9 horror movies that changed the genre
Netflix and chills: Get your spooky streaming on this Halloween season with these genre-defining horror flicks.
"The Execution of Mary Stuart," the first officially recognized horror film, lasted only 18 seconds and featured one special effect. Produced in 1895, the silent short included a stop frame edit that replaced an actress with a mannequin. The mannequin's head was cut, some audience member somewhere likely screamed, and the Hollywood horror genre was officially born.
More than a century later, the horror industry is littered with the remains of films that have attempted to leave their mark on audiences through monsters, ghouls, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. While many have faced critical execution similar to Mary Stuart, a select few not only continue to haunt our dreams, but have also attained Hollywood immortality as bona fide classics.
Below are a few of the most frightening horror films that forever changed the genre with their originality, groundbreaking effects and unsettling stories.
American director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic "The Shining," based on author Stephen King's 1977 thrilling novel of the same name, tells the story of a haunted hotel and a caretaker named Jack who falls victim under its evil influence.
"I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read," Kubrick said in an interview. "It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: 'Jack must be imagining these things because he's crazy.' This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing."
Starring American Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles, "The Shining" is today considered a prestige horror film. According to critics, its appeal lies not in scares, but in the unsettling nature of nearly every frame.
"When you sit down to 'The Shining,' you sit down with normal expectations of being diverted, perhaps even being gripped, but not being undermined," wrote Bruce McCabe of the Boston Globe. "But the film undermines you in powerful, inchoate ways."
'Night of the Living Dead'
The first film to introduce the idea of re-animated corpses as flesh-eating cannibals, "Night of the Living Dead" by the late American-Canadian director George Romero is widely regarded as the birth of the zombie genre. Released in 1968, the film is celebrating 50 years of helping to spawn everything from AMC's "The Walking Dead" series to international zombie walks.
"It amazes me," American actress Judith O'Dea, who played Barbra in the film, said in 2013. "Often times, people will come up and ask, 'How does it feel to be one of the people who created this whole zombie apocalypse genre?' It’s hard to fathom. But we really were at the beginning of it. The chemistry, the times, it just happened. It was magic."
Decades after its release, "Night" is still considered one of the greatest horror movies ever created. In 1990, a reboot using Romero's original screenplay once more reawakened everything people love about the 1968 classic. Created by American director Tom Savini and Menahem Golan, a prolific Israeli producer, the film received mostly positive reviews for its faithful adaptation of the source material.
"This film works on so many levels," wrote one critic. "Normally remakes are horrible, and diverge so much from the original film. This one is so close to the original it's scary."
In 1999, the Library of Congress added "Night of the Living Dead" to the National Film Registry to join other films deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
'Nightmare on Elm Street'
Created by American filmmaker Wes Craven, 1984's "Nightmare on Elm Street" confronted moviegoers with one of the most original villains ever to grace the silver screen. “I wanted to do something that was tied into the deepest recesses of our subconscious,” Craven said in 2008. “I had a history in academics, so I knew there were certain things that were universal.”
After reading a news article about a young man who appeared to have died from nightmares, Craven was inspired to create the character of Freddy Kreuger – a serial killer who stalks his victims through their dreams. Kreuger's iconic bladed glove was inspired by bear claws, while his green and red sweater was based on the DC Comics character Plastic Man.
As for American actor Robert Englund, who, incidentally, also helped actor Mark Hamill land his "Star Wars" audition for Luke Skywalker, his enjoyment behind playing the character of Freddy centered firmly on how the villain subverted personal privacy.
"It’s the hook of the violation of the most personal and private thing that you have which is your fantasies and your dreams, and that someone can get in their and monkey with your fears, and secrets, and desires, and fantasies, and twist them all around on you," he said in an interview. "That’s just a great, primal, psychological gimmick that Wes Craven blessed us with."
Based on a 1974 novel of the same name, American director Stephen Spielberg's "Jaws" not only terrified audiences with its tense scenes, anxious score and hungry villain, but also made swimmers think twice about entering the ocean.
"The entire cinema seemed utterly traumatized by that unforgettable opening sequence, and in the wake of this ruthlessly efficient curtain-raiser (you see nothing, but fear everything), two people hurried to the exit," U.K. film critic Mark Kermode recalled of watching the film in 1975. "As they left, I remember whispering to myself in a state of sublime terror: 'I am never going swimming again, I am never going swimming again…'"
Often considered one of the greatest films ever made, "Jaws" also helped push the traditional boundaries of the horror genre. Countless other shark vs. man films have followed, with many striving to recapture the fear that catapulted "Jaws" into the cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. According to some marine biologists, the film's negative portrayal of great white sharks actually helped to save the species.
"After 'Jaws,' sharks became rock stars," Bob Hueter, director of the Florida-based Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research, said in an interview. "It elevated them to a whole new consciousness in people's minds, to superstar status." With shark conservation dawning in the early 1980s, Heuter added, people's renewed interest in sharks gave marine biologists the opportunity to open a dialogue about their importance to the ocean ecosystem.
"In the long run, 'Jaws' is one of the best things that has happened to sharks, because now people care so much about them," he added.
