of the latter, with its legendary bathroom-as-a-site-of-terror premise, is one of the most famous moments in American film history. Although Clouzot beat Hitchcock to the rights for Boileau-Narcejac’s (a.k.a. Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud) 1951 novel She Who Was No More, Hitchcock would later famously adapt another Boileau-Narcejac work to the screen, remaking their 1956 novel The Living and the Dead as Vertigo in 1958.
Clouzot’s Diabolique hinges on a densely woven murder plot where abusive, thuggish Parisian school teacher Michel (Paul Meurisse) is lured into a death trap by his frail wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) and his lover, Nicole (Simone Signoret). Believing they have drowned him in a bathtub, they dump his body in a swimming pool at the school they work at to suggest a drowning accident. The film’s twist is sparked when Christina later sees Michel — whom she believes is dead — slowly rising, fully clothed, from the tub. The combined skills of the Clouzots — Véra as actor and Henri-Georges as director — render this one of the most unforgettable double crosses in horror history. —AHN
Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring
Doppelgängers have long been a vehicle for writers and filmmakers to explore identity and sociopolitical concerns, shot through with existential dread. Based on Jack Finney’s novel, the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers has seeped so thoroughly into American culture — from slang like “pod people” to its ingenious approach to the genre, which filters through its many remakes and other science-fiction–horror works — that you likely know the contours of the story even if you haven’t seen it. Directed by Don Siegel, Invasion centers on Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), an upstanding doctor in a close-knit small town in California. When he returns home from a work trip, he finds his town slowly unraveling under what seems to be mass hysteria about various loved ones being replaced by emotionless doppelgängers. As Bennell investigates, he finds the truth is more chilling than a collective delusion: People are actually being replaced thanks to an alien invasion. And it’s spreading.
Bennell is forced to flee his beloved town along with his lover, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter). He parts from her briefly, and when he returns, he gives her passionate kiss — echoing a moment earlier in the film where he says he will always know her from her kiss — but the passion isn’t returned. Her face is cold and emotionless as she calls on other pod people to hunt him down. He escapes onto the highway, futilely warning people like a Middle American Cassandra. “They’re here already! You’re next!” he screams into the night. The film was a bold treatise on the American sociopolitical reality of the 1950s, which was steeped in the paranoia of the McCarthy era. —AJB
Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester
Like his classic chillers for producer Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur’s penchant for suggestion over blunt scares was put to good use for this effort, which follows Dana Stevens as an American doctor who comes to a town in England and finds himself dealing with a mysterious cult centered around an ancient demon. But producer Hal E. Chester was no Lewton, and he insisted on inserting a literal giant demon-monster into key scenes of this atmospheric and strange thriller, against the director’s wishes. Amazingly, it kind of works — the demon looks somewhat ridiculous and fake in close-up, but in long shot, as a translucent figure in the distance materializing out of smoke, it’s terrifying. In the film’s climax, as cult leader Niall MacGinnis finds himself running along some railroad tracks, trapped between a train approaching on one side and the demon coming from the other, the tension is almost unbearable, and the sheer spectacle of the demon finally tearing the film’s villain to pieces is strangely satisfying. The effects may be quaint — they were then, and they’re even more so now — but the film’s dedication to steadily building suspense pays real dividends here. —BE
Directed by Terence Fisher; screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
Closely following Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Horror of Dracula showcased Sir Christopher Lee’s first appearance as Count Dracula — a film that went on to launch nine sequels. Just like Stoker’s masterpiece, director Terence Fisher tells the story of a young and naïve Jonathan Harken as he travels to the Count’s castle under the false pretense of becoming the residential librarian, and quickly transitions from Dracula’s pet to prisoner. But the best moment comes when Dracula’s archnemesis Dr. Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing, bursts onto the scene, running over the elongated dining-room table in the dark room where Dracula resides, ripping down curtains and destroying him in the daylight. Watching the skirmish between Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing unfold is like witnessing the ultimate battle between good and evil. Their bond perfectly encapsulates the power of a fiery cinematic feud that can occur when two accomplished actors play foes onscreen, while simultaneously sharing a treasured friendship offscreen. After co-starring in these roles, Cushing and Lee became lifelong friends. The pair’s chemistry comes through in the Hammer horror production, electrifying the final scene with flash and vigor, sparking an iconic clash, and unleashing one of the most physically unsettling deteriorations of the Prince of Darkness the world has ever known. —KC
Directed by William Castle; written by Robb White
In 1959, Vincent Price and William Castle collaborated on two of the most camp, carnivalesque horror masterpieces of that decade, The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. While not as well-known as the former, The Tingler brought Castle’s vaudevillian flair to the “mad doctor” trope. The film follows Price’s pathologist Dr. Chapin and his research into how the spine “tingles” when experiencing fear. He discovers this is the result of a parasite that attaches itself to the spine which — if is scared badly enough — will grow and eventually kill its host. The only antidote is screaming: the louder the better, to neutralize the terrifying effects of “the tingler.”
The film begins with an onscreen appearance by Castle himself, who warns his audience that the physical sensation of tingling so central to the movie may also be experienced by some people in the cinema. In reality, this was caused by one of Castle’s most famous gimmicks — electrified buzzing gadgets were placed underneath random audience members’ seats. Trashy, outrageous, and proudly silly, Castle was a true master of understanding the centrality of sensory affect to the horror experience. He knew that horror was as much — if not more — a physical experience as an intellectual or emotional one. —AHN
Directed by Georges Franju; adapted by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, and Claude Sautet
Father of the art-horror baroque, French filmmaker Georges Franju perfectly balances the poetic with the gruesome in his magnum opus, Eyes Without a Face. Reconfiguring the mad doctor trope in this haunting, stylish exploration of France’s complex postwar national psyche (guilt, mixed with complicity), the film follows Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), on a mission to provide his disfigured daughter Christiane (Édith Scob) with a new face after a car accident. With the help of his assistant, Louise (Alida Valli of Suspiria fame), Christiane’s salvation depends on medical experimentation done on a series of unfortunate young women Louise has abducted, who effectively become human guinea pigs. Imprisoned behind a delicate white mask that covers her injuries and unable to leave her father’s house, Christiane is both a victim and would-be benefactor of her father’s demented obsession. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, an attempted face transplant is shown in grisly detail. On one hand, we share the terror of the young abductee before the operation when she sees the maskless Christiane, and we’re repulsed watching the victim have her skin surgically removed from her face. Yet, we also can’t help but hope for Christiane’s sake that the operation is a success, freeing her from misery and isolation. From Ring 0: Birthday to Goodnight Mommy, the legacy of Franju’s famous film continues to endure internationally. —AHN
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Joseph Stefano
Marion Crane has just left town with $40,000 of her bosses’ money, but she’s not the villain of this tale. On the run, she checks into the Bates Motel, a quiet, secluded spot. After a quiet dinner with the owner, Norman Bates, Marion retires to her quarters and indulges herself in a hot shower. That’s when Mrs. Bates makes her presence known. As Marion lets the water pour over her, suddenly, the curtain is violently yanked back. Mrs. Bates raises a blade, Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violin score screams, and Marion yelps in terror as the overbearing mother plunges a knife into her soft flesh, again and again. She droops to the floor, the light leaving her face as blood pours down the drain, the spinning cylinder mirroring her faded pupils as the camera slowly zooms out from Marion’s lifeless eyes. This is Psycho, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievements, and one of the most influential movies of all time. Although we never actually see the blade penetrate Marion’s flesh, Hitchcock’s skillful framing, combined with George Tomasini’s rapid-fire editing, trick the viewers into believing that they’ve just witnessed a gruesome bloodbath, terrifying 1960s audiences and training filmmakers on how to get away with murder for years to come. This film set a lot of precedents — switching protagonists at the end of the first act, exploiting the vulnerability of nudity and thereby signifying the shower as a scary place to be, inspiring countless killer-has-multiple-personality-disorder motive movies. It’s even the first time a toilet was ever flushed onscreen. Hitchcock constantly pushed the envelope, and the shower scene is perhaps his most obvious contribution to the advancement of the cinematic world. —KC
Directed by Michael Powell; written by Leo Marks
British filmmaker Michael Powell rejected the notion that his movie, about a cinematographer who seeks out women to kill as he films them, was a horror picture. He called it a story of “compassion” and didn’t want it lumped in with horror flicks like the Hammer Production ones that were popular at the time. Peeping Tom’s protagonist, Carl Boehm’s Mark Lewis — sexually repressed and traumatized by a bizarre childhood — films women in private, and when he draws in for a close-up, a spike protrudes from the camera. The camera is also outfitted with a mirror so his victims can see their own faces at the moment of their deaths; he can see them seeing it, too, and play the reels back for himself later.
Peeping Tom was scorned at first and did irreparable damage to Powell’s career, but it has since been hailed as a masterpiece — a critique of masculinity and our voyeuristic desire as a public to watch others. With the camera itself as the weapon, Peeping Tom is also the first meta-horror film, framing the act of spectating as its own form of violence. As Mark tells one of the women in the film, “Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear,” condensing the power of the genre itself into a brief statement. Self-aware films like Funny Games, Scream, and It Follows owe a debt to Peeping Tom. —JC
Directed by Wolf Rilla; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, and Ronald Kinnoch
Following World War II, monsters came back into fashion, but not necessarily in the form of vampires or wolf men. A fear of the Other and paranoia about an invisible enemy embedded within became fashionable in horror, transforming things once considered mundane into violent aggressors. There was Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them!, and in 1960 there was Village of the Damned. Combining those timely anxieties with science fiction — which was also surging in popularity during the 1950s and early 1960s — director Wolf Rilla’s film cemented a new kind of child terror. Martin Stephens plays young David Zellaby, the leader of a platinum-haired horde (all conceived at the same exact time in one small British village) who commands his troop like a gang of hyperintellectual drones. These children, born outside the natural order thanks to a mass, extraterrestrial insemination event, are instruments of destruction. The scene where David and his cohort will a man to shoot himself in the head while they stare him down with glowing, white eyes was the ultimate perversion of the typically innocent blonde youth depicted in film, transforming them into icy cold alpha predators. John Carpenter made his own version of the movie in 1995, but before that, we got evil little ones like The Omen’s Damien, who had a chilling detachment similar to David’s; the terrifying rural pagans in Children of the Corn; and the murderous youth of Who Can Kill a Child? —JC
Directed by Mario Bava; screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Mario Serandrei
Mario Bava’s celebrated debut feature is perhaps one of the finest examples of Italian horror cinema. The film’s opening sequence shows Asa Vajda (British actor Barbara Steele, the queen of Italian horror), an alleged witch in 1630 Moldavia with piercing white skin, wide-set doe eyes, and cheekbones sharp enough to cut diamond. After being sentenced to burning at the stake for sorcery, Asa puts a curse on her brother’s descendants for turning her in. “The Mask of Satan,” a metal mask with sharp spikes on the inside, is then placed over her face and hammered into her flesh by a massive mallet with unbridled brutality. Blood explodes from the eye and forehead space of the mask, killing her. This moment in particular was so graphic and shocking, it helped establish Italy as a legitimate force in horror cinema and set the bar for gothic horror films moving forward. It’s also been replicated by countless horror films since, from the Mexican horror film The Brainiac to the family-friendly Hocus Pocus. —BJC
Directed by Roger Corman; screenplay by Richard Matheson
There were eight ’60s horror films all loosely adapted from the work of Edgar Allan Poe and directed by cult film legend Roger Corman. They ranged in tone from the horror-comedy slapstick of 1963’s The Raven to the comparatively somber The Tomb of Ligeia in 1964. Almost all starred Vincent Price as characters that solidified his status as one of the 20th century’s major horror icons, a persona Price would later parody with delight in everything from Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands to The Muppet Show.
