10 Horror Films That Changed the Genre

Horror movies have become so interwoven with popular culture that we have thousands of spinoff events, like this 2010 zombie walk. Rodrigo Coca/FotoArena/LatinContent/Getty Images

Do you remember the first time you saw King Kong flailing at airplanes from the Empire State Building? Does a night out in the woods make you feel like you're in your own personal "Blair Witch Project"? Those movies didn't just offer thrills and scares — they changed the genre.

Horror movies captivate audiences looking for a good fright, but they also play much bigger roles in the film industry and in popular culture. Film critics cite "Jaws" as ending a Hollywood era and launching the craze for summer blockbusters [source: Frontline]. "Blair Witch Project" launched the found footage subgenre and went on to enormous success, thanks in part to one of the first viral marketing campaigns [source: Bowles]. Some horror movies show audiences things they've never seen before, like the shocking gore of "Blood Feast" or the apocalyptic zombies of "Night of the Living Dead."

Not every great horror film had a deep and lasting impact on the genre, even if it's one of our favorites. Arguably, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was part of a larger trend of low-budget, grindhouse horror. "Alien" and "Aliens" featured incredible creature designs and a perfect blend of science fiction and horror. The lurid Hammer films of the 1960s and 1970s represent important horror touchstones, and "Ringu" (and the U.S. remake "Ring") launched a wave of Japanese horror. If this were a top 15 list, they'd all be on it for sure.

But it's not, so turn the lights off and prepare for 10 horror movies (ordered by release date) that changed horror forever.

10
'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'
Left to right, Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare) and Lil Dagover (Jane Olsen) look creeptastic in a scene from Robert Wiene's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." © Bettmann/Corbis

This 1920 German silent film is widely considered the first true horror movie. While a few earlier films dealt with supernatural, ominous themes, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" established the foundations of the genre [source: Ebert]. Tension rises and releases, an ominous villain stalks the scenes and the setting feels mysterious and unsettling. Another German horror film, "Nosferatu," followed two years later and also casts a long shadow across the horror genre [source: Feaster].

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" influenced more than just the horror genre. It also played a major role in the German Expressionist movement, which sought to depict dark emotions like madness and confusion by using exaggerated plots and unrealistic settings. This worked very well for horror movies — "Cabinet" incorporates bizarrely shaped buildings and walls at odd angles to create viewer unease. These influences show up in every era of horror filmmaking, from the 1920s sci-fi horror of "Metropolis" to the modern stylized fright of Tim Burton.

Watch "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" for free at Archive.org.

9
'Frankenstein'
You'd know that monster anywhere, wouldn't you? © Bettmann/Corbis

Encouraged by the success of its "Dracula" adaption, Universal Studios adapted Mary Shelley's classic, gothic novel "Frankenstein" in 1931. "Frankenstein" became a major hit for the studio, and Boris Karloff, with his square-headed monster makeup, became a horror icon [source: Allen].

Karloff's subsequent role as the title character in "The Mummy" cemented Universal's reputation as a horror studio, creating a team of creatures (Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy) that would become known as the Universal Monsters. Both Karloff and "Dracula" star Bela Lugosi were pivotal to the studio's horror releases throughout the 1930s. In the 1940s, Lon Chaney Jr. added the Wolf Man to the Universal Monster team and rekindled the studio's horror success. The Gill-man from 1954's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" rounded out the Universal Monster roster. Although the studio made many horror films that did not include these monsters, the many sequels, remakes and spinoffs formed the bedrock of Universal's horror reputation.

What was it about these monsters that changed the horror genre? They weren't just successful movies. The Universal Monsters became pop culture icons in a way no other horror characters had before. You could find them on lunchboxes, Halloween costumes, toys and more [source: Browne and Browne]. Every child in America, and many around the world, knew and loved them. The pop culture success of creatures like Godzilla and Freddy Krueger belong to that same phenomenon.

