Written by J.T. Johnson
It may surprise some that the horror genre is one of my favorite types of films. As a film critic, it can be easy to assume that I wouldn’t particularly like the genre. With a few notable exceptions such as “The Exorcist” or “Get Out”, film critics tend to be very uppity and pretentious when watching horror films.
Sometimes, though, they’re not alone in their pretentiousness. There are times where the audiences themselves turn their noses up at the genre. I’ve noticed that this tends to happen in waves. There is usually a certain type of horror film that captures the imaginations of film lovers, but then I guess they start to feel bad that they’ve allowed themselves to focus on darker storytelling and the genre usually dies out for a hot minute.
Thankfully, just like most of the monsters featured in the movies, the genre can never stay dead for too long. The horror genre has been around almost as long as film itself with movies such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu”. The genre made a huge impact in the 1930s and ‘40s with the Universal horror films and in the ‘50s, the genre was dominated by several low-budget B movies.
While there were definitely horror films in the ‘60s, it was the ‘70s when the supernatural horror film grabbed hold with classics such as “The Exorcist”, “The Omen” and “Carrie”. There was one subgenre of horror, though, that was about to make things even bloodier. 1960s “Psycho” from Alfred Hitchcock ended up inspiring several new filmmakers and in the mid-seventies, the slasher genre was foreshadowed with movies like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and definitely with the release of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978.
Wanting to cash in on the audience that made “Halloween” a massive success, a producer and director named Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller ripped off the movie. In 1980, Paramount Pictures unexpectedly found themselves in the horror movie business with the release of “Friday the 13th”. Not only did the slasher film thrive in the 1980s, it also saw the rise of newer, badder monsters that became household names.
Freddy Krueger led the pack when he hit the scene in 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, leading to several fun sequels. Jason Voorhees continued with his rising body count in the “Friday the 13th” sequels while Michael Myers eventually returned in 1981’s “Halloween II” before making an even bigger comeback in 1988’s “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers”.
Cult monsters also rose up such as Pinhead in “Hellraiser” and the killer doll Chucky in “Child’s Play”. Carpenter continued his rise as a master of horror with the release of cult hits such as “The Fog” and “The Thing” while a young Sam Raimi made his debut with 1981’s “The Evil Dead”. That was another thing about the genre as it made household names of newer directors such as Carpenter, Raimi, and “Nightmare” director Wes Craven.
The ‘80s was a goldmine of horror films where even established filmmakers took on the genre. Steven Spielberg produced the hit film “Poltergeist” and master director Stanley Kubrick even hit us with his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining”. Then, there was something that the classic ‘80s monsters couldn’t quite survive: the 1990s.
Most of the iconic monsters faded away while the genre itself took a brief break. The only really impactful horror film of the ‘90s was “Scream” and all that really led to were a bunch of forgettable knockoffs. The end of the decade did see a couple of big films with the release of both “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Sixth Sense” in 1999.
The 2000s was a dark age for horror films for me. The original films released during this time were largely forgettable and the only films anyone really remembers from this time were shockingly bad remakes, either of films from the 1980s or Japanese horror films such as “The Grudge”. That’s not to say that it was all bad as we did get the resurgence of the zombie film with the release of “28 Days Later” and the horror comedy “Shaun of the Dead”.
I think my biggest problem with the horror films of the 2000s was the release of found footage films aiming to bank off the success of “The Blair Witch Project”. The biggest of these was “Paranormal Activity”, a film series that I just couldn’t quite get into. Also, there were new slasher films such as the “Saw” series that just tried to devise new ways to kill people and I lost interest pretty fast. Thankfully, the 2010s have seen a resurgence in the moody, more chilling films that would have fit quite well in the ‘70s.
“The Conjuring” has become not only a successful horror series, but a successful horror universe with spin-offs such as “Annabelle”, “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorona”. Blumhouse Productions is a mico-budget company that is reminiscent of New Line Cinema in the ‘80s. They have produced numerous horror films that have been hits with audiences such as “The Purge”, “Split”, “Get Out”, “Happy Death Day” and “Halloween”.
In other words, we’re thankfully seeing the rise of new horror films that not only bring the scares, but also bring the talent of several wonderful filmmakers. However, we need to enjoy it while it last because if history truly does repeat, the genre will eventually go back underground. The only difference this time out is that the films are being made by people who love the genre and seem to want to make more rather than just using the genre as a stepping stone to what they perceive to be “bigger” things.
