Whether you deep dive the annals of horror films as though it were a life-affirming spiritual journey or are of the sort who find the Halloween season of cooler, longer, nights peaking your intrigue for feeling the gentle rush of safely experienced fear; we hope to have a list here which speaks to both types.
Many of the great horror gems are problematic or revel in their own crudeness. They deal with psychological neurosis in a slow burn manner of understanding or are a fast strobing overload of stimuli brushing the edges of the genre on both sides of the spectrum. As with any genre of film, this makes creating a universally recommended list of suggestions saying someone “must watch” difficult. Kier-La Janisse says in the phenomenal book House of Psychotic Women, “horror films are meant to be cathartic, and that we put ourselves through the terror as a means of symbolically overcoming something we’re afraid of.” We have done our best to use that as the criteria which someone of all developed minds will find worth sitting through.
Over the next few weeks we will get into the coolest of the cool and take some nice strolls down the dusty aisles of b-movie hell. To kick things off though, let us remember those rarest of films delivering an hour and a half of slow dripping terror that grows better on each viewing with the underlying craving to be watched by as many friends as we can pack into our living rooms (if this were any other year than this). Here are ten films we believe do just that, making them necessary yearly rewatches as the witching hour comes close at hand.
1.The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Before Tobe Hooper’s brilliant attention to detail was overshadowed by an addiction to nose candy and his own ego, he crafted a raw blindingly terrifying film that remains unparalleled today. What Star Wars was for science fiction, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was to horror —although in the realm of George Lucas films this one feels more in the wheelhouse of THX 1138 and Poltergeist feeling more Star Wars with Steven Spielberg playing the role closer to that of which Marcia Lucas was to ole turtlenecking George. You could argue whether The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the greatest horror film ever made but you absolutely cannot deny its place in the discussion.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took the editing magic of Psycho, combined with the ambient ever building eeriness of Spider Baby, and made it horrifyingly immersive. No longer are you edge of the seat nail-biting “oh she is trapped!!!!” about Vera Miles climbing into the shower, for the first time in horror you see Teri McMinn being lifted towards the meathook and your back hurts as you practically cannot hold your eyes to the screen anymore. Many films came before this one to lay tiny stones on the path but the pivotal moment in horror leading to the slasher, cannibal, and exploitation genres was this film. The walls of limitations were completely destroyed as aspiring filmmakers around the world learned in eighty-three minutes that the possibilities were for the first time endless. Sure there were the Last House on the Left caliber of films which equally deserve recognition. This being a list of horror films easily digested by anyone of age this side of puberty makes the fact The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved in groundbreaking fashion how palatable gore had the potential of being for anyone willing to take a risk on being scared the defining film to see over others one want to argue against it with. No film before or since has had the affect on film aficionado and the average drive-in ticket buyer alike anywhere close to this one.
There are a million reportedly true stories worth uncovering about Tobe Hooper. Here are two lesser-known; both involving Wayne Bell, the legendary sound editor whose notable works include Twister, The Devil and Daniel Johnson, and eight Richard Linklater films. First, in 1977, while Eagle Pennell was shooting, another seminally brilliant Austin film, The Whole Shootin Match—which inspired the creation of The Sundance Film Festival—Hooper happened past the restaurant where they were having the wrap party and snuck in to steal a heaping plate of wings from the buffet they had set up for the cast. A dramatic scene ensued as he was caught in the act and forced to leave; they didn’t find out who he was until later when someone—likely Bell—pointed out it was Hooper. The second is much more typical to the sort of interaction we hear from those who worked with him throughout the rest of his career. Over-budget and in the twenty-fifth hour of the film’s deadline, he and Bell sat down to watch the film for the first time. Hooper felt the sound effects were off from his vision. In a dramatic panic, he went out to the garage and loaded a box with tools and junk then proceeded to lock himself in a room for two days where he went without sleep or food while screaming obscenities and slamming items around. Supposedly the bending screeching noise we hear along with the flashbulb at the opening of the film is a rusty saw being pulled across a screen door spring but no one really knows. Occasionally narcissism can bring about the best results. Would you or I want to work with Hooper? Likely not, but we can still love the hell out of this movie.
