16 Most Influential Horror Movies: Horror Films That Changed the Genre
There’s a certain magic when it comes to horror films; a part of us wants to close our eyes while the other half definitely needs to keep peeking at the horrors onscreen. The horror genre was one of the very first ones to debut in cinemas, seeing as how it was able to keep the audiences fascinated and their imaginations running wild.
From monsters to the paranormal, there’s a lot to see when it comes to horror. There’s a select group of films that changed the way future filmmakers tackled the genre, and on this list, we’ll take a look at 16 horror movies that changed the genre forever. Some of the creatures that lurk in these movies already haunt the nightmares of many and some have outlived the popularity of their films, becoming pop culture icons of their own.
16 Most Influential Horror Movies: Horror Films That Changed the Genre
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the 16 most influential horror movies that changed the genre.
16. The Witch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse)
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
When Robert Eggers made his directorial debut with 2015’s The Witch, horror fans knew they had just seen a new era of horror cinema being born. The Witch: A New England Folktale mixes period drama with horror perfectly, creating a haunting tale of survival in the times when the English settlers first set foot on the brave new world of New England.
The Witch is a far cry from the horror movies that reigned in the mid-2000s: instead of blood and gore, the film focuses more on the drama of survival and supernatural element, mixed with a good dose of witchcraft and occult symbolism. Unlike many horror films, The Witch takes great pride in its cinematography. The movie looks and feels like a period piece with supernatural elements, and not the other way around. The result is a beautiful painting of a picture that can be enjoyed even by every fan of cinema.
Robert Eggers would go on to produce a variety of horror films that fans really enjoyed, including the sinister Hereditary. The only reason why The Witch is on this list while Hereditary isn’t is because the latter feels like a refinement of the first in many aspects, consolidating Eggers as a true modern master of horror.
15. The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter (Halloween, They Live, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China)
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart
Master of horror John Carpenter made this great science fiction horror back in 1982. Based on the John W. Campbell Jr. novel Who Goes There? (1938 ), The Thing tells the story about a US research team in Antarctica who comes in contact with a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims.
The Thing received mostly negative reviews back in 1982 but later gained a much better status and a cult following. It had a significant impact on popular culture and today is considered as one of the best science fiction and horror films ever made ending on many best-of lists. Atmospheric, grim, suspenseful, and terrifying with a great score from maestro Ennio Morricone and visual effects that still hold to this day, The Thing is a classic of the genre and the best movie directed by John Carpenter.
14. Saw (2004)
Director: James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious, Furious 7, Aquaman)
Cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannell, Dina Meyer, Tobin Bell
Speaking of mid-2000s gorefests, Saw really changed the rules of the game when it came out in 2004. While the first movie in the series isn’t as gratuitously violent as the latter entries, it jumpstarted a revolution in violent films that would dictate how many horror movies operated in the first years of the new millennium.
Like Saw, James Wan would go on to become a great name in horror cinema, working in many popular horror franchises like Insidious and The Conjuring.
13. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes)
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Drew Barrymore
Directed by one of the masters of horror, Scream came out of nowhere back in 1996 and became a huge commercial success spawning a couple of sequels and a ton of imitators. Written by Kevin Williamson, this combination of slasher, mystery, comedy, and satire follows a couple of high school students being targets of a mysterious masked killer.
Satirizing the clichés of the horror movies, Scream was an original horror movie and a breath of fresh air in the stale genre. It received positive reviews and revitalized the genre in the 1990s. Director Wes Craven already made one of the best and most influential horror movies with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but that movie didn’t make it on our list as it was using many elements originating from Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
12. The Evil Dead(1981)
Director: Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, Army of Darkness, A Simple Plan, Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell)
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker
After making a short movie Within the Woods with Bruce Campbell as a proof of concept, Raimi attracted investors and made this low budget horror film about five college students trapped in an isolated cabin where they find an audiotape and playing it they unleash a legion of demons and spirits.
Upon release, The Evil Dead received critical acclaim becoming one of the most significant cult films, beloved and cited by many genre fans. It also spawned two sequels, a soft reboot in 2013, a TV series Ash vs Evil Dead, video games and comic books. Two direct sequels were also written and directed by Raimi – Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn in 1987 (by the way my favorite movie in the trilogy) and Army of Darkness in 1992. The character of Ash Williams became a cultural icon. Hail to the king baby!
