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Every decade has its share of great horror movies, and the very best have become true cinematic classics that are every bit as important as more “prestigious” films. From Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead to Halloween, The Exorcist, and The Shining, these are movies which even the most casual horror fan knows, and they continue to influence the genre today. But what are the other films that true horror fans need to have seen? Everyone has their favorites, but we’ve gathered 22 movies that all lovers of zombies, ghosts, killers, and demons need to check out. How many have you seen?
Black Sunday (1960)
Mario Bava is the godfather of Italian horror, and one of the most influential filmmakers ever to work in the genre. Black Sunday is perhaps his finest film; a striking, dreamlike slice of gothic madness that feels very different to the movies that were being served up by better known horror flick production houses such as Hammer at that time. Black Sunday is best known for the opening scene in which Barbara Steele has a metal mask hammered onto her face, but the whole movie is a macabre must-see.
There’s no other horror movie quite like Society. A satire of 1980s class and privilege, it plays out like a weird, gloopy soap opera, as ex-Baywatch star Billy Warlock discovers that his privileged, status-obsessed friends and parents are in fact shape-shifting, power-mad sex mutants. Directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, Society is funny, cheesy, disturbing, and a deeply subversive one-off.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The silent era threw up many great horror movies, but few have the power of Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of German Expressionism. Wiene adopted a surreal, dreamlike tone for this story of an insane hypnotist who uses his power to make others commit terrible crimes. The weird set design, crazy camera angles, and shocking final twist made the film feel way of ahead of its time, and they still impress today.
In the years between his undead masterpieces Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, George Romero tried his hand at a few non-zombie movies, the best of which was this vampire classic. A disturbing tale of addiction and urban alienation, Martin took familiar vampire myths and placed them in the real world, as a lonely young man attempts to fit in with regular society while fighting an uncontrollable lust for blood.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Part of the 3D craze of the 1950s, Creature from the Black Lagoon might play out like a more typical ’50s monster movie when watched today, but it still holds an eerie power. The creature is one of all the all-time great movie monsters, and the underwater sequences are still hugely impressive, as the iconic Gill-Man glides and dives through the water, stalking scientist Julie Adams, with whom he is besotted.
The 1980s was the decade of comedy horror, and there are few better than Re-Animator. Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s short story features a hilariously unhinged performance from Jeffrey Combs as maverick doctor Herbert West, who is obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. Re-Animator has it all–great characters, a hilariously sharp script, wonderfully meaty make-up effects, and tons of madcap energy.
While most infamous horror films have been endlessly copied, remade, and recycled, there is no other movie like Tod Browning’s Freaks. After the success of the Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula, Browning used the leeway he had with the studio to make this tragic story of life among a family of circus freaks. At heart this is a moving family drama about outsiders, but the movie’s nightmarish tone and disturbing imagery led to over 20 minutes of cuts. Sadly, the full version is lost forever, but even in its truncated form, Freaks remains one of the most notorious movies of all time.
Part of the wave of Japanese horror that followed the success of The Ring in the early 2000s, Pulse stands apart from the rest. It’s weird, ambitious, funny, and very, very scary. While many of the individual elements might be familiar to fans of Japanese horror–long-haired ghosts, freaky children, young people being menaced by an unseen terror–director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s treatment of this material is anything but traditional. The film is a strange, surreal experience that strains the boundaries of logic and combines a persistent sense of impending doom with some truly terrifying scenes.
The Innocents (1961)
No horror list would be complete without a creepy kid movie, and there are few creepier that The Innocents. Adapted from the classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, it’s a restrained slice of gothic terror, about a governess who is employed to look after a pair of kids who she comes to believe have been possessed by ghosts. As well as the potent atmosphere, eerie sound design, and striking monochrome photography, the movie also boasts a groundbreaking electronic score.
The Beyond (1981)
He might not be as critically revered as Dario Argento or Mario Bava, but for many fans of Italian horror, Lucio Fulci is every bit as vital. The Beyond is a potent blend of zombie shocker and gothic mystery; at times it’s stilted, clunky, and silly, but it also possesses an oppressive atmosphere of otherworldly strangeness and some outrageously over-the-top gore effects.
Cat People (1942)
This 1942 classic marked the first collaboration between producer Val Lewton and pioneering director Jaques Tourneur. The studio expected a horror quickie with a snappy title, but alongside the melodrama and sometimes dated acting, Lewton and Tourneur brought a level of artistry unusual for this sort of low-budget fare. The idea of cat women becoming deadly through arousal was radical for the age, and Tourneur’s directorial style differed substantially from his horror contemporaries, with the use of shadows and sound creating some truly memorable sequences.
