Things are scary right now. Real scary, especially if you spend hours scrolling social media. This is a new reality for all of us that literally everyone is learning to adjust to on a daily basis. We get it, but even with all that going on, we’re all looking for some sort of media to take our minds off of it for a little while. One genre that might pique your interest is horror movies. Why not get scared about something that isn’t real as opposed to something very real?
But the problem with horror movies is that they’re often pretty inscrutable: Character motivations rarely make much sense, and what are those monsters even doing anyway? What media scholars call “intertextuality” — how works of art refer to other works of art to give them meaning in specific contexts — is specifically important for understanding horror, in that some of these movies simply don’t make sense unless you’ve seen the ones that came before them.
If that’s the case: what are the movies you have to watch for more modern films to be legible? We’ve put together a list of ten of the most essential horror movies ever made, and justifications for their cultural relevance. Get ready to scream.
More Must-See Movies
The Shining (1980)
Even if you haven’t seen The Shining, chances are you’ve seen much of The Shining in spoofs, gifs, images, homages, and parodies. The legendary cinematography of Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece has gone on to influence almost all modern horror and the art of film writ large. Telling the story of a family tortured by angry spirits in a massive, abandoned hotel, Kubrick creates a menacing atmosphere that feels almost apocalyptic in scale and scope. Although Stephen King (the ubiquitous author who wrote the book on which the movie is based) despised this specific interpretation of his work, it’s clearly one of the few cases of an adaptation far outshining its source material.
Casual horror fans might not be aware of this psychedelic Japanese film, which has become a cult classic amongst true aficionados. The trippy and surreal misadventure provides plenty of campy thrills and some truly bizarre sequences unlike anything ever captured on film before or after its 1977 release. Far from the sleekly produced nightmares of contemporary cinema, this truly flawed film is somehow romantic, endearing, nostalgic, unsettling, and beyond unnerving all at the same time. Don’t worry too much about following along with the plot, just enjoy the ride.
I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
Where to Rent: Prime Video
Perhaps one of the grisliest movies ever made, it’s almost wrong to categorize I Spit On Your Grave as horror — although it’s totally fictional, there’s something so deeply dirty and disturbing about its contents that it would almost be better understood as a kind of snuff film. Ostensibly about a violated woman seeking retribution, the film sparked moral outrage for its hideous depiction of sex crimes upon its release in 1978. Roger Ebert simply described it as “a vile bag of garbage.” Nonetheless, I Spit On Your Grave wound up serving as a template for an entire subgenre later dubbed “rape revenge” — and the movie’s stark cinematography remains a huge influence on contemporary TV ranging from Twin Peaks to Riverdale.
Where to Rent: Prime Video
Although it was far from the first entry in the “slasher” subgenre, Halloween is a sort of Ur-text for that style of cinema. When the deranged Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital he embarks on a bloodthirsty romp, leaving a wake of teenage bodies behind him. Can the androgynous and virginal Laurie Strode survive his unending onslaught? Certainly, movies like Friday The 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Nightmare on Elm Street could have made their way onto this list, but Halloween is probably the purest example of the basic slasher formula that would later be endlessly copied throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
Where to Rent: Prime Video
The extent to which Japanese cinema — and director Takashi Miike, specifically — has gone on to shape almost every horror movie released in the past decade is deeply underemphasized in cinephilic circles. Although often dismissed as “torture porn,” Miike’s thoroughly disturbing masterpiece, Audition, functions as a tortuous and melancholic psychodrama and a subtle feminist critique of gendered expectations in the East. Not for the squeamish.
Where to Stream: Tubi
Reinterpreted as an excellent and esoteric Holocaust parable in 2018, the original 1977 Giallo classic was a complete reimagining of what the horror genre could accomplish. Shot in a lushly neon color palette, the film’s enchanting vision of dark witchcraft has cast a spell on viewers for more than four decades. A gentle art nouveau aesthetic is juxtaposed sharply against the brutal violence endured by the movie’s protagonists.
Widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time — horror or otherwise — Psycho spawned endless psychoanalytic criticism, which investigated the motifs of violence and gender confusion with Freudian verve. Film scholars have dissected this movie so thoroughly that frame-by-frame analysis of its most famous scenes are commonly taught to budding movie makers in art schools around the world. Hitchcock’s minimalism and tightly wound terrors are a far cry from the bombastic and omnipresent jumpscares that appear in spooky movies these days, but there’s no way to argue that Psycho hasn’t served as something of a blueprint for almost every horror film that came after it.
Dracula might get more name recognition, but Nosferatu is really film’s foremost vampire. This 1922 silent film, based on Stoker’s famous gothic novel, showcases the beauty of German expressionist cinema, with its chiaroscuro design and angular, brutalist scenery. The hyper-aestheticized visual world of Nosferatu would come to define the look of horror. Echoes of Nosferatu can be spotted throughout the works of auteurs like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, and many more.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is the standard by which the scariness of every movie that has come out since its 1973 release has been judged — and with good reason. The movie’s practical effects remain absolutely revolting and heart-wrenchingly grotesque to this day — and the human story beneath the puddle of pea soup is equally as compelling. This movie somehow remains so feared that some maintain the footage it was shot on is cursed.
Perhaps the greatest example of postmodern cinema ever made, Scream exploded the rules of horror by self-consciously deconstructing the tropes that had become so patently stale before its 1996 release. And despite it being over two decades old, the humor really holds up. As characters are killed off one by one, their snarky comments about final girls and sexual promiscuity remain bizarrely poignant. It’s astounding that the movie got blamed for inciting violence, considering it’s actually a rather obvious but thoroughly astute criticism of depictions of violence in cinema.
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