'The Blair Witch Project'
Widely credited for giving birth to the modern found-footage horror genre, "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999 did for camping what "Jaws" did for going swimming. Using a budget of only $35,000, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez placed a handful of actors in the woods of Maine and equipped them with cameras to record each other. Largely improvisational, what played out over eight days became a blockbuster sensation that today still fills people with dread.
"The movie is a great example of 'method filmmaking,' where those emotions we witness feel very real because they are," wrote one critic. "That emotional authenticity was partly achieved by Myrick and Sánchez only giving the actors a very broad framework of the narrative – and often failing to warn them of impending scares they had planned for the night ahead."
The film went on to inspire dozens of other films and filmmakers – including Israeli-American director Oren Peli, the creator behind the wildly successful "Paranormal Activity" franchise.
"There was something about it that just felt real and visceral in a way that no other movie has felt up to that point and scared me to that point. I sort of made a mental note that, you know, if I ever have an idea for a movie that I can make on my own without any budget and without any real crew, maybe I'll give it a shot," Peli said in an interview. "So I can definitely say that 'The Blair Witch Project' directly inspired and influenced me to make 'Paranormal Activity.'
Considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time, "The Exorcist" was also the first of the genre to ever receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Directed by American filmmaker William Friedkin, and based on the 1971 novel by author William Blatey, the film tells the haunting story of a young girl possessed by a demon. According to Friedkin, the irony of this acclaim is that he never intended "The Exorcist" to be a horror film.
"I felt that the story was great – I mean, really confounding, because it was so real," he told Vice. "It introduces the supernatural as a part of real life. And so I wanted to respect that. Today, I will admit that it's a horror film. [Back then] I knew it would be disturbing to people, though I had no idea how disturbing. People were freaked out – for years! – and to some extent, still are."
The film's intense scares and gore were so disturbing, that some audience members during the film's initial release in December 1973 were reported to have fainted, cried or even vomited in the aisles. Some theaters even provided "Exorcist"-themed barf bags. "It was not a serial killer, a robot, a monster, a vampire, a zombie – it was something completely different, set in a realist world," added Friedkin.
Regularly topping "Scariest films of all-time" lists, "The Exorcist" was selected in 2010 by the Library of Congress to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry.
"Insidious" – directed by Australian filmmaker James Wan and Oren Peli, the aforementioned Israeli producer – is a brilliant piece of modern horror that subtly terrifies by keeping some scares just out of a scene's focal point. Unlike other films in the saturated haunted house genre, Wan and screenplay writer Leigh Whannell added their own original twist by changing the source of the paranormal activity. They were also adamant about adding no "fake scares" to better flesh out the rising anxiety reflected on film.
"And so having no fake scares meant that anxiety just builds and builds, and having the score, the particular score that we designed for this film is super effective as well with setting people on edge," Wan said in a 2011 interview. "I wanted the audience to watch the film with the musical score underneath it to basically get an anxiety attack, to feel really anxious as they're watching the film because I think ultimately that's what makes people cling on to their seats or onto their friend next to them. I think that's what gives it its power."
In fact, you could almost argue that "Insidious" is one of the few truly terrifying horror films to ever get away with frightening audiences without the use of blood or gore. It's scares are so effective, so subtle, that it just doesn't need them.
"'Insidious' is the kind of movie you could watch with your eyes closed and still feel engrossed by it," wrote film critic Christy Lemire for the Associated Press.
Regarded as one of British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film, "Psycho" is also the inspiration behind the slasher genre of horror films that has included everything from "Halloween" to "Scream." Released in June 1960, the film was so wildly successful that it broke box office records not just in the United States, but also in Japan, France, Britain and Canada.
Like most of Hitchcock's films, the scares came not from seeing the horror played out before your eyes, but filling in the more frightening bits with your imagination. Even "Psycho's" famous shower scene, a montage of chilling moments, took advantage of this effect.
"'Psycho' is probably one of the most cinematic pictures I've ever made," Hitchcock said in a 1963 interview. "The whole thing is purely an illusion. No knife ever touched any woman's body in that scene. Ever. But the rapidity of the shots, it took a week to shoot. The little pieces of film were probably not more than four or five inches long. They were on the screen for a fraction of a second."
Today, more than 50 years after its release, "Psycho" continues to inspire horror films that lean heavily on the psychological scares and less on gore.
Writes critic Bill Gibron: "Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' set the standard and post-modern horror has been hobbling to catch up ever since."
Approaching the 90th anniversary of its premiere on Feb. 12, 1931, in New York City, American director Tod Browning's "Dracula" is widely considered the genesis of the modern vampire genre. Played with unmatched intensity by Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi, the immortal Dracula thrilling audiences in 1931 still persists in various forms to this day.
"Let me admit with no apology that Dracula is Bela Lugosi, and Bela Lugosi is Dracula," actress Carroll Borland, who starred in the 1935 film "Mark of the Vampire" said in an interview. "Many have donned his nocturnal cloak, and some, like Christopher Lee have presented most credible representations of the great undead Count – but can never be Dracula."
"Dracula" also marked the introduction of the pale, blood-thirsty "Brides of Dracula," roles that would echo in future productions like "Van Helsing" and star actresses ranging from Michaela Bercu, an Israeli model, to Elena Anaya, a Spanish actress most recently seen going toe-to-toe against Wonder Woman.
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