Open Thread: What Are the Essential Horror Movies?

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As we discussed last week, it’s a weird month to be a movie buff it you’re not also a horror movie fan. All of your cinephile friends on Twitter and on message boards are breathlessly updating their progress on whatever insane Halloween-month horror movie challenge they’ve undertaken (some do the “31 Days, 31 Horror Movies” thing; others push even further, proclaiming that they’ll do a full 100 scary flicks by month’s end); creepshows of all stripes are analyzed, recommended, and quoted. It’s even tougher to get by if you’re expected to write about cinema — where are your horror movie lists? What’s your ten scariest? Ten scariest horror movie kids? Ten bloodiest? Ten goofiest? And so on, and so on.

And to answer that question, part of the reason that I, your humble Flavorwire film editor, haven’t really gone all-in this month is that, simply, I don’t feel qualified. Who am I to recommend horror flicks, to catalogue and rank them, to sing the praises of buried treasures? Hell, I saw my first Freddy movie, um, about a month a half ago. (I know, I know.)

It’s not out of some ill-conceived lack of respect for the genre — far from it. It’s just a matter of environment; I grew up in a single-child, single-parent household where the consumption of R-rated movies was allowed, but limited to what my dad wanted to watch, and for whatever reason, he wasn’t into horror movies. So, consequently, I wasn’t either. It’s probably safe to assume that part of my resistance to it was a byproduct of his, but it’s more a case of by the time I was old enough to watch these movies on my own, the parade had already gone by.

And the sheer volume of horror movies is so overwhelming as to daunt those of us who are attempting to acquire an education later than normal. Plus, let’s face it: there is a real surplus of bad horror. Not necessarily more than in other genres, but there’s a lot of it out there: movies that are dumb, or badly made, or misogynist, or that traffic in gore for gore’s sake.

As a discerning filmgoer, I’ve done my best to catch up with the essentials, and most have lived up to their reputations. One of the few horror movies I saw as a teen was the original Halloween — which I first viewed in a broadcast network showing, on my little black and white television (hence my preference for watching it in that form). Its emphasis on suspense over gore meant it lost very little in the editing for television — mostly just P.J. Soles naked (which is a loss, don’t get me wrong). That’s a genuinely scary and expertly crafted movie, and to this day, I watch it every Halloween (usually as a double-feature with its pretty-damn-good-too sequel).

The harrowing quality of The Exorcist (which I saw in my mid-20s) is undeniable, and Rosemary’s Baby (saw it at 31) is, without a question, a masterpiece of the macabre. Night of the Living Dead (30) is a lean, mean, efficient picture, while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (33) and Last House on the Left (34) use their grubby, low-budget aesthetic to create a disturbing, “Manson family home movie” quality. The first couple of Friday the 13th movies aren’t bad, although Halloween did it better. Even Nightmare on Elm Street has its pleasures, though the leading performance of Heather Langenkamp is the most horrifying thing in the movie.

But once you get past those comically basic choices, I’m lost. So I’m turning it over to you — particularly the horror-savvy among you. I’m not making a top-ten list of the great scary movies, but you should in the comments below. What are the essential horror movies? What would you put in the scary flick canon?