In The Pit and the Pendulum, Price plays Nicholas Medina, a man haunted to insanity by early family trauma and more recent memories of his seemingly dead wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Based on a screenplay by genre stalwart Richard Matheson, like many of the Corman-Poe films, it is marked by overt gothic excess and a kaleidoscope of gaudy Technicolor jewel tones. The film’s highlight remains the revelation that Elizabeth was buried alive, rendering Price’s Nicholas a babbling mess repeating the word “true!”, drowning out the pleas of Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) who insists “on my honor as a physician, I thought she was dead!” Celebrated by Stephen King as a turning point in modern horror for its privileging of sensory excess, the influence of The Pit and the Pendulum on Italian horror films by Dario Argento and Mario Bava has also been widely acknowledged. —AHN
Directed by Jack Clayton; screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote
Based on the Henry James novella “Turn of the Screw,” The Innocents is a macabre, entrancing ghost story that lingers due to its astute psychology. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess for Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the nephew and niece of a bachelor who leaves their care in her hands. She soon grows paranoid that the children are possessed by supernatural spirits haunting the vast, gothic estate.
One of the film’s most genuine scares is its simplest. Miss Giddens sits near the pond with Flora on the grand estate. Flora hums an entrancing tune with eerie focus as Miss Giddens peers across the lake and sees a woman dressed all in black sitting on its serene surface. It’s a chilling moment, bolstered by cinematographer Freddie Francis’s excellent use of deep focus and minimal lighting, which creates an eerie elegance to the film that has rarely been matched elsewhere. Capote was brought onboard for a rewrite and added a psychological richness that lends a sense of ambiguity as to whether what Miss Giddens is witnessing is real or the result of her unraveling mind. You can see its brand of eerie, supernatural horror in its descendants, including The Others, Crimson Peak, and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. —AJB
Directed by Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti; written by Cavara and Jacopetti
Directors Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti wanted to make an “anti-documentary” with Mondo Cane and get away from the polished nature of the form. A mosaic of allegedly real, controversial documentary vignettes, the film’s influence on horror is startlingly broad, considering its meandering structure and seeming indifference to the grotesque. In one segment, a running of the bulls is filmed and viewers watch as men are gored and possibly killed in the streets. It catalyzed the exploitation “documentaries” that often chronicled the offensive, the outrageous, and the taboo — a “because we can” mentality epitomized most famously by the film Cannibal Holocaust, that forced viewers to confront their own appetites for violence and abuse. It was also a box-office success. —JC
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis; screenplay by Allison Louise Downe
Some horror fans might not want to admit it, but when we hear a non-fan complain about the gratuitous nature of the genre, deep inside we secretly smile, knowing that the entry point to fandom will always be guarded by the peculiarities of taste, ensuring horror will never fully become mainstream. A big thanks for that barrier to entry goes to “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis, who upped the ante on genre gore with the first “splatter film,” Blood Feast.
Inspired by Psycho, Lewis wanted to maintain that movie’s body count while not shying away from the blood-and-guts — how the sausage is made, so to speak. If there’s any doubt what his intentions are, it’s cleared up in the film’s first scene, in which a serial killer stabs a bathing woman in the eye and hacks off her leg — all in gruesome detail and in vibrant, living color. Compared to the shower scene in Psycho, this is stomach-churning, Grand Guignol stuff, with not only ramped-up gore, but also more gratuitous nudity. It’s the sort of over-the-top content that would come to characterize horror subgenres like zombie movies, slashers, cannibal films, and torture porn. —MHH
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Evan Hunter
In stark contrast with Bernard Herrmann’s iconic screeching strings in Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds relies only on the startling shuffle of wings flapping to rouse fear within the viewer’s heart. This technique becomes especially apparent in the attic scene, when Melanie’s (Tippi Hedren) attempts to escape backfire as she is swarmed with hungry beaks and pecking claws and flying madness in the claustrophobic wooden prison pitched just beneath the broken roof. The scene serves as one of the earliest and most disquieting examples of “nature run amok.” Film after film tried to capture its prowess — Cujo, Jaws, Piranha, Grizzly, Alligator, Graveyard Shift, Orca, and Black Sheep are just a few examples — and some came remarkably close. But The Birds is so much more than a gag about winged creatures attacking beautiful women in Edith Head–inspired ensembles. The true terror in Bodega Bay isn’t the birds, but the treatment of outsiders. When Melanie Daniels arrives in town, she is made well aware that she is unwelcome. One patron screams in Mel’s face that she is “evil,” and the cause of all of this. The scene in the attic is horrific not only because we are forced to watch as a helpless Melanie is viciously attacked by fluttering maniacs, but also because it symbolizes the onslaught of hatred she’s received since the moment she stepped foot in this town. —KC
Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Nelson Gidding
When Robert Wise set about making this adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House, the stakes were high — the book had made numerous “best of” 1959 reading lists. The bare bones of it — that a psychological-study group must spend the night in a haunted house — were simplistic, but the heart of the story was in its atmosphere and hysteria, wandering into cerebral and stream-of-consciousness territory that wouldn’t be easily translated to the screen. Finding a way to represent the characters’ muddled and frightened thoughts became Wise’s priority, so he and cinematographer Davis Boulton devised a method consisting of 33mm wide-angle, anamorphic Panavision lenses, with a camera that rarely stayed still. Wise’s most ingenious solution to the issue of atmosphere was in selecting only lenses that had been warped or distorted in some way, which gave audiences the feeling that they, too, were tumbling down the rabbit hole of a haunted house with protagonist Nell (Julie Harris).
In this scene, Nell is terrified of the sounds she hears outside her room and finds comfort with the other woman of the group, Theodora (Claire Bloom), a smart, carefree witch who presents as queer. The two cower as the sounds grow louder, culminating in this moment where an unseen force bangs incessantly on the door. The reason it’s so terrifying is because of how Wise shot it, with the camera at a low angle, zooming at lightning speed into the door handle with every whomp. The editing was rapid, cutting between a series of shots all taken at different angles, creating a delirious fun house effect. Despite this film being only moderately successful and critics of the time calling it pointless, Steven Spielberg would later refer to it as a “seminal” addition to his filmic vocabulary. The exhilarating techniques Wise developed here would also be seen in many horror films to follow, but its greatest use would come with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, which revived Wise’s style and made it new again. —April Wolfe
Directed by Mario Bava; screenplay by Marcello Fondato
Nowadays, when people think of horror movies, one of the first images that comes to mind is that of a masked, maniacal serial killer, but back in the early ‘60s, they were more likely to envision gothic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, perhaps alien invaders, mutated animals or, for certain people, an integrated public school system (WOKE BURN!). That started to change with Psycho, and a vital bridge between it and the slashers of the ‘80s was Italian giallo movies.
Legendary director Mario Bava was instrumental in the development of this brand of film, which began as murder mysteries steeped in the sort of violent excess Bava exhibited in Black Sunday. Although his 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is generally considered the first giallo, it’s his follow-up from the next year, Blood and Black Lace, that truly established the subgenre’s conventions: vivid colors, stylish cinematography, heightened sexuality, and a mysterious masked killer dispatching beautiful women (in this case, models) in gory and inventive murders that made the scenes of violence the film’s main draw. If there’s one scene in Blood and Black Lace that epitomizes the giallo aesthetic, it’s perhaps the second kill, in which the madman literally goes medieval, chasing down his female victim and gouging her eyes with some sort of antique claw. Future slasher directors no doubt took note. —MHH
Directed by Terence Young; screenplay Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Hammerstein
It’s not a horror film — more a niftily claustrophobic suspense flick — but Terence Young’s 1967 classic contains one of the all-time greatest (literal) jump scares. Alan Arkin plays one of three crooks who have been slowly conning and manipulating Audrey Hepburn’s embattled blind housewife into revealing the whereabouts of a doll filled with heroin that has been hidden somewhere in her apartment. By this point, she has pretty much defeated all three of the men and stabbed Arkin in the chest with a kitchen knife. But she’s still trapped inside and begins to run toward the window to yell for help. When, suddenly, he plunges out of the darkness and grabs her. It’s one of the first, and still among the best, instances of the he’s-not-dead-yet! scare that would become so common in slasher films and other horror flicks. It notoriously prompted audiences at the time to break out in screams. You can even see its direct influence in the finale of The Terminator, as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s broken, dying robot drags itself toward Linda Hamilton, much like Arkin does toward Hepburn here. And the way Arkin’s leap is framed and timed — the damn thing still jolts, all these many years later. —BE
Directed by George A. Romero; screenplay by Romero and Jack Russo
There are two types of zombie movies: those that came before Night of the Living Dead and those that came after. George A. Romero’s low-budget opus is on the short list of most influential horror movies of all time, serving as the template for practically every zombie film since by rewriting the rules of the undead — turning relatively innocuous voodoo-controlled corpses into ravenous flesh-eaters of unknown origin who can be killed only by brain trauma and who multiply like rabbits, threatening to overwhelm mankind.
This reinvention also introduced an unprecedented level of gore for zombie movies, a reflection of a turbulent era bombarded by imagery of real-life violence, from racial unrest to the Vietnam War — all splashed across now-ubiquitous TV screens. The unease of the time is particularly apparent in the film’s shocking climax, in which Ben (Duane Jones), the sole survivor of the undead siege, is mistaken for a zombie and killed unceremoniously by a rescue party. It’s a rebellious film that pulls the rug out from under our expectations, reflecting the upheaval of the times while also establishing a bleakness that would characterize zombie cinema for decades to come. The fact that the main protagonist was black only serves to further the groundbreaking nature of the film — and deepen its social implications, intended or not. — MHH
Directed by Roman Polanski; screenplay by Polanski
They told her that her baby died as soon as it was born, but she can still hear him crying through the wall next door. They told her to take her medicine and rest her worried head, but she’s been hiding her pills in the crevice of her bed frame. Now, in one of the brief moments when she’s left alone, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) sneaks through a secret passageway in the closet to the place where her babe is bundled up. Upon staring at her child for the very first time, Rosemary sees yellow demonic eyes staring back at her.
