April 30, 2011 3:48 pm

by Katina Solomon

As long as movies have existed, filmmakers have been telling horror stories. George Melies’ Le Manoir du diable, a silent, three-minute French film from 1896, is generally recognized as the first horror film ever made, coming just a few years after the medium was invented. Since then, horror films have undergone constant changes, growing in tandem with mainstream entertainment and doing their own part to advance filmmaking technology, push the envelope for what’s appropriate in film, and get people talking about movies. It’s probably fair to say that there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of horror films that have changed the genre in one way or another, but of all these, a few stand out as especially powerful, or gripping, or revolutionary. These are the films that didn’t just make a cultural impact or earn decent revenue; they redefined what horror films looked like, period.

1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: “Even if one of them survives, what will be left?” Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it wasn’t spelled Chainsaw until the sequels) was a pioneer in the slasher genre and instantly influenced the entire horror field. It’s credited with popularizing a number of now-standard tropes for slasher flicks, including the plight of the “final girl,” who is left to fight the killer or flee for her life after her friends have been picked off one by one. More than that, though, the film championed a new aesthetic that’s still in use today: industrial grunge. The iconic Leatherface wasn’t hunting his prey in a sleek city environment, a well-groomed suburb, or even a nicely tended piece of country land. He’s chasing his victims through a grimy, run-down house and barn, one that’s cluttered with old junk and the rotting remnants of previous kills. The Saw franchise and the whole vibe of Nine Inch Nails wouldn’t exist without Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s down and dirty, and it also took horror in new directions by having a killer motivated not by revenge or psychological trauma but by sheer creepy insanity. Leatherface’s family is just plain weird, which is often scarier than anything.

2. Night of the Living Dead: The first entry in George Romero’s Living Dead series is still, in many ways, the best. Appearing in 1968 and made for a ridiculously cheap $114,000, the film revolutionized horror and specifically zombie movies for decades to come. Shot in stark black and white, the film is a departure from the often cheesy thrillers that had filled movie theaters in earlier years. Psychological terror wasn’t new, but the idea of taking zombies and other monsters so seriously certainly was. There’s no way to laugh off the undead killers in Night of the Living Dead; this isn’t a low-stakes, wacky frightfest. This is a full-on horror film, designed to be shocking, and it definitely achieves its goals. The movie made it safe to believe in monsters, and it pulled supernatural horror that much closer to the mainstream. If you’ve never seen it, you’re missing a classic.

3. Halloween: Slasher films were a growing trend for horror filmmakers by the late 1970s — in addition to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there was 1974’s Black Christmas — but it was 1978’s Halloween that really took the sub-genre to new heights. John Carpenter’s terrifying film about a psychotic killer stalking bored teens on Halloween was made on a shoestring budget but went on to achieve major box-office success, launching the career of Jamie Lee Curtis in the process. It’s a brilliantly structured scary story that makes the most of its atmopshere, too. After a shocking opening sequence in which the childhood Michael Myers slaughters his sister, the film dials back the blood and focuses on the paranoia and terror of being followed by a threat you can never quite see. The success of the film popularized slasher flicks, which flooded the market in the 1980s, but it also demonstrated that the best way to make a horror movie is to minimize the actual blood and gore and emphasize the mental effects of the story.

4. Dracula: There have been dozens of film and TV adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the 1931 movie starring Bela Lugosi has stood the test of time and proven to be one of the most influential ever made. Produced and directed by Tod Browning (who directed Freaks a year later), the film came out just a few years after talkies were introduced, but its place in movie history owes as much to its story and style as it does its use of new technologies. The success of the film obviously paved the way for the legions of adaptations to come, but more importantly, it injected a vital strain of bleak realism into the horror field’s dependence on the supernatural. (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu can make a similar claim.) There’s nothing remotely jokey about Dracula, and perfectly innocent people are killed or, worse, turned into vampires by his actions. The film made it clear that, though horror films often took place in fantastical versions of our own world, their consequences could be every bit as dire as those we’d see in a typical drama.

5. Saw: Saw did a lot of things right, but it also caused a lot of problems. Yet that’s often the nature of those films that change their genres the most: that change can be profound, but not always positive. In 2004, Saw blew the doors off with its grimy, gory approach to morality plays. It can be tough to remember now just how much the film stood out from the pack at the time: it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and earned positive reviews, especially for its script, which reworked classic locked-room puzzles with a decidedly more gruesome bent. It amped up the industrial vibe of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to 11 while introducing its characters to a series of deadly games that would come to dominate horror for several years with the rise of the “torture porn” sub-genre. The first film is, comparatively, light on the torture, focusing instead on the terror of captivity and helplessness, and it remains a visceral and chilling film. Unfortunately, its power was retroactively watered down by a series of increasingly convoluted sequels (there are now seven films in the franchise) and a host of odious films inspired by the notion of captors torturing their victims. (The worst of these was Captivity, which was so hard to stomach that even the billboards were censored.) Influence is double-edged like that. Flash Animation

