Up until the 1960’s, horror movies were synonymous with dime-store rubber Wolfman masks and dodgy Dracula fangs. But midway through the decade, the times turned on the industry, and a darker, more ghastly seed began to take root in the minds of the masses. The world at large became a much scarier place, and so did horror movies. Directors like George A. Romero, Roman Polanski and John Carpenter took what was a ridiculed and forgettable genre and morphed it into a serious psychological analysis of the world around them. The terrifying aspects of the world around them that is, and thus the modern horror movie was born. Here, we take a look at some of the most influential horror movies to have graced the big screen from the 1960’s onward. Reader beware, you’re in for a scare!
“They’re coming to get you Barbara, they’re coming to get yoouuu!”
Night Of The Living Dead is widely regarded as the first modern horror film. Directed by George A. Romero in 1968, it launched the now accepted canon of the Zombie mythos where the reanimated corpses of the dead roam the earth trying to quell their insatiable lust for human flesh. But it was more than just another monster film. It dealt with real world issues such as the race and class hierarchy and the mindless societal conformity that existed in 60’s America, but also how these things inevitably fall apart. It also dealt with themes of existential dread and the ultimate fear of the unknown. It was also one of the first times that audiences were subjected to any real gore in cinema, with chunks of screen time dedicated to watching the Zombies devouring various parts of various people. Its influence is seen in every single Zombie movie or TV show that has been made since. It changed the face of American horror movies, blazing a trail for the progressive horror renaissance that was about to take place in the 1970’s.
“He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son! “
Roman Polanski’s 1968 satanic classic is everything horror movies had failed to be up until that point. Rather than focusing on gross out imagery or shocking jump scares, Polanski opted for the creeping paranoia of a housewife left alone with her own horrible thoughts. Based on the Ira Levin novel, the movie follows the story of a young wife who begins to suspect that the apartment complex she has just moved into is not what is seems. She harbours similar suspicions about her kindly old eccentric neighbours, and also, to her increasing dismay, toward the baby she is carrying inside her. As time goes on, Rosemary spends more and more time alone, increasing feelings of isolation become prevalent and an immense feeling of dread and foreboding pervades over the entire movie. Culminating in a horrific conclusion, Rosemary’s Baby is an exercise in fear, terror and the realities of isolation and dread. The viewer is subjected to a sinister projection of Rosemary’s fears, supplanting the safety of ones own home with the diabolical terror of the supernatural. Rosemary’s Baby lit the way for the modern era of horror cinema by combining the supernatural and satanic with the incredible terror that can be found in the banality of day to day life.
” I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes.”
In 1978, John Carpenter directed a movie that would revolutionise the slasher movie genre, spawning countless imitations, and a decent amount of sequels. The movie begins with a first person camera angle. It was the first movie to utilise the ‘killer’s point of view’ technique. We are taken from the street to watch a teenage girl and her boyfriend through a window. The camera then goes inside the house and we see our protagonist taking up a kitchen knife, seeking out the previously seen teen and slaying her mercilessly. The killer goes back out onto the street where we hear voices, the camera pans away from the point of view of the killer and pulls in front of him to reveal that we have been looking through the eyes of a young boy, ‘Michael’, and it was he who was the killer. We jump in time to present day (or at least present day when it was made), where the same boy, now a man named Michael Meyers, escapes from a mental institution and stalks the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois. In his retelling of the classic boogeyman story, Carpenter demonstrates an acute cognizance of the fundamentals of archetypal suspense. He draws inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock but places a new spin on old suspense movie adages. Steeped in themes of sexual transgression and punishment, the movie struck fear into the heart of teenagers and parents alike across America. After all, most of us have either been a babysitter, are a babysitter, have had a babysitter or need a babysitter for our own children.
“What an excellent day for an exorcism”
In 1973, the William Friedkin directed movie The Exorcist was unleashed onto an unsuspecting public in December of that year. Never before had a horror movie made such an impact on pop culture and the horror counter culture. People were said to have left theatres screaming in terror, women went into labour in the isles of the cinemas and movie goers went home, contacted their local priests and had blessings performed on their homes. The movie recounts the story of the daughter of an aging movie star, only 12 years old, who becomes the victim of a demonic possession. A theme that has been done to death in recent years but was fresh subject matter at the time. Based on the terrifying novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist delved into the heart of darkness like no other movie had done before. Focusing the evil in the body of a child, dealing with issues of purity and a priest who is losing his faith, the movie creates an atmosphere of dread and terror. A creeping uneasiness with the demons that exist in ones own mind as well is in the spiritual realm. It busted open the doors of what was and was not sacrosanct in terms of protagonists for horror movies, and is widely accepted as one of the scariest movies ever made.
