Turn out the lights and pick a classic horror movie to watch after the trick-or-treaters have finished for the night. While there have been many great horror tales put on film in recent years, going back to some famous and some not so well know horror films from years past can be spine-tingling. What makes them timeless is often the way the director uses light and shadow or visual deceit to lead the audience along until the final denouement. Some are slasher films, some use psychological twists to amp up the fear factor. But all of these older films have used effects that modern directors have learned from.
On the internet, there are many lists of the best horror films, and there are sure to be disagreements about which is the best. Each connoisseur of terror has their own “thing” that makes their blood run cold. Here are thirteen films, all made before 1990 that make it on many lists of the best for various reasons. But mostly because they stay with you long after the last credit rolls.
The Exorcist (1973)
Who hasn’t seen a copy of the poster for “The Exorcist” with the shadow of the priest with a doctor’s bag in his hand caught by a street light looking up to a window? Or seen a picture of Linda Blair, who played the girl possessed by the devil, floating above her bed. Roughly based on real events, William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel was turned into the most successful horror movie of all time, until “It” in 2017. Director by William Friedkin, audiences flocked to it, many running out to vomit and others fainting. It was given an R rating but believed deserving of an X due to some of the events that occur and the imagery.
The Omen (1976)
The devil plays a heavy hand in “The Omen”, also. This time in the form of a little boy. At the time, it was unusual for big named actors of the time like Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to be in a horror movie. This drew people to the movie theater, as did the story about a diplomat who adopts another woman’s baby as his own when he dies, and the child’s mother dies in childbirth. But, as the child grows up, violent death follows the family. And his parents come to realize that he is the antichrist. It earned two Oscar nominations.
The Changeling (1980)
Part ghost story and part mystery, “The Changeling” is another horror movie boasting movie star casting. Gene Hackman plays a grieving widower who moves into a dark and creepy mansion in Seattle where the pipes make weird noises and sounds come from the empty attic. Slowly Hackman’s character is drawn into a decades-old mystery that a powerful family prefers to stay hidden. The truth is so emotionally intense, the movie will stay with you until dawn breaks. Director Martin Scorsese considers it the scariest movie of all time.
The Shining (1980)
Based on Stephen King’s novel about a haunted hotel isolated in the Colorado Rockies, Stanley Kubrick’s film deviated from the book and it was initially given poor ratings. However, it picked up steam and is now seen as one of the classics of modern horror. It is a blend of psychological horror as an abusive father, Jack, played by Jack Nicholson with scene-chewing zeal, slowly loses his grip on reality, and mind-bending hauntings by dark ghosts. The most famous scene is that of Shelley Duval fearing for her life as Jack smashes through the door with an axe and says “Here’s Johnny” with a sadistic grin.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Satan is central to many classic horror films, and in “Rosemary’s Baby” he desperately wants to become a daddy by whatever means. Written and directed by notorious director Roman Polanski, the story centers around Rosemary Woodhouse, her husband Guy, and the neighbors in their apartment building with a dark past that Rosemary comes to believe are Satanists after her baby. Based on a book by William Castle, it starred Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sydney Blackmer and Ralph Bellamy. It won two academy awards, including Ruth Gordon for best-supporting actress.
Telling a twisted tale of love and deception among freaks in a circus sideshow, it was banned from 1932 until 1968 for its use of real circus performers with disabilities. Based on a short story entitled “Spurs” by director Todd Browning, it is about a trapeze artist who joins a carnival with plans to seduce and murder a dwarf for his money. It was initially a failure and destroyed director Browning’s career. While it has since been seen as compassionate towards those with physical disabilities, it has some of the most terrifying scenes in horror history. Summed up at the end where the evil woman gets her just desserts in one terrifying line, “Gobble gobble, gobble gobble. We accept her. One of us, one of us.”
When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Every babysitter’s nightmare is the premise behind “When a Stranger Calls.” It is considered to have one of the scariest openings of any horror film in history, and “Scream” pays homage to it. With everyone attached to their phones in today’s world, this movie shows that a phone can indeed be a menacing device.
A film said to be cursed, “Poltergeist” was written by Stephen Speilberg, Mark Victor, and Michael Grais. It is about a suburban family that is being attacked by malevolent forces. Their youngest daughter, Carol Ann begins to fixate on the static from the TV and one night announces, “They’re Here”. After the making of the film, four cast members, including Heather O’Rorke who played Carol Ann, died and it was reputed to be cursed.
With Jami Lee Curtis reprising her role this year as Laurie Strode in “Halloween Kills”, what better time to watch the original? Director John Carpenter effectively used bait and switch on the audience to think that evil Michael Meyers is lurking when he is not, and he is there when you least expect him. And once you see this movie, you will likely keep all of your closet doors open for some time. Then there is the creepy music and the many it’s not over moments. Is he just a sociopath or is he really the Boogie Man?
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Don’t walk down any dark alleys after seeing this film. It is the one that got all other zombie movies going and started the phenom. Shot in black and white with lots of moody shadows, there is some part that is perhaps better not seen in bloody red. Written and directed by George Romero, it was not only the grandfather of modern-day zombie movies, but it was ahead of its time casting an African American man, Duane Jones as the lead. It ended up making 250 times more than it cost to film.
The Haunting of Julia (1977)
Based on the novel “Julia” by Peter Straub, the story centers around a woman who while trying to cope with the death of her daughter, has to deal with a vengeful ghost. Although the movie and the book end differently, the movie is very atmospheric and once again Mia Farrow pulls off a subtle performance. This time, not a woman impregnated by the devil, but a woman who is obsessed with a murderous spirit. Or perhaps she has gone over the edge herself?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
A blend of science fiction and horror, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a film noir telling of an extraterrestrial invasion of large seed pods that replicate any human that sleeps next to it. However, that new “person” is completely devoid of emotion. The movie is, much like “The Stepford Wives” about the brainwashing of a population and the drive for uniformity of thought. The term “pod People” for those who show no emotion comes from this film. Filmed during the period of the McCarthy witch hunt for communists in the United States, it could just as easily be making comments about today’s “cancel culture” and its drive for uniformity of thought.
There was probably no creepier killer than Norma Bates until Hannibal Lecter came along. Driven by dark twisted psychological forces, the crazed stare actor Tony Perkins gives at the end of the movie is chilling. Of course, it is the famous shower scene, the iconic hose on the hill behind the motel, and the direction by Alfred Hitchcock that makes it a top horror classic. It is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films.