“What have you done to it!” she screams, “What have you done to its eyes?!” Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) casually answers from a chair, “He has his father’s eyes.” When Rosemary begins to panic, citing her husband’s eyes as “normal,” Roman reveals the horrifying truth: “Satan is his father, not Guy! He came up from Hell and begat a son of mortal woman.” On the surface, Rosemary’s Baby is a petrifying tale about a woman who is violated by the Devil himself, unknowingly bringing the Antichrist into the world. But on a deeper, more relatable level, it’s a story about a woman who is gaslit by every single man in her life, to the point where she ceases to be acknowledged as a human being. She is the culmination of every woman who ever expressed legit concerns over her well-being or the space in which she resides, and was met with a dismissive wave of the hand. The reason Rosemary’s Baby still feels frightening 50 years later is because, at its core, it’s about a woman who is assaulted and then intimidated into silence. —KC
Directed and written by Wes Craven
The debut feature of Wes Craven, who would later become one of horror’s greatest juggernauts, was also the moment that would usher in a brand of horror rooted less in fantastical monsters in faraway lands, but horrifically gritty and real-life experiences that could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. After two young girls are kidnapped on their way to a rock concert, the girls endure horrors that were viewed as extreme in 1972, but are very much rooted in reality. The sexual violence and subsequent murder of Mari and her friend Phyllis are extremely difficult to watch, not only due to their graphic nature, but because of the familiarity of their experiences to real-life news reports and testimony of victims of sex trafficking. Its subsequent releases have been edited and recut multiple times, with many releases choosing to omit graphic scenes of forced lesbian sexual acts and a scene of lesbian rape. The authentic depiction of their pain proved to be too intense for many viewers, and Last House on the Left’s debatable ethics have been a major subject among theorists for decades. —BJC
Directed by William Crain; screenplay by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig
Don’t let the punny, dad-joke title fool you; Blacula isn’t the cheesy, lowbrow camp you might expect. (That would be Blackenstein.) Exhibit A: the slow-mo scene in which a newly turned vampire (Ketty Lester) runs down a hall to attack a morgue attendant (veteran character actor Elisha Cook Jr.) has an off-the-charts creep factor that can’t be denied.
Propelled by a powerhouse performance by William Marshall, Blacula represented a landmark Afrocentric spin on the Dracula mythos that, arriving early in the blaxploitation era, helped prove the popular appeal of black-led films, regardless of genre, and remains perhaps the best-known blaxploitation film outside of Shaft and Superfly. It opened the gates for black horror movies of the era like Ganja and Hess, J.D.’s Revenge, Sugar Hill, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, and set the stage for the influx of “urban horror” of the ‘90s, like Candyman, The People Under the Stairs, Tales from the Hood, and Def by Temptation. And we can’t overstate the importance of the fact that it was directed by a black filmmaker, William Crain, who, though not as recognizable a name as Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, and Ossie Davis, was nonetheless part of the early vanguard of black visionaries who helped lay the foundation for the L.A. Rebellion film movement that birthed a whole new generation of black directors. —MHH
Direct by Robin Hardy; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man begins with a falsified missing-person case — a tall tale about a little girl named Rowan Morrison — and ends with one of the greatest horror finales of all time. It follows Sergeant Neil Howie as he travels to Summerisle to investigate Rowan’s case, after receiving an anonymous letter informing him of the girl’s disappearance. However, once he’s on the island, strange things begin to happen. Every person he meets claims they’ve never heard of Rowan. Children sing songs in the schoolyard about copulation. Naked citizens make merriment in the woods under the glow of a full moon. It’s all so strange and unfamiliar to a man who’s been raised to bow down to the cross, Howie can’t help but grow suspicious that the islanders are in cahoots against him. He doesn’t know how right he is. As the film climaxes, Howie chases Rowan around the island, following the girl up to the top of a grassy hill, where he stumbles upon the townspeople gathered around a gigantic, towering wicker man. The wicker man is home to a bunch of small animals, ranging from chickens to goats, but there’s one compartment in the wooden giant that’s yet to be filled, and it’s just the right size for a human being. Once Sergeant Howie is loaded into the figure and the base is lit aflame, the party sings and dances ritualistically around the wicker man until it slowly burns to the ground. This British cult classic is one of the foundational “folk horror” narratives, in which the terror comes from a rigid and brutally pragmatic adherence to the old pagan ways, as well as a close relationship with nature. —KC
Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant
Before Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, the idea of grief being a driving force of a horror story’s terror seemed antiquated and brooding. Though the film is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, Roeg’s version — co-written by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant — shares its roots with the literature of Edgar Allan Poe and the dark romantics. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as grieving parents John and Laura Baxter, whose young daughter drowned in a red jacket while playing in a pond near their countryside home. When John accepts a commission to restore a church, they move temporarily to Venice but find that they cannot outrun their grief. John experiences a number of signs that seem to be leading him somewhere, possibly to the spectral return of his daughter, whom he thinks he sees running about the stone labyrinth of the city in her red jacket. Laura, meanwhile, moves toward accepting that her daughter is dead and at peace in the afterlife. The friction between their two versions of grief causes constant stress. Roeg represents this visually, through a fractured timeline that zips from the past to the present and culminates in this scene where John finally catches up to what he thinks is his daughter. When the figure turns around, she reveals herself to be a murderous dwarf (Adelina Poerio), who tsk-tsks John before pulling a blade across his neck, at which point, the editing turns a tragic death into a breathtaking impressionistic montage of memory. Not so much scary as it is traumatizing, this bitter end resonated with audiences of all kinds who could see themselves in John. Films as diverse as Antichrist, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Flatliners, and Out of Sight have been influenced by this memorable scene. —AW
Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty
It’s wild how many movies have been inspired by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and how few have come close to emulating the unabated power of the exorcism scene. Based on the book of the same name and written for the screen by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist tells the tragic tale of Regan MacNeil, a sweet and innocent 13-year-old girl who becomes savagely possessed by Satan and withers away tied to her bed, while her mother feverishly hunts for an answer to her daughter’s mysterious affliction. There are several iconic moments throughout the course of this legendary entry in the horror genre, but the exorcism scene itself is by far the most memorable. As Father Damien Karras and Father Lankester Merrin attempt to expel the demon eating up Regan’s insides, a series of utterly horrifying events occur. Regan vomits thick milky green liquid, utters a string of slanderous curses, speaks in Latin, and even levitates off the bed, her ripped flesh and atrophied shell floating casually above the priests’ heads as they spout prayers from their bibles. The scene cuts deep because, despite its supernatural scenario, it’s a very human story. At its core, this is a family drama about two wounded adults trying their damnedest to heal a sick child. After all, Blatty wrote this story as a way to deal with the abrupt death of his son, Peter, who died of a rare heart disease at a young age. Perhaps that’s why the copious copycats, from Stigmata to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Vatican Tapes, The Possession, and so on, have never quite conjured up the same gut-wrenching, deeply personal terror of the The Exorcist. —KC
Directed by Bob Clark; screenplay by Roy Moore
There’s a mainstream canon of 1970s North American horror that — while all undeniably great films — almost always neglects one of that decade’s most extraordinary accomplishments in the genre: Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. While the sorority-house-set slasher is more closely linked to the subgenre’s 1980s output, the model was perfected — and thoroughly subverted — long before it became a cliché. With an impressive cast including pre-Superman Margot Kidder and post–Romeo and Juliet Olivia Hussey, Black Christmas destroyed many assumptions about slashers’ assumed gender-political divide, perhaps nowhere more importantly than its rejection of the supposed moral opposition between virginal “final girls” and their sexually active (and thus apparently expendable) peers. In Black Christmas, not only is Hussey’s central character Jess not a virgin, but she is even sympathetically shown to be seriously considering having a pregnancy terminated.
Black Christmas is also widely overlooked for introducing one of the categories most parodied tropes: the call coming from inside the house. While that plot twist is commonly linked to 1979’s tormented babysitter classic When a Stranger Calls, in Black Christmas, it has a darker, more terrifying impact. The mystery is never fully resolved as to who is making the calls in the first place, let alone their motives for doing so. Although the 2006 remake attempted to make sense of these questions, the power of the original Black Christmas stems from what it leaves ambiguous. —AHN
Directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay by Kim Henkel and Hooper
They should’ve turned back the moment the caretaker of the cemetery told them that someone’s been digging up graves. Or listened to the warning of the local drunk when he said he’d seen things people wouldn’t believe. Perhaps if these five kids had changed their plans to visit Sally and Franklin’s grandfather’s family property deep in South Texas, they would all still be alive. Behold the rugged masterpiece that is Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre. From the balmy low-budget swelter of the Texas heat, to the ultrareal chain saw, to a skin-wearing backwoods cannibalistic maniac lurking within the tall grass, the terror and unrelenting tension of Hooper’s 1974 indie hit has rarely been matched. This is especially true when it comes to Kirk’s death scene. Curious and naive, a teenage Kirk slinks into the Sawyer family home while his girlfriend Pam pouts on the wooden bench on the front lawn. Once inside, a squealing, pig-like noise emits from the back room. “Hello?” Kirk asks, but no one answers. Walking cautiously through the entryway, Kirk follows the squeals to a doorway behind the stairs. Suddenly, a giant monster of a man appears in the frame, donning a butcher’s apron and a mask made of human skin, and raises a large hammer above his head before swinging it down upon Kirk’s skull. Kirk crumples to the floor like a rag doll, seizing and kicking; Leatherface snatches his body up behind the metal door, slamming it shut, leaving no trail of what just happened behind. This all happens within a matter of seconds. The scene demonstrates the speed with which human life can be extinguished, and the horrifying knowledge that people can be disposed of so easily in deeply rural regions, or anywhere, really, where outsiders are not welcome. —KC
Directed by Peter Weir; screenplay by Cliff Green
The classics that came out around the time of Picnic at Hanging Rock — Carrie, Jaws, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Wicker Man, Suspiria, and so on — are famous for their shocks. But the PG-rated Hanging Rock entirely resists the urge to startle. An integral entry in Australian New Wave of cinema, director Peter Weir’s film is notable for the absence of violence or even a conventionally advancing narrative. The most traditionally horror-movie moment is this scene, when a group of schoolgirls in the year 1900 disappear into a mysterious rock formation during a hot Valentine’s Day afternoon, and young Edith runs screaming from the site of their vanishing. The rest of the movie exists in a sort of dream state, mining the anxiety of the characters in the wake of the incident to create a pervasive sense of dread, and developing an undercurrent of female restlessness and sexual longing among the boarding school students. If you look at the aesthetically meticulous highbrow style of horror that’s so fashionable today — epitomized by movies like Hereditary, The Witch, and It Comes at Night — Picnic at Hanging Rock starts to feel like the template for boutique studio A24’s entire genre film slate. —JC
Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Who better to redefine the reach of horror films than perhaps the most successful populist director of all time, Steven Spielberg? The terrorizing shark in Jaws is kept out of sight for 80 minutes of the film’s 130-minute run time, but its menace is inescapable. It’s a suspense movie as much about the idea of what scares us and the power of mass panic as it is the gargantuan great white. When Jaws himself finally emerges, the payoff is like finally running downstairs on Christmas morning after a month of buildup. But then he quickly disappears again, leaving the audience to agonize over the beast’s return.