“You could have dinner with us… my brother makes good head cheese! You like head cheese? “
In the summer of 1974 two young film makers decided they wanted to make a horror movie. But not just any horror movie, the scariest, most disturbing horror movie the world had ever known. They enlisted a cast of young college students, many of whom had never acted before, and had a tight budget and a tighter turnaround time in the blazing heat of a Texan summer. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were those two film makers, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the thing born of their feverish nightmares. It was an unrelenting exercise in gore, madness and paranoia. The insufferable heat on set added realistic layers to the actors feelings of genuine fear, and many suffered from heat-induced hallucinations. After a tumultuous production run, they eventually filmed the movie they wanted to make: the tale of a group of young concert goers, on their way through the wastelands of Texas. They happen upon a hitchhiker and their lives are changed for ever. Part slasher flick, part exploitation movie and part fever dream, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was an assault on the senses, the likes of which the audience had never experienced before. Dubbed as a retelling of ‘true events’, the movie packed out theatres, much to the surprise of Hooper and Henkel. Everyone involved on the movie had wrapped up thinking it would forever remain the passion project of the two new movie makers, never to be thought about again. However, what happened was, that it became one of the most influential horror movies of all time, spawning an entire sub-genre; ‘exploitation cinema’ or ‘grindhouse cinema’.
“I’m your boyfriend now…Nancy!”
A Nightmare on Elm Street made horror movies cool again. After a period of over saturation towards the end of the 70’s into the early 80’s, the market was flooded with slasher flicks and demon stories. This was thanks to the success of such movies as Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Wes Craven was an innovative young director who had already broken horror movie ground with Last House On The Left in 1972. By 1984 he wanted to break new ground with a movie that went beyond the physical realm; what if we aren’t safe even when we are asleep, taking it one step further: what if our dreams could kill us. Utilising terrifying dreams that he experienced himself as a young man, Craven developed one of the best loved movie villains of all time: Freddy Krueger. A child killer who, when murdered by a gang of vigilante towns people, returned from the grave to murder his killers children, in their dreams! The name Freddy still strikes fear in the heart of Generation X’ers everywhere and his comedic style has been copied many times since. He bridged the gap between horror and comedy so succinctly. One minute the viewer is laughing and the next they are hiding behind their hands, waiting for the horror to end. Craven brought our actual nightmares to life on screen and created his very own boogeyman, one that would find his way laced throughout pop culture for the next three decades.
“Join us…join us…join us…”
The Evil Dead is securely nestled in the hearts of most horror buffs and aficionados. It has spawned two sequels, each as beloved as the original and even, more recently, a TV series. The movie turned cult movie actor Bruce Campbell into a genre star and kick started writer and director Sam Raimi’s career. The movie had a budget of only $350,000, but Raimi managed to come up with a full blown horror spectacle. The story centres around Ash and his friends as they embark on a weekend getaway to a lonely cabin in the woods. Things quickly unravel however when they unwittingly discover the book of the dead, and unleash the evil ‘deadites’ by reading aloud the book’s spells and incantations. The Evil Dead influenced the way horror was made. It was a masterclass in creating high impact, high velocity scares on a shoe string budget. It also turned its main actor into a hero, something that was very rare at the time in horror movies. Ash remains the franchise’s hero to this day, despite his obvious faults, flaws, and humanness.
“What’s your favourite scary movie?”
Wes Craven was the master of reinventing tired old movie tropes. He did it with Last House On The Left in the 70’s, he did it again with A Nightmare On Elm Street in the 80’s and he did it again in 1996 with Scream. With Scream he took the, by now exhausted, slasher genre and breathed new life into it, by making it slick, stylish and oozing with 90’s teenage angst. Craven challenged movie censors by asking the question, do scary movies create real life monsters? It centres around a group of teenagers who are stalked by a costumed killer. The contemporary take on an old idea has inspired a number of movies since such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. Scream has also spawned three sequels of its own, and even a Netflix TV show. Once again Craven made horror movies cool again and brought the genre back to its roots by aiming it at teenagers. It also dusted off the horror movie madman, placing mankind front and centre as the worst evil this world has to offer. There is no need for nightmares and monsters when teenagers are killing other teenagers.
