I recently hosted a lockdown quiz that included a horror themed movie round, and no one in our group did particularly well. As I rambled at them about the horror films I believed they should watch I got thinking about what horror films would I recommend for those who make blanket statements like “I don’t like horror films”. I don’t consider myself a horror movie expert at all, but it is a genre I’ve got more into over the 2010s. Horror films are the kind of films that can put a large part of the audience off. Whether you hate being scared or cannot abide gore there are definitely reasons to not watch horror movies. But I do believe there are horror films that everyone should watch. That’s why I’ve picked 10 that I believe are amongst the most essential and accessible horror films out there.
The Cabin in the Woods – An initial film that came to mind for this list was Scream. However Scream is the kind of film that you need to know the generic conventions of horror to really get because it plays on a lot of meta humour and horror tropes. Cabin in the Woods operates on a similar level, but I don’t think requires the knowledge of the genre that Scream does. If you think that horror movies are idiotic and the character’s choices put you off Cabin in the Woods is a film that explains a lot of this behaviour. And it does it with a level of humour that makes Cabin in the Woods accessible for anyone. The gore does get turned up to 11 near the end, but it is so ridiculous and over the top without ever being gratuitous.
Get Out – It isn’t everyday that a horror film manages to make waves into mainstream culture the way that Get Out did. Not since Silence of the Lambs (we’ll hear more on that later) has a horror film performed so well during award season. Get Out was rightly lorded for Jordan Peele’s screenplay and direction as well as Daniel Kaluuya’s leading performance as Chris Washington, not to mention the film as a whole. It was such a breath of fresh air in the horror genre, and that is something that is always needed as more and more horror franchises begin to pump out cheap and lazy sequels. For all of that Get Out is an absolute must see.
Halloween – Halloween created an entire sub genre with horror films, the slasher movie. There had been some before, you could argue Psycho is a slasher film, and Black Christmas in 1974, but it’s Halloween that really shaped the horror genre for the next decade. ‘The Shape’ Michael Myers has become an icon in film beyond just the horror genre, with references even in films like Baby Driver. Halloween is still an effective horror film today, with some brilliant scenes and moments, as well as a couple that don’t hold up quite as well, and all without falling back on jump scares, just masterful film making from John Carpenter.
Hereditary – Probably the scariest film on the list, Hereditary is a rewarding enough experience that I still believe any film fan out there should watch it. Whilst it actually plays out more like a family drama than a horror film for the bulk of the run time, only turning into a balls to wall horror movie in the final act. Ari Aster’s direction and the tense score make it a tense experience, but an utterly gripping one. It may even take you a couple of watches to really understand everything that is at work in Aster’s masterpiece, and all the brilliant subtleties, and that’s because there are so many brilliant details that go into the story. I can’t sing Hereditary’s praises enough, and want as many people as possible to watch it.
Jaws – Not only did Jaws near enough invent the idea of the summer blockbuster, but it also merged horror movies with action, adventure, and drama nearly effortlessly. I love when Steven Spielberg dabbles with horror, there are the always persistent rumours that he was the one that really directed Poltergeist, and nowhere is that better showcased than in Jaws. In my opinion Jaws is pretty much a perfect movie, with a stunning screenplay exploring Chief Brody’s relationship with the town and his two collaborators as they seek to catch the shark, three amazing performances, one of the greatest film scores ever written, and most importantly for list, truly effective horror.
Night of the Living Dead – Zombie media has become all the range in recent years, and with films like Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies has even branched out into romance and comedy. But it all began with George A. Romero’s seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. This is a perfect example of what the zombie sub genre allows for, as Night of the Living Dead deals themes of the society of the time like class, societal, and racial tension within America. The film is also pioneering for its casting of a black lead, even though Romero insists that this wasn’t a deliberate comment on race, and nothing about the character was changed after Duane Jones was cast, it still leads to the film making a powerful statement.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – I’m a great believer in appreciating classics and the films that have huge influence over what comes later. Given its status as one of the earliest ever horror films Nosferatu is essential viewing. An unauthorized and unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that changed many details and names in order to circumnavigate copyright law (unsuccessfully), Nosferatu may be dated, but this is a vampire film before vampire media became one of the most prevalent subgenres of horror out there. The fact that its a silent film might initially put some people off, but I do think Nosferatu is a film for everyone.
Psycho – Probably the best known of Alfred Hitchcok’s films, Psycho is one of the pioneering films in horror. Whilst slashers didn’t properly take off until Halloween about 18 years later a lot of the tropes are there in Psycho and Norman Bates can rightfully be looked on as villain every bit as iconic as the likes of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees. Hitchcock is a master filmmaker, and all of that skill is on full display in Psycho. Every element is fantastically crafted, and Anthony Perkins’ performance is one of the greatest in the history of horror.
The Shining – There is so much that has been said about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the numerous different interpretations of the film, but one of the things that makes it great for me is the way Kubrick created a chilling film without ever using a jump scare. Instead The Shining’s horror is built on a creepy atmosphere and haunting visuals that are well known, even by those that have never seen the film. The film is so open for interpretation that it rewards movie fans of any kind, and demands discussion and deeper thought. On top of all of that you have Jack Nicholson’s brilliantly unhinged performance as Jack Torrence, one that just cements the genius of The Shining.
The Silence of the Lambs – A lot of people would describe The Silence of the Lambs as more of a psychological thriller, but I think it definitely crosses the lines into horror. The Silence of the Lambs has claimed so many awards and so much critical acclaim that it becomes a must watch. The first horror film to win the Best Picture award at the Oscars, not to mention the rest of the big 5 awards: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece. Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lector is one of the great villain performances of all time, and has brought the character and the series to iconic status.