On an old episode of The Horror Show podcast, they were posed a fairly simple question: If you came across a person who had never seen a single horror movie, and they wanted you to pick exactly ten films that would represent the entire genre, which ten would you pick?
I love this question because it’s so much more than a list of your ten favorite horror movies, or the ten best horror movies. This is like picking your all-star lineup to go up against your toughest rival. This hypothetical viewer you are choosing for has never seen a single horror movie in their life (ultra religious parents, let’s say), but they want to watch ten horror movies to get a good taste of the whole genre, to find out if it’s something to explore further. What makes this question so fun to me is the hypothetical stakes of the matter, along with the tight ten movie restriction.
Having to pick just ten movies to represent the entire history of horror is tough. It would take 50 or 100 to make anything approaching a comprehensive list. The way I’m tackling this question is to think of this hypothetical viewer, and so my list will go in the order in which I show them these films. I want the selections to represent a broad cross-section of the most important horror films historically, and all the biggest sub-genres, with fun palette cleansers thrown in to keep the viewer hooked and hungry for more.
Without further ado, here’s my list. Feel free to make your own in the comments!
1. Trick r Treat
I would start with a somewhat left-field, personal choice. Trick r Treat is a perfect entry point into the world of horror, because A. it’s an anthology, containing a little vampire, a little werewolf, a little zombie, a little slasher, and B. it’s comedic and fun and kinetic enough to hook non-horror fans in without overwhelming them. The level of scariness is balanced just right that you can use this as a litmus test to see if your audience will be able to handle “real” horror.
Next I’d go back, waayyy back, to the 1920’s and show Nosferatu. This hits a few key points, being one of the very first horror movies in existence, a Dracula adaptation, and something that still manages to hold up with its creepy visuals and nightmarish atmosphere. I personally think this is superior to the ’31 Universal Dracula.
3. Bride of Frankenstein
Speaking of Universal, you simply can’t make a list like this without including at least one entry from the golden age of Universal horror. It would make the whole list invalid. While the original Dracula and Frankenstein are both a little flat for my taste, potentially alienating for the uninitiated, Bride of Frankenstein is another story. It’s tighter, funnier, and contains even more iconic cultural moments than the original.
The 1940’s horror scene was still largely dominated by Universal’s sequelizing, and the 1950’s had drifted into more of a sci-fi direction overall. That brings us to the 60’s, and Hitchcock. Psycho is an essential horror movie. It’s the birth of the slasher genre (kind of), and the origin of one of the most iconic scary scenes of all time.
Showing Halloween and Psycho as a pair creates a kind of mini-lesson in horror history, by showing how Halloween, influenced by Psycho, kicked off a slasher craze that persisted for 20 years and established most of the famous “rules” of the genre. Plus, it’s just one of the best and most timeless horror movies ever made. It’s a no-brainer.
We’re now entering the second half of the marathon, which means it’s time to ramp up the horror level. Poltergeist may be starting to show its age more than 30 years on, but man, this is a freaky movie. A perfect representation of the classic haunted house story, with two legendary directors collaborating for the only time. My favorite horror movie ever, and a must-have on this list.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1990)
One MUST include a zombie movie on this list, but which one to go with? Most would pick the original Night of the Living Dead, with good reason. It introduced the rules and concepts of the modern zombie, becoming the template for the entire sub-genre still being followed today. But for the purposes of this list only, I am going with the 1990 remake for one simple reason: It’s more modern. Cry sacrilege if you want, and I’m not saying the remake is a better movie, but showing the new version accomplishes the dual tasks of introducing the modern zombie genre and keeping the virgin viewer entertained with a faster paced, more fun movie. I wrestled between this and Dawn of the Dead (original) for some time.
8. The Exorcist
Breaking the loose chronology here because I’d want my marathon to get scarier as it goes on, creating a sort of meta excitement to the whole process. Honestly, these last three movies could probably be in any order, as they’re all legendary in their ability to terrify. The Exorcist is another true blue essential. No lesson in horror is complete without it.
9. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
This one is a real test. It’s been said that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is in a genre of its own, and I think that’s true, more or less. It’s not really a slasher, not really a cannibal movie, but blends elements of both into a stew of dirt, grime, sweat, and blood. The filth is palpable here in a way that even its own sequels and remakes failed to match. I’m not sure how purely scary a new viewer would find this one today, but I can guarantee they wouldn’t soon forget it.
10. Paranormal Activity
Bear with me here. For the final entry in my introduction to horror, I wanted to pick something that represented a new-ish style of horror movie, and also something undeniably terrifying. Think back to the time before the annual sequels, back when this movie landed in theaters with nothing but a small scale word of mouth campaign and startled the entire industry (and more than a few unsuspecting moviegoers). Remember, our hypothetical audience would be just as unprepared for what Paranormal Activity delivers as someone seeing the first movie in its first weekend. I was one of them, and in my showing several people left the theater out of sheer fright. The found footage craze may be on its last legs by now, but I can think of no scarier movie that better represents the state of horror in the modern age.
Movies it hurt to exclude
Alas, part of the joy and agony of this thought experiment is having to make tough sacrifices to limit the list to ten. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead 2, Alien, Jaws, The Thing, The Fly, Scream, and The Shining were all very strong contenders that I hated leaving out.