In fairly short order, Jaws became highest-grossing film of all time, setting a new ceiling for box-office horror achievement. It was also instrumental in both defining the summer blockbuster and redefining how studios marketed and released movies, prompting execs to spend big money on TV ads for the first time and open their films widely across the country from the very start. Sleeper horror hits in the summer months have become a reliable piece of counterprogramming against more conventional fare. But before there was Lights Out or Hereditary, there was Jaws. —JC
Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen
In the first of many adaptations of Stephen King’s debut novel, Brian De Palma’s Carrie is largely considered to be one of the greatest interpretations of King’s work. Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of the tormented telekinetic teen has become iconic, and moments from the film, like the period-blood opening and pig’s-blood prom scene, have been permanently woven into the fabric of pop culture. However, the final moment of Carrie, one of the most well-executed jump scares in history, is not one that originated in King’s novel. After the prom-night massacre and the destruction of both Carrie and Margaret White, we are shown a dreamlike moment where Sue Snell, one of the sole survivors of that fateful night, clad all in white, arrives at a makeshift grave. A “for sale” sign turned cross has been vandalized with “Carrie White burns in Hell.” As an ethereal Snell leans over to place flowers on the grave, Carrie’s bloodied hand jolts out of the grave and grabs onto Sue’s arm as she screams in terror. (Spacek was actually buried in the ground in order to make the scene work.) Unlike the prom massacre or the demise of Margaret White, this is the only scare of the film that is quick and unexpected. While it was inspired by the final moment of Deliverance, its successful execution would inspire many copycat endings, including the lake scare in Friday the 13th. —BJC
Directed by Richard Donner; written by David Seltzer
Everyone loved The Omen: critics, audiences, and even the notoriously horror-phobic Oscars bestowed upon it an award for Best Original Score. Bringing director Richard Donner his first blockbuster success, he would soon go on to make Superman and The Goonies. Although very different films, they all share the same interest in the spectacle of outrageous bodies doing outrageous things that we see in The Omen, albeit in a much darker, more perverse context. The Omen tells the story of the early years of the Antichrist, played by Harvey Spencer Stephens, who was 4 years old when he was cast in the role after allegedly punching the director in the testicles. In this scene, Damien’s wealthy parents, Robert (Gregory Peck) and Katherine (Lee Remick), throw their young son a birthday party where, amid the bright sunlight and rainbow-colored balloons, his unnamed nanny (Holly Palance) happily throws herself out of a window from an upper story of the family’s opulent house, hanging herself in front of the terrified guests. Amongst the film’s impaled priests and decapitated photographers, the highlight of The Omen is marked by her five, famous, final words: “It’s all for you, Damien!” —AHN
Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Argento and Daria Nicolodi
“The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of Suspiria are the first 92,” declares the tagline for one of the most famous Eurohorror films of the 20th century, and it’s more than just marketing hyperbole. The film’s opening few moments alone pack more punch than many other genre directors manage to do across their entire careers. The film begins as American ballet student Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend the prestigious Freiberg Tanzakademie, but she’s turned away on the rainy night of her arrival only to see fellow student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) screaming at the closed door before running into the night. Pat’s evening gets worse: Arriving at her friend Sonia’s (Susanna Javicoli) apartment, Argento bulldozes full steam ahead into one of the most visceral, vibrant, and nightmare-inducing double murder scenes in film history, as the girls spend their respective final moments hanging from a kaleidoscopic stained-glass ceiling, fatally impaled by the shards that have rained down on them from above. Suspiria is a triumph of sensation over logic, of world-building over storytelling, and its impact on horror ever since has been undeniable; most recently, it was famously remade by Luca Guadagnino in a film of the same name. —AHN
Directed by John Carpenter, screenplay by Carpenter and Debra Hill
Babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) believes she has finally stopped Michael Myers, the masked maniac who’s been stalking her all Halloween night, by turning his butcher knife against him. She sits in a hallway, recovering from her ordeal, with Michael’s presumed-dead body in the background … until he suddenly sits up behind her. As Laurie’s young charge Tommy (Brian Andrews) previously told her, “You can’t kill the bogeyman” — and John Carpenter’s sleeper smash set the template (and the gold standard) for a wave of weapon-wielding stalkers that continues to this day. The notion of a killer who can’t be killed fueled everything from the Friday the 13th franchise to the climax of the more upmarket Fatal Attraction and beyond, to this year’s Halloween reboot. But nobody has done it as chillingly as Carpenter. It works so well here because the director presents Michael as more than a flesh-and-blood madman: He’s the embodiment of Halloween itself, and all the dark forces that come out that night to trick and terrorize the unwary. —Michael Gingold
Directed and written by George A. Romero
Eleven years after redefining zombies from voodoo slaves to active flesh-eaters in the black-and-white Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero brought them back to “life” in color for Dawn of the Dead. Teaming with makeup effects maestro Tom Savini, Romero sought to take horror to heretofore unseen heights of visceral impact, and signaled his intentions with an early gore gag. During a raid on a ghoul-infested tenement, as an unwitting woman approaches her dead-and-resurrected husband, he goes for her throat. That’s where, in past films, there would be a cutaway. Not this time: The zombie takes a big, bloody chomp out of her flesh, startling viewers to attention — this fright flick was not going to play by the old rules. Dawn ushered in a new breed of undead cinema and demonstrated, once its four survivors hole up in a temple of consumerism (e.g., a shopping mall), that such movies could have deeper satirical levels. It also opened up a new dialogue about screen violence and how it should be rated. Rejecting an X that would have branded Dawn as porn, Romero and United Film Distribution instead sent it out with a self-imposed “No one under 17 will be admitted” tag. Many subsequent gorefests followed suit. —MG
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Dan O’Bannon
What more can be said about Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror–sci-fi masterpiece, Alien? The moment when the alien bursts through Kane’s (John Hurt) chest has been endlessly studied, replicated, parodied, and adored. It is one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time, for its blend of practical effects, stellar acting, and the existential dread that laces the film’s body horror.
Alien follows a ragtag group of regular folks working a commercial space tug in 2122 (played by Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Sigourney Weaver as the iconic Ellen Ripley) who are on a routine mission when they come across a potential distress transmission that leads them to a derelict spaceship on a moon. One of the crew members, Kane, investigates some strange eggs when a creature bursts through, cracks his helmet, and attaches itself to him, setting off a story of survival that only leaves one person (and a very cute cat) alive. Alien has been praised for its chilly, cerebral nature, but the chest-burster scene is so terrifying because of where it takes place — a dinner table — grounding it in real-world intimacy. The scene is bolstered by a well-crafted emotional arc — from worry to fear to outright horror — that the actors pull off superbly, along with the uncanny tangibility of the monster design. Alien, of course, spawned a behemoth franchise and one of film’s most complex female characters in the form of Ellen Ripley, who has been echoed in the lineage of other horror mavens like Buffy Summers and Dana Scully — women with skill and ingenuity. —AJB
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham; written by Victor Miller
Director Sean S. Cunningham would be the first to tell you that his summer-camp slasher opus was inspired by the huge success of Halloween. Late in the film’s development, he also wanted a final fright to rival the hand erupting from the grave at the end of Carrie. And so at Friday’s conclusion, as “final girl” Alice (Adrienne King) drifts in a canoe on Crystal Lake the morning after the slaughter, the gnarled figure of young Jason Voorhees (Ari Lehman) leaps out of the water to grab her and drag her beneath the surface. It’s all a dream, of course — Jason drowned years before, inspiring his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), to carry out her massacre. But his jump scare from the lake’s depths did more than elicit the desired huge screams from audiences. When this and the film’s other scares led Friday to become a surprise hit, and a follow-up became inevitable, this last-minute addition opened the door for a grown-up Jason to star in the sequels, becoming one of the genre’s most durable (in both senses of the word) monsters. (It also set up one of horror trivia’s key trick questions: “Who was the killer in Friday the 13th?”, which seals Drew Barrymore’s fate at the beginning of Scream.) —MG
Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Diane Johnson
There’s a traditional rule of thumb in horror that it’s the monsters who are meant to scare us the most, not victims. It’s not always the case, of course, and nowhere is this more vivid than the brief but unforgettable Grady sister scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, his screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. We’re told in both the film and book that the girls are aged 8 and 10 years old, yet upon meeting identical twins Lisa and Louise Burns, Kubrick knew instantly the unsettling effect he could mine from the girls’ mirrored appearance, riffing on the long gothic horror tradition of doppelgängers. The disorienting gong sound that clangs as Danny (Danny Lloyd) turns his cute little tricycle into the corridor where the blue-dressed ghost girls are waiting for him immediately puts us on edge even before we see flashes of the chopped-up “Shining twins” – blood and body parts smeared across the floral wallpaper. Their invitation to Danny to “play… forever and ever” has doubled as an informal challenge from Kubrick to future horror filmmakers to step up to the level of precision, power, and playfulness of this famous scene ever since. —AHN
Directed and written by John Landis
Fresh off of the success of Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and the runaway hit, The Blues Brothers (1980), John Landis established himself as a profitable filmmaker, and studios were finally willing to take the risk on his passion project. What would later largely be considered the pinnacle of horror-comedies, Landis’s An American Werewolf in London perfectly weaves together relatable characters, riveting storytelling, humor, and gore. After the Academy Awards received complaints about The Elephant Man’s makeup not receiving any awards, the “Best Makeup” category was established in 1981, with Rick Baker’s groundbreaking and horrific transformation sequences as the inaugural winner. Baker and Landis wanted the transformation to be the anti-Wolf Man, where it was apparent the actor had to stay still between takes of adding fur. Instead, they opted for something more visceral, that truly showcased the bodily mutations of stretched skin, elongated limbs, twisted muscle, spontaneous hair growth, and complete facial deformity required to wolf out. When David Naughton begins to transform, without any CGI effects, his writhing pain and guttural cries are traumatizing… and still totally awesome. —BJC
Directed and written by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s special effects were so groundbreaking in the 1970s and ’80s, even his effects teams didn’t even know how to accomplish what they were tasked with until crunch time on his sets. When it came to Scanners, there were multiple problems effects supervisor Gary Zeller had to solve on the fly (pun intended), which sometimes meant doing things like buying a last-minute plane ticket for a specialist in latex work. But nothing was trickier or more memorable for the audience than the moment where we learn the true capabilities of “scanners” — that is, people with awesome psycho-telekinetic and mind-reading powers, who can also murder with their minds. In this legendary scene, Michael Ironside plays Darryl Revok, a rogue scanner who sneaks his way into a demonstration with ulterior motives — he wants to prove to the scientists who “created” him that he has the control now. That involves scanning another scanner (Louis Del Grande) until the man’s head explodes in front of an unassuming crowd. Zeller and crew tried many methods to imitate a realistic head explosion, but found that the molded plaster and wax heads they made simply crumbled or ballooned. After too many fails, Zeller grabbed a shotgun, got down behind the dummy, and exploded the head the old-fashioned way, and that’s what you see in the final film. The result is brutal and jolting and eerily realistic, inspiring a new generation of burgeoning effects artists to ask: “Now how’d they do that?” —AW
Directed by Abel Ferrara; screenplay by Nicholas St. John
While the rape-revenge category is typically guaranteed to offend, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 has somehow managed to become a celebrated cult classic. With its supporters ranging from feminist academics to exploitation-movie fans and filmmakers including Karyn Kusama, the film’s strength is the centrality of actor and activist Zoë Lund, whose journey from victimhood to vengeance as the deaf-mute protagonist, Thana, is one of the most powerful and political performances of any film from its era. The film begins as Thana — an exploited fashion-industry worker in early-1980s New York — is raped not once but twice. At first traumatized, the second time she’s ready to fight back, spectacularly bludgeoning her rapist to death with an iron. The symbolic power of her weapon of choice here can’t be understated; as a tool of her oppression in the workplace, Ferrara and Lund together drew a direct line between the personal experience of sexual violence and the broader ugliness of patriarchy itself, resulting in one of the angriest and most thoughtful exploitation films ever made, and setting the benchmark for the feminist avenger trope. —AHN
Directed by Tobe Hooper; screenplay Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor
There are so many indelible moments of fright involving children in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, the attack of the clown doll must stand in for them all. The film tells the story of the doomed Freeling family, who moves into a model home that just happens to be built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Spooky, curious incidents quickly spiral into a dangerous haunting. In this scene, little Robbie (Oliver Robins) senses something’s not quite right with the clown doll that’s been propped on a chair in the corner of his room. He takes his eyes off it for one second, and when he looks back, the clown has disappeared. This leads him to check under the bed, only for the clown to appear behind Robbie and drag him below. What’s so gripping about this scene is that it exploits the primal fears children have about dolls, clowns, and whatever monsters lay in wait under the bed. Keep in mind this film premiered a full four years before Stephen King would publish his novel It and write his version of a clown dragging a child to the depths below — in King’s case, a sewer. Hooper and writer-producer Steven Spielberg tapped into a fundamental trauma that’s been passed down generations and now lives on in the films of James Wan and Leigh Whannell, particularly in the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises. —AW
Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Bill Lancaster
When John Carpenter sought to remake the 1951 classic The Thing, he eschewed its rampaging humanoid being and went back to the source, John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story “Who Goes There?” Campbell presented an alien that consumes and perfectly imitates other life-forms, and attempts to take over the crew of an Antarctic research station. In Carpenter’s vision, when the duplicated body is physically threatened, it mutates in gruesomely grandiose fashion. The filmmaker hired Rob Bottin, the young creature creator who had won notice for his werewolves in The Howling, to come up with those transformations. The biggest showstopper arrives when Norris (Charles Hallahan) passes out, Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive him, and the defibrillators punch right into Norris’s chest cavity, which becomes a hungry mouth. That’s just the beginning of an effects sequence that keeps topping itself and stands as Exhibit A for anyone arguing that practically created monsters are superior to CGI. (Exhibit B: The misbegotten 2011 “premake” of The Thing, in which the originally shot physical manifestations were replaced by substandard digital critters.) It’s one of many moments that have allowed Carpenter’s film to make a transformation of its own, from reviled box-office failure to inspirational classic. —MG
Directed and written by Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi’s micro-budget debut feature might never have had the chance to break out if not for an impassioned essay written by Stephen King in a late-1982 issue of Twilight Zone magazine, in which he called the then-distributorless movie “The most ferociously original horror film of the year.” King wasn’t talking about the plot, which is your typical five-young-people-in-a-cabin supernatural scenario, but rather Raimi’s precocious approach, which incorporates a flood of over-the-top splatter. For all its insane gore, the most impressive part of Raimi’s mise-en-scène is the dynamic camerawork, frequently taking the hurtling point of view of the unseen, unearthly force possessing the friends of hapless hero Ash (Bruce Campbell). With no money for a Steadicam, Raimi and his crew jerry-rigged a primitive “shaky-cam” to achieve these shots, which have influenced many more expensive movies. The most powerful example is The Evil Dead’s very last shot: The camera races down a hill, through the entirety of the cabin, and out the front door to pounce on a screaming Ash. While Raimi technically refined his style and upped the sneaky, snarky humor in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, his initial outing into those haunted woods remains his scariest achievement. —MG
Directed and written by Wes Craven
In 1984, New Line Cinema wanted to produce a mainstream hit.
They were in the business of distributing art house and niche films, but money-makers those were not. Then Wes Craven came along with a nasty, supernatural villain named Freddy Krueger and put New Line on the map. This scene, depicting Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) prolonged and arduous death, is perhaps the most memorable of the film, setting A Nightmare on Elm Street apart from its slasher brothers and sisters. Because dream logic dictates the entire story, the more outlandish and bizarre a death was, the better. Even as she runs from her predator, Tina seems to be searching for the logic in any of it. The fact that it makes no sense, terrifies her — and us — even more. The audience is already primed for the fantastic, but when Tina’s real body is thrown into the air like a rag doll, shredded by invisible claws, tossed into a crumpled ball against the wall, and dragged to the ceiling, the experience is visceral. Wyss’s shrieks are desperate and panicked; these are not the manicured and practiced screams of most slashers. Craven’s creativity in this scene upped the ante for horror-movie kills and opened the door for an everything-goes approach that would be grasped by directors like Sam Raimi and even post-Eraserhead David Lynch. —AW
Directed and written by Clive Barker
For all the insinuations of hell and damned souls in horror that came before it, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser managed to paint so graphic a picture of the tortures of the underworld that it was originally given an X rating. The working title of the film was Sadomasochists From Beyond the Grave, which perfectly sets up a discussion about what makes the introduction of the leather-daddy pope of hell (Pinhead) and his minions (the cenobites) so creepy in this scene. A young woman, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), solves an ancient puzzle box and calls forth the film’s demons, one of which immediately puts two of his rotten fingers into Kirsty’s mouth. The manner in which this happens feels far more sexual than violent, which was a central tension that Barker, now an out gay man, was trying to exploit: What’s more uncomfortable for an audience — slasher gore or pain that comes off as pleasurable to a villain? Of course, the film’s financiers weren’t too sure about this approach and fought Barker, swapping out at least one S&M sex scene for more straightforward slasher violence, but there’s enough of Barker’s hooks and chains in this film to cement his original vision. Barker’s influence waned for a bit in the years since — maybe filmmakers thought rape would be interchangeable with Barker’s more nuanced views of sadomasochism. But his influence can be seen today, most evidently in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy and Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. —AW
Directed by Adrian Lyne; screenplay by James Dearden
In Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close plays Alex Forrest, a high-powered woman with a façade of confidence who begins an affair with a new colleague, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas). Unfortunately, all that bravado only obscures Alex’s catastrophic fragility in relationships, particularly when she’s rejected by Dan. In this scene, Dan and his family have already moved away from the city to a country house to try to reconnect with one another. Dan’s wife, Beth (Anne Archer), comes home and finds a pot boiling over on high heat. Intercut with this slow-paced discovery are tracking shots following the feet of their little daughter (Ellen Gallagher) running toward the rabbit cage, which we begin to sense will be empty. In juxtaposition, these shots are terrifying — even if we never get to see the bunny actually boiling in the pot, the idea of a stranger entering a home and killing a pet with such cruelty registers as a violation of privacy and intimacy. This film spawned a number of other “bunny boiler” femme fatales in films, including Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Obsessed, and The Crush. —AW
Directed by Tom Holland; screenplay by Don Mancini, John Lafia and Tom Holland
There have been many haunted toys over the course of horror history — from Black Devil Doll From Hell to Poltergeist — but none so swaggering and adaptable as Chucky. Don Mancini has written every entry in this seven-movie-strong franchise (directing the three most recent), and since springing to life in the arms of Karen Barclay (Catharine Hendricks) in Child’s Play, his killer doll has managed to not only endure, but evolve in ways those other 1980s franchise killers never could. Always a cold-blooded killer, Chucky managed to become an almost sympathetic anti-hero in later installments, with the franchise turning toward domestic horror comedy in Bride of Chucky (1998), and even offering up super-queer, industry-skewering satire in Seed of Chucky (2004), before returning to its true slasher roots with Curse of Chucky (2013). Puppet Masters may rise and fall, and Annabelle may keep terrorizing the Ed and Lorraine’s closet of evil talisman, but Chucky remains the one doll to rule them all. —JC
Directed by George Sluizer; screenplay by Tim Krabbé
Most of Dutch director George Sluizer’s breakout feature could be categorized as a mystery, in which a man named Rex (Gene Bervoets) spends years obsessively searching for his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), who disappeared at a rest area while they were traveling through France. Meanwhile, Sluizer intercuts flashbacks to a family man named Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), painstakingly preparing to commit a crime, and Sluizer keeps us completely hooked as we wait to find out the connection. Then, three years after Saskia vanished, Raymond contacts Rex with an offer to reveal what happened to her — as long as Rex agrees to follow his specific instructions. The ultimate revelation of Saskia’s fate, which Rex only learns by experiencing it himself when he is buried alive, propels The Vanishing into blood-freezing horror territory, and helped make the film a critical and word-of-mouth favorite when it opened Stateside in 1991. It also became one of the first of many overseas genre features to be remade in America (in 1993), with Sluizer himself taking the helm. Unfortunately, the happy-ending dictates of Hollywood required that Rex’s U.S. counterpart, portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland, escape his doom and deliver a coup de grâce to the bad guy (Jeff Bridges) — epitomizing the dumbing down of foreign cinema when “reimagined” for Stateside audiences. —MG
Directed by William Peter Blatty; screenplay by Blatty
In the great pantheon of film sequels that give the originals a run for their money — from the Alien–Aliens to Gremlins–Gremlins II to Star Wars–Empire Strikes Back debates — just as deserving is The Exorcist III. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty (who wrote the original novel upon which William Friedkin’s blockbuster 1973 film was based), he had already experimented with a loose, abstract return to The Exorcist universe in his underrated 1980 psycho-theatrical freak-out, The Ninth Configuration. Eschewing the events of John Boorman’s 1977 critically and commercially lambasted Exorcist II: The Heretic, Blatty picks up from the first film almost 20 years later and follows a smaller character from that film named Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (played here by George C. Scott, and Lee J. Cobb in the original). Kinderman is investigating a Zodiac Killer–styled string of murders that lead him back to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and face-to-face with a terrifying demon. A masterclass in the mechanics of tension-building, the sudden brutal murder of a nurse in a hospital corridor by an ominous shrouded figure remains shocking on every viewing, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. —AHN
Directed by Rob Reiner; screenplay by William Goldman
In Stephen King’s novel, when deranged “number one fan” Annie Wilkes discovers that captive romance-novel author Paul Sheldon has tried to escape her ministrations, she lops off one of his feet with an ax and cauterizes the stump with a blowtorch. For the film version, director Rob Reiner found that bit of violence too over the top, substituting it with Annie (Kathy Bates) “hobbling” Paul (James Caan) by whacking his ankles with a sledgehammer. Yet this remains one of the most squirm-inducing acts of violence in film history, and the buildup elicits anticipatory screams and groans from anyone who watches it — demonstrating that all the spectacular gore in the world can’t rival the impact of a smaller, more identifiable injury. (As such, this moment follows in the, ahem, footsteps of the cringeworthy bit in the previous year’s King film Pet Sematary, where living-dead toddler Gage severs Jud Crandall’s Achilles tendon with a scalpel.) It’s the most extreme expression of Annie’s mania, which helped cement her in the minds of filmgoers as a villainess for the ages and lead Bates to win a rare Academy Award for a horror performance — paving the way for The Silence of the Lambs’ Oscar triumph the next year. —MG
Directed by Adrian Lyne; screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin
After the cautionary “this could happen to you if you cheat” real-world suspense of Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne brought surrealism to the masses, directing Bruce Joel Rubin’s much-admired but long-unproduced screenplay. New York postal worker and Vietnam vet Jacob (Tim Robbins) has more than the usual PTSD; he suffers from hallucinatory visions and waking nightmares, and begins seeing himself as the target of a sinister conspiracy. The movie’s horrific highlight is a nightmarish setpiece in which Jacob is wheeled through a decrepit medical facility staffed by demonic figures, some of whose heads vibrate at an unearthly, unnerving rate. This effect, done with simple camera undercranking in this pre-CGI era, has been imitated in countless films since. And although the twist ending had antecedents like Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” it has been aped many more times in Jacob’s wake. —MG
Directed by Jonathan Demme; screenplay by Ted Tally
For a film featuring a psychologically manipulative cannibal, the fact that the scariest moment in The Silence of the Lambs is a subtle, first-person night-vision stalking from Buffalo Bill’s point of view is a shining example of the film’s brilliance. Shot over the course of 22 hours and originally in light with a night-vision filter placed over it in post, this scene is one of the best examples of expertly built tension. Detective Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) stumbles around in the dark, a gun shaking in hand, with absolutely no idea of her surroundings. Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill patiently hunts his prey, toying with her, always just a half-step behind. What makes this moment so horrific is the setup of impending danger. As we view Clarice’s movements from Buffalo Bill’s perspective, we are acutely aware of how close she is, with every step, to meeting her demise. Silence of the Lambs perfectly walks the line between true crime inspired by real-life killers and the horror-film formula, something that would inspire films like Se7en, featuring another brilliant serial killer, and the lengths to which people will go to bring them to justice, even if it means becoming part of the horror themselves. —BJC
Directed and written by Bernard Rose
Horror is a genre particularly suited for exploring the glories and tragedies of the black experience. Black kids are ushered into an understanding of death at the hands of the police early on; black women learn often that their bodies will not be protected; and that’s just the beginning. Candyman exists on a continuum of horror films that mine the black experience, like Ganja and Hess. But no film before or since has so thoroughly established a black-horror icon with such panache and power. Based on a Clive Barker short story, write-director Bernard Rose transposes the story to the Cabrini Green projects of Chicago that no longer exist, giving the film an added historical weight today.
The film follows Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a grad student researching urban legends, who comes across the story of the Candyman (the baritone, melancholy Tony Todd). Helen and her peer, Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons), doubt the myth initially. But as Helen learns more about the deaths attributed to the Candyman, he is soon hunting her himself. The Candyman is never given a name, but his origins are outlined: He was the son of a slave who became prosperous after the Civil War. He became a painter and figure in high society who fell in love with a white woman. Her father gathered a group of people to torture and kill him. His painter’s hand cleaved from his body, he’s smeared with honey and killed by a flurry of bee stings. His origins echo in the horrifying climax of the film when he lures Helen to his lair, revealing his exposed ribcage slick with blood and swarming bees, which also pour from his mouth. In scenes such as this, Candyman exists on the axis of several different modes: body horror, psychologically rich interrogations of racial animus, and the grotesque. It’s a powerful, terrifying movie that takes a gimlet-eyed perspective on gentrification and racism, all filtered through the black experience, which laid the groundwork for films like Get Out. —AJB
Directed by Wes Craven; written by Kevin Williamson
The 1990s were a transitional time in horror. There were excellent films released during the genre’s post-slasher malaise (a few of them Oscar winners, too), but a decade so defined by the dead teenager craze gave way to an era that lacked the sense of fun provided by the 1980s — until Scream.
Horror master Wes Craven, already with landmark entries Last House on the Left and Nightmare on Elm Street to his credit, redefined scary movies for a third straight decade with his postmodern, post-slasher slasher about a group of suburban high schoolers raised on classic horror who pick apart the mechanics of the genre as they try to outwit Ghostface.
In Scream’s cold open, Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker fields a call from the killer and her survival hinges on whether or not she can win at his game of horror trivia. Casey, with her Barbara Crampton Re-Animator blonde bob, of course fails the test and ends up dangling from a tree “with her insides on the outside.” Scream didn’t invent meta-horror, but few movies taking the approach did so as deftly as Craven’s film. And in combining the mass-appeal sensibility of ’80s horror with genuine scares and a hot young cast, the movie birthed a new wave of sly, smart studio genre films that brought the popcorn appeal back to horror while sharpening its edge for the future. —JC
Directed and written by Michael Haneke
Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke will tell you that this is not a horror film. Okay, but then it’s one of the most frightening and disturbing “psychological thrillers” ever made. The title refers to the sadistic, torturous games inflicted on a wealthy family in their lakeside vacation house by a pair of misanthropic young men, and also to the way Haneke plays with and subverts both the expectations of the audience and the conventions of the thriller form. It’s a feature-length experiment that takes its boldest turn after one of the home invaders is shot by the terrorized mom, Anna (Susanne Lothar). Infuriated at her breaking of the rules, the other picks up a remote control and uses it to rewind and reset the scene. It’s a galvanizing moment that reduces the fourth wall to rubble and calculatedly thwarts any sense of catharsis in the viewer, and stands as one of cinema’s most memorable meta moments. When Haneke remade the film in English in 2007, pretty much scene for scene, with Naomi Watts as the heroine, he stated that Funny Games was intended as a commentary on violence in the media, and in either version, one of its successes is that it can be both appreciated on that level and enjoyed — or endured — as a gut-twisting genre piece. —MG
Directed by Hideo Nakata; screenplay by Hiroshi Takahashi
Hideo Nakata’s cursed-videotape saga made its North American premiere bearing only modest buzz. But the film (based on Koji Suzuki’s novel) built an atmosphere of shuddery dread among the packed house as reporter Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) set out to learn the truth behind the VHS cassette bearing a bizarre montage that dooms its viewers to die seven days after watching it. Then came the punch line: The vengeful spirit of a deceased young girl named Sadako, presumed to have been dispelled by the discovery of her body, appears on a TV set watched by Reiko’s ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) … and then crawls out of the screen and into reality, giving Ryuji — and everyone in that theater — a heart attack. Little did anyone know at the time that Sadako was also creeping her way into horror history, establishing in one supremely shivery scene that “J-horror” would be a force to be reckoned with. She received an English-language analogue in the surprisingly good U.S. remake The Ring and inspired a legion of long-black-haired Asian ghost girls, spooking and startling their way through movies in both Asia and America, the most successful of which were Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge franchise. —MG
Directed and written by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Almost 20 years after its original release, it’s hard to fully describe just what a major pop-culture phenomenon the original Blair Witch Project was. At a period when the viral marketing possibilities of the internet were only just starting to become apparent, and when the codes and conventions of what would soon be called “found-footage horror” were (for the mainstream at least) something altogether new, The Blair Witch Project hit the public imagination like a tornado. Its story about three film students disappearing from Burkittsville, Maryland, while making a documentary about a local witch legend wasn’t just a successful movie, it was a Zeitgeist-defining sensation. Despite the “is it really real?” mystique of found-footage horror having since lost its shine, The Blair Witch Project remains an impressive feat in good old-fashioned horror storytelling. Of its most enduring moments is the final shot, which reveals sound guy Mike standing in the corner of a room in the enigmatic witch’s derelict house like a little kid being punished — recalling an earlier account of what the Blair Witch did to the children, as the local legend contended, that she murdered. The scene demonstrates the poetry and intoxicating force of horror when it’s at its most succinct. —AHN
Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know about the ending to The Sixth Sense. The twist has become so ingrained in our consciousness that it’s threatened to eclipse the career of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, overshadowing his non-twisty accomplishments. Rather than beat that horse that was — spoiler alert — DEAD ALL ALONG, I choose to focus elsewhere as a reminder that this movie has so many noteworthy scenes that are quite simply scary AF.
Because of its mainstream success and PG-13 rating, The Sixth Sense has become a punch line for some self-proclaimed hard-core horror fans who don’t find it edgy enough to be “real” horror. But in truth, it has several jump-out-of-your-seat moments, perhaps none as terrifying as when Cole (Haley Joel Osment) hides from a ghost (a young Mischa Barton) in his homemade tent as the clothes pins securing its roof are mysteriously undone, one by one. The misdirection scare shows Shyamalan’s cinematic flair for crafting bone-rattling thrills, while serving as a reminder that the movie was a key precursor to the “suburban haunting” films that ruled the box office in the 2010s, featuring franchises like The Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister, Paranormal Activity, and Ouija, plus stand-alones like Mama, Oculus, and Lights Out. —MHH
Directed by Takashi Miike; screenplay by Daisuke Tengan
Audition begins when widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) and his friend decide to host a fake audition to get Shigeharu a new wife. The two lie and tell the actresses that they are casting the lead in a film. All of the women seem the same, but then Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) walks in the room, and everything changes. The two seemingly fall in love almost immediately. It’s a fascinating blending of genres, because a good chunk of this movie plays like a genuine romance. That is, up until the moment when we see Asami at home, looking nearly catatonic, as she sits motionless by the phone, a large cloth bag sitting in the background. Suddenly, the phone rings, and everything in the frame springs to life. The bag rolls ferociously back and forth behind an inanimate Asami as a sly smile creeps up the side of her face. By revealing that Asami is holding a hostage in her home, we now know that Shigeharu is not the only one keeping a secret. Asami has punished men before who claimed to love her and only used her, and it’s only a matter of time before Shigeharu gets his comeuppance. In Takashi Miike’s most feminist movie to date, Asami refuses to fall prey to Shigeharu’s games, as her past trauma resurface and she morphs into a modern-day femme fatale. Although mainly noted for its influence on the “torture porn” genre, inspiring filmmakers like Eli Roth, James Wan, and the Soska sisters, Audition also set a precedent for “woman hell-bent on revenge” films, capitalizing on the final girls who came before it, and setting the standard for what to expect from vixens for years to come. —KC
Directed by Mary Harron; written by Harron and Guinevere Turner
American Psycho gave a crisp new image to horror’s long-standing interest in the tragedies men inflict on women’s bodies. Every inch of the film is imbued with the female gaze, disrupting expectations and honing in on minute details that add dread and pathos to each scene. The film centers on Patrick Bateman, a rich investment banker in 1980s New York who kills women with little regard, played with with cunning anti-charisma by Christian Bale in the role that redefined his career. The film reaches a horrifying crescendo when Bateman has a threesome with a drug-addled acquaintance, Elizabeth (Turner), and a sex worker he previously harmed named Christie (Cara Seymour). Bateman’s lustful desires shift into bloodthirst when Christie slips from beneath the covers to leave the apartment. He begins stabbing Elizabeth while he has sex with her, until her cries of pleasure turn into blood-curdling screams. As Christie tries to escape, she finds the mangled bodies of various women hanging in a closet. This leads to the film’s most iconic image: Bateman’s naked form, decked in only blood and pristine white sneakers, holding a roaring chain saw with malevolent grace. Christie screams and bangs on the doors of his neighbors to no avail. Her fate is sealed as she rushes down the stairs — Bateman, ever a calculating killer, carefully drops the chainsaw, killing her. Since this lurid moment blasted in theaters in 2000, Turner and Harron’s work has gone onto influence everything from TV’s Dexter to Gone Girl to Kanye West’s video for “Love Lockdown,” among a heap of other serial-killer dramas. But few of the works it has inspired live up to the careful construction, icy ingenuity, and sharp horror of this film. —AJB
Directed and written by David Lynch
Some people don’t consider David Lynch’s Hollywood-set magnum opus to be a horror movie at all. Those people are wrong. But even if they were right, can anybody deny that it contains one of the greatest — maybe the greatest — straight-up scares of all time? And what’s so great is that it tells you exactly what it’s going to do before it does it. A man in a diner relates a terrifying dream, and his vision of a mysterious man who is controlling it: “There’s a man, in back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it.” He and his companion go out back to investigate. The soundtrack thrums, the camera floats, and the characters drift. The movement throughout this scene has the elemental pull of a nightmare, like something you can’t escape — the very essence of horror. We can tell that Lynch is going to show us something terrifying, even if the film hasn’t exactly settled into its overall mood of despair and terror yet. As the dumpster approaches, the camera assumes the men’s point of view. And then … Boo! A clinic in building anticipation and timing the absolute perfect moment for the terrifying reveal. What’s even wilder: The actor playing the Evil Hobo, Bonnie Aarons, once revealed to Vulture that she was actually giving David Lynch a look of love during this scene. (She would also go on to play the Demon Nun in the Conjuring sequels.) —BE
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Muñoz
The way The Devil’s Backbone’s narrator describes ghosts at the beginning of the film — “an emotion suspended in time” — could later be used to sum up director Guillermo del Toro’s entire filmography. In his debut work, del Toro centers his film around an orphaned 12-year-old boy named Carlos in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Carlos begins seeing visions of “The One Who Sighs,” a pale ghost that is believed to be a young boy named Santi who went missing after a bomb landed in the center of the orphanage grounds without detonating. Carlos doesn’t first see the ghost in the shadows of night, but in the middle of the day, under the hot Spanish sun. And The One Who Sighs is not a screaming, jump-scare-riddled ghost like Western audiences are used to, but, as the narrator puts it, “a tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again.” Unlike the formulaic ghost stories horror fans are accustomed to, what makes this one so horrifyingly memorable is the idea that ghosts are walking among us at every moment, and they aren’t afraid of us. —BJC
Directed and written by Gaspar Noé
Now in his mid-50s, Argentine-born French filmmaker Gaspar Noé has surely outgrown his signature enfant terrible label. Yet based on the legacy of his shocking 2002 rape-revenge film Irréversible alone, it is a description that will no doubt follow him into old age. The structural gimmick of the film is as simple as it is radical: By reversing the chronology of his story and turning a rape-revenge film into a revenge-rape film, Noé forces us to rethink the logic that provides the foundations for this notorious category of film, skewing the moral vision that justifies vigilante justice and portraying it as futile, chaotic brutality. The film begins with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) believing they have murdered the man responsible for the vicious sexual assault of Marcus’s pregnant girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci). The rape itself, running at around nine minutes in length, comes after. The scene is unrelenting in its focus, denying us the opportunity to look away from the inhumanity of what is happening to Alex. Controversial and undeniably extreme, there are no quickly edited innuendos or implications of the horror of rape here. It is presented an unendurable, inescapable nightmare. —AHN
Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Alex Garland
Alex Garland came to director Danny Boyle with a simple premise: What if zombies could run? 28 Days Later was touted as a stripped-down post-apocalyptic plague tale, drawing as much from The Day of the Triffids as it did from George Romero’s Dead trilogy. But no one was prepared for its lo-fi aesthetic and how Boyle’s use of DV cams would create such an eerie sense of realism. In this scene, Jim (Cillian Murphy) has just woken up in a hospital and wanders around a deserted London, before entering a church. Standing in the balcony, Jim observes piles of rotting bodies on the pews; it’s the first indication of what’s befallen humans while Jim was asleep. When Jim says, “Hello,” two of those bodies jolt awake and shoot hungry glances at him, but they’re the least of his problems — a flailing priest pushes through the rickety doors and quickly moves after Jim with the determination of a rabid animal. It’s one of the first times the undead were defined by a frenzied speed, and Boyle’s zombie cast was almost entirely comprised of athletes to sell the gimmick. Aside from inspiring its own film franchise, this movie also put animated corpses back in vogue, paving the way for Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, REC, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and three more Romero-directed Dead films. —AW
Directed by Park Chan-wook; written by Park, Lim Joon-hyung, and Hwang Jo-yoon.
It’s a cold and dreary night when Oh Dae-su is snatched from the streets, tossed in a van, and locked away without explanation in a South Korean prison, his only friend in the world a television box. When he finally escapes, 15 years later, Oh Dae-su searches for the man who put him behind bars all those years ago. The only problem is, he’s asking the wrong question. The true stunner isn’t why Oh Dae-su was imprisoned. The question he should be asking is, why was he released? When he finally tracks down the man in the high tower — Lee Woo-jin — he shows up to his opponent’s penthouse ready to exact his long awaited revenge, but Woo-jin has a surprise of his own. To pay Oh Dae-su back for telling their entire high-school class that Woo-jin was involved with his own sister, Woo-jin reveals he has hypnotized Oh Dae-su into falling in love with his own daughter, Mi-do.
In a wild moment of hysteria and frantic reasoning, Oh Dae-su begs Woo-jin not to tell Mi-do the truth. Woo-jin laughs and ignores his pleas. Desperate, Oh Dae-su demonstrates his commitment to keeping his mouth shut by cutting out his own tongue. It’s a gruesome scene that builds and builds until it explodes, on top of what has already been an extremely graphic and unnerving film. Not only does this moment signify a very late-in-the-game switch of protagonists — we’re no longer watching Oh Dae-su’s vengeance, but Lee Woo-jin’s — it also became a turning point in genre film. Ari Aster, Julia Ducournau, and dozens of new auteurs cite Park Chan-wook’s bold narrative as having inspired them to push the envelope of their own stories, proving to a new age of directors that it is possible to create film that is both crass and beautiful. —KC
Directed by James Wan; written by Wan and Leigh Whannell
Horror fans who hadn’t been keeping tabs on the extraordinary violence pouring out of the New French Extremity wave or Asian spectacles of brutality like Audition or Oldboy were not prepared for the arrival of James Wan and Saw. Together with his creative partner Leigh Whannell, the Australian director kicked off his takeover of American horror cinema with the film franchise that popularized ultraviolence in U.S. studio horror pictures — a trend that New York Magazine’s David Edelstein would eventually dub “torture porn.” Watching Cary Elwes hack off his own foot is an unforgettable image, but the enduring icon of Saw was the reverse bear trap, a mechanism wired to the jaw of one desperate victim that would spring open with enough force to rip their head in half if not disarmed in time. That Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) needed to cut into the stomach of a live man to earn her salvation only doubled down on the gore.
Saw changed the mores of horror for a stretch of years, with franchises like Hostel and The Collection arriving in its wake. But the movie’s significance is even bigger when you consider Wan’s broader influence on studio horror films. He kicked off the American torture surge with Saw and then ushered the ghost picture back into popularity with Insidious and The Conjuring soon after, which was the start of a billion-dollar cinematic universe still breaking box-office records today. Wan has stepped away from directing horror films, but through a producing partnership with famed horror house New Line Cinema, his influence on the genre continues. —JC
Directed by and written by Neil Marshall
The particular genius of Neil Marshall’s spelunking horror freak-out masterpiece is its combination of so many elementally terrifying pieces: claustrophobia, the dark, unknown places, frenemies. Oh, and shrieking, pale-faced, cannibalistic humanoid cave-dwelling ghouls. The monsters in this film — called “Crawlers” — have effectively evolved into a whole new terrifying species after an eternity spent inside a deep, undisturbed subterranean network of caverns. (Think Aliens meets Deliverance.) But it’s actually quite some time into the film before we’re even fully introduced to these creatures. That’s what makes it so brutal: The situation has already become quite hopeless by this point, with our group of caving heroines having reached peak desperation — and then the monsters attack. But what an attack! First, our heroines discover the giant pile of animal bones. Then, they turn on their night-vision video camera, and… Boo! It’s not the first time, of course, that the night-vision technique was employed (see also: Silence of the Lambs), but it was so effective here that it became somewhat overused after this film. But what truly makes this scene so special is the fever pitch of terror that these women have already reached — and the truly excellent performances by the cast. —BE
Directed and written by Oren Peli
The concept of a found-footage movie — basically a sex tape, if you replace “sex” with “murder” — had been around for awhile, but it wasn’t until 1999 that it hit the mainstream with The Blair Witch Project. Surprisingly, trend-seeking Hollywood didn’t immediately jump aboard the found-footage train and beat it to death with a million releases mimicking the formula; in fact, the ill-advised Blair Witch sequel was a conventional narrative — and not coincidentally, a flop. It took nearly a decade for a film to truly turn found footage into the next big thing: another little movie that could, Paranormal Activity.
Moving found footage from the woods to the suburbs, Paranormal Activity kicked off the haunted-house movie boom of the 2010s, alleviating some of the Blair Witch viewer frustration over the shaky camerawork and lack of onscreen action by having the video come courtesy of stationary security cameras. We’re flies on the wall watching spine-chilling scenes, like the moment when we realize the entity haunting the young couple is capable of doing more than just flicking light switches and closing doors. It all but crawls into bed with them as they sleep, ratcheting up the danger and, if you’re freaky, the erotic potential. —MHH
Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza; screenplay by Balaguero, Plaza, and Luis Berdejo
While found-footage frightfests like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity creeped audiences out with their gradual, slow-burning reveals of supernatural forces, Spanish directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza took a different tack with REC. They used the you-are-there format to plunge the audience into frenzied, gore-soaked chaos. We watch through the lens of a news camera accompanying reporter Ángela (Manuela Velasco) as she follows a couple of firefighters into a Barcelona apartment building. There, they become trapped with the residents, who fall victim to a virus that turns them into slavering, bloodthirsty killers relentlessly pursuing and attacking their neighbors. One of this young century’s most genuinely frightening films, REC spawned three sequels, an official remake (Quarantine), and numerous imitations. Particularly influential was its final shot, after the surviving duo become trapped in the topmost floor, and a heart-stopping night-vision sequence introduces us to “the Medeiros girl,” the source of the infection. First the cameraman is slain, then Ángela collapses to the floor, and we watch through the fallen lens as she is dragged into the darkness. The image of a prone, screaming woman reaching toward us while evil lurks behind her has graced any number of horror-movie posters and video key artworks since. —MG
Directed and written by Pascal Laugier
The 2000s saw a French New Wave of graphic horror films that introduced a number of adventurous filmmakers (most notably High Tension’s Alexandre Aja, who went on to remake The Hills Have Eyes and adapt Joe Hill’s Horns) to the international market. The most shocking of all these movies was Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, in which a young woman named Anna (Morjana Alaoui) discovers a secret society carrying out hideous torture in secret rooms beneath a country house. Led by the Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), this group believes that their victims’ suffering will lead to a state of transcendence that will allow them access to the secrets of the afterlife.
Anna becomes their newest captive and is subjected to horrifying, grisly abuse that challenges you to keep watching — but in the end, it has the desired effect, and the barely alive Anna whispers the revelations she has gleaned into the Mademoiselle’s ear. But when her followers arrive to learn these truths, the Mademoiselle shoots herself before sharing them with the group, or with us — an act of denial whose implications are somehow the most horrifying thing in the entire movie. —MG
Directed by Tomas Alfredson; screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Arguably Sweden’s greatest contribution to the horror genre, Let the Right One In revitalized the vampire subgenre by focusing less on charming and sexually provocative adult-appearing monsters and instead focused on the most troubling time of anyone’s existence: prepubescence. Oskar, a boy who has experienced overwhelming bullying, finds refuge with Eli, a 12-year-old “girl” who is in reality a centuries-old vampire. Oskar becomes completely attached to Eli, willing to do anything to appease her. At the end one of their adventures together, Eli tells Oskar that she cannot enter a room without express permission. Oskar, unable to understand, asks Eli to enter a room without permission just to see what happens. Eli, knowing full well what this would mean for her, does so in order to allow Oskar to see the “real” her.
Immediately, Eli begins shaking, a guttural growl bellows from within, and blood begins dripping from her every orifice. Oskar panics and screams, “You can come in!” allowing permission. It is at this moment that the forever bond between Oskar and Eli is established. It’s also what established horror as a beautiful and credible medium for cinema. A wave of horror films would soon follow, allowing critics to view horror as an “elevated” art form, and forced audiences to stop writing off horror as nothing more than shlock. —BJC
Directed by James Wan; written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes
“Do you see it? There’s someone standing over there … looking right at us.” Saw director James Wan’s masterpiece represented a return to good old-fashioned haunted-house scares, finding ways to make familiar elements — children’s games, darkened basements, possessed dolls — terrifying again, and kicking off a billion-dollar horror franchise in the process. And while the film could never be considered minimalist — it’s filled with tracking shots that stalk the characters through every corner of their house, as well as a generous helping of effects work — its most effectively chilling moment demonstrates that all you need to scare the living wits out of an audience is a couple of kids, a creaking door, and a patch of darkness. In this scene, young Christine Perron (Joey King) sits up in bed in the middle of the night, assuring her skeptical older sister that there is someone standing in the shadows right behind their door, staring straight at them. It’s so simple as to be absurd, but Wan’s framing of the impenetrable darkness Christine is looking at, combined with young actress King’s absolutely terrified whispers, convince us that there is, indeed, a malevolent spirit right there. It’s one of the great horror sequences of the last few years, and you could pretty much restage it in your bedroom right now. —BE
Directed and written by Jennifer Kent
Horror is brimming with tormented and tormenting mothers, but rarely have they been so fiercely brought to life at the center of a film. In her debut, writer-director Jennifer Kent follows the perspective of widowed single mother Amelia (a raw-nerved Essie Davis) as she struggles with her shrill, demanding son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), the grief from witnessing her husband’s death in a car crash, and the looming titular monster darkening her home.
A blend of mundane annoyances, world-shaking grief, and strange supernatural occurrences build to a terrifying sequence in which Amelia is possessed by the Babadook and goes on a rampage against her young son. Davis shows tremendous skill and vulnerability for how she throws her body into the performance, as her character kills a dog, mutilates herself, and cruelly taunts her son, unloading every bit of anger that she has tried to dampen down. What’s most impactful in this sequence is how the film grounds its horror in the most grotesque of women’s emotions, using mental illness and grief as all-consuming metaphors without simplifying Amelia’s experience. Like the next film on this list, The Witch, The Babadook set off a renewed trend in horror: honing in on women’s internal lives in ways that inform, delight, and challenge. —AJB
Directed and written by Robert Eggers
In the last few years, a trend of austere, detailed, muted works have emerged in the genre, sometimes referred to as “art house horror.” At their best, films of this ilk prize muted color schemes and performances, and treat tension and silence as integral tools. The Witch, an early example of this growing lineage, remains the gold standard. Writer-director Robert Eggers’s debut tells the story of an isolated Puritan family in 1630s New England, beset by horrors from within and without. Their teenage daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), wrestles with her adolescence as a series of supernatural tragedies take place, beginning with the baby of the family being kidnapped. The tension in the film explodes when the family’s black goat, Black Phillip, tips the quiet film into outright chaos, gorging the father, William (Ralph Ineson). The scene utilizes minimal dialogue, using the expanse of the land and the clang of Mark Korven’s cinematography to make its harsh world feel immediately real and claustrophobic. From here, the film tips into surprising territory. The mother, Katherine (an excellent Katie Dickie), rages at the only family member left: the young Thomasin, whom she views as the nexus of all the family’s ills.
Black Phillip may be the most iconic figure from the film, but it is Thomasin’s fight for her life that holds the most pathos. The scene takes a turn for the grotesque as Thomasin is pinned to the hard earth of her home by her deranged mother and must slice her to death in order to survive, pleading with her with each ragged breath. It’s in this heartbreaking scene and the film’s gloriously malevolent ending that the true power of The Witch is evident as the fuse that lit modern horror’s renewed interest in the intersections between womanhood, body politics, autonomy, and power, which continues through works like Raw, A Dark Song, and the recent Suspiria remake. —AJB
Directed and written by David Robert Mitchell
If David Robert Mitchell’s foray into horror showed ingenuity and promise, it was most clear in this scene where a young woman sits in a classroom and casually notices a strange sight: an elderly woman in a hospital gown, nearly a football field away, slowly walking closer. The terror here comes from the dawning realization, of both the viewer and the protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe), that the person who appears to be an inconsequential dot in the distance is in fact the danger lurking among a bucolic tableau of students sunning themselves and studying in the grass. That no one seems to notice this threat only ratchets up the tension for Jay, who must decide in the middle of a class whether or not it’s time to run, leaving others to wonder what the hell is going on with her. That confidence to linger on a shot that pays off the longer it goes on has already spilled out into other horror projects, but the most obvious one is Ari Aster’s directorial debut, Hereditary. —AW
Directed and written by Jordan Peele
While most of the major-studio genre releases in the 2010s followed the haunted house trend of The Conjuring, Insidious, and Paranormal Activity franchises, Jordan Peele’s Get Out brought social commentary to the fore of the genre, blending the satirical speculative fiction of The Stepford Wives, the paranoid thrills of Rosemary’s Baby, and the racial unease of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? into the story of a black man (Daniel Kaluuya) whose white girlfriend’s family seeks to usurp his blackness. The harrowing teacup scene quickly became a cultural touchstone, as the girlfriend’s mother discreetly hypnotizes our hero, placing his mind into the “Sunken Place,” a realm of eternal darkness to which the consciousness of black victims is banished when the white transplant’s mind takes over. It’s not hard to see how this became a go-to Twitter reference when people of color — say, a mentally unhinged rapper with a socialite wife and a hotline to the president — undermine attempts at racial justice. —MHH
Directed and written by Ana Asensio
At the outset, at least, there’s little about Ana Asensio’s directorial debut — which at first appears to be a poignant social drama about an undocumented immigrant — that suggests it might employ the conventions of horror to provide its epic punch. Based around the story of Luciana (played by Asensio herself, who has a background as an actor on Spanish television), the film tells of her increasing isolation as she struggles to make ends meet in her new life in New York City. Through her journey, the film reveals just how deep the cracks undocumented workers fall into can be, and the depravity of those willing to profit from their precarious position. Luciana’s vulnerability makes her easy to exploit, and she accepts a vague, mysterious job that finds her well out of her already tenuous comfort zone. It’s here that Asensio’s experience as a theatrical director comes to the fore with one of the most harrowing and immaculately executed horror scenes in recent years, in which the wealthy pay to watch desperate, beautiful women risk their lives for money in a series of staged Grand Guignol–esque “performances.” To give too much away would spoil the surprise, but Most Beautiful Island — like Get Out — demonstrates just how effective experimenting with definitions of genre can be. By tackling women’s experiences of immigration and exploitation, Asensio film is another indicator of what compelling, exciting things horror has to tell us in the future. —AHN
*A version of this appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!