“I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open them.”
1999’s The Blair Witch Project had a simple premise: three documentary film makers go into the woods to find out if the fabled ‘Blair Witch’ would make an appearance. Queue jump scares, an abundance of CGI and plenty of gore right? Wrong! what the audience got was one of the most innovative game changers to happen to the horror movie industry for years. The movie is shot entirely on hand held cameras, there is very little on screen violence. It creeps on you until the final scare at the end, which is terrifying. It is presented as found footage from the documentary makers own cameras, that were later recovered in the woods, after their disappearance. The Blair Witch Project launched the now hugely successful and lucrative sub-genre of horror, the ‘found footage’ genre, and changed how we see horror movies. Movies like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, The Den, The Bay, and Rec all owe their genesis to The Blair Witch. It was billed as a true story, and it took a while after its release before people realised that it was, in fact, actors playing roles, and none of it was true. It terrified audiences in a way that hadn’t been seen since The Exorcist, and brought a new gritty realism to horror. It is also notable that gore, SFX make-up, CGI and jump scares were replaced by incredibly good acting and suspenseful pacing. A palpable feeling of sheer terror pervades throughout the whole movie. The Blair Witch Project revolutinised horror movies for the next two decades, and its influence is still heavily felt in movies today.
“Most people are so ungrateful to be alive, but not you, not anymore… “
Saw arrived onto our screens in 2004 and blew the doors off theatres with its grimy, gory approach to morality plays. Taking influence from the grittiness of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Saw presented us with two men, locked in a room, chained to the wall with no way out. Throughout the movie our characters are subjected to a series of deadly games. This theme is one that would come to dominate horror for the next several years, and ushered in the rise of the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre. The movie was hugely influential and spawned a number of sequels, and also a myriad of movies inspired by the notion of captors torturing their victims. The movie was also unique in that there was no real villain. We understood the motives of the killer, and the movie did a very good job of making us actually empathise with him.
” It’s not the house that is haunted. It’s your son.”
In 2011 James Wan directed a low budget ghost story that swept the nation and became the surprise hit of the year. A collaboration between the folks that brought us Paranormal Activity and Saw, Insidious was more evocative than voracious. There was no gore or scenes of torture here, Insidious focuses on good old fashioned story telling, and ’round the amp fire’ type ghost stories. It is driven by atmospheric creepiness and an underlying feeling of unease. It focuses on the Lambert family who have just moved into new home. Soon we see their eldest son, Dalton, fall victim to an inexplicable coma. His parents become desperate for answers and begin to fear the house is haunted, and that this has something to do with their son’s comatose state. They move house, however the experiences continue. They then enlist the help of the spooky ghost whisperer, Elise, who guides them through a paranormal adventure to get their son back. Insidious brings back the old world of ghost stories to a market that had become entirely over saturated by gore, favouring shock tactics over solid cohesive story telling. It has also launched one of the decades most popular horror franchises, and currently has 3 sequels.
“When the music stops, you’ll see him in the mirror standing behind you. “
Yet another entry on this list by modern horror maestro James Wan, The Conjuring was released in 2013 and is based on the real lives of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were real life Paranormal investigators and the movie follows them as they work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. The beginning to an on-going, hugely successful movie franchise, what makes this unique is that it is one of the very few paranormal movies out there that is based on real life events. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the Warrens claim that everything that happened in these movies really did happen, and that is something that has never been done before. Part biopic, part haunted house movie, The Conjuring played on all of our deepest fears, that the Devil is real, and only God can save us.
“Hail, Paimon! Hail, Paimon! Hail!”
Hereditary is the 2018 directorial debut of Ari Aster and is one of the most genuinely terrifying, shocking and interesting horror movies to come out of the last decade. This movie is pure emotional terrorism. In part an homage to old Hammer horror witchcraft movies, Hereditary is much more than a ghost story or haunted house film. It is a study in the psychology of a broken family, the repercussions of an absent mother on an adult daughter, and the consequence of familial indifference. A heavy focus on grief and loss cause a serious sense of foreboding throughout the movie, and it progresses at a deliberate crawl. It lulls you into a false sense of security only to shock you back into realisation. With shocking scenes and incredible actors, this movie is a testament to how far the horror genre has come, and how bright the future is for modern horror.