11. Frankenstein (1931)
Director: James Whale (The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein)
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff
Directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, Frankenstein set the standard for non-human creatures. Adapted from a play by Peggy Webling, it tells a story about a scientist who’s using body parts from dead corpses to create his own monster. Frankenstein is one of the most famous Universal’s monster movies and was a box office success upon release.
Frankenstein made a huge impact on popular culture, spawned a couple of sequels and spin-offs, and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”.
10. Nosferatu (1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder
In the early days of cinema, filmmakers were still experimenting on how to shock their audiences with a new wave of adaptations of classic ghouls and monsters. The 1922 German classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror takes the classic figure of a blood-sucking vampire, like the one seen in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and presents one of the most iconic vampires in film history.
As iconic as it seems, all the copies of Nosferatu were almost lost: Stoker’s heirs didn’t take F.W. Murnau’s adaptation lightly and won a court ruling that ordered the destruction of all the copies of the movie. Luckily, some prints were spared, and that’s why we can still enjoy Nosferatu in all of its German Expressionist glory.
The film revolutionized how monsters appeared on the screen. The prosthetics used in the villainous Count Orlok’s costume were groundbreaking for the time, and hold up nicely even by today’s standards.
9. Alien (1979)
Director: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Prometheus)
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton
A critical and box-office success, Alien is considered as one of the best science fiction and horror movies of all time. Directed by Ridley Scott at the start of his career (when he was still making good movies), Alien tells a story about the crew of the commercial space ship Nostromo that receives a distress call and soon must fight for their lives after a deadly and aggressive bug-like extraterrestrial (designed by the Swiss artist H. R. Giger) starts hunting them down.
Written by Dan O’Bannon and produced by Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs., Southern Comfort) among others, Alien was a commercial and critical success and gave us one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema and one of the best heroines of all time in Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. It won a couple of awards (Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, three Saturn Awards, and a Hugo Award) and was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and even selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.
It also spawned a couple of sequels, comic books, novels, and video games. Each sequel was directed by a different director with only the first sequel coming to the heights of the original (actually, in my opinion, James Cameron’s Aliens is the best in the series and one of the rare examples of sequels being better than original). Ridley Scott returned to the franchise years later but it would be better if he didn’t. Well-directed, visually attractive, tense, and scary, Alien is one of the most influential science fiction movies of all time. By the way, did you know that the actors weren’t aware of what was going to happen in the chest-burster scene and that their reaction was actually genuine?
8. Ring (AKA Ringu) (1998)
Director: Hideo Nakata (Ringu 2, Dark Water)
Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Yûko Takeuchi, Hitomi Satô
Horror cinema is generally a reflection of the society from where it originates. The Japanese horror genre has a unique look and feel that sets it apart from its Western counterpart, and Ring is a clear proof of that.
The original Japanese Ring introduced international audiences to many of Japan’s most well-known horror tropes, like the long-haired ghost girl Sadako. The movie’s unprecedented success for a foreign film started a wave of Western remakes of Japanese and Asian horror films.
While many fans still prefer the Japanese originals, the Americanized versions also have its supporters, and director Hideo Nakata ended up working on the sequel to the American version of The Ring.
7. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams
Some movies don’t need a complicated plot or an extensive mythos to tell a convincing story, it just takes a good marketing department. The Blair Witch Project transformed the world of horror cinema when it debuted, ushering a new era of found-footage films.
Later movies (like Paranormal Activity) owe their success in part to the Blair Witch. Done on a minuscule budget, the original marketing for the movie focused on convincing everyone that the film they just saw was a real movie, made by an ill-fated group of documentalists. The improvised dialogues give the movie an authentic feel that’s difficult to come by, boosting the overall eeriness of the story.
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist)
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Gunnar Hansen
Rumored to be based on a true story, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most influential movies in the slasher sub-genre of horror films. Directed by Tobe Hooper, it follows a group of friends who are terrorized by a family of cannibals. The main villain, Leatherface, was inspired by the real-life murderer Ed Gein and is one of the most famous killers of the slasher sub-genre.
Hooper had problems finding a distributor for his movie in the United States and was also banned in several countries around the world as it was deemed too violent. While it was a box office success, critics weren’t blown away but in the subsequent years gained a reputation as one of the best horror films in history. It influenced many horror filmmakers and is credited as the first horror film that introduced many elements that were latter common in slashers.
5. Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter (The Thing, They Live, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China)
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Kyes
Back in the 70s and 80s, John Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror cinema, thanks to movies like The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and The Fog. That said, one of his most successful films has to be 1978s Halloween, an iconic slasher film that changed the way horror movies worked when it was released.
