RECOMMENDATIONS: My Top Five – The ‘Classic Scares’ Edition

Ghosts and goblins, zombies and oddities – unlock the throwback nightmares!

I have been in love with the horror/thriller genre ever since I was small. The first scary movie I ever saw was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Being scared (if you’re up for it) can be a fantastic roller coaster ride. The trick with scary movies is to remind yourself everything you’re seeing is shielded by a movie screen.

Go watch a scary movie with friends; scream, laugh, cover your eyes (well, not for the whole thing!). It allows you to escape and enjoy the experience, and I’ve also found horror movies are the most intellectually stimulating in the sense you’re constantly asking questions throughout the film. When you see enough of them, you learn to think ahead.

This is a first in a series of posts recommending movies for Halloween night. This one goes over classics shot in English; they have stood the test of time. Be sure to check out my other sister lists related to the Halloween season: the post-2000’s list, the slasher list, the kid-friendly Halloween list and the international scares list. Those will be coming out on the days leading up to Halloween!

How I define a classic on this list:

Here, I’ll be looking at movies I argue are influential to future horror and/or thriller cinema. When I say ‘influential,’ I mean they are notable for inspiring direction and imaginings in film. I make my arguments after the synopses of each one. When I say ‘future horror and/or thriller cinema,’ I’m referring to movies released in the 21st century, although there are spots on this list where I break that rule a few times.

This should go without saying, but yes – spoilers ahead.

A reminder that these are just my opinions! I’d love to hear what you think. What would your top five be? Leave me a comment!

5/Psycho (1960)

Who doesn’t love a thrilling crime movie?! Starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Janet Leigh, Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation chronicles a woman’s (Leigh) encounter with a disturbed hotel owner (Perkins). I only managed to watch the movie in full a few years ago, and it’s creepy. When it’s strung together the right way, there’s just something about a black and white film that freaks the heck out of you, and this movie is the pinnacle of that.

Psycho was so successful it spawned a handful of (arguably bad) sequels, and set a new scare standard. It even has a modern day TV series prequel in Bates Motel. The infamous murder-in-the-shower scene is probably every person’s foray into the world of nightmares.

Moments before Norman Bates murders Marion Crane. (Paramount Pictures)
Moments before Norman Bates murders Marion Crane. (Paramount Pictures)

Pulling back the shower curtain before dying (or after the character hears a creepy noise in a scene) has become a cliche – heck, even dying in the bathtub could be put into the same category. Think The Grudge (2004) and Crimson Peak (2015).

Psycho also showed us how important music is to the movement of the plot. The ugly strings you hear during that infamous killing scene are almost as bad as nails on a chalkboard, but it’s a cue signifying something terrifying is on its way – or is already right here.

Fun fact: the movie has also been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. 

4/Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Directed by George A. Romero, this movie is about a group trapped in a rural farm house in Pennsylvania (problems 1 and 2, respectively; I’ll explain in a second). The group is attacked by a swarm of zombies, and they fight to survive.

Problem one: you’re often in trouble if you’re in an isolated and/or rural area. Isolation is a big part of this movie: spending an extended

A base for the zombies we all know and love today. (Wikipedia)
A base for the zombies we all know and love today. (Wikipedia)

amount of time in a cellar, for instance, and, yes, going back to geographical location, location, location.

Problem two: a farm house is not usually the friendliest place to stay. I can think of a handful of future films where farm houses are places one should steer clear from: Samara’s bedroom in The Ring (2002) is a barn, The Conjuring (2013) involves a farm house, Children of the Corn (1984) and most people who either hook up or go and hide in farm houses in the Friday the 13th Series end up dead. 

Obviously, this film also helped shape the zombie as we know it today, and I think those who enjoy shows like The Walking Dead owe Mr. Romero a thank you. It’s also another film in the National Film Registry.

3/Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Many seem to think Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project were pioneers in the low budget horror/high box office profit feat. Rosemary’s Baby actually managed to do about $33 million at the box office on a budget of about $3.2 million when it was released. Yes, I know that’s a pretty big production budget for the time, but the return-on-investment idea is the point I’m trying to illustrate. Anyways, a woman (Mia Farrow) thinks her husband (John Cassavetes) may have promised their unborn child away to a Satanic cult.

Not long after this movie came out, other movies surrounding Satanic cults and worship were also released, and I would argue this film inspired a thread of Demon baby/child/tiny Anti-Christ movies, including  The Last Exorcism (2010), The Omen (1976) and the (in my opinion terrible movie) Devil’s Due (2014). The movie explores themes of power and wealth similar to those in the Paranormal Activity series.

Aside: it’s a far cry from scary, but Mia Farrow’s hair in the movie garnered non-stop chatter.

2/The Exorcist (1973)

Those who see this movie in this day and age might  laugh at the special effects, but I don’t care – it’s still creepy as heck. This film deals with the disturbing demonic possession of a twelve year old (Linda Blair), and the challenges her mother (Ellen Burstyn), an actress, faces while coming to grips with the fact her daughter has an entity inside of her.

From Ouija boards to talking backwards to Blair’s character’s head doing a full rotation while still attached to her body, this movie gives me the heebie jeebies. Augh!

The puppet used in The Exorcist film. (Wikipedia)
The puppet used in The Exorcist film. (Wikipedia)

The make-up and puppetry (Blair’s character, Reagan, had a puppet ‘sub in’ for her in a number of scenes) is also quite the feat for the time. Also, you can’t beat that famous spider walk scene. It didn’t make the original cut of the film, but those who have seen it say it is some of the creepiest imagery in cinema, despite what director William Friedkin originally thought.

I could go on and on with more modern day possession movies. Some good and some bad, from Paranormal Activity (2006) to The Rite with Anthony Hopkins (2011), the mingling of God and the Anti-Christ, and the relationships between the two are a common juxtaposition in today’s possession-themed horror films.

In my opinion, this also sets the tone for cursed movie sets. This production was plagued by a number of terrible events. The Possession (2012) seems to have shared more than an inspiration by The Exorcist: apparently the set was plagued by exploding lights. One of the storages used to keep props in also burned to the ground. Investigators couldn’t find a cause. The remake of The Amityville Horror (2005) saw a dead body washing up on the shore near the movie set a day before filming was about to start. Coincidence? Reader, I’ll leave it to you.

1/Dawn of the Dead (1978)

It came out in 1978 – later than all of these films – but the argument here is director George A. Romero took something he started, and finished it – perfecting not only zombie movies, but a web of themes related to the genre. Survivors of some kind of plague or virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies barricade themselves inside a shopping mall to try and ride out the curse.

Let’s go back to zombies. In particular, flesh eating zombies. I believe this movie elevated the terror these undead creatures bring to the screen. In this movie, they’re tougher to outrun. Again, another shade added to the zombie genre we know and love today.

And now, over to my favourite kind of horror – survival horror. The genre has become a little blase in the last few years, but some films to hit the big screen in the 21st century have struck a terror chord that cannot be unheard. Resident Evil (2002) and Silent Hill (2006) have gone on to be cult classics among horror film fans. Recently, World War Z (2013) did well at the box office, bringing in about $540 million on a budget of $190 million. Resident Evil and World War Z have also touched on themes of health, science fiction, emergency preparedness (it might be a stretch, but I’m reminded of Contagion) and medicine.

The remake of this movie (2004) wasn’t so bad, either, and, of course, the elder film spawned a great parody in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. 

Honourable Mentions: The Shining (1980), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and another one of my favourites, The Thing (1982). 

The Trailer for The Shining…

The Trailer for The Hills Have Eyes…

…and the trailer for The Thing. 

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