The horror genre can get a really bad rap sometimes. From below-average franchises to the genre being largely dismissed as low-brow, it’s often difficult to prove horror’s value. It should be recognized, however, that horror has brought so many creative and engaging works to the world of cinema, with films that not only entertain and scare, but inform and enlighten. Allow me to take you through some essential horror films for newbies as well as more seasoned fans.
Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
The 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel is one of the most emotionally engaging horror films of all time and with, thanks to De Palma’s penchant for the split-screen, one of the most wonderfully executed climaxes in horror history. What sets Carrie apart from many horror films is that its terror is located purely in the social. We have no supernatural monsters, but bullies, fanatics and the freak who gets pushed to breaking point. Despite its sad tone, Carrie has some brilliant moments of comic relief, especially with John Travolta playing the mean girl’s dopey boyfriend. A great cast of characters and some excellent seventies fashion that shouldn’t be missed!
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
It Follows pulls many great elements from older horror films and transforms them into something very different and special. After sleeping with her boyfriend, Jay finds herself cursed by an entity that continues to follow her with the intent to kill, changing appearance whenever it chooses. A sexually-transmitted demon of sorts that can be “passed on” to delay its pursuit. Jay enlists in the help of her friends to find a way out of the deadly chain. David Robert Mitchell takes a very simple primal fear and executes it in a nuanced and aesthetically inventive way, with the striking synthwave score by Disasterpeace heightening the film’s pervasive sense of dread. It Follows is an intricately layered piece that causes unease long after its final shot.
Halloween (John Carpenter,1978)
While not exactly the very first slasher film, Halloween laid the groundwork that subsequent entries into the sub-genre would pick up including Friday The 13th which was made to capitalize on the success of Carpenter’s film. Both use the formula of teenagers getting picked off one by one after engaging in some kind of “transgressive” behaviour. While Halloween refrains from falling into the cheesy realm as many slashers of the eighties did, the film instead creates pure terror in the iconic figure of the masked Michael Myers. Halloween is an absolute classic of seventies horror and Carpenter’s famous score is sure to elicit fear in both old and new viewers.
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
A true gem from producer Val Lewton’s low-budget RKO flicks, Cat People is a masterful piece of atmospheric horror, placing its source of fright in the interplay between light and shadow, between black and white. Serbian immigrant Irena falls in love with All-American Oliver, but Irena has an issue in which she fears that once angered or aroused, she’ll transform into a vicious black panther. As it turns out, this transformation is not merely an irrational thought from Irena’s troubled mind. Cat People is eerily beautiful at every turn, with a stylish film noir-esque sets and some equally enchanting women. If you’re after a black and white horror, Cat People will not disappoint.
Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
While it’s tempting to pin Ridley Scott’s Alien as the essential sci-fi horror, I urge you to give this broodingly dark and surreal film a chance. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who drives a van around Scotland, luring men into a black abyss. Under The Skin incorporates some incredibly surreal and nightmarish imagery in the vein of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The high-pitched minimalistic score from musician Mica Levi is one of the most unnerving and spine-chilling in a modern horror film. While it delivers on scares, Under The Skin is an incredibly profound exploration of gender relations and what it means to be human. You’ll either love it or hate it, but it’s certainly worth a shot.
Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Before you even think about seeing the remake, allow yourself to get swept up in the technicolour dream that is Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Set in a German ballet academy, new student Suzy Banyon realises, after a string of mysterious and violent events, that the school may be home to a coven of witches. Argento’s films always put aesthetics at the helm and Suspiria is packed to the brim with vivid light and colour, a garishly brilliant attention to set composition and architecture, some mind-boggling patterned wallpaper and of course Goblin’s moody score comprised of guttural groans, banshee-like wails and stomach-dropping percussion. If you like your violence extravagant and colourful, then Suspiria might be for you.
Trick R’ Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007)
Trick R’ Treat is an entertaining anthology that follows different characters on Halloween night: young trick or treaters who come a little too close to an old urban legend, a group of girls keeping a dark surprise for a late-night liaison, a grumpy old man who just wants to be left in peace and a father who shares an interesting Halloween activity with his son. Trick R’ Treat has the best Halloween atmosphere of any film set on the spooky holiday, awash with Jack O’ Lanterns, elaborate costumes and autumn leaves. You might want to save this one for Halloween!
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
The Shining is arguably one of the best ghost films of all time. The film centres on Jack Torrance who takes on the role of caring for The Overlook Hotel during its off-season, using the opportunity to work on a writing project. As the winter elements close in on the isolated hotel, Jack begins to experience a psychological breakdown that will have grave consequences for his wife and son. It turns out that the hotel’s dark past may be responsible. The Shining is a great slow-burn that culminates in a nail-biting climax. With an outstanding performance from Jack Nicholson, The Shining will leave you absolutely shaken by the time its terrifying narrative comes to an end.
French Double-Bill: Inside (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, 2007) and Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)
When it comes to the horror genre, I would argue that the French are the best in the business. While French horror tends lean towards the extreme, both Inside and Raw are well crafted films that are especially satisfying for the gore fans out there. Inside is a brutally unforgiving home invasion film that will cause some wincing and eye-covering, while French-Belgian production Raw is a cannibalistic coming-of-age. Despite their grisly nature, both films are very creative with nicely composed shots, interesting characters and quirky dream-like sequences. They’re not for the squeamish but give them a try if you think you can stomach it.