When I chose the films to be in the all time Top Five horror film list, I really had to think about which films are both cinematically good, and which ones left an impression on the on the art of the genre. There were plenty others I could have chosen, both modern and classic, but I feel these were the ones that really defined the genre as a whole, and their respective sub-genres. They don’t get much better than these five.
1) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero marked the start of his 40 year long zombie legacy with a film about survival and sheer terror. The cultural significance of “Night of the Living Dead” far out shadows anything any other film could do. The casting of Jones, an African American, in the role of Ben, the hero, sparked a controversy like no other, as a black hero for a cast of (primarily female) whites was unheard of at the time. It’s unrelenting in the scares department and the lasting impact it made on the horror genre is undeniable.
2) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (a Symphony of Horrors) (1922)
It’s amazing that the film has survived to this day, as every copy was ordered destroyed by Bram Stoker’s estate, as “Dracula” had yet to fall into public domain, and “Nosferatu” violated copyright laws. Luckily for us, a few prints survived, and have been restored for us to enjoy on DVD and television. The most powerful image that comes from this film is the shadow of Count Orlok creeping up a staircase. That, for me, is horror, the impending doom that the shadow signifies.
3) Jaws (1975)
“Jaws” succeeds by appeasing to a very real fear people have. Deep water is real. Great white sharks that are 25 feet long are real. People are scared of these things, and Steven Spielberg knew exactly how to play to these fears. You don’t see the shark in full until the third act, but the fear is still there. The opening shot of Susan Backlinie being dragged back and forth across the screen by an unknown terror haunts the dreams of swimmers to this day. And then when you finally see the shark, when it’s too late, creeping up on Chief Brody as he’s tossing chum into the ocean it’s this moment of shock that makes you utter words unprintable here.
4) Scream (1996)
It’s one of the smartest horror films to date, by skewering the tired clichés that had been used in countless teen slasher flicks. It stayed serious, but never too serious, never exuding the “wink and nudge” philosophy of the standard parody. Billy Loomis is one of the creepiest villains of the slasher genre, darkly twisted and disillusioned with the real world. And he works on a different level than Freddy or Jason, because he is a real person that exists in the real world.
5) Saw (2004)
It plays to a sick, twisted, demented part of our minds that revels in the torture of others. A dark corner that we refuse to acknowledge, but readily exists in all of us. It’s a more serious and frightening version of “Jackass”. And Jigsaw is the cinematic parable of everyone’s God complex; deciding the fate of others, sitting on high, judging those around. It’s a perfect allegory for people’s hidden desires that they refuse to admit to, but get to revel in for an hour and a half in a dark movie theatre surrounded by people thinking the same thing they are.