Halloween is once again upon us, bringing with it fancy dress, trick or treats, and horror films. Horror films have been made since the 1890s, and are responsible for some of the most iconic and controversial scenes in film history, as well as launching the careers of hundreds of film makers and stars. Some trashy, some masterpieces, it’s difficult to know where to being with horror films.
I must stress that the films here are not the eight scariest films I’ve seen, nor the eight greatest horror films ever made. Instead, it’s a collection of films which represent the genre best; from the terrifying to the entertaining, from witches to serial killers, aliens to zombies, this gives a starting point for the genre as a whole.
1. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1979): The clue is in the title. Halloween, the film which launched so many horror movie clichés, from babysitters being left alone to creepy men in masks, may seem dated, yet it remains the place to start with the horror genre. The plot is ludicrously simple; six year old murders his sister on Halloween, then fifteen years later escapes from an asylum to kill again. However, the film has an unrelenting unease to it, with a creepy score and some brutal scenes, making it a true classic.
2. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977): A European classic here. Again, the plot is incredibly simple – an American dancer moves to a European Ballet school, which is run by witches. Yet its Argento’s delivery of this simple plot makes Suspiria something special. Like a horribly twisted fun house, the film‘s garish colours, phenomenal soundtrack and fantastic set make it creepy and entertaining. Overall, Supsiria is a great introduction into European horror.
3. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982): John Carpenter’s adaptation of the 1951 “The Thing from Another World” (itself an adaptation from a 1938 novella) is a masterpiece. Some Thing with assimilative and imitating powers arrives in an isolated Antarctic research centre, infiltrating the team. There’s an intense, paranoid foreboding atmosphere to the film, largely due to Ennio Morricone’s amazing score, and each performance is perfect. Yet what makes The Thing a masterpiece is the unrelenting bleakness to it, the atmosphere of dread and a slow, underlying despair and a sense that mankind won’t survive.
4. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004): Lampooning zombie films with innate British charm, Shaun of the Dead follows Shaun, a deadbeat salesman trying to deal with life’s problems – girlfriends, mothers, best friends – in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The epitome of the “comedy horror” genre.
5. Blood on Satan’s Claws (Piers Haggard, 1970): A few years ago, Mark Gatiss presented a series of documentaries on horror films, in which he referred to the British genre of “folk horror” and cited this British film as a classic example. Despite the awful title, Blood on Satan’s Claw is a surprisingly great film. Set in 17th century England, the film tells the story of a village slowly falling under demonic possession. Atmospheric and unsettling, Blood on Satan’s Claw is a good place to start for those interested in British cinema.
6. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960): Released the same year as Psycho, Peeping Tom can’t help but be compared to the Hitchcock classic – both feature the deaths of beautiful women due to mild-mannered serial killers, who are obsessed with their parents. Peeping Tom is the better film. It revolves around Mark Lewis, a young man who works in a film crew and films the dying expressions of the women he kills. One of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen, Lewis’s performance and some fantastic direction make Peeping Tom both a British classic and a great psychological horror.
7. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962): In 1917, Baby Jane is a vaudeville child star, spoilt and loved by millions, whilst her sister Blanche watches jealously. In 1935, Blanche has become a successful, glamorous movie star, whilst Jane’s career has collapsed as she spirals into alcoholism. Yet, after a suspicious car accident, Blanche is crippled, ending her career and placing her into Jane’s care. Soon, Jane launches a campaign on terror and abuses on her crippled sister, trying to punish her for her former success. A psychological melodramatic thriller, the film relishes in its grotesquely ludicrous nature, and Bette Davis hamming it up as the psychotic Baby Jane is fantastic.
8. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996): Post-modern horror here, celebrating all the clichés and tropes of the genre. A high school student becomes the fixation of a masked serial killer, in a world where teenage protagonists discuss the clichés that Craven is trying to subvert. One of the most important films in modern horror, it revitalised the genre, embracing its faults whilst celebrating its legacy.