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Halloween: get ready with 13 films that changed horror forever


Halloween is upon us, and if you're looking to get in the spooky spirit, we've got the answer.

As an alternative to pumpkin-carving and apple-bobbing, we're embarking on a retrospective look at 13 classic horror movies. No mere spine-tinglers, each of the following movies defined the genre, and are nothing less than required viewing at this time of year.

From deep space terror to serial slashers, monstrous figures to spooky old houses, our list demonstrates how horror has continually evolved over the decades to keep us terrified and entertained.

Of course, we couldn't possibly include every great horror movie on our list. So if we've missed your favourite, be sure to scroll to the end and tweet us your Halloween essentials on Twitter.

1. Nosferatu (1922)

Bram Stoker's classic vampire creation Dracula has been treated to many different iterations over the years. The most famous is Bela Lugosi's thousand-yard-stare interpretation for Universal Studios (released in 1931), but for our money, silent German Expressionist take Nosferatu is far creepier and more influential.

German Expressionist cinema was defined by a wave of early-20th-century Teutonic horror and fantasy films, all of which used shadow, odd angles and lighting to remarkably expressive effect. And Nosferatu embodies these qualities throughout – everything from the famously bird-like visage of lead actor Max Schreck to the creeping shadows that are single-handedly designed to invade our nightmares.

Directed by F.W. Murnau, the movie casts Schreck as Dracula substitute Count Orlock (done to avoid legal issues), and makes fabulous use of cobweb-festooned locations such as Orava Castle in Slovakia. From the unstoppable menace of its central monster to the bold visual design, this easily stakes a claim to being one of the greatest horror films of all time.

2. Frankenstein (1931)

Here's another literary creation who has made regular appearances throughout cinema history. Written by author Mary Shelley, Frankenstein is the archetypal cautionary tale about the perils of playing God, in which the titular scientist gives life to a creature that ultimately destroys him.

Actor Boris Karloff's unforgettable visage in the masterful 1931 Universal movie (directed by James Whale) is one of the most famous images in all of horror. The monster's flat-topped head and neck adorned with bolts came to define the look of the character in most ensuing adaptations, but it's Karloff's clear empathy for the creature that really resonates.

Originally hailing from England, Karloff turned his back on his wealthy family to become a truck driver in Canada, before he found his calling in movies. Upon his emergence as Frankenstein, Karloff became one of the biggest movie stars of his day, and it's his face that most readily associated with Shelley's creation.

3. Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock's seminal horror-thriller practically gave birth to the modern slasher movie, and also broke several rules of cinema.

Chiefly, the mid-narrative twist in which Janet Leigh's Marion Crane is murdered in the shower (accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's infamous, slashing strings) leaves the story intentionally rudderless. Our identification with this central character, who has absconded with her boss's money, is now suddenly obliterated, leaving us wonder who we ought to root for – a masterful move by Hitchcock who had 1960s audiences cowering in their seats and even fleeing the auditorium.

In order to maintain the surprise, Hitchcock (who was also a master of marketing) bought up as many copies of Robert Bloch's source novel as possible. He also demanded that cinema patrons be on time, forcing cinemas to refuse admission to latecomers so the magic of the film not be disrupted.

And on a thematic level, the movie was enormously influential. Deriving inspiration from notorious American grave-robber and serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho's introduction of mother-loving, cross-dressing Norman Bates popularised the notion of the cinematic serial killer, although few had as big an impact as Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates.

4. The Haunting (1963)

Stephen King defines Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (recently adapted for Netflix) as the uber-text for all haunted house stories. Jackson's famously creepy story unfolds as a paranoid nightmare as a group of people come apart at the seams within the confines of the eponymous stately pile, remaining ambiguous as to whether ghosts are actually involved.

Director Robert Wise's ensuing adaptation remains loyal to the understated menace of Jackson's source, keeping us off-balance throughout via gorgeous black and white cinematography and skewed angles that plunge us into the mind of central character, Eleanor (Julie Harris).

The movie's emphasis on slow-burn atmosphere, rather than gore and in-your-face shocks, cast a shadow over later haunted house movies such as The Others, starring Nicole Kidman. And several set-pieces remain wonderfully creepy in their low-key intensity, particularly the face in the wall and the 'breathing' door. Hill House is not somewhere one wants to spend the night...

5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Many sub-par zombie movies fall into the trap of laying on the gore while ignoring the subtext. Not so with director George A. Romero, who is widely regarded as the father of the genre. His 'Dead' trilogy, comprising Night, Dawn (1977) and Day (1985), mines the subject of zombies for social allegory, not just scares, touching on subjects such as consumerism and identity to keep us engrossed, as well as terrified.

We've opted for the first in the series, Night of the Living Dead, the most pared down and arguably the scariest. Shot on a very low budget in black and white, the movie is a story of survival, pure and simple, one that exposes deep-seated frailties in human society that, all told, are scarier than the ravenous hordes. That bleak punch line is what sells it – it underlines Romero's social conscience and firm grip on character.

6. The Exorcist (1973)

A great many horror movies achieve notoriety, but few can boast the reputation of The Exorcist. Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, this heady mixture of theological tension and full-blown splatter horror was brought to life by The French Connection director William Friedkin. And in-keeping with his earlier movie, Friedkin regularly indulges his penchant for shock tactics and claustrophobic atmosphere, as young girl Regan (Linda Blair) is possessed by a malevolent spirit to indulge in vomiting, levitation and head-spinning.

