I was pondering today about where horror films can really take us as the audience next, in order to shock us. We are quite immune to the violence, gore and degradation that has been shown to us particularly in the past 20 years. I decided to brainstorm a list of significant films that were completely shocking when they first hit the big screens and in some cases were banned because they were considered too scary. A top ten of course.
1. Psycho (1960): I defy you to find a film studies class that doesn’t mention this Hitchcock masterpiece – the first true slasher film. A deranged killer wielding a knife, a twist ending and of course the shower scene which in its time was considered violent, disturbing and even misogynistic. It is completely tame when compared with what was yet to come but in its day this horror was absolutely terrifying. A precursor for the 70s-80s rise of the slasher sub-genre.
2. The Exorcist (1973): Due to its religious themes this film was always going to tread on a few toes. Regan is the 12-year-old daughter of a famous actress who is possessed by a demon and is exorcised by a priest. She has the best make-up and lines in the film. It’s actually quite comical to watch back now.
3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): This is one of the films that was banned in several countries when it was first released due to the levels of violence. Even if you haven’t seen this independent film, you know the story- a group of friends fall victim to a family of cannibals including chainsaw-weilding Leatherface. It was terrifying because it claimed to be based on a true story (it was loosely). It also seemed to have started the ‘final girl’ element of horror films to come, where one female protagonist is left at the end of the film after all the violence and killings. A must see.
4. Halloween (1978): In my top 5 favorite horror films, Halloween brought the scares into the audience’s living room, by targeting an innocent babysitter and using the point-of-view (POV) shots to make us see the perspective of the killer. It carried on the ‘final girl’ component and also seemed to start the trend of killing promiscuous and drug-using characters, while leaving the virginal Laurie alive. (note: I have just read that this is called the morality play) This was continued heavily throughout the 80s in films like Friday the 13th.
5. Dawn of the Dead (1978): This is the second of George A. Romero’s Living Dead series, following Night of the Living Dead in 1968 but it has new characters and a completely new plot. Dawn of the Dead was a new look at the zombie flick, which were already popular throughout the 60s. It follows a group of survivors after the outbreak of the zombie virus who lock themselves inside a shopping centre. It was considered ground breaking because it the plot seems to condemn the consumerism and commercial excess that was exploding in America at the time. The level of violence also broke boundaries, with the survivors constantly finding new ways to kill their attackers. Love it.
6. Nightmare on Elm St (1984): Freddie Krueger is one of the best horror villans ever created and although there ended up being 12 films is this popular franchise, the original is still the one to watch. It follows a group of friends who are targeted by a psychopath with knives for fingers in their dreams. The morality play is used again, with the most rebellious teens picked off first. I think the reason this film was a game-changer it was Wes Craven’s biggest foray into horror since Swamp Thing and he used what had been done in films like Halloween and took it 10 steps further.
7. Scream (1996): Another Wes Craven masterpiece, Scream became a cult hit because it was so aware of what had been done in 70s and 80s horror and made fun of those elements while still being completely gorey and gruesome. The mix of irony and pop culture references and a special effects genius, along with the best opening sequence ever seen made Scream a new step in the genre.
8. The Ring (2002): I have been watching horror films for as long as I can remember and this one was the first to really scare me since I watched I Know What You Did Last Summer alone in a school library when I was 10 (long story). American filmmakers obviously copped on to the fact that Japanese horror or J-horror films are truly terrifying (see The Grudge, Dark Water and One Missed Call if you don’t believe me) and began to remake them with gusto, but this was the first. The Ring is about a cursed video tape, where people who watch it die seven days later. I think it was the cinematography that really made this one frightening – the random disturbing images, the use of music and the twists in the plot all added to the scare factor. I haven’t watched it in a while but now I feel like giving it another go to see if it still stands up.
9. Saw (2004): This film starts with two men waking up in an abandoned, skanky-looking old bathroom chained to opposite ends of the room and then the story that unfolds as they find out why they are there. They are pitted against each other, as meanwhile police investigate the serial killer who has masterminded ‘the game’. Although I hated the twist ending because I thought it was a little too convenient, I still thought Saw broke new ground. It seemed to go against the Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer comedy-horror feel and turned back to the depraved, ultra-violent elements of Texas while amping the gore up to a new level that would be continued in films like Hostel and The Human Centipede.
10. Paranormal Activity (2007): Although The Blair Witch Project began the ‘recovered footage’ style of horror in 1999, it was terrible so Paranormal Activity took that style and succeeded with a decent film. It is about a couple who think they are being haunted and so they begin to film their room when they go to bed. This film was almost like the antithesis of the ultra-gore films that came before and many people I talked to about it complained that nothing happened. But that was what made it so effective. The use of silence and minimal visual elements built up the suspense and made the haunting feel all that more real. Everyone has been at home and heard a door slam so it elaborated on what people already feared.
That’s it, my top 10 game changing horror films. There were plenty more I put on the list and then took off but in the end I think these films took huge strides in the genre and encouraged other films to use the same themes, elements and plotlines.