Legendary Italian director Dario Argento’s supernatural chiller is one of the most distinctive horror movies of the 1970s. The mix of intriguing mystery, gory violence, eye-popping visuals, and an ear-splitting score made the director a favorite among horror aficionados across the world. Much of this crazy tale of ballerinas and witches might not make logical sense, but man, it looks and sounds incredible.
It Follows (2014)
Perhaps the best indie horror of the past decade, It Follows avoids many of the cliches of modern teen horror and places a group of believable kids into a terrifyingly surreal situation, evoking a constant feeling of dread without relying on lavish effects. The film has an almost fairytale-like tone, with gliding camerawork and terror that results almost entirely from scenes of people walking quickly in the direction of the main characters.
While Bela Lugosi was the first actor to officially portray Bram Stoker’s legendary vampire, for many horror fans, Christopher Lee is the definitive Drac. Hammer’s first Dracula movie (retitled Horror of Dracula the US) remains one of the very best. Lee is a suave and charismatic Count, while Peter Cushing is every bit his equal as Van Helsing. It’s a stylish, bloody, exciting gothic treat.
Japanese maverick Takashi Miike might be one of the most prolific directors working, and Audition is one of his very best. What starts as a quirky romantic drama about a lonely businessman looking for love ultimately turns into a terrifying, disturbing vortex of physical and psychological torment. The film takes its time to reach the horror, but when it does, it delivers one of the genre’s most shattering final sequences.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
One of the most controversial horror movies of the 1980s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a raw, unflinching look at the day-to-day life of its titular killer, as he moves from town to town, victim to victim. Anchored by a terrifying debut performance from future Guardians of the Galaxy star Michael Rooker, Henry‘s power comes from its stark, non-judgmental tone and matter-of-fact depiction of violence. It’s still a tough watch, but it’s up there with the decade’s finest movies.
Black Christmas (1974)
While Halloween was the movie that started the slasher craze of the late ’70s and ’80s, it was predated by this seasonal Canadian shocker. A group of students are menaced at Christmas by a campus killer who torments them over a phone line. It’s tense and scary, and features one of the earliest uses of the now-clichéd killer’s POV shot. Director Bob Clark later made another Christmas classic, the perennial family favorite A Christmas Story, which features a lot less hacking and slashing.
The late-2000s saw a wave of bloody French horror movies, including Switchblade Romance, Martyrs, and Frontier(s). Inside is argubaly the most gruesome of the lot, and while it lacks Martyrs‘ fearsome intelligence, the breathtaking level of inventive splatter and super-stylized gore makes it a must-see for gorehounds. Given the entire plot revolves around Beatrice Dalle trying to get an unborn baby out of her victim’s belly, it’s certainly not for the squeamish. But for those with a strong enough stomach, it delivers the meaty goods.
Eyes Without A Face (1960)
One of the very best horror movies to emerge from France, Eyes Without a Face was a controversial take on the mad scientist genre. Directed by former documentary-maker Georges Franju, it focuses on a scientist who kidnaps young women at night and transplants their faces onto the disfigured features of his daughter. While many critics and viewers were impressed by the movie’s style and haunting atmosphere, just as many were were appalled by its dark themes and graphic scenes of surgery.
Don Coscarelli’s mind-bending debut is a true independent effort, with few concessions made to the rules of conventional filmmaking. This small-town tale of brothers who become involved with a sinister corpse-harvesting operation was shot on weekends over the space of many months, with the script written and rewritten as it went along. And it shows, in the best possible way, in everything from the flying blood-draining metal spheres and killer grave-robbing space midgets to the iconic villainous Tall Man. This no-budget gem inspired four sequels and is also one of JJ Abrams’ favourite movies; he produced the recent 4K restoration, and used the killer spheres as his inspiration for The Force Awakens‘ Captain Phasma.
Long grass has never been scarier than in this masterpiece of Japanese horror. It’s a period folktale about an impoverished mother and daughter-in-law who survive by murdering soldiers and selling their possessions. That is, until the day they encounter a samurai with a cursed mask. It’s the incredible atmosphere generated by film’s setting–desolate swampland populated by grass tall enough to entirely disappear into–that helps build the movie’s unique, terrifying power, as the women descend into madness.
The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott stars as a grieving father who moves into a haunted house in this super creepy chiller. The Changeling is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term, taking its time to set up the story and ensuring that the audience is fully invested in the characters before delivering the horror goods. Director Peter Medak is a master at evoking maximum chills from minimal props; who would’ve thought that a bouncing rubber ball or a wheelchair could be so scary? The movie also features one of the most frightening seances in horror–an unnerving scene that was a clear influence on latter-day horror hits like The Conjuring and Insidious.