The horror genre is one which has evolved and taken many fascinating twists and turns over the years. Dozens of popular sub-genres have been spawned, there are countless tropes, different ways of shooting or telling the story, different types of fear are targeted and much more. This is largely thanks to influential and game changing horror movies being released, and these have all shaped the genre as we know it today. In many cases, not only have these films influenced horror, but they have also influenced cinema and their impact can be felt in many of today’s most popular films.
10. Saw (2003)
Saw may have caught plenty of heat since its 2003 release, but so do all influential films. The film stood out from the pack upon its release, and this saw it create its own sub-genre of ultraviolent torture films which have caused a huge amount of controversy over the years. The first film is not as heavy on gore as the sequels (which are nowhere near as powerful), and instead it relies on the horror and helplessness that the two main characters find themselves in. A new wave of torture horror films followed, most of which are not exactly classics but forced special effects to improve. Whatever your opinion on Saw is, there is no denying that it is an important and landmark horror, which seemed to spark a new interest in the genre and influenced dozens of films that have followed since its release.
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was not only hugely influential on zombie movies, but the entire horror genre. The film was made on a shoestring budget but was even more terrifying than the big budget releases of the same time. This inspired countless independent filmmakers to create their own horror films, and as history has proven, often it is the indie horrors which are the most powerful. The film was criticized for its gore and depravity upon release, but ultimately this paved the way for more extreme filmmakers and splatter films. Additionally, prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombies (although referred to as “ghouls” in the film) were never a particularly formidable foe and often laughable, but this is certainly not the case in the movie and all zombie films soon followed suit with disturbing, cannibalistic and rampant monsters.
8. The Shining (1980)
When talking about psychological horror films, the best place to start is with The Shining. Based on the novel by the master of horror Stephen King and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film is a masterclass in creating a tense, foreboding and terrifying atmosphere from start to finish. It does not rely on cheap scares or violence/gore to shock its audience, and instead the horror lies in the hotel caretaker, Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson), slowly losing his mind and becoming influenced by the supernatural presence in the hotel. His demise sees him go on to hunt his own wife and son in the hotel, and this is perhaps the scariest and most influential part of the film. It has had a huge impact on all of popular culture, and this is evident through the countless parodies and homages over the years in both film and television.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street carries on the slasher trends set by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween, but it is also influential in its own right. Due to much of the film taking place in the dream world, it enabled Craven to get imaginative and incorporate fantasy elements into the slasher sub-genre. This added more visual interest and required better special effects, and it could also be said that the blurred lines between reality and the dream world influenced many films outside the genre too. Additionally, A Nightmare on Elm Street moved away from the silent and unstoppable killer, and instead gave the villain more character and personality (Freddy Krueger has an iconic voice done perfectly by Robert Englund). Unfortunately, they went slightly overboard with this in the sequels, but this new angle on the slasher villain once again changed the face of horror.
6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The found footage sub-genre has become particularly popular in recent times with films such as V/H/S, REC and Paranormal Activity. Although The Blair Witch Project was not the first to utilize this plot device (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980), it mastered and popularized it and consequently influenced the influx of found footage horrors that followed its 1999 release. The film sees three student filmmakers who disappear in the woods whilst making a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch. We are told that they were never seen again, but their equipment was and this was the footage that was found. Some of the footage is genuinely terrifying and realism is achieved through the use of a hand-held camera and the documentary style that is adopted before they become tormented in the woods. All found footage and pseudo-documentary horrors will be influenced by this movie.
5. Dracula (1931)
The character of Dracula and Bram Stoker’s iconic novel is hugely important in the horror genre, and the 1931 film has had an enormous impact on the genre and is still relevant today. There have been countless adaptations of the character, and, in some regard, all the greatest horror monsters/villains have roots in the character of Dracula. The film was a box office success for Universal, who also released Frankenstein (also immensely influential) later that year, which was also very well-received. With this interest in the genre, the studio released an enormous series of horror films through to 1960, such as The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon. These all became known as Universal Monsters, which could be considered as the foundation of horror cinema. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula was so powerful that he remains synonymous with the character.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist brought sheer horror and terror to the cinema like never before, and there has arguably never been a mainstream film that was as shocking and controversial upon release than William Friedkin’s 1973 classic. The graphic and disturbing scenes of the girl possessed by the devil may seem tame now (and dated), but at the time the graphic imagery resulted in people screaming in the cinema and, of course, an enormous backlash by religious institutions. Religion, demonic possession and evil children are all horror staples now, and this is largely thanks to The Exorcist as well as a few other notable films released around the same time, such as The Omen, The Amityville Horror and Rosemary’s Baby. On top of this new level of shocking horror, the make-up effects (by Dick Smith) brought a new level of believability and inspired all the great horror make-up artists who followed.
3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came prior to the influx of slasher films throughout the ’80s, but all of these great films and many more were heavily influenced by this classic. This includes utilizing the “Final Girl,” being tormented by a disturbed masked killer, and having a gritty, dirty and inescapable setting. It is heavily influential in the way that it is made, as it is perceived to be an extremely gory film, but this is far from the truth as there is very little on-screen violence. Instead, the horror in this film lies with creating a claustrophobic, sweltering and manic atmosphere which was achieved through documentary-style camerawork and shooting all day long in the scorching Texas heat (due to a low budget). It is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential horrors ever, and most notably on the slasher sub-genre.
2. Psycho (1960)
You will struggle to find a horror film made after 1960 that was not influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho. It is often considered to be one of the first slasher films, but its influence is much more than this. Psycho stunned audiences by killing off the film’s heroine very early on, showing audiences that nobody was safe and this kept viewers on the edge of their seat. It also portrayed the idea that the villain/monster could be anybody, and this is a terrifying idea and is frequently used in horror movies today. It is famed for setting new levels of acceptable violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in film, which are, of course, hugely important elements in a number of different genres. This all makes Psycho one of the most influential films of all time, and this is evident through the countless homages and parodies of the unforgettable shower scene.
1. Halloween (1978)
Halloween is often the first horror that springs to mind when discussing the genre, and this is impressive considering it was made nearly 40 years ago. This is because it has had such a lasting impact and completely changed the way in which filmmakers went about creating a horror film. It took elements of the great horrors before it (many on this list), enhanced this, and created perhaps the greatest horror villain to ever grace our screens in Michael Myers. It took the slasher sub-genre to new heights and popularized elements such as the “Final Girl,” shooting from the killer’s POV, killing off substance abusers and sexually active teens and much more. The director, John Carpenter, also flawlessly created terrifying atmosphere in the film to enhance the mental aspect, and this was largely created through the excellent music. It is considered to be the blueprint to success for most horror films that followed.