2. Suspiria (1977)
While Tobe Hooper gave us a master’s class on editing and sound in 1974, Suspiria shows what would happen if a Roman Polanski film had been given the same treatment. Dario Argento directed five incredible psychological mind-bending thrill rides leading up to Suspiria, each growing in crafted perfection. Following Suspiria, he directed four films which diminish slightly as he went along. We avoid conversation about anything he put out beyond those except to say, it is Argento so for some reason you are supposed to watch them, we all do, meh. On the timeline of Argento’s relavajjnt career, we have powerful storytelling followed by risk-taking excitement; in the middle of the two periods is this magnum opus of terror.
The lighting and use of sound could arguably be the greatest in cinema history. The editing is an unfathomable cutting between distance of space, Spielberg moving dolly shots, and individualistic close-ups. The entire film feels as though it is in constant motion, as though we too are being thrown deeper into the spider’s web hand in hand with the protagonist. Jessica Harper proved her incredible skill throughout her career— most notably in Woody Allen’s Love and Death and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of Paradise—yet similar to Debra Winger and Audrey Hepburn manages every single frame she appeared in to feel as though you are seeing her for the very first time. We can talk all day about how the score by Goblin makes your heart pitter-patter at command, the same can be said for Harper. Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake taps into the underlying spirit of the original and is worthy of being watched, but only after sitting through the original a good ten or fifteen times before doing so.
3. The Gate (1987)
The opening of a portal of hell. Stop-motion claymation demons. Satanic codes deciphered via backward masking on a metal record. Demon death by model rocket. The Gate is a spiritual combination of The Evil Dead and Silver Bullet, proof positive throwing ideas at a film can occasionally work when shaped by the hands of a fan.
Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Outsiders, The Lost Boys, The Monster Squad; The eighties were defined by filmmakers willing to explore how our teenage imaginations shaped fears to overwhelming proportions as we found strength in the best of friends who were forged while facing it. The Gate may not cover the adventure of other eighties staples but it sure as hell doubles down on the coolness of best friend factor through Louis Tripp.
Let us not be delusional, this one gets only like a six out of ten rating but it is chock full of heart, wowing us in all the right places by creative bravery, a warm defining characteristic which makes b-movie heaven out of the horror genre in general. There are two films on this list which demand being watched with friends, The Gate is the first one we come to.
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Zombie films have sustained their appeal over the years by giving a metaphoric template allowed to speak directly to the underlying cultural fear of those not yet brainwashed by the malaise the average citizen fears about society. By the eighties, zombies had been split between the metaphor feeling of being attacked by the slowwitted engulfed by capitalism or the mindless nine to five existence of the suburban cul de sac dweller, it wasn’t until 28 Days Later came along in 2002 that the metaphors began to make dramatic shifts. Many arguments come about over what is or is not a “zombie” film. For an example of how these arguments go; White Zombie is really not a zombie film but deals with the cultural fear (white) people held towards African American heritage in colonized societies after demonizing them into sub-human status to pacify their own evil actions against them to feel acceptable; it is a film speaking as a metaphor of what those fears looked like in the head of those who deeply subscribed to them which makes it a zombie film on the criteria of being a vessel. At the same time, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie does not deal with a single deep theme. Are zombies just rotten dead bodies reanimated with a blind desire to eat living human flesh? Horror Express and Plan 9 From Outer Space meet neither line in the sand but always make zombie film lists. Like most arguments subcultures love wasting time in excited debates over, from the outsider’s perspective, it is a pointless splitting of hairs.
George Romero himself would later use the zombie trope as a metaphor against capitalism but early in his career the only thing he seemed to be concerned by was the ineffectual failure of both individuals and government when it came to addressing emergencies (checks the current U.S. death toll by Covid-19. 216,022 and climbing. Guess his concerns continue to be validated. Palm meet face). We see this more on The Crazies and Dawn of the Dead but certainly, the seed is planted in Night of the Living Dead. At the heart of it though, what makes this films stand out over time is that there are no big ideas—no big ambitions either—just someone with a camera wanting to make a film to the best of their ability without allowing any limitations—budget or technical—to be acceptable excuses for not bringing about a film they and their friends can watch over at completion with huge smiles across their faces contented by what they proved to themselves. From Evil Dead to The Blair Witch Project, aspiring filmmakers have always looked to what Romero pulled off with Night of the Living Dead and found it motivating to pick up a camera and make their own magic.
5. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Of all the great films to be based around a group of unbelieved youth left to battle an evil they must draw strength through each other to defeat, none reach the height of being all out frightening the way Wes Craven did with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Most of the eighties horror films in the same vein spend a large portion of screen time trying to keep the film fun; The Monster Squad and The Lost Boys find their greatness defined doing just that. Craven on the other hand is not one to allow it to water down his films. With Robert Englund as Freddie Kruger we get unexpected lighthearted joy but by removing it from the experience of his victims we never get the relief of being outside of the experience. After all Craven’s best work is a magnifying glass on sadistic nightmare scenarios. He took a risk on poking fun at it with this film and in a way reimagined what he was going for but failed to fully develop in the almost hokey moments of The Hills Have Eyes to show us what a few more years as a filmmaker under his belt could allow him to pull off. Maybe he was reading a lot of Stephen King around the time or something but to go “what if we have a killer that you cannot avoid being attacked by because he is there waiting for you when you fall asleep” seems a bit below what had defined him as one of the horror greats leading up to this film. Swamp Thing was refreshing to see Craven not taking himself too seriously yet it manages to not reach Toxic Avenger depths leaving it as all but forgetable. Nightmare On Elm Street was proof he could combine the two aspects of his filmmaking, coming out on the other side to be seen alongside John Carpenter as totems of craft as an ever-evolving pursuit. Both directors gave legitimacy to horror film box office cash grabs to be the artistic rebuttal against film snobs who to this day try to dismiss the genre as a lesser form of filmmaking.
6. Hocus Pocus (1993)
This one does not reach our guideline of being cathartic, terrorizing, or in any way help the viewer overcome anything beyond boredom. There must be a lowest common denominator for all of us to come together. Some people cannot handle being afraid and refuse to sit through the discomfort required of great horror films to get to the reborn resolve which comes from completing it. We love those friends too. We include this one on the list specifically with them in mind.
We understand the place of disgust many have for all things Disney. You can have a problem with the house of mouse but there is no denying they put out quality as far as mass-consumer culture goes. Hocus Pocus is a popcorn ride demanding you get the best friends together to spend a night carving pumpkins and having an all-inclusive Halloween good time. Anyone can watch it. Everyone is entertained. The casting could hardly be better. It never gets boring no matter how many times you have put it on. It holds up.
We also recommend Ernest Scared Stupid for younger viewers as it offers a few light-moderate scares and is surprising in quality. It lacks the value of being watched repeatedly so we went with Hocus Pocus in this slot instead.
7. Hereditary (2018)
We are lucky to have some of the greatest horror films ever created to come about over the last few years. None can be watched on repeat the way Hereditary can. In the same way Nightmare on Elm Street spoke to a whole new generation in a way of “FINALLY someone gets our experience,” so too does Hereditary in redefining what horror films can speak to about our place in time. Ari Aster did it again on Midsommar but it is this one that will fall further in line with a “what you’ve never seen?!?” sort of response forever going forward.
Horror fans get upset by the snub they receive every year from the Academy Awards. As with the Marvel and action film camps, there is an inability see with a critical eye beyond the blinders put up by the feeling “I REALLY LIKE IT.” Really liking something speaks nothing to artistic merit. When you talk cinematography, acting caliber, script, sound—Avengers: Infinity War for example—fail at being anything beyond competently achieved. Hereditary is one of the few mistakes fans have every right for being upset by not even getting a nod from the high-browers who refuse even considering the film on the merit of its genre. Hereditary will forever remain terrifying and universally accessible.
