Flavorwire’s 50 Essential Horror Films, Part 4

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As Halloween draws near, you’ll undoubtedly see dozens of lists analyzing the scariest, goriest, and even the funniest of horror films. Nostalgia surrounding the spooky holiday conjures a breathless excitement to seek and share the movies that toy with our deep-seated fears. If you’re new to the horror genre, we don’t want you to feel left out of the fun. We’ve created a list of 50 essential films that will educate and entertain you all month long. Each week, we’ll be counting down to number one and exploring a breadth of titles. Whether you’re looking for a creepy tale to watch on Halloween night, or you’re interested in honing your horror knowledge, check out the fourth installment in our must-see movies, below. Then, catch up with parts one, two, and three. Finish the countdown with the top ten.

20. Freaks

After he directed Dracula in 1931, Tod Browning developed a story for MGM that both studio and filmmaker hoped would top the horror of their fanged fiend. Browning did the unthinkable for the time. He cast real-life carnival and sideshow workers in his love triangle tale. Although it was based on Tod Robbins’ short story Spurs, Browning also drew from his own early experiences in a traveling circus. Instead of presenting the “freaks” as exotic oddities and exploiting their deformities, Browning revealed a deep sense of humanity and compassion, expressing each individual’s capacity for love and pain. The social commentary seems clear: the lines between what’s normal and abnormal are blurry, regardless of an attractive facade. Browning’s movie challenges the ways we define beauty and questions the aims of insular societies — including Hollywood. The film essentially ended his career and was banned in the UK for 30 years by the BBFC for its biting and “shocking” displays.

19. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

It doesn’t take long for Robert Wiene’s stunning 1920 silent horror film to have you in its thrall. The movie’s crooked set pieces and warped terrain are a shining example of expressionist style. Caligari was also a major influence on film noir and the genre’s notable plot twists. Wiene’s surreal characters dwell in a world of illusions and psychological fantasy where the mind isn’t safe from the real-life horrors in the world outside. It could easily be argued that Caligari is one of the first horror films, but regardless of its number in line, the striking work is mandatory viewing for any aspiring horror geek.

18. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Adapting Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers — trading Cold War anxiety for the post-Vietnam American landscape and Watergate era — Philip Kaufman’s version of the pod people tale takes a darkly comedic jab at the “Me” decade’s complacency and selfish whims. Like Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a horror film wrapped in a sci-fi package, taking full advantage of the story’s prevailing paranoia with clever aural and visual scares. The film contains one of the greatest endings in horror film history.

17. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven read a story in the LA Times about a young man who mysteriously died in his sleep after being plagued by strange nightmares. The director’s 1984 slasher classic was born, and it was a true gamer changer that gutted the market. The haunting, dark tale about a disfigured madman stalking teens in their dreams bears all the familiar marks of a slasher film, but the beauty in Craven’s twist is that he allows Freddy Krueger to strike where we’re most vulnerable: in our nightmares. It’s a simple, but effective premise that had gone largely unexplored in the genre. The villainous Freddy became one of the most feared fiends in horror history.

16. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

If you throw a rock, you’ll hit a horror movie that has been heavily influenced by the gruesome, real-life murders carried out by Ed Gein. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the first and best, however, and the film remains one of the greatest exploitation flicks of all time. A group of young adults running afoul of the murderous Sawyer clan and their demented chainsaw-wielding son Leatherface teach us about the dangers of straying from the plan and wandering off the beaten path (this time, in central Texas). Hooper’s gritty compositions make the experience more intense, creating a documentary feel. The legendary film isn’t as gory as many people think — a true testament to its power — but the title instantly conjures snapshots of crazed, blood-soaked lunatics in masks made from human skin.

15. Friday the 13th (1980)

Halloween, Black Christmas, and Psycho laid the groundwork for modern slasher cinema, but Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th was a sign of what the subgenre would eventually become. So much of the Friday the 13th film series feels heavily influenced by the violent, lurid Italian thrillers known as gialli, defined by mystery and filled with red herrings. Friday the 13th takes the madman formula and turns the dial of sex and gore on high. Featuring gruesome, inventive deaths and a classic gotcha ending, the original Friday the 13th may not be the best in the series, but it’s essential viewing to see where it all started.

14. Black Christmas (1974)

Obscene and threatening phone calls (some of the creepiest you’ll ever hear) spook the girls stuck at a sorority house over the Christmas break. Eventually people turn up dead. Bob Clark’s atmospheric 1974 movie was one of the first films that marked the slasher subgenre, laying the groundwork for greats like Halloween and Friday the 13th. The filmmaker’s spin on the tropes that would eventually come to define modern slasher cinema is far more progressive than many movies made even in the last decade. His final girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) isn’t a nerdy virgin lacking depth of character. Instead, she faces the difficulty of an abortion and winds up taking matters into her own hands after dealing with an inefficient police department.

13. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Two SWAT operatives and a couple from a news station hole up in an abandoned Pittsburgh mall to flee the zombie pandemic. They consider that the end of the world might not be as terrible as they had imagined, but Romero’s film quickly demonstrates that the shopper’s paradise is no real Utopia. Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s second zombie outing, and it’s probably bleaker than the first film — even with its pointed message about consumer culture. Romero makes it clear that mankind’s inability to unite in the face of what should be an easily defeated threat (zombies have strength in numbers, but they’re not exactly hard to kill) is what will be its true downfall. Dawn of the Dead is a cynical and captivating look at the end of times.

12. Suspiria

The first film in Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, Suspiria is a dizzying masterpiece filled with striking murder set pieces. It’s a nightmare for the senses, and Goblin’s pounding, unforgettable score is as essential to the film’s atmospheric fantasy as Argento’s technical prowess. The lurid use of color and provocative camera work in the director’s gothic story of witches terrorizing a German dance academy evokes memories of Grimm’s most fiendish fairy tales and the wonders of German expressionist cinema. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and production designer Giuseppe Bassan assisted the maestro with his remarkable Technicolor palette, influenced by Disney’s Snow White and a movie by the filmmaker who had the greatest influence on Argento’s work — Mario Bava’s seminal giallo, Blood and Black Lace. Suspiria was a turning point in Argento’s career, marking his first foray into the supernatural after a successful run making violent Italian thrillers.

11. Alien

The alienness of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film begins far before any of the movie’s foul creatures appear on screen. The director overwhelms our senses with hissing static, radio voices, and snaking shots inside the bowels of a space ship. The isolation, otherworldliness, and increasing sense of dread we feel in Scott’s feral world is completely unnerving. Alien is a horror movie masquerading as a sci-fi film. The tale of the ill-fated Nostromo crew demonstrated that it was entirely possible to make a haunted house film in outer space. The movie also gave us one of the most memorable female heroines in cinema and created one of the most enduring and terrifying monsters of the modern era thanks to the artistry of H.R. Giger.

Catch up with parts one, two, and three in our countdown. Finish with the top ten.