I love Halloween. I’m a cosplayer, so I obviously love wearing costumes, and having a holiday where this is practically a requirement is a-okay with me. Candy everywhere? I see no problem here. Pumpkin spice in my coffee mug and Charlie Brown on my TV? That’s my jam.
But up until a few years ago, the one thing I didn’t care for at Halloween time was the spooky stuff. You couldn’t pay me to watch a horror movie. I would psych myself up to watch one horror film a year and then I’d be full up on scary stuff until next Halloween.
However in the past 3-4 years, I have acquired a love for the genre. I’m going to blame part of this on Stranger Things, but also on two of my favorite podcasts, Saturday Frights, which covers retro horror film and television, and the Retroist podcast, which covers all things retro, but also features several greats of the horror genre. I became fascinated with how these films were made, many on shoestring budgets, and yet several became runaway hits at the box office and ultimately influential within the genre. Learning some of the behind-the-scenes information took the edge off the scare factor for me. I also found myself entranced by many of the stories, learning how the scary parts actually served a narrative function. I don’t like to do anything halfway, so I dove in head first, studying horror for fun, but also on an academic level.
Because I have acute severe onset completionist tendencies, I have managed to blast through many classics of the genre in a very short period of time. While you should not consider this an exhaustive list, as there are still many I have yet to see and there are simply far too many iconic films to enumerate here, this is my list of horror classics that I recommend watching this time of year.These are also a great starting point if you’d just like a bit of a primer on the horror genre. I am defining “horror classics” as anything from the Universal Monster era (1920s) through the end of the 1980s.
The Wolf Man (1941) – While there are so many things to love and appreciate about the impact the Universal Monster films have had on the horror genre, Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man makeup was an incredible feat of makeup effects at the time. I got to see this one on the big screen 2 years ago, and I’ve got to say the film holds up. Chaney Jr’s, performance is what sells the film. This is one worth seeing if you’d like a history lesson in the horror genre.
Psycho (1960) – Psycho is the first horror film I ever watched. My cousin and I put it on Christmas night when we were ten years old. You know, because of course when everyone thinks of Christmas classics, Psycho is the first thing that comes to mind.
We were weird kids.
I was fascinated with the story of Norman Bates, but also at how the movie created terror just by having the killer be in shadow. This also gave me a “type” of horror film that I enjoyed–monster in shadow. Psycho features Janet Leigh, the original Scream Queen, and mother to horror legend, Jamie Lee Curtis. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates truly carries the movie, even nearly 60 years after its release. This is one icon of the horror genre not to be missed. It’s my favorite horror film of all time.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – George A. Romero’s zombie classic wasn’t the first zombie film ever made, but it did spark an explosion of interest in zombie movies, and of all the ones I’ve seen, Night of the Living Dead is still my favorite. I actually got to talk extensively about this film on an installment of The Mythgard Movie Club last year. Check it out for my full thoughts, but as for a few highlights of the film, I’ll say watch this one is important for its cultural impact, the multi-layered tension (racial, gender, ethical), and a stand out performance from Duane Jones as Ben.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – While I was surprised to learn that there are decidedly fewer chainsaws and massacres in this film than the title would imply, that doesn’t mean The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is any less terrifying. The psychological terror of Leatherface and his family is more disturbing than anything seen on screen. Also, if at all possible, see this one in a theater or at least watch it at home with surround sound. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sends different sounds through different channels, which creates an incredibly disorienting effect and increases the terror through this simple trick. To me, that kind of editing choice does more to creep me out than any CGI could. For that reason, as well as the finale of the film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes my list.
Suspiria (1977) – Jasmine and I recently got to wax philosophical about the original and the remake of Suspiria here on Fangirlish. While I went into gory detail (rimshot) in that piece about why the original Suspiria is one of my all time favorite horror films, I’ll highlight here a few points of interest about this film. The music is loud, abrasive, and disorienting, which heightens the terror. This is another film I’d strongly recommend seeing in the theater or in surround sound if at all possible because of the sounds filtering through different channels. Suspiria is gorgeously shot. Its use of color, mirrors/reflection, and lighting all combine to create an ethereal, otherworldly feel. Perhaps most chilling of all, director Dario Argento based this on a true story.
Halloween (1978) – Psycho may be my favorite horror film of all time, but Halloween is a very close second. It has my favorite type of monster, “monster in shadow,” but what sells this movie for me is its cinematography. The over the shoulder camera perspective, which allows the viewer to see things through Michael’s eyes, is incredibly eerie. While the cinematography keeps my eyes glued to the screen, the staying power of the film all comes from Jamie Lee Curtis. She is so convincing as Laurie Strode, showing that she not only inherited her mom’s pipes and can pierce eardrums with the best of them, but also that she is incredibly brave. Her compelling performance keeps me coming back to this film. I’ve been lucky enough to see it twice on the big screen, including my first go-around with the film. It’s a spookfest worth revisiting and absolutely gorgeous on the big screen. This film also solidified John Carpenter as my favorite horror director. I commend to you this film, as well as the rest of his directorial work.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – By all accounts Robert Englund is a sweet guy, but he can sure play a terrifying villain. An icon of the slasher genre, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street kicked off a new horror franchise and effectively saved New Line Cinema from shutting its doors. (I once heard on the Retroist podcast that New Line was once referred to as “The house that Freddy built”). With its over-the-top effects, sharp female lead (Heather Langenkamp), and the very first film appearance of Johnny Depp, A Nightmare on Elm Street should be on your watchlist this Halloween.
Did I miss your favorite horror classic? Tweet me and tell me why you think your favorite should make my list. Stay tuned to Fangirlish this Halloween season, where I’ll be sharing my modern favorites of the horror genre (1990s to today), horror films that scared me so badly that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch them again, as well as a couple roundtables from the rest of our crew here at the site. Stay spooky!