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08 August, 2011

The Essential Films of Horror’s First Century

[Ed. Note: Originally written in 2004; Updated beginning December 2009]

Of the tens of thousands of Horror Films that have been produced since Thomas Edison’s studio first cranked out a crude version of Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein in 1910, most have disappeared, quite deservedly, into the mists of obscurity.  Of those that have avoided that fate, the vast majority are, while entertaining and enjoyable to widely varying degrees, not really of any great importance in a historical sense.

However, there are movies that are so important to the genre, because of their quality or historical significance, that they belong in any serious Horror fans video library.  Some movies, such as Edison’s version of FRANKENSTEIN (1910), Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922), or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), are the pioneers of the genre, both venturing forth into uncharted territory and marking the trail for those who would follow.

Others, such as Universal’s twin classics DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931), or George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), changed the face of Horror for their time, setting the bar high for their competition, as well as inspiring hordes of imitators.

Still others redefined Horror, altering it forever from what it had been, into something new and ever more terrifying.  Perhaps the most notable of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), moved the monsters from outer space, or 19th Century Transylvania, into the house next door, and gave them your neighbor’s face.

Whatever reason for a film’s inclusion on this list, these are the films that must be in your collection if you consider yourself a serious devotee of Horror.  At the very least, you should have seen them.  That’s why some films, such as LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), don’t appear on it, though they would probably deserve to.  Some films have simply failed to survive the years, and are, sadly, lost to us.

Those classics that do survive, however, deserve to be watched, and enjoyed.  Watch them in the context of their times; don’t try to compare 1941’s THE WOLF-MAN to 1981’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or 2002’s DOG SOLDIERS; or even 2010’s THE WOLFMAN.  Each is a uniquely superior werewolf movie, but you cannot compare them to one another.  They are, like all artistic endeavors, the products of their times.  The medium changes and evolves, as does the public’s tastes and values.  You must look at a film with an understanding of the forces, strictures, and mores of the time in which it was created.  The merest hint, the vaguest suggestion, of necrophilia in Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic THE BLACK CAT was enough to shock and scandalize audiences of the period; audiences of today, in contrast, would in all probability miss the subtle references entirely.  Only by realizing just how daring that film was can you appreciate the incredible decadence of it.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit it:  This list is my opinion of the most Essential Horror Films of all time.  I’m certain that some readers will disagree with me.  If so, great!  Please do.  But if you do, then please list your choices and the reasons for them.  There’s never any harm in provoking a good, healthy debate; and I’m not shy in saying that, while I have tried to be as objective as possible, opinions, unlike facts, are not objective things.

Also, some readers may be surprised at my failure to include films such as the LORD OF THE RINGS or HARRY POTTER films.  This is not a slight to those great franchises, which I love.  But this is a list that focuses on the Horror and horror-themed Sci-Fi spectrum of the Cinema Fantastica.  While I enthusiastically recommend both franchises to my readers, they do not belong on this list.

And long-time readers of the Crypt might be amazed at the ‘tilt’ the list exhibits towards modern Horror Films.  Of the two hundred films on this list, a third of them are from the last fourteen years.  It’s not that there are better films being made these days—far from it.  But there is a wider variety of Horror available now, a variety that necessitates a broader cross-section for representative purposes.  The Unimonster’s heart, and his loyalties, might lie with the classics, but this list is supposed to represent a cross-section of the genre.
With that caveat to the readership, on to the movies!
The Early Years (1910-1930):  The early years of the 20th Century witnessed, if not the birth, then certainly the formative years, of a new medium:  Cinema.  Experimental in many ways, artists were drawn to filmmaking by the medium’s ability to portray life in a way never before possible.  It was inevitable that those early filmmakers would turn their attention to our fears, and the Horror Film was born.
1.                 EDISON’S FRANKENSTEIN  (1910)
2.                 Augen der Mumie Ma, Die —aka— Eyes of the Mummy Ma; Eyes of the Mummy, The  (1918)
3.                 DER GOLEM –aka— THE GOLEM (1920)
4.                 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE  (1920)
6.                 Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens —aka— Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror  (1922)
7.                 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE  (1925)
8.                 METROPOLIS  (1927)
9.                 THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The Golden Age, or The Age of Universal (1931-1945):  By the mid 1920’s, Cinema had completed a transformation; from something that was primarily a means of artistic expression, to a mass-market source of entertainment.  Horror, too, was a part of that revolution, as artistic works such as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) gave way to popular movies like Rupert Julian’s big-budget hit for Universal, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).  With the premiere of two soon-to-be classics, DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, in 1931, Universal had established itself as the premiere studio in the genre, a position it would hold for most of two decades.
They weren’t the only players in the game, however.  RKO Pictures had perhaps the biggest blockbuster of the early ‘30’s:  KING KONG.  The success of Universal and RKO drew other studios into the genre, making this a true Golden Age of the Horror Film.
10.            DRACULA  (1931)
11.            M —aka— M - Eine Stadt sucht einen MÖRDER  (1931)
12.            FRANKENSTEIN  (1931)
13.            MUMMY, THE  (1932)
14.            WHITE ZOMBIE  (1932)
15.            DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE  (1932)
16.            INVISIBLE MAN, THE  (1933)
17.            KING KONG  (1933)
18.            MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)
19.            BLACK CAT, THE  (1934)
20.            BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN  (1935)
21.            WEREWOLF OF LONDON  (1935)
22.            DRACULA’S DAUGHTER  (1936)
23.            MUMMY’S HAND, THE  (1940)
24.            WOLF-MAN, THE  (1941)
25.            CAT PEOPLE  (1942)
26.            MUMMY’S TOMB, THE  (1942)
27.            FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN  (1943)
28.            THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
29.            ARSENIC AND OLD LACE  (1944)
30.            HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN  (1944)
31.            BODY-SNATCHER, THE  (1945)