8. The Sadist (1963)
What a relief we have gotten to a place where The Sadist is no longer shot down with the comparisons to Psycho which marginalized it to near nonexistent obscurity for so long. It is a monumental experience in psychological terror that breathes from moment one with bated tight-chest shaky breaths. It needs to be said that Oliver Stone owes James Landis at least half his profits from Natural Born Killers for ripping this one off. It is offensive he got away with it. Hell at least Fast and the Furious tried to mask their stealing of Point Break, Oliver Stone didn’t even put in that much effort.
A couple of facts about this film which are worth knowing. Arch Hall Jr. pleaded to get this role and was denied repeatedly despite his father being the producer. Only after two other actors backed out due to wanting more money than they could pay them did Hall get considered. Even then Landis sat him down and said the only way give him a shot at the lead if Hall would be willing to be maleable from tone used per syllable on each line delivered to every gesture be it lifting of his chin or squinting his eyes. Hall was desperate to be considered for a serious role after seeing his career headed into type-cast hell following Eegah and Wild Guitar. He agreed. They met with each other alone for three weeks straight going over the script for six hours each day until Landis felt comfortable putting him in the film. His role as Charles (ahem Starkweather) Tibbs is perfect as a result. The second fact is they spent the last crumbs of their budget, which was all but gone on day one of shooting, on having a handgun replica made which would be square in front of the camera for much of the film. When the replica arrived it was fake looking beyond belief. They had neither the time nor money to get something better, when Hall brought up his having been a champion competition marksman as a teenager, they found someone on set who owned a handgun and used the real thing in the film. All of the rounds shot are real. The shaky fear can be felt in ever seen the gun is shot especially when we catch the face of Richard Alden as he makes that mad fleeing scramble through the narrow barn with gunshots all around him. Low budget film stories rarely disappoint but that is insane.
9. Mandy (2018)
As with Hereditary, Mandy is a redefining rather than derivative take on seventies horror. Panos Cosmatos created what is one of the coolest and stylistically perfect horror films ever made and he came out of pretty much nowhere to do it. This one seems to still remain on the fringes of mass awareness, as happens often with films lacking the huge advertising budgets needed to get people to care about one film over the other. It predictably has worked out in the film’s favor, as anyone who was sitting there in theater upon release can attest, if this does not qualify as the pinnacle of a cult film then none ever has.
For some reason, we needed a reminder that Nicholas Cage is one of the greatest actors to grace us with their skill yet manages this side of the tax issues to find directors brave enough to use him appropriately. Originally he was cast for the role of the cult leader Jeremiah Sand but nagged at Cosmatos and the producers to give him a shot at the lead. They all fought against it. The vision for the story was of someone younger, Cage simply would not fit. In the end though, they heard him out. Watching how the film turned out, a larger statement is certainly made with the story revolving around an older couple, giving levity to the peace Sand’s destroys and the depth of the place in which the revenge aspect of the story comes from. What a wild ride of the best kind.
10. Halloween (1978)
Speaking of the Halloween season, we think of carving pumpkins, scary costumes, kids getting to embrace their imaginations, and sitting under a blanket on a couch watching scary movies. When you imagine what horror film you will put on to make the moment ideal, we take for granted just how lucky we are that John Carpenter’s Halloween comes to mind.
The fear of what lurks in the darkness. The belief what is there has no purpose beyond absolute evil. Could it have been done so simply had Carpenter not been the one to take up the task? Probably not. This is one of the uniquely stand-alone horror films. Its simplicity cannot be recreated, many have tried—a handful have come close—but none have ever gotten it perfectly before or since. Even Carpenter’s scores which have a minimalist’s perfection are boiled down to the basics on this one. Rather than overcompensating with Michael Meyers as a blank one-dimensional monster, by laying the score bare he strips it of all excess and gives us the most notable accompaniment to terror outside of Jaws.
Any horror film with Donald Pleasance is worth watching yet outside of Wake In Fright and Halloween, we never see him given the space to exist with enough pause for us to realize how much his acting dictates our emotions. The same can be said for Jamie Lee Curtis. What else should we say about it though? You have no doubt watched this movie fifteen times already, and will no doubt watch it twenty more. There is nothing we could mention you will not figure out for yourself along the way. Happy Halloween y’all!