The movie's horrifying effects and atmosphere gave it a profile unrivalled by other horror films at the time. In fact, it became the first blockbuster of the genre, amassing a mighty $441 million at the global box office, and shattering many taboos in the process. Anchored by the performances of Blair, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, it's a movie that provokes, troubles and intrigues to this day.


7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Still, if we're talking horror movies breaking taboos, then we have to talk Texas Chainsaw, another movie inspired by the exploits of Ed Gein. Tobe Hooper's notoriously intense horror onslaught presented a tough case for BBFC chief James Ferman, who sought to cut the movie but found that no matter what, he couldn't diminish its relentless atmosphere. The movie was then banned outright in the UK until 1999.

Even by today's standards, the off-kilter atmosphere of Texas Chainsaw is striking. The film almost cuts a quasi-documentary approach in its story of a group of teens who stumble across Leatherface and his cannibalistic family – the grungy visual aesthetic adds an element of believability that, for the time, was unprecedented in the genre. 

The raw aesthetic, combined with a brutal screams-and-saws soundtrack, broke new ground in terms of what was acceptable in horror cinema.

8. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter had already proven his mastery of the low-budget thriller when Halloween rolled around – just three years prior, he'd delivered tense stand-off movie Assault on Precinct 13. Halloween, however, was a movie that redefined the potential of the slasher genre in the wake of Psycho, deploying Alfred Hitchcock's voyeuristic camera movements (thereby implicating the audience in key moments), but in a style all of Carpenter's own.

Made for very little money, Halloween was astonishingly successful – in fact, it became one of the most successful indie releases of all time. It launched an enduring horror franchise and many of its key images entered horror folklore, not least the chilling white mask of serial killer Michael Myers. And that jangly, synthesised theme tune still haunts our nightmares...

9. Alien (1979)

Not all horror is Earthbound. Indeed, it's the vast depth of our solar system that helped propel Ridley Scott's seminal Alien to era-defining success – there's a good reason why the tagline famously reads, 'In space, no-one can hear you scream'.

Like Halloween, Alien not only birthed an entire franchise but also redefined the potential of sci-fi horror cinema. And in the form of Sigourney Weaver's heroic Ellen Ripley, the film also reshaped gender boundaries and representation within a largely male-dominated genre.

From its atmospherically beautiful visuals to the unforgettable, insectoid design of the alien itself (designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger), the original Alien remains arguably the best and scariest in the series.

10. The Shining (1980)

With Doctor Sleep creeping its way towards cinemas this October, interest in Stanley Kubrick's eerie masterpiece has spiked. And for good reason. Distilling rather than adapting Stephen King's 1977 book, Kubrick takes the general premise (haunted hotel, isolated writer, and a descent into psychosis), and adorns it with all manner of Steadicam-induced surrealism.

Indeed, it's the visual elegance of the movie that really unnerves, especially when one considers that most of the horror occurs in bright light. It's a rebuke to the notion that shadows and darkness are what really scare us. Indeed, The Shining brings the most terrifying horror of all into sharp clarity – namely, that of a member of your own family descending into madness.

Anchored by that frothing-at-the-mouth performance from Jack Nicholson, The Shining still remains hard to shake off.

11. Scream (1996)

Writer-director Wes Craven revolutionised horror throughout the seventies and eighties. Cult classics such as The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street fused creepy conceits with thought-provoking concepts, such as a conflict between city folk and outsiders, or the pervasive influence of dreams.

Come 1996, and Craven was in need of a hit again. Indeed, the whole horror genre was in need of a refresh, so he teamed up with screenwriter Kevin Williamson for Scream (originally called Scary Movie) – a slasher film that self-referentially acknowledges the same tropes on which it's based.

The end result is that trickiest of things: a self-aware horror that is both scary and hilarious, often within the course of the same scene. The film's financial success and critical acclaim sparked a resurgent interest in serial killer movies (I Know What You Did Last Summer et al), but they struggled to attain the same impact.

12. Ringu (1998)

Japanese horror, or J-horror as it's affectionately known, became big business in the wake of Ringu's release. The culture of the country imbues the movies themselves – the physical and the spiritual are openly shown to interweave around one another, creating a sense of disconcerting surrealism.

And that's not to say that both the living and the dead co-exist in harmony. Hideo Nakata's pioneering Ringu takes a brilliantly simple premise – a videotape that kills all who watch it – and paints a disturbing portrait of latent dread. Based on a novel, the movie's conceit of a haunted VHS cassette is brilliantly invasive – this is something that can invade all homes, all lives, at all times.

Pretty much all J-horror films in the wake of Ringu popularised the lank-haired-girl-with-evil-eyes-trope (The Grudge et al), but it was never as terrifying as it was here.

13. Get Out (2017)

Comedian Jordan Peele went solo behind the camera for the first time with terrific horror-comedy Get Out. He made history by becoming the first-ever African-American film-maker to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – a highly deserved win, which also indicates the level of intelligence underpinning Peele's direction.

Britain's Daniel Kaluuya gives a breakout, Oscar-nominated performance as the young black man persecuted by his girlfriend's white family. In an audacious move, Peele doesn't punch down to reveal the family as overtly racist – rather, the film's villains come with smiles in a liberal guise. It's a canny element of hot-button satire, one that forced many apparently open-minded viewers into an "I'm not racist, but..." conversation after the movie finished.

It goes to show this is a movie with both shocks and brains to spare, one that helped propel Peele to even greater success with this year's Us.

If that's tingled the spine and whetted your appetite for horror, then good news. This Halloween, we've got Stephen King sequel Doctor Sleep

Check out the trailers below and let us know your favourite horror movies @Cineworld.