The Decline of the Horror Film (1945-1949):  As World War 2 drew to a close, so did the first great period of the Horror Film.  Even Universal, the original “House that Horror Built,” shifted the emphasis away from the beloved monsters, transforming them into little more than comedic props.  The growing popularity of Science-Fiction in a post-atomic age also worked to push traditional Horror off the screen.
32.            HOUSE OF DRACULA  (1945)
33.            PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE  (1945)
34.            BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, THE (1946)
35.            BEDLAM (1946)
37.            ROPE (ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S…) (1948)

The Silver Age, or, When Science Attacks!  (1950-1960):  As the movie-going public, indeed, the public in general, began to come to terms with the “Bomb” and the constant threat of World War III, the meaning of Horror began to alter.  Men who had liberated Nazi death camps or island-hopped across the Pacific, or women who had kept the nation functioning while the men were at war, weren’t likely to be frightened by Vampires and Werewolves any longer.

The new definition of Horror included such creatures, but they were no longer products of superstitious curses and Eastern European myth.  Now Science was responsible for inflicting these maladies upon mankind.  Science was responsible for giant ants and tarantulas, re-animated dinosaurs and insects, mutated monsters and carnivorous creatures.  Science, in the form of invading aliens, served a dual purpose:  Warning us of the constant threats we lived under while showing us that the American Spirit would always triumph.
38.            DESTINATION MOON  (1950)
39.            THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, THE  (1951)
40.            DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE  (1951)
41.            RED PLANET MARS, THE (1952)
42.            ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE  (1953)
43.            HOUSE OF WAX  (1953)
44.            WAR OF THE WORLDS  (1953)
45.            CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON  (1954)
46.            GOJIRA (1954)
47.            REAR WINDOW (1954)
48.            THEM!  (1954)
49.            THIS ISLAND EARTH  (1955)
50.            FORBIDDEN PLANET  (1956)
51.            GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS  (1956)
52.            INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS (1956)
53.            20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
54.            DEADLY MANTIS, THE (1957)
55.            I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF  (1957)
56.            INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, THE (1957)
57.            MONOLITH MONSTERS, THE (1957)
58.            BLOB, THE  (1958)
59.            FLY, THE  (1958)
60.            IT!  THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE  (1958)
61.            MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS  (1958)
62.            PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE  (1958)
63.            TINGLER, THE  (1959)
64.            WASP WOMAN, THE  (1960)
65.            VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED  (1960)

Birth of the New Realism and The Return of Horror (1955-1976):  As the decade of the ‘50’s neared its midpoint, a new emphasis on more adult, more reality-based fiction of all types began to appear, first in Europe, then spreading to the U.S.  Driven by directors like Alfred Hitchcock, and writers like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, this new sense of realism began to seep into movies, and not just genre films. 
These movies offered an alternative to those cool to the Giant Bugs and Alien Invasions so popular at the theaters of the period.  Sex, taboo in Hollywood since the mid-‘30’s, was talked about in movies again, and violence was being portrayed on-screen in a realistic manner.  Films such as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), PSYCHO (1960), and CAPE FEAR (1962) made monsters as real as the boy-next-door, and portrayed them as three-dimensional characters, making them even more terrifying.

