Horror is the hydra of film genres; watch one movie and two more will already be shot, edited, and released for your viewing. But we all know that not every flick out of the gore-covered gate will proceed to the pantheon of horror, so the ones that do become even more meaningful. As for those rare films that completely alter everything that comes thereafter, those deserve a special place of honor. We could knight them or something. But in lieu of an awkward ‘Sir’ title, let’s reward them with a list instead.
In that vein, here are seven films that changed perceptions and rewrote the conventions of horror. For better or worse, the genre’s never been the same.
Gooble-gobble, One of Us, One of Us: Freaks
Controversial for its use of deformed circus performers and overall lascivious themes, Freaks set a new standard for horror on the fledgling silver screen. As one of the earliest banned films, director Tod Browning’s tale of a plotting Jezebel, her strongman lover, and the “freaks” they try to deceive showed just how gritty and uncompromising the genre could be. In an era of Universal monster movies and their lyrical portrayals of evil, Freaks reveals a chaotic and visceral realism that never flinches and never apologizes.
Though the movie is somewhat dated and tame by today’s gore-loving standards, the denouement still proves to be one of horror’s most vicious acts against a lead villain. Think if the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake mutilated and lobotomized Jason Voorhes and left him in a cabin full of hormonal teenagers, ripe for the killing but always out of his mindless reach. That’s the same kind of cunning vigilantism our titular Freaks commit in the final reel. Eighty subsequent years of slashing, torturing, and general depravity barely compare.
Shortly after Freaks’ 1932 release, the dreaded Production Code tightened restrictions and stymied further efforts to produce equally raw horror, a breach of creative liberty that spanned decades. When the so-called indecency constraints were finally lifted over thirty years later, a slew of salacious and envelope-pushing films followed, but Freaks will forever be the place where the grittiness all began.
The Scream Queen Heard ‘Round the World: Psycho
For those of you who’ve done your homework, you already know that 1960 was a landmark year for horror. Besides Psycho, you’ve got Peeping Tom. You’ve got Eyes Without a Face. Even the oft-forgotten Horror Hotel is a doozy with a plot that shares uncanny similarities to Janet Leigh’s stranger in a strangely homicidal land.
Out of these noteworthy contenders, Alfred Hitchcock perseveres as the clear winner. The tale of Anthony Perkins as the ultimate mama’s boy opened up maniac killer territory for filmmakers of all stripes to try out and call their own. Although some argue that earlier films such as Thirteen Women deserve the recognition as original slasher, the Master of Suspense had the power to legitimize any cinematic subject and transform it into Oscar-nominated material. While many have imitated, plenty of filmgoers still consider this seminal slasher to be the best.
Midnight Matinee Meets the Undead: Night of the Living Dead
A casual fan may not realize that zombies weren’t always reanimated dead whose lone weakness was lead to the forehead. Films until the late 60s used the Haitian legends about people who were hoodwinked and drugged by dastardly plantation owners who needed them to do evil deeds. Because run-of-the-mill minions apparently weren’t available. That all changed when death incarnate came to Pittsburgh and established the statutes that celluloid has followed ever since.
But the legacy of Night of the Living Dead goes beyond altering the entire mythos of a folkloric creature. Previous horror films never managed to distill humanity’s broad problems—in this case, the Vietnam War—into such terrifying and effective entertainment. The film’s gore, though notorious at the time, was nothing compared to what enlisted men were seeing half a world away, and George Romero knew it. The realism Freaks initiated thirty-five years earlier came to startling fruition for spectators everywhere.
Although the recent zombie craze may seem to be the true renaissance of the brain-chomping monster, no decade since the progenitor’s 1968 release has been without its undead charms. Movies as thematically diverse as Zombi 2, The Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator and Night’s own sequels prove American culture love itself some zombies. Thanks to Night of the Living Dead, your cerebellum may never be safe again.