Before I go today, here is a list featuring a few starter horror films that I personally enjoy. These are films that I think should be on any new horror fans “must see” list.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film has inspired generations of filmmakers from John Carpenter and Wes Craven all the way to Jordan Peele. It’s not hard to imagine why with a film that holds up surprisingly well almost 60 years after its initial release. Janet Leigh gives a great performance as Marion Crane while Anthony Perkins makes a great screen debut as Norman Bates, a character that has entered the pantheon of onscreen monsters to join the likes of Dracula, Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
Demon possession stories were also a big deal in the ‘70s. William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel gives us Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, a young girl that is possessed by an evil demon. After several insane encounters, Regan’s mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) seeks out the help of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest that is going through a crisis of faith himself. This is one of the rare horror films that mainstream critics enjoyed and the movie was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It is widely considered one of the best (if not the best) horror films around and that’s not hard to see why when you watch the film for yourself.
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
Tobe Hooper turned in a grisly depiction of a cannibalistic family that terrorizes a group of teenagers. The documentary style of the film gives an uncomfortable sense of reality even when we dive deeper into the more depraved world of the Sawyer family. The movie also includes the introduction of Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding madman who wears the face of one of his previous victims.
Sissy Spacek turns in a fantastic performance in Brian De Palma’s pretty accurate adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel. The film is admittedly slow to start, but once you get to the now infamous prom scene, you’ll be glad you stayed on the ride until the end. The movie is a perfect example of the moodier, more supernatural horror films that were released in the ‘70s.
THE OMEN (1976)
Unlike “The Exorcist”, this film is not just about some demon causing mischief. This is about the antichrist himself finally coming to Earth. In this case, young Damien is adopted by Gregory Peck’s Robert Thorn, but what Robert doesn’t know is that this little bastard is the spawn of Satan. He soon learns this, though, when the forces of evil appear in various forms in order to protect the young child as he grows up. The film led to some rather forgettable sequels and an atrocious remake, but this original film from eventual “Superman” director Richard Donner holds up just fine.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
The zombie film as we know it saw its rise with director George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. While that film is undoubtedly a classic in the genre, I actually prefer Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”. Set in a mall, you enjoy seeing the main characters living a semi-normal life in the mall until a biker gang suddenly disrupts the proceedings and the zombies begin to overtake the place. Like “Night”, Romero peppers in some not-so-subtle social commentary (this time about commercialism and materialism) into his bloody yet thought provoking zombie film.
Taking a page out of Hitchcock’s book, newcomer John Carpenter created a stellar film about a silent serial killer named Michael Myers. After escaping from a mental hospital, he stalks and then terrorizes a group of young teenage girls, focusing mostly on Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut. The film is a slow buildup to an ultimate confrontation where Michael proves why he is one of the scariest film villains around. FUN FACT: Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh, the actress that played Marion Crane in “Psycho”.
Director Ridley Scott gave us one of the screen’s most original monsters when he introduced the Xenomorph in “Alien”, a film set on a spaceship that ends up a deadly passenger onboard. Violently born after bursting through the chest of one of our lead characters, the monster is mostly unseen as it picks off one crew member after another. Eventually, it is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley that will have to face off against the grotesque alien designed by H.R. Giger.
THE SHINING (1980)
Stephen King may not like this particular adaptation of his work, but director Stanley Kubrick still managed to create one of the most unsettling and claustrophobic films around. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrence, a man who might be suffering from cabin fever, though it is quickly suggested that there are supernatural forces at work here. The question is whether or not his son Danny and wife Wendy will be able to escape his wrath as he falls deeper into insanity.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
Admittedly, this film is a cheap knockoff of “Halloween”. Even writer Victor Miller has admitted as much, but the movie does a good job at coming up with some pretty inventive kills that sets this one apart from the rest. This is something that has become a signature of the series over time. Also, the film’s killer is not Jason Voorhees, but it is his mother Pamela instead and Betsy Palmer turns in a memorable performance when she is finally revealed towards the end of the movie. She’s also notable as one of the few female killers featured in a horror film.
THE THING (1982)
John Carpenter’s gory and isolated horror film received little fanfare when it was initially released in 1982 due to a box office season that included the far friendlier “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. Thankfully, though, this film found its audience in the home video market and has quickly gone down as a classic. The film contains several unique practical effects as a group of men in an isolated research facility in Antarctica take on a shapeshifting alien that could be any one of them. The paranoia is real as the men become suspicious of each other as the movie races to its explosive conclusion!
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
It’s hard to believe that none of the studios wanted to make Wes Craven’s original idea of a monster that kills his victims in their nightmares. However, that was the case before Robert Shaye came in with a small distribution company called New Line Cinema. Shaye put up the $1 million it cost to make the film and horror icon and dream stalker Freddy Krueger was born. While the sequels definitely took the series into a more humorous direction, this first film is a straight up horror masterpiece with several impressive dream sequences and clever kills. Craven was already a name in the underground horror scene with films such as “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes”, but this film cemented his status as a true master of horror!
