When Norman Bates, dressed as his mother, ripped open Janet Leigh‘s shower curtain and knifed her to death in “Psycho,” horror movies changed. Along with Leigh’s blood, classic horror style and romantic figures like Frankenstein and Dracula went right down the shower drain. The veiled sexuality and hidden violence that dominated most classic horror films suddenly were gleefully dragged into the open, for everyone to exploit. For better or worse, style often became as important as substance, and booming box-office numbers proved that horror was serious business. The shifting times created opportunities for filmmakers to innovate, finding new and terrifying ways to scare the pants off audiences.
The mark of a great horror film is whether it sustains its vision of terror through several generations of increasingly desensitized viewers. Does the movie still make you jump or squirm or sweat or scream? The following efforts do all of the above.
10. “Eraserhead” (1977)
David Lynch‘s cult classic is the closest thing to being stuck in a nightmare: Not much makes sense, but you get the feeling that nothing is quite right. Lynch employs dinners that walk off the plate, eerie silences that become deafening and an infant that makes Rosemary’s baby seem cute and cuddly. So chilling it’s damn near unwatchable.
9. “The Exorcist” (1973)
The real terror of “The Exorcist” may not involve Satan and possession, but the helplessness of a parent trying to save a child. Of course, a ton of harrowing special effects and director William Friedkin‘s somber respect for the supernatural subject matter doesn’t hurt either. It’s horror for grown-ups.
8. “Halloween” (1978)
John Carpenter‘s film is blamed for the rash of slasher films that destroyed the genre in the ’80s, but “Halloween” possesses a style and intensity that most of its copycats lack. From the opening sequence — when we see through the eyes of little boy Michael Myers as he stalks and murders his sister — onward, the film relies on suspense rather than sensationalism. Our fear is caused by what might happen rather than actual events, as Carpenter spends a good amount of time in darkness, making us see things that may or may not be there.
7. “Don’t Look Now” (1973)
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie head to Venice to forget the tragic accidental death of their child. However, it’s impossible to forget when the dead child keeps reappearing. Nicolas Roeg‘s labyrinthine film is rich in dreamlike atmosphere and works on a purely psychological level: It disorients, frustrates and builds to a horrible climax, reminding that tragedy can never be forgotten … and neither can this film.
6. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
A group of annoying teens make a wrong turn on a road trip through Texas and encounter the most dysfunctional family imaginable. It’s a teen exploitation flick shot like a documentary. Wonderfully grim, mean and inhumane, director Tobe Hooper‘s debut doesn’t spill much blood, instead opting to giddily, relentlessly torture and chase its audience (much like Leatherface treats his victims) for 80 minutes. It feels like days.
5. “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
Before dream-killer Freddy Krueger became a quipping pop-culture reference, he represented the most twisted monster unleashed on the public since Halloween‘s Michael Myers. Seeking vengeance by slicing and dicing the children of the parents who murdered him, Freddy scared the hell out of Cineplex audiences. His on-screen entrance remains terrifying, as does much of director Wes Craven‘s surreal, smart and shocking masterpiece.
4. “Suspiria” (1977)
“Suspiria” is a full-on sensory assault by Italian horror master Dario Argento, the cinematic equivalent of an anxiety attack. A poor American ballet student arrives in Europe and Argento berates her with weather, grisly murders, a possible coven of witches, his virtuosic camera, and possible the freakiest score ever conceived (by the director himself). The plot barely makes sense, so just let it terrorize you.
3. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
A group of kids get trapped inside a farm house by an endless stream of flesh-eating zombies. Sounds silly, but director George Romero takes his simple premise and redefines the genre with a shoestring budget. The amount of sadistic gore, the claustrophobic tension, the rising levels of hysteria and an increasingly deflated awareness that a happy ending is impossible make this a nasty classic. There is no hope here, only suffocating terror.
2. Repulsion (1965)
Director Roman Polanski did more horror afterward, with “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant,” but this — a menacing, nightmarish profile of one woman’s descent into madness — may be his most realized effort. Catherine Denueve embodies sexual repression as a young woman left alone in her apartment — and to her deluded fantasies — for the weekend. The film is nearly silent, creating a mounting mood of dread. Try watching it alone with the lights off and see how long you last.
1. “Psycho” (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock‘s blueprint for contemporary horror: More than just a film, “Psycho” was a cultural slap in the face. Censors wanted to ban it, while screaming audiences couldn’t get enough of it. Hitch employs all of his tricks — shifting audience sympathies, killing off the main character halfway through the film and a ton of macabre humor — but more importantly he makes the horror internal. Norman Bates isn’t a monster in the classic sense; he suggests that the greatest evil can lurk beneath the quietest, most pleasant surface.