The terrifying tale has been around since, I would guess, human beings first had fire. “Okay everyone, we just figured out that with this ‘fire’ thing, we don’t have to eat raw mastodon anymore.” So they cook it up and after dinner find themselves sitting around the fire with a long, uncomfortable silence. “Now what do we do?” one of them might have asked. “Board games haven’t been invented yet so…”
So someone started telling a very scary story. Everyone was gripped as the tale was told and then they all went into their respective caves and tried to sleep, awakening with what James Thurber called “the things that go bump in the night.” Thus was born the tradition of telling a story designed to scare the pants off the listener.
Which brings us to one of the great traditions of cinema—the horror film. Here are my choices for the best horror films, by decade.
The 1920s: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
During the 1920s, a fascinating trend emerged in the European art world: German Expressionism. Expressionist art focuses on the seamier parts of modern life, exaggerating the creepy parts and focusing on the inner life of the artist as they react to a cruel and indifferent world. This film is a perfect example of German Expressionism. It tells the tale of an insane hypnotist who uses his skills to create a murderer. As I mentioned, creepy. This probably is the first true horror film, and it has a distinctive and terrifying visual style that everyone should see at least once.
The 1930s: The Black Cat (1934)
This movie is the one that established the psychological thriller/horror genre. You’ll find it in DVD.com’s Bela Lugosi Collection. A young couple are on their honeymoon in Hungary (always a popular romantic destination for honeymooners, as we all know), when they get stuck in a castle with a very sketchy psychiatrist (Lugosi) and an evil Satanist (Boris Karloff) who plans to sacrifice the young wife in a satanic ritual. Initial reaction to the film was not good, but as time has gone by its reputation has risen dramatically. Looking for an off-the-beaten-path horror film? This is the one for you.
The 1940s: The Uninvited (1944)
This is one of my favorite horror films of all time. Mainly because the frights are off-screen. A ghost haunts a house on a sea cliff in Wales, bringing terror to its new owners, a brother/sister pair played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. What’s more fun and scary than a haunted house? This is a horror film you could watch with your pre-teen kids. It’s just scary enough. And very English as everyone walks around in tweedy suits and very appropriate hats.
The 1950s: The Fly (1958)
People had mixed feelings about science in the 1950s. On the one hand, science gave us the polio vaccine. On the other hand, science gave us the atom bomb and radiation that destroys everything in its path. A mixed bag, indeed. Movies in the 1950s frequently featured scientists who end up doing battle with gigantically-mutated everyday creatures. Think Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), or The Killer Shrews (1959). Many of these films were allegories about the dangers of Communism, but not this one. It’s a plain, old-fashioned monster movie. A scientist working on a mutation experiment is infected with his own work and slowly turns into a fly. The fun thing to know about this movie is that the screenplay was written by James Clavell, who went on to pen the soapy Japanese samurai novel Shogun. The Fly is a classic 50s B-movie, and is unsettling. Makeup was by Ben Nye, one of the great makeup artists in film history. Here, he turns a perfectly ordinary scientist into a gigantic house fly. Nye went on to do makeup on numerous other films, including the original Planet of the Apes (1968).
The 1960s: Psycho (1960)
A Hitchcock masterpiece that starts out as a crime saga and turns into something perversely oedipal. Considered one of the greatest films of all time, this movie tells the tale of a young woman (Vera Miles) who steals $40,000 and then goes on the lam, ending up on a dark and stormy night at the Bates Motel, Norman Bates Proprietor. If you’ve ever driven on the back roads in America and seen one of these motels—or even stayed in one of them—this is the movie for you… to never watch again. A brilliant study of psychological and sexual deviance. And that shower scene…I showered in the afternoons for weeks after I saw that movie.
The 1970s: The Exorcist (1973)
A terrifying tale of satanic possession that created a national sensation. This was the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. And deservedly so. I saw this one night in October, 1976, a few years after its initial release, at a small moviehouse near the University of Minnesota campus. I had to walk home, crossing a bridge over the Mississippi River to get to my apartment. I was so shook up by the film that every funny noise on this moonlit night got me walking a bit faster. I ran the final six blocks home, locked the front door behind me, turned all the lights on in my apartment, ran upstairs, and jumped under the covers. This is a great horror movie and hasn’t lost any of its terror as the years have passed. Trivia note: Jason Miller, the actor who played Fr. Damien Karras, the troubled younger priest, was a Tony Award-winning playwright for his drama The Championship Season.
The 1980s: The Shining (1980)
Pick a film category and Stanley Kubrick has probably made one of the best films ever in that category. War movie? Paths of Glory (1957) or Full Metal Jacket (1987). Political Satire? Dr. Strangelove (1964). Costume Drama? Barry Lyndon (1975). Science Fiction? 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or A Clockwork Orange (1971). Film Noir? The Killing (1956). No comedies in his oeuvre, which is further proof in my mind of the old adage among comedy writers: “Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard.” Regardless, in 1980, Kubrick decided to try his hand at the horror genre and produced this masterpiece based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, and Scatman Crothers shine in this film about a little boy who can shine (a psychic ability to see into the past). I recommend watching this on your couch with a blanket to pull up over your eyes when it gets really scary, even if you’ve already seen it five times, as I have.
The 1990s: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
There are few fears more primal than the fear of getting lost in the woods. This film pioneered the “found footage” style of filmmaking. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999 and the producers presented the film as a documentary they had cut together from footage found in the woods. It follows three student filmmakers as they explore the countryside near Burkittsville, MD. In the closing credits, the actors were listed as “missing” or “dead.” Audiences at Sundance completely fell for the ruse and a number of audience members actually ran screaming from the theater. Does the movie work even if you know it’s a work of fiction? That’s a resounding ‘yes’ from me. The cover had been blown by the time I saw the movie and I still found it terrifying. If you’ve not seen this movie, give it a try. Inventive filmmaking at its finest.
The 2000s: 28 Days Later (2002)
Wow. That was my reaction upon seeing this movie the first time. Zombies generally had been portrayed as lumbering bloody oafs until this movie came along. Here, the zombies are fast, lethal, and relentless. A virus is unleashed accidentally on England, and a young man awakens from a coma 28 days after the initial release of the virus to discover London is deserted but for zombies. He joins a few other survivors as they try to journey to the north of England to find refuge in a blockade in Manchester. Terror abounds in this brilliantly paced and frightening film from Danny Boyle. Boyle has had a remarkably diverse career, making films such as Trainspotting (1996), The Beach (2000), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and 127 Hours (2010). If Danny Boyle makes a movie, you are in good hands, and 28 Days Later is no exception.
The 2010: Train to Busan (2016)
Never seen a Korean movie? What are you waiting for? Korea has a vibrant and daring film industry, and this movie is a dazzler. The premise here is that a divorced and overworked dad is taking his daughter on the train from Seoul to Busan so she can visit her mother. Then a woman boards the train who has been bitten by a zombie. I hate when that happens! Korea produces a lot of highly stylish and incredibly inventive films, and this is a perfect example of the vigor that Koreans bring to film. This is a terrifying thrill ride. Give it a try. You won’t regret it. Word of warning: this movie is gory! After you watch this, you might want to try The Good, The Bad and The Weird (2008), which is a crazy Korean spaghetti western set in Manchuria in the 1930s.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.