6. Scream: Say what you will about its lackluster sequels; the original Scream, from 1996, remains a fun and inviting light-horror slasher flick. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a glut of bad horror ruin the market, but screenwriter Kevin Williamson (whose success here let him launch Dawson’s Creek) had the right idea to go meta with a slasher movie in which the characters name-check the very conventions by which they’ll live and die. Self-awareness was pretty much the only way to win Generation Y, and it worked. Despite some weird moments and absurd twists (did no one notice the killer running around the convenience store in the middle of the afternoon?), the film was a fresh take on the genre and helped revitalize the field. It also allowed for the use of smarter humor in thrillers, though that’s a target that’s aimed for more than it’s hit. In addition, Scream opened up the doors for a wave of similar thrillers stocked with stars from teen dramas, like I Know What You Did Last Summer. So, yeah, blame director Wes Craven for indirectly making Jennifer Love Hewitt more popular. Nobody’s perfect.

7. Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, from 1960, might be the best known of all his films, which is really saying something, since Hitch dominated Hollywood thrillers for close to 30 years. It’s almost universally praised, and rightly so. Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is creepy, low-key, and instantly classic, and the film also contains some of Hitchcock’s most famous sequences, notably the dreaded shower scene. But Psycho’s effects on horror films go beyond its stylistic flourishes. This was the movie that raised the stakes for horror stories by making no one safe, even — or especially — the beautiful female lead. Just about the entire first act is a diversion that lets Hitchcock lull the viewer into complacency, getting them interested in the story of Marion Crane before she’s brutally killed. Marion was played by Janet Leigh, who was a major star at the time and still married to Tony Curtis. For a film to kill off the beautiful blonde at its center — and more than that, to do it less than halfway through the movie — was a daring way for Hitchcock to break the rules. Psycho was explicitly dangerous like that, and it allowed later movies to be similarly daring. Decades later, Wes Craven’s Scream paid homage to Psycho by having its own major blonde star, Drew Barrymore, killed in the opening minutes.

8. The Exorcist: The 1980s were all about crazed killers, but the 1970s were all about demonic possession. Rosemary’s Baby kicked things off in 1968, and the decade went on to offer films like 1976’s The Omen and 1979’s The Amityville Horror. But 1973’s The Exorcist takes the prize for being so completely scary and disturbing that even the edited-for-TV version is tough to watch. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel and with a screenplay by Blatty, William Friedkin’s supernatural horror film relies on shocking imagery and the troubling images of a possessed young girl who says and does things that are truly disturbing. To say it changed the horror genre is a bit of an understatement; years later, no one’s really talking about Amityville, but the impact of Exorcist lives on. It pushed the envelope of what horror films could show and what kinds of subjects they could tackle, especially in terms of religious iconography. (Roger Ebert, though he gave the film four stars, was so taken aback by its graphic imagery that he said it was “stupefying” that the film was rated R and not X.) This is the movie that took horror to new heights. Flash Animation

9. A Nightmare on Elm Street: It’s true that there are some effects in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street that look, well, tame by today’s CGI standards. But what the film lacks in polish it makes up for in invention, style, and real terror. Written and directed by Wes Craven, the film created a monster-movie icon with Freddy Krueger, who started out as a genuinely frightening figure before countless sequels turned him into a more quip-based murderous prankster. The film is full of standard 1980s horror devices, right down to the kids who get punished by the killer for having sex, but it proved influential in the horror field for the ingenious way it blurred the line between reality and fantasy. Most horror films, though far-fetched, exist in their own world that follows specific rules; it may not look like ours, but it’s close enough, and more importantly, it’s consistent. A Nightmare on Elm Street, though, constantly breaks those rules, sliding between a “real” world and a dream one so quickly and irregularly that it’s impossible to know what’s really happening. The film even ends in a state of limbo, with the heroine, formerly victorious, back in a dream and fighting the seemingly unstoppable Freddy Krueger. Sequels aside, that’s pretty chilling.

10. The Shining: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is so gorgeous that it’s hard to believe it’s a horror film; scary movies do not look this good today. Adapted from Stephen King’s equally terrifying novel, Kubrick’s film takes a more lyrical approach, emphasizing the psychological warfare happening within the head of tormented hotel caretaker Jack Torrance as much as the ghost story of the haunted mansion that’s trying to draw him in. Jack Nicholson goes memorably crazy as Torrance, driven mad by isolation, confinement, and the growing restlessness of a very weird hotel. The film also features some now classic images, including those creepy little girls and the elevator of blood. But on a broader level, it changed horror films by demonstrating that it was possible to be scary and smart at the same time, and that artistry didn’t have to be sacrificed to earn chills. In fact, it proved that a well-made film, one that placed a premium on things like acting, writing, lighting, and other technical details, could be more effective at getting under the viewer’s skin than some quick-hit B-movie. It’s also consciously brighter than most horror movies, finding terror in the wide open spaces of the Overlook Hotel’s brightly lit corridors and other areas that turn out to be far more frightening than the overused graveyards of thrillers past. The Shining changed horror movies by redefining what it meant to actually be a horror movie. That’s no easy feat.

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