Thanks to Halloween, it became popular to release films where a psycho killer chased young teenagers, usually wearing a distinctive piece of clothing. Halloween helped franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street to find its niche.
Even though the film acted as the acting debut of Jamie Lee Curtis, the real star of the movie is Michael Myers, the franchise’s iconic killer. Unlike other monsters, Michael Myers is just a mentally perturbed individual, whose seemingly superhuman strength and resilience are never fully explained. This helps to add an extra layer of mystery to his character and might be part of the reason why the series has been going strong for eleven movies. By the way, did you know that Michael Myers mask in Halloween is actually a modified Captain Kirk mask?
4. Jaws (1975)
Director: Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, Duel, Minority Report, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary
Some film historians and critics fervently support the notion that Jaws isn’t so much a horror film as it is an action thriller. That being said, there’s nothing as fear-inducing as the open seas and the dangers that lurk beyond their azure horizons. Jaws redefined the monster thriller forever, thanks to the stellar job done by the then-newbie director Steven Spielberg.
Jaws appeals to the primal fear of a predator stalking its prey: the shark’s borderline diabolical obsession with the crew of the Orca transforms it into a bona fide monster. The film’s status as a horror film was further confirmed by the United States Library of Congress when the movie was selected for preservation for being a landmark horror film, and also the very first summer blockbuster. By the way, did you know that Jaws’ line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” was actually improvised?
3. The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A., Sorcerer, Killer Joe)
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb
Very few movies have left such a deep scar in their genre as The Exorcist has. Upon release (a day after Christmas, no less) the movie quickly became a cultural phenomenon, finding itself in the middle of a controversy after controversy for its taboo subject. Audiences had strong feelings for the movie one way or another: they either loved it for being a brave new piece of horror history or loathed its overly violent representation of religious symbols.
And speaking of strong reactions, some audiences just couldn’t watch the movie: there were reports of fainting, nausea, and even an alleged miscarriage after watching The Exorcist. The effect that the film had in some members of its audience has come to be known as cinematic neurosis, a condition in which a subject’s mental health deteriorates after viewing a film. It also doesn’t help that the production was surrounded by seemingly bizarre occurrences, including on-set accidents and the set itself catching fire. And a little bit of trivia for you – actor Paul Bateson, who played a hospital technician in The Exorcist, was actually a serial killer.
2. Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest, Vertigo, The Birds, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder)
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin
Alfred Hitchcock is a director that doesn’t need an introduction: this legendary director worked on at least 50 movies and has become one of horror cinema’s most well-regarded filmmakers. In 1960, he directed one of his most iconic films, a movie so popular that, even if you’ve never seen it before, you already know the bathroom killing scene by social osmosis.
Psycho surprised its audiences thanks to Hitchcock’s masterful subverting of expectations. Halfway through the movie, we find out that the main character suddenly stops being the protagonist, and her disappearance becomes the center of the movie’s new plot. The movie holds up spectacularly by today’s standards, a true testament of Hitchcock’s timeless genius. The main plot of the movie has served as the basis for many movies since, including an unfortunate remake in 1998 and a popular TV series called Bates Motel that began airing in 2013.
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead)
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman
Night of the Living Dead truly changed the rules of the game forever. It even managed to change the definition of the word “zombie” in popular culture: most movies that precede this one refer to zombies as the undead in Haitian lore. Thanks to George Romero, now every time we think of zombies, we think of shambling mindless ghouls that feast on the flesh of their victims.
The film took audiences by surprise for a multitude of reasons, including its success despite its microscopic budget. The amount of blood and gore was also nearly unheard of for the time, creating a bigger impact when it was released.
Perhaps some of Night of the Living Dead’s greatest achievements come in the way it used horror to represent the social climate of its time. The lead actor, Duane Jones, was an African-American, something rare to see for the time. The movie’s main conflict about the living fighting against a mindless horde has also been linked to America’s situation with the Vietnam War, and how the mindless and silent majority inevitably silences dissident voices.
Romero would go on to be one horror’s best-loved filmmakers, and his Living Dead series would go on for five subsequent films. Little did he know in 1968, that he was creating one of horror’s favorite monsters, and that how he mixed horror with social commentary would become a preferred method of storytelling for decades to come.
What is your opinion about the most influential horror movies? Do you agree with our list? Which horror movies changed the genre in your opinion?
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