5 Minutes of Horror: The 10 Most Essential American Horror Movies That Best Represent the Genre

Hi — this is Jay of the Dead, the host of Horror Movie Podcast bringing you a 5 Minutes of Horror presentation.

I have a good friend at work named Sarah, who recently asked me for some good Horror movie recommendations for Halloween. While asking her about her tastes, I quickly realized that Sarah appreciates Horror but really isn’t what you would call a die-hard Horror fan. I discovered that she hadn’t even seen most of the essential classics…

So, I’m recording this episode for Sarah to make her a Must-See short-list of what I would consider the 10 Most Essential American Horror Movies That Best Represent the Genre. You could also think of this list as the 10 movies I would select for a time capsule to show future people what Horror is… Not all of these are necessarily my personal all-time favorites, but I feel these 10 best represent the American Horror Cinema. Assuming the person is new to Horror, I start milder and move toward more severe.

1. James Whale’s “Frankenstein” from 1931. This film is one of the first (and still one of the greatest) examples of a “sympathetic monster.” It also depicts our fears toward scientific advancements.

2. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” from 1975. Among Horror cinema’s finest examples of the “Man vs. