I’m not just about the books. I love a good movie. Movies speak to the ADD part of my brain that needs instant gratification. Plus, if you didn’t know, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away I worked at a video rental store. No. It was not Blockbuster. It was literally a corner store run by a little middle aged lady and it was the best job ever. But that’s a story for another time.
On to the list.
Poltergeist, like many classic horror films, begins with a gorgeous American family living carefree in the suburbs. Everything appears to be OK until supposedly benign ghosts take over their home. Needless to say, the ghosts’ true intentions are swiftly revealed, and the daughter is taken into a vortex in her closet, communicating solely through the family television set. It’s incredibly disturbing, but avoid the sequels.
The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film, had a lot going against it. Not only did it have to open on the same day as Blade Runner, but it also came out just weeks after E.T., a film that portrayed aliens as adorable tiny beings who got along well with children. The Thing’s extraterrestrials had a totally different agenda. Instead of levitating bicycles, these aliens are shape-shifters who scare Antarctic scientists. The men are never sure whether they are dealing with a coworker or a violent alien that has assumed his shape. It couldn’t compete with E.T. or Blade Runner, but it is now regarded as a genre classic.
Night of the Living Dead
There was Night of the Living Dead long before The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War X, and the innumerable other zombie movies and TV shows of recent years. The film, directed by George Romero, follows a young couple who are forced to fight off a large zombie onslaught on a Pennsylvania farm. Romero shot the film on a shoestring budget, and it sparked outrage due to severe violence. Because this was before the MPAA rating systems, children of all ages were welcome. Obviously, the longer the lines were, the more negative coverage it received. Romero directed numerous sequels throughout the years, but the original remains the ultimate classic.
A film about a diverse bunch of people having to spend the night in an ancient, haunted house may sound like the most cliché premise in the world, but that wasn’t the case in September 1963, when it was first released. The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, remains horrifyingly terrifying even after all these years. Much of the tension stems from witnessing actress Julie Harris go wild. There’s also a lesbian character, which was unheard of at the time. In the 1990s, Stephen King and Steven Spielberg were close to collaborating on a remake, but the project never materialized. It was finally released in 1999, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson, but the less said about it the better. Please see the original.
Any film depicting aliens has an innate creepiness to it. Most people understand that there are no zombies, ghosts, werewolves, or demons from hell, yet there are very likely aliens out there somewhere. A crew of astronauts in the distant future are stuck aboard a spaceship with a violent space creature that popped out a poor guy’s stomach in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic picture. The creature eliminates the team one by one before confronting Sigourney Weaver. Scott is a master artisan, carefully building tension until it becomes unbearable. Seven years later, James Cameron released Aliens, which, unlike most horror sequels, virtually matches the original.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The title pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this one. It is located in Texas. There’s a chainsaw nearby. There’s also a massacre. This picture, shot for $300,000 with a cast of well-known performers, startled viewers in 1974 with its extreme violence and indelible imagery, such as a lady impaled on a meathook. The film’s synopsis stated that it was a “story of the tragedy that befell a group of five adolescents.” Unless there was an undocumented killing by a chainsaw-wielding lunatic in Texas history, this appears to be a very brilliant lie by the filmmakers, who very surely had no idea they were changing cinema forever. After that, you didn’t need a big budget, meticulous cinematography, or well-known stars to make a film. All you needed was a fantastic idea, some good direction, and a desire to push the boundaries.
Movies about mysterious, hooded psychopaths hunting down nubile teens are common these days, but this notion was original in 1978. That’s when John Carpenter unleashed the world on Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Laurie Strode, a teen who has a particularly awful Halloween when her brother escapes from a mental asylum. The song alone will send shivers down your spine. Without this film, there would almost probably be no Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most successful directors in the world by 1960, yet Paramount still refused to let him make Psycho. They didn’t like the premise of a film about a homicidal hotel clerk, and they were put off by his financial request. Hitchcock, undeterred, decided to shoot the film on the cheap with the team from his TV program. Few could have predicted that they would be building a cultural monument that would eclipse practically everything Hitchcock had accomplished in the previous four decades. It’s a film full of surprises, starting with the fact that the leading lady gets killed off 45 minutes in. The film was a financial success, spawning three sequels and a remake. Even the trailer is brilliant: rather than displaying sequences from the film, Hitchcock merely goes around the set and sprinkles story hints.
Over the last three decades, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 picture The Shining has received a remarkable public reappraisal. After the failure of his previous film, 1975’s fatally dull Barry Lyndon, this was initially viewed as Kubrick’s first sell-out film, a popcorn thriller guaranteed to earn a fortune. Critics applauded the unrelenting tension and Jack Nicholson’s performance as the homicidal Jack Torrence, but it appeared like a small work after the grandeur of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. Then something strange happened. People started watching it over and over again. They developed mad theories about the true meaning (as documented in the excellent documentary Room 237), and even sane people began to see the film as a warped masterpiece. Surprisingly, it has probably been analyzed, screened, and parodied more than any other Kubrick film. Nobody could have predicted that in 1980.
It’s tough for those who weren’t alive in 1973 to truly comprehend what transpired when The Exorcist hit theaters across the country. People were passing out in certain multiplexes, so paramedics were called in. When tiny Reagan vomited on the priests, some audience members vomited into their popcorn. Nobody had ever seen anything this bizarre, and no one could get enough of it. It persisted for months and months, despite boycott calls from numerous groups. Since then, there have been innumerable films depicting demonic possession, and all of them owe a great deal to The Exorcist.
There you have them. My all time favorite horror movies. What do you think? Let me know. And throw a popcorn emoji in the comments to let me know you got this far.