Concurrent to this increased artistic freedom, (and benefiting greatly from it) a studio in Great Britain known primarily for crime films re-invented classic Horror.  With the 1957 release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer Films burst upon the scene as a worthy successor to the crown once worn by Universal, and soon traditional Horror was firmly back in fashion.  Hammer ruled the genre through most of the ‘60’s, remaking most of Universal’s old classics, spicing them up with scantily-clad, voluptuous women; vivid color; and two of the greatest actors of the genre:  Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Hammer was the face of Horror until a small, independent film, shot on a budget of roughly $250,000, premiered in 1968.  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, directed by a young unknown named George Romero, was one of the most successful of the wave of Gore and Splatter films first popularized by Herschell Gordon Lewis, director of a string of blood-soaked Splatter films beginning with BLOOD FEAST (1963).  It marked a dividing line between what had been considered Horror, and what would be from then on.
66.            NIGHT OF THE HUNTER  (1955)
67.            BAD SEED, THE  (1956)
68.            WEREWOLF, THE  (1956)
69.            CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN  (1957)
70.            CURSE OF THE DEMON  (1958)
71.            HORROR OF DRACULA  (1958)
72.            MUMMY, THE  (1959)
73.            PSYCHO  (1960)
74.            13 GHOSTS  (1960)
75.            BRIDES OF DRACULA, THE  (1960)
76.            Et Mourir de Plaisir —aka— Blood and Roses  (1960)
77.            INNOCENTS, THE  (1961)
78.            CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF  (1962)
79.            CAPE FEAR  (1962)
80.            BLOOD FEAST  (1963)
81.            BIRDS, THE  (1963)
82.            HAUNTING, THE  (1963)
83.            2000 MANIACS (1964)
84.            Ultimo Uomo della Terra, L' —aka— Last Man on Earth, The  (1964)
85.            NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD  (1968)
86.            ROSEMARY’S BABY  (1968)
87.            Targets —aka— Before I Die  (1968)
88.            VAMPIRE LOVERS, THE  (1970)
89.            ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, THE  (1971)
90.            NIGHT STALKER, THE  (1972)
91.            TALES FROM THE CRYPT  (1972)
92.            EXORCIST, THE  (1973)
93.            LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE  (1973)
94.            WICKER MAN, THE  (1973)
95.            BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
96.            TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE  (1974)
97.            YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN  (1974)
98.            JAWS  (1975)
99.            Profondo Rosso —aka— Deep Red  (1975)
The Rise of the Unstoppable Slasher, and the Unstoppable Franchises (1976-1990):  Though Horror movie franchises were nothing new, dating back to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN and WOLF-MAN films of the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, the last few years of the ‘70’s and the entire decade of the ‘80’s saw them spring into existence with surprising regularity.

Beginning in 1976 with THE OMEN, and reaching its zenith in 1978 with (arguably) the best of them all, HALLOWEEN, between 1976 and 1990 fans witnessed the birth of no fewer than 13 major movie franchises, from the OMEN series to the CHILD’S PLAY films.  Though most of these were hardly memorable, their effect on the genre was tremendously so.  It brought an entirely new level of Profitability to Horror, and made it far more attractive to major Hollywood studios, which led of course to increasing amounts of Horror being available to fans.

The increasing popularity of cable TV and the VCR meant that movies that initially failed at the box office could still show a profit; indeed, most low-budget films no longer saw a theatrical release.  All these factors combined to grow fans of the genre, and to lay the foundation for the decade to come.
101.       OMEN, THE  (1976)
102.       HILLS HAVE EYES, THE  (1977)
103.       HALLOWEEN  (1978)
104.       DAWN OF THE DEAD  (1978)
105.       Day of the Woman —aka— I Spit on Your Grave  (1978)
106.       ALIEN  (1979)
107.       FOG, THE  (1979)
108.       PHANTASM  (1979)
109.       FRIDAY THE 13TH  (1980)
110.       MANIAC  (1980)
111.       SHINING, THE  (1980)
113.       FRIDAY THE 13TH:  PART II  (1981)
114.       HALLOWEEN II  (1981)
115.       HOWLING, THE  (1981)
116.       PROWLER, THE (1981)
117.       EVIL DEAD  (1982)
118.       POLTERGEIST  (1982)
119.       NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, A  (1984)
120.       RE-ANIMATOR  (1985)
121.       RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD  (1985)
122.       Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II  (1987)
123.       HELLRAISER  (1987)
124.       CHILD’S PLAY  (1988)
125.       Due Occhi Diabolici —aka— Two Evil Eyes  (1990)

The “Dead Zone” of the ‘90’s (1991-1995):  The first half of the decade of the ‘90’s marked another period of relative stagnation in the genre.  Though there were superb Horror Films produced during this period, most notably SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), Horror in the early ‘90’s had no direction, no definition.  There were excellent movies, to be sure, but there wasn’t a theme to the genre at this time, nor was there a drive to bring great Horror to the screen.
126.       SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE  (1991)
127.       BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA  (1992)
128.       INNOCENT BLOOD  (1992)
129.       Army of Darkness (Bruce Campbell vs. The...) —aka— Evil Dead 3  (1993)
130.       JURASSIC PARK  (1993)
131.       SE7EN —aka— SEVEN  (1995)
132.       TALES FROM THE HOOD  (1995)

The Renaissance of Horror (1996-Present):  The latter half of the ‘90’s gave rise to a new era in Horror, one in which a number of factors combined synergistically to produce perhaps the greatest sustained growth in the genre since at least the early ‘80’s, perhaps since the glory days of Hammer.  This combination, (increased star power; new, talented directors; tremendously improved special effects; and fresh interpretations of older classics) drew audiences in droves to the theaters.

