In honor of Halloween, a Baylor University horror film expert and Hollywood film historian has developed a list of 10 horror classics he says “everyone should see.”
James Kendrick, Ph.D., associate professor of film and digital media in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, is a Hollywood film historian and an expert on cult and horror films. While horror is not everyone’s favorite genre, Kendrick says horror films are known to have a universal appeal.
“We all know what it means to be frightened, to feel dread, to want to look away,” Kendrick said. “On some level we all fear death and are aware of our human mortality, and the best horror films engage that fear in complex and challenging ways.”
Kendrick’s list includes:
1. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) — One could point to any number of cinematic “beginnings” for the horror film dating back to the turn of the 20th century, but one would be hard pressed to find a better one than F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Centered on Max Schreck’s frightening, rat-like vampire and featuring a mix of expressionistic visual techniques with evocative location work, Nosferatu is one of the first feature-length films that can be described as genuinely dreadful. No matter how many vampire films are made from now until eternity, Nosferatu will always stand as a striking example of the power of pure, primal images to evoke fear and horror.
2. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935) — In the early 1930s, Universal made a series of horror films (although they were not labeled as such at the time) that borrowed heavily from Gothic literature and German expressionism, including Tod Browning’s Dracula (1930), James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1932), and Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932). The greatest of these was Whale’s belated sequel to his Frankenstein (1931), which kept much of what made the first film so fantastic, especially the underlying, tortured sense of humanity in Boris Karloff’s monster. However, Bride took the original’s expressionistic visual sensibility and pushed it to the limit with particularly outlandish set design, lighting and canted angles and upped the ante with a coating of self-aware black humor that still feels subversive today.
3. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) — Producer Val Lewton oversaw more than a dozen low-budget thrillers in the 1940s that merged the gothic horror film from the previous decade with the emergent genre of film noir, with its urban settings and underlying Freudian psychology. The most indelible of these is arguably Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Lean, efficient and undeniably unsettling and suspenseful, it trades heavily in the horrors of repressed sexuality while keeping its monster almost entirely off-screen, a gambit that, despite being dictated largely by a limited budget, proves that sometimes less is more.
4. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) — Alfred Hitchcock had never made an outright horror film until he brought unsuspecting audiences into the twisted world of the Bates Motel. Featuring one of the greatest bait-and-switch narratives in movie history, Psycho completely upended audience expectations and altered the genre forever by fully establishing the modern notion that monsters aren’t relics of a sordid past that reside in gothic castles atop remote mountains or in dark dungeons, but rather are deviant products of the nuclear family who live in the house (or motel) next door. It also made an entire generation fearful of taking showers with what is perhaps the most infamous (and oft-studied) murder scene in American film history.
5. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) — Romero’s black-and-white, independently produced thriller about dead bodies mysteriously coming back to life caught the country by storm in the late 1960s with its intense, claustrophobic horror, graphic violence and documentary-like aesthetic, and, in the process, created the modern zombie film (although “the z-word” is never used). America in 1968 was being torn apart by street crime, social uprisings, political assassinations and stark television images of the Vietnam War and there was something about Night of the Living Dead’s vision of a world gone insane that struck a chord with discontented viewers. According to director John Carpenter, who would set his own horror landmark 10 years later with Halloween, Romero “made the horror movie something to contend with.”
6. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) — A great, stunning contradiction of a movie that is at once an honest, disturbing exploration of religion and the supernatural and an unabashed horror movie, a drive-in splatter flick with an Oscar-winning director and expensive production values. Millions flocked to see it again and again during the winter of 1973, with lines wrapped around movie theaters as audiences waited in nervous anticipation. It was an immediate, visceral experience that has lost little of its impact, even on today’s jaded moviegoers. Although the contradiction between its religious elements and its gross-out aesthetics was the primary complaint voiced by most critics, it is precisely this interplay between the ethereal and the physical that gives the film its lasting impact.
7. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) — An aggressive, highly stylized mix of supernatural horror and the aesthetic conventions of the giallo, the uniquely Italian take on crime thrillers, Argento’s twisted masterpiece is an utterly unique horror film that sets you on edge right from the very beginning. Set at a Swiss boarding school for dancers, the convoluted narrative about witches and mysterious murders is just an excuse for a cavalcade of baroque stylistic devices, intense color schemes and surreal imagery, all which is scored to a fantastically bombastic score by the prog-rock band, Goblin.
8. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) — Carpenter’s stripped-down, primal thriller about an escaped killer who returns to his hometown to slaughter the local teenagers was made on a shoestring budget. And, while it technically wasn’t the first slasher movie, it remains the pinnacle of that oft-despised subgenre. Against all odds, Halloween went on to become the most economically successful independent movie at the time, spawned largely by word-of-mouth and surprisingly good critical notices. In terms of heartland American horror, Halloween is certainly the best and most influential movie since Psycho — often imitated, but never bettered.
9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) — The horror film as modern gothic epic. Kubrick’s endlessly fascinating adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a haunted hotel in the Colorado mountains is an intellectually rigorous exploration of the endless cycle of human violence hinged on Jack Nicholson’s deranged performance as a paterfamilias gone terribly, horribly wrong. Replete with instantly iconic imagery, including a pair of ghostly girls and an elevator disgorging a torrent of blood, the film constantly reinvents horror clichés and conventions with rigorous, formal audacity and an unsettling subtext about the violence of American history.
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10. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) — We are actually in the midst of a minor renaissance in independent horror cinema, and Jennifer Kent’s supernatural take on conflicted motherhood is one of the best. Set primarily in a drab brownstone occupied by a widowed mother and her precocious 6-year-old son, it indulges in all manner of familiar fright tactics, giving us strange scratching noises, moving shadows and things going bump in the night, all of which may or may not be emanating from a character’s tormented psyche. Yet Kent redeems the horror clichés by grounding them in real, recognizable human emotions, which makes The Babadook as dramatically compelling as it is scary.