A Slasher Sets the Rules: Black Christmas
John Carpenter’s Halloween often earns the credit as the original modern slasher, but even if you’re Team Michael Myers, Bob Clark’s best holiday movie beats the man in the Captain Kirk mask to the title. Black Christmas seems unusually by-the-numbers until you realize it was the one to establish the ground rules. Everything starts idyllic enough but slowly deteriorates as characters are picked off one by one until the terrified heroine must fend for her jittery self.
All the usual archetypes are in attendance: the good-hearted Final Girl, a snarky and immoral best friend, a maybe homicidal boyfriend, a motiveless killer, and a horde of coeds eager for the proverbial stabbing. To this day, uncreative Hollywood screenwriters take the template and Mad Lib their way to a final draft. Change a few names, adjust the setting, and you’ve got your film. And since fans expect a few gimmicks, the formula’s worked for forty years. Killer Billy would be proud.
Horror Goes Indie: Evil Dead
Here in 2014, every single person reading this probably knows someone (or is someone) that decided at some point to pick up a camera and make the next great horror movie. These days, such stories are almost a sweet coming-of-age trope. But way back in 1981, when Sam Raimi decided to do exactly that, he was sort of a maverick. A novice, blood-loving maverick, but still, you’ve got to take your accolades when deserved.
After the unlikely success of Evil Dead, a new brand of direct-to-video/DVD movies was born, and Friday night entertainment has never been the same. More importantly, it gave every up-and-coming filmmaker hope. Maybe your movie won’t change the entire genre or earn you the right to boss around Spiderman. Maybe you won’t even get a distribution deal. But with a patron saint like Raimi looking over us, let’s throw our savings to the wind and take a chance anyhow. And that laissez-faire attitude permeates the near slapstick antics of the Ash versus the Deadites trilogy. Way to give us inspiration and entertainment all in one bright red gory package.
Slasher Reborn—With a Wink & a Nudge: Scream
During the mid-nineties, when moviegoers were fatigued on bland sequels and the horror genre as we knew it appeared to be waning, something happened. The characters took on the perspective of the audience, learning and explicating every cliché that fans had been griping about for the previous twenty years. This shot to the genre’s heart made Hollywood see that horror was once again marketable, and studios started pouring buckets of cash at it like never before. And though you may regard the exploits in Woodsboro as disposable, anyone who lived through the nineties will likely remember it as a dizzying time to be a slasher aficionado. You can argue that Scream never made good on its unspoken promise to bring us years of smart, edgy horror films, but you can really blame it only for its direct failures: those substandard sequels.
In another stroke of trendsetting brilliance for the time, Craven did the unspeakable and cast several already established actors, though ironically the “big names” would springboard the success of Scream to even better careers. Except for Neve Campbell. This was pretty much her peak, which is why she’ll be a granny and still playing Sidney Prescott. Scream XXV: Ghostface Versus the Senior Center. That might have niche appeal after all. I for one have my money on the AARP members.
Motion Sickness at the Cinema: The Blair Witch Project
Just when wannabe filmmakers settled down after Evil Dead and started opting for the usual nine to five gigs, there comes The Blair Witch Project to rile them up again. With a scant budget that’s probably less than you’d pay for film school, the unnerving 1999 endeavor won major acclaim, raked in more money than any spellcaster this side of Glinda, and spawned dozens of imitators that persist in producing sequel after sequel. Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you.
Back at the turn of the millennium, the found footage angle wasn’t a wholly new concept. The subgenre could be traced back to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, but The Blair Witch Project was the first to prove just how mass marketable a shot-on-low-budget-video mockumentary could be. Now everyone from George Romero to J.J. Abrams has jumped on that grainy bandwagon, though once the budgets skyrocket into the multimillions, you have to wonder if they might have missed the point.
As a random aside, you could also blame the trend of shaky handheld shots on the film’s pass-the-Dramamine style, so obviously, that Blair Witch must be stopped.
Honorable mention for Saw and its introduction of mainstream torture porn.
What game changing flicks did I leave off the list? Let me know in the comments below!