Satellite Television, (with hundreds of channels looking for programming) began showing films, including genre films, that hadn’t been seen for decades.  The increased availability of DVD’s, and the fact that their low cost of manufacture made many obscure, heretofore unseen classics financially viable for release, also fed the public hunger for Horror, while at the same time increasing it’s appetite.

The explosion in popularity of Horror throughout the first decade of the new century meant that filmmakers were eager to churn out anything that would fit the genre, and to do so as quickly and easily as possible.  The remake cycle began in 1999 with Dark Castle’s remake of the 1959 film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.  This excellent remake, directed by William Malone and starring Geoffrey Rush, Ali Larter, and Taye Diggs, was tremendously successful both at the box-office and in Home Video release, and soon fans were inundated by remakes.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t good, original Horror Films over the past decade.  It simply means that very few of the came from the major Hollywood producers.  The success of films like 28 DAYS LATER and DOG SOLDIERS sparked a resurgence in British Horror Films unparalleled since the mid-‘70’s witnessed the death of Hammer, and led to the best film of the past ten years, SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004).

As the decade drew to a close, the convergence of digital video, desktop editing, and the internet meant that virtually anyone could now make a movie, edit it, and market it directly to the fans.  Most of these movies are exactly what you’d expect from such productions, though some are actually worth seeking out.  The real value of such efforts lies in their ability to drive the genre in directions that the major producers are unwilling to go.
133.       SCREAM  (1996)
134.       FROM DUSK TILL DAWN  (1996)
135.       Independence Day —aka— ID4  (1996)
136.       I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER  (1997)
137.       JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES  (1997)
138.       MEN IN BLACK  (1997)
140.       BLADE (1998)
141.       URBAN LEGEND  (1998)
142.       Blair Witch Project, The  (1999)
143.       HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE  (1999)
144.       IDLE HANDS  (1999)
145.       LAKE PLACID (1999)
146.       MUMMY, THE  (1999)
147.       Sixth Sense  (1999)
148.       SLEEPY HOLLOW  (1999)
149.       STIR OF ECHOES  (1999)
150.       AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
151.       FINAL DESTINATION (2000)
152.       GINGER SNAPS  (2000)
153.       SCARY MOVIE (2000)
154.       SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
155.       BONES (2001)
156.       FRAILTY  (2001)
157.       FROM HELL (2001)
158.       JEEPERS CREEPERS  (2001)
159.       JOY RIDE (2001)
160.       OTHERS, THE  (2001)
161.       SESSION 9 (2001)
162.       Thir13en Ghosts  (2001)
163.       28 DAYS LATER (2002)
164.       BELOW (2002)
165.       BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)
166.       DOG SOLDIERS  (2002)
167.       RED DRAGON (2002)
168.       RESIDENT EVIL  (2002)
169.       RING, THE  (2002)
170.       ROSE RED (2002)
171.       HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES  (2003)
172.       JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003)
173.       MONSTER MAN (2003)
175.       UNDERWORLD (2003)
176.       WRONG TURN (2003)
177.       DEAD AND BREAKFAST (2004)
179.       SAW (2004)
180.       SECRET WINDOW (2004)
181.       SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
182.       FEAST (2005)
183.       KING KONG (2005)
184.       LAND OF THE DEAD (2005)
185.       SIN CITY (2005)
186.       BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)
187.       DESCENT, THE (2006)
188.       BLACK SHEEP (2007)
189.       DEAD SILENCE (2007)
190.       GRINDHOUSE (2007)
191.       I AM LEGEND (2007)
193.       I SELL THE DEAD (2008)
194.       DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
195.       MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (2009)
196.       ORPHAN (2009)
197.       PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
198.       ZOMBIELAND (2009)
199.       THE CRAZIES (2010)
200.       THE WOLFMAN (2010)

The Future (?):  The resurgence of Horror that began in the late 1990’s has shown little sign of weakening in the near future, though what is considered Horror is, as always, in a constant state of flux.  There’s little doubt that this “YouTube” culture we live in will continue to drive the genre in new and amazing directions, some of which will work, some that won’t.  Hollywood, in spite of itself, will have to adapt to new trends in Horror, one of which may be that Hollywood will no longer be the center of the universe for filmmaking.

Whatever the future holds for fans of Horror Films, there’s one thing that is certain:  Horror, like the monsters that personify it, will never die… at least, not for long.