Writer Clive Barker adapted this story of a man looking for new sexual pleasures through pain and ends up opening a gateway to another hellish dimension. After the evil man escapes from his prison, he needs more victims in order to restore his body. He also needs to avoid the detection of the Cenobites, led by the infamous Pinhead. The movie is gruesome to watch, but contains several original images that help this film stand out as it explores the darker side of pleasure.
CHILD’S PLAY (1988)
Co-writer Don Mancini, producer David Kirschner and director Tom Holland brought the killer doll Chucky to life for the first time in “Child’s Play”. Voiced expertly by Brad Dourif, Chucky entered the pop culture lexicon as he terrorized a young Andy Barclay and his mother Karen. The character, not unlike Freddy, has gone on to more humorous sequels, but I recently rewatched this film in order to get ready for the remake and was surprised by how well it held up as an effective piece of horror.
After having briefly stepped away from the genre, Wes Craven returned with this film that not only has its own genuine scares, but it also comments on the very genre that Craven himself helped popularize in the ‘80s. The movie follows a group of teens that find themselves being picked off by a killer obsessed with horror films. Everyone is a suspect and that adds to the film’s terrifying nature. While the film did spawn several clones, including the infamous “I Know What You Did Last Summer” films, this film somehow manages to pay tribute to what came before while still doing its own thing and introducing the world to the Ghostface killer.
28 DAYS LATER (2002)
By the time 2002 arrived, the zombie film was pretty much dead and buried. However, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland gave the subgenre the jolt it needed with this film that sees the world’s population turning into a bunch of bloodthirsty monsters. These were no longer your slow moving menaces of the past. These were fast moving monstrosities and even if they didn’t bite you, if you got any of their blood in your body, you were done for. The movie was followed by a pretty solid sequel called “28 Weeks Later”, but it and other zombie films don’t really stand up to this modern day zombie masterpiece.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
Now, I know that I’m making a bit of an exception with this film that is more of a comedy than a horror film, but it does contain some genuinely good scary moments. Director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg crafted a genuine zombie film that just so happens to be mixed with a romantic comedy. The film is the first, and best, film in their Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and it still holds up 15 years later.
THE CONJURING (2013)
Director James Wan crafted a great haunted house story focusing on Ed and Lorraine Warren, inspired by the real-life Warrens that investigated supernatural cases in the 1970s. While the film effectively turns the Warrens into more heroic and fictional versions, it also created a horror universe that now includes several spin-off films set in the same world. The sequel and spin-offs are fine as well, but this original film is a wonderful throwback to the supernatural films that dominated the ‘70s.
GET OUT (2017)
When Jordan Peele hit the scene with his first horror movie, it contained not just a chilling story, but also a story that commented on race relations in America. It was a solid piece of entertainment, but it was made even better with its message. “Get Out” solidified Peele as a new voice in the horror genre and the movie stands as one of the few that was even recognized at the Academy Awards. Not only was it nominated for Best Picture, but Peele won the award for Best Original Screenplay. A well deserved win, indeed.
This is the second adaptation of Stephen King’s famous novel after the 1990 mini-series. In the new version, the film focuses on the Losers Club when they were children and they have to face off with Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise the Clown. The movie then reveals that it is actually one of two parts and that the story of the kids as adults will be told soon when Warner Bros. releases “It Chapter Two” later this year. Skarsgard is brilliant as Pennywise without stepping on Tim Curry’s toes from the original adaptation. This movie is proof positive that big studios can sometimes make solid horror films.
A QUIET PLACE (2018)
John Krasinski co-stars with his wife Emily Blunt and directs this very effective film about a family living in a world where if you make a sound, blind monsters will be able to track you down and take you out. The movie successfully uses sound as a weapon and it was also fun to see how the family copes without making noise. Add to that the fact that Blunt’s character is about to have a screaming baby soon and you have a recipe for genuine tension. A sequel is in the works with Krasinski returning to direct and Blunt set to reprise her role, but no matter how that film turns out, I have a feeling that this original film will go down as a bonafide horror classic for years to come.
Peele’s second horror film takes a broader look at class disparity in America when a family meets a terrifying version of themselves from an underground world. There are plenty of twists and turns in this excellent horror film as Peele completely avoids the “sophomore jinx” that some directors go through with their follow-ups to their hit debuts. By the end of the film, you’ll be wowed by how good a storyteller Peele is and why he’s considered a present day master of horror.
Now, these are just starter films. There are several fun horror films from the chilling and moody entries to the downright gory and grotesque. In the end, I think we all need to be scared from time to time. That’s the reason why I think that Halloween is such a popular holiday. We need that release of our fears and anxieties and, almost more than anything else, the horror genre is an easy way to give in to those fears and leave it all behind with a few of our favorite onscreen monsters.
Until next time, I’ll see you at the movies!