8
'King Kong'
The king of giant movie monsters gets some stage time in New York City in 1933. Henry Guttmann/Moviepix/Getty Images

"King Kong" is the giant monster standing astride the horror world. The 1933 tale of a giant gorilla brought to New York City by a greedy magnate touches on plenty of horrific elements that still resonate: the exploitation of the natural world, our fear of the unknown, and of course, of our cities being attacked by giant monsters.

Kong's influence starts with talented special effects designer Willis O'Brien. O'Brien used stop-motion animation to bring the gigantic gorilla to life, showing audiences something truly fantastic. This paved the way for stop-motion effects, which show up in movies like "Star Wars" and "ParaNorman," as well as many fantasy and horror creatures designed by Ray Harryhausen [source: Miller].

The success of "King Kong" opened up new possibilities in filmmaking. If you could effectively create a 24-foot (7-meter) gorilla climbing the Empire State Building, you could create anything. "King Kong" wasn't the first movie to use special effects, but after "Kong," special effects became an integral part in creating elaborate horror, science fiction and fantasy scenes on film.

We can't overlook our collective love of giant monsters either. Kong's ancestors include Godzilla, the "Cloverfield" creature and the monsters of "Pacific Rim." Japanese movie studios expanded on this idea so thoroughly and successfully in the 1960s and '70s that the giant monster subgenre got its own Japanese word: kaiju.

7
'Blood Feast'
It took the film "Blood Feast" for some people to get in touch with their inner gore. These two bloody nurses appeared at the 2011 Comic-Con in San Diego. © Sandy Huffaker/Corbis

Movies don't have to be good to be influential. Take "Blood Feast." Before its 1963 release, horror films showed brutality and violent murder with only occasional glimpses of blood, quickly looking away when the mayhem grew too graphic. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman changed all that in 1963 by making an ultracheap movie with virtually no script [source: Weber]. The entire point of the movie was to show as much gruesome gore and blood as possible. They knew that they could show audiences something they'd never seen before, and they hoped that would translate into profit (it certainly did, making at least $7 million on a budget that barely exceeded $20,000) [source: Abrams].

The stage tradition of grotesque violence known as Grand Guignol had always appealed to audiences looking for a thrill, but it had never been done on film. "Blood Feast" was the first splatter movie, a movie made specifically to show disgusting, bloody things on screen. Legs are chopped off, brains splashed on the floor and a woman's tongue is pulled from her mouth. Every scene is bathed in vibrant, red stage blood. It forced film censorship boards to redefine how they treated film violence while paving the way for graphic violence to leak into the mainstream.

Inspired by "Blood Feast," a generation of special effects fans devoted themselves to creating ever more realistic and bloody effects. There's an entire gore subgenre, mixed liberally with the slasher genre (which we'll talk about shortly).

6
'Night of the Living Dead'
Watch out, Mr. Romero! That zombie's about to take a bite out of you at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival. © Jorge Uzon/Corbis

Director George Romero was sick of making TV commercials, so he and some friends decided to make a horror movie. It was 1968, and the success of exploitation movies like "Blood Feast" was apparent. But instead of a plotless gorefest, Romero created something original and terrifying, a movie that started a new subgenre and changed the direction of horror movies.

The Universal Monsters had gradually turned mainstream horror into a genre for kids. Horror movies were regularly shown as Saturday matinees [source: Ebert]. "Night of the Living Dead" depicts a group of strangers stranded in a farmhouse besieged by corpses that want to eat their flesh. It's brutal and unforgiving, and there's no happy ending. And it wasn't just a monster movie — Romero and writer John Russo touched on contemporary issues like the Vietnam War, the collapse of the traditional family and distrust of authority.

The shocking ending portrays the blithe, dehumanizing effects of racism. In fact, Romero's casting of a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead role without altering the script to make the movie specifically about race was itself groundbreaking in American movies [source: Pedestrian Productions].

"Night of the Living Dead" is above all else a zombie movie, and it completely defines the way modern audiences see zombies. Earlier zombie films were based on black magic and mind control. Romero's vision of the walking dead led to two iconic sequels ("Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead"), multiple spinoffs ("Return of the Living Dead," "Zombi 2") and countless zombie movies, video games, comic books, horror novels and overall pop culture pervasiveness [source: Stein]. Zombies are everywhere, and that's probably most evident in the success of AMC's "The Walking Dead" TV series.

5
'The Exorcist'
In this scene from "The Exorcist," mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) struggles to keep her demonic daughter (Linda Blair) in bed. © Bettmann/Corbis

When a young girl is possessed by a demon, a pair of Catholic priests struggle to exorcise the evil spirit while suffering doubt in their own faith. Based on a 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, this 1973 horror movie stunned audiences not with over-the-top gore or shocking violence but with a pervasive sense of dread, the corruption of innocence and a realistic style that hinted at true horrors lurking in our everyday lives.

It might seem strange to call "The Exorcist" a subtle horror film, since it does have scenes of a girl's head spinning around and projectile puking. But it wasn't the lurid shocks that left such a lasting impression. It was the way "The Exorcist" incorporated Judeo-Christian mythology of demonic spirits and a very literal battle between good and evil that made waves [source: Truitt]. Billy Graham proclaimed that the movie itself was possessed by a demon, and some towns in Britain banned the movie [source: Larnick]. "The Exorcist" was so dark that there's a persistent legend that production of the movie was cursed.

The movie's success created high demand for more horror focused on "Christians versus demons." A number of prequels and sequels followed, along with "The Omen" series and more modern possession flicks like "The Possession," "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" and "The Last Exorcism." Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" came out five years before "The Exorcist" and focuses on similar themes, but it was the astonishing box office success of "The Exorcist" that changed horror.

4
'Jaws'
Get out of the water! Universal/Moviepix/Getty Images

There's a massive shark. It has a taste for human blood. It must be stopped. That's the plot of "Jaws." It's not a complex movie, although it is an excellent one. The effect it had on the film industry is a much longer story.

In the early 1970s, directors had a lot of freedom in Hollywood. They could write and direct their own movies and pursue whatever projects interested them. Experimental, artistic films that examined controversial topics like war or race were made under major studio banners [source: Dirks]. Film marketing budgets were relatively small, and it was rare to advertise on television. "Jaws" devoured all the old rules on film budgets and marketing in 1975.

Universal spent millions of dollars marketing "Jaws," much of it on TV commercials featuring the iconic two-note musical score that is now synonymous with shark attacks. Where similar efforts had failed in the past, this one succeeded spectacularly — "Jaws" eventually made $260 million in the U.S. [source: Frontline]. This huge win completely changed Hollywood's approach, not just to marketing, but to what movies studios made and when they were released.

High-concept movies with lots of action and excitement, aimed at teen and young adult audiences, were released in the summer months, when those audiences went to more movies. Marketing budgets (and movie budgets in general) exploded, and TV ads for these summer blockbusters filled the airwaves [source: Stafford]. The summer success of "Jaws" paved the way for movies like "Star Wars," "Batman" and "Jurassic Park" and created the blockbuster culture that defines modern Hollywood.

3
'Halloween'
Actor Tony Moran played the very first Michael Myers back in the 1978 slasher film "Halloween." He likely had no idea how many more slashers would walk in his scary footsteps. Fotos International/Moviepix/Getty Images

The killer stalks you relentlessly. Faceless, mute and merciless, he attacks with terrifying strength and seems impervious to harm. This isn't your average nightmare; it's the formula for the classic slasher film. One slasher movie stands above the rest as the original, the movie that both created and perfected the form: John Carpenter's "Halloween."

With "Halloween," Carpenter established the tropes that are reused, recycled and paid tribute to by hundreds of subsequent movies about relentless stalker/killers. But Carpenter arguably did it best. His victims are established as likable, three-dimensional people without bogging down the movie. The killer, Michael Myers, is mysterious behind his creepy, unsettling mask. The score, composed and performed by Carpenter himself, builds tension and then explodes with signature sounds that signify each attack. The movie's success immediately spawned a slasher craze in the 1980s — "Friday the 13th," "My Bloody Valentine," "Sleepaway Camp," "Sorority House Massacre" and dozens of others, not to mention the remakes of and the sequels to the original "Halloween."

Movies with slasher themes certainly predate "Halloween." Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" contained multiple elements of later slasher films, and many horror fans could argue that it deserves its own slot on this list. "Black Christmas" (1974) and "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" (1976) also are part of the slasher lineage. "Halloween," however, was the most successful.

2
'The Blair Witch Project'
Michael Williams (whose real name is Michael C. Williams) loses control in front of the camera during “The Blair Witch Project.” The mock documentary thriller fueled the Hollywood appetite for found footage films. Artisan Entertainment/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Found footage movies do away with the artificiality of filmmaking by presenting every shot as a clip pulled from someone's video camera, cell phone or surveillance video. This is particularly effective in horror movies, since it gives the otherwise fantastic events a gritty, realistic feel. It worked perfectly for "The Blair Witch Project."

Made in 1998 for about $60,000, "Blair Witch" generated $140 million [source: Bowles]. Found footage movies are remarkably cheap to make since they use a small crew and often rely on natural lighting and actual locations instead of manufactured sets. Since the success of "Blair Witch," found footage has become a popular subgenre. Examples include the "Paranormal Activity" series, "V/H/S," "Grave Encounters," "Mockingbird" and many others.

"The Blair Witch Project" wasn't the first found footage movie — its oldest ancestor is probably "Mondo Cane," a 1962 movie that purported to show actual footage of bizarre events and started a whole craze of "Mondo" movies. 1980's "Cannibal Holocaust" faked realism so effectively that the producers were investigated for committing actual murders on film (they didn't) [source: Davis]. "The Last Broadcast" came out not long before "Blair Witch," but didn't achieve the same level of success.

How did "The Blair Witch Project" get so popular? Marketing. It was the first movie to use viral marketing, creating buzz with a website, fake documentaries and other clues about the Blair Witch mystery, a model that's been followed by dozens of horror movies since, such as "Cloverfield."

1
'Scream'
Neve Campbell appears simultaneously scared and tough in Wes Craven’s “Scream 3.” Joseph Viles Dimension Films/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The "Scream" franchise is the most popular example of a strange subgenre called metahorror. A metahorror movie knows and understands the tropes and clichés of horror movies, folding them back on themselves, playing with audience expectations and even allowing the characters to understand that they're in a horror movie.

A typical masked killer stalks the usual teen victims in "Scream." The difference is that the killer and some of the victims realize the murders are following standard slasher movie protocol. While the movie addresses topics like disaffected youth and attitudes toward drugs and sex, it simultaneously comments on horror movies themselves.

"Scream" director Wes Craven experimented with self-aware horror before. "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" came out in 1994, two years before "Scream," and deals with the emergence of "Nightmare on Elm Street" villain Freddy Krueger into the real-world of actress Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the original "Elm Street movie. Craven appears in "New Nightmare" as himself. But it was the runaway success of "Scream" that introduced audiences to metahorror, opening the door for self-aware horror movies like "Zombieland," "Seed of Chucky," "Jason X" and "Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil." 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods" might be the apex of the metahorror subgenre, with the characters trapped in a horror movie simulation and a plot that ties all horror movie tropes together into a single theory of ritual sacrifice.

Keep reading for more links to shocking horror movie stories.

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Author's Note: 10 Horror Films That Changed the Genre

I'm a huge horror fan, and it was a real pleasure to research and write this one. Horror fans have strong opinions about their favorite movies, and it was hard to trim this list down to 10, so I'm sure some readers are going to disagree with a few choices. It was interesting to see how the changes brought about by one horror film can pave the way for another horror film to come along and change things again. "Night of the Living Dead" probably doesn't happen without "Blood Feast" happening first. "Scream" makes no sense without two decades of slasher movies to play off of, starting with "Halloween."

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Sources

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