I realize that I do a great deal of preaching to the demented little choir on here. That said, I do know of a small, deeply misguided number of folks who have not, in fact, squandered their lives on movie-watching quite to the degree that Your Humble Narrator has. This presents the occasional obstacle in the sense that not everyone is familiar with the references to and/or connections between the movies I’m yammering on and on about.
As a remedy to such an egregious oversight, it was suggested that I put together a kind of Horror Primer of sorts. What are some essential horror movies everyone should see. Be advised, this is according to me. Other aficionados likely have substantially different ideas. In any case, here’s my Horror 101: 10 Movies To Get You Started.
Amusing anecdote–back when I worked at the late great Naro Video, I had a colleague who was also a big ol’ horror nerd. The story goes that one time a customer came in who had never watched horror and wanted a good introductory movie. Most of us would have said something along the lines of William Castle or some tame Hammer Horror or even one of the calmer efforts from the fine folks at American International.
But no. Apparently this colleague was more the baptism by fire type and suggested Takashi Miike’s Audition. I can understand it. It’s an interesting strategy. Just not sure if that’s the gamble I’d have gone with. To that end, I’m ordering my list by an increasing scale, I suppose, challenge or difficulty.
#10 The House On Haunted Hill (1959)
This is about as innocuous as I can get. It’s a campy William Castle haunted house/mystery romp with some low-level practical effects and a decent jumpscare or two for surprise. Plus there’s Vincent Price before he became a self-parody. An eccentric millionaire (Price) offers $10,000 to anyone who can spend the night in his haunted mansion. There is, of course, a subplot.
#9 The Tingler (1959)
Another William Castle flick. Still campy, but there’s on set piece that’s pretty damn creepy. Price (again) is a doctor who has discovered that spine-tingling from fear is caused by a parasite attached to the human spine, and the only way to keep it from killing you is to scream. Yeah, it’s every bit as dumb as it sounds but provided Castle with a super-fun gimmick.
#8 The Invisible Man (1933)
First of all, Claude Rains. The man’s acting ability is impressive. He brings off Dr. Griffin’s insanity convincingly without ever seeing his face until the very end. Possibly more impressive are the practical effects James Whale accomplished in 1933–effects which age spectacularly and hold up just fine today.
#7 King Kong (1933)
Arguably the origin of the creature feature, but few have been able to touch its impact. Definitely some racial depictions that did not age well at all, but as The Big Bad, it’s really difficult for me to come up with any monster who’s death makes me visibly sad even in the god-awful remakes foisted on us by De Laurentiis and Jackson.
#6 Night Of The Demon (1957)
I don’t hear/read a whole lot about Jacques Tourneur which is a damn shame. Again, the focus here is on atmosphere and tension. Julian Karswell inflicts a curse on any who would try to discredit him and his Satanic cult. It’s based on M.R. James’s “Casting The Runes.” James is known mainly for his ghost stories, and Tourneur does a great job limiting views of the demon thereby giving the plot a distinctly ghost story feel.
#5 The Haunting (1963)
Certainly one of the most iconic haunted house and psychological horror movies ever made. Seriously, this is gold standard. Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) downward mental spiral, exacerbated by the house, is the story’s real focus rather than the house being the root cause of everything. It’s still tense, atmospheric, and effective
#4 Peeping Tom (1960)
If you’ve never seen Psycho, well where the fuck have you been? Hitchcock is an indisputable master as a filmmaker, and Psycho in part set up tropes that are still in use. But Hitchcock didn’t do this alone. The same year brought Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a movie that so outraged British critics that it very nearly destroyed Powell’s career. But it certainly launched some things we’d see later, namely seeing events through the killer’s point of view.
#3 The Wicker Man (1973)
If there’s any bloodshed to this movie, it’s never registered with me. You know fairly quickly that Edward Woodward is in some deep shit, and so much about Summerisle that is just…off. The dread and tension creep up by degrees leading to a deeply disturbing climax. Even more important, if you wanna pick a single film to represent folk horror as a subgenre, this has to be it. I love Ari Aster, but I’m confident that he would readily admit that with no Wicker Man, there’s no Midsommar.
#2 The Shining (1980)
Hard call whether this or A Clockwork Orange is my favorite Kubrick film, but that’s not today’s topic. If you’re looking for a straight-up faithful adaptation of King’s novel, The Shining ain’t for you. But as a standalone film, it’s required viewing. Ghosts, an evil/possessed structure, unraveling sanity, unnerving visuals, and sadistic sound design make this a tough watch but one that’s well worth the effort. There’s a scare chord that’s pretty much right out of Psycho, and like The Haunting, Jack Torrance’s crumbling sanity is front and center.
#1 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
God damn but this movie is tense! And INtense. Ironically there’s barely any blood, but this is definitely not for the faint of heart. I’ve seen it countless times but still can’t just sink back on the ol’ sofa for an easygoing watch…and I know every minute of what’s gonna happen! There’s an overwhelming sense of impending dread right from the off. Even if you’ve never seen this, you know immediately that these kids are waaaaaaaaaaay outta their element and therefore headed for doom. It’s one of those films where you get the uneasy sense you’re seeing something you shouldn’t. Couple this with some sound design even more sadistic than The Shining, and the movie becomes an almost literal assault.
Obviously there’s lots that didn’t make this first list, but I think for folks who aren’t familiar with or “into” horror, these provide an easy-to-follow path with some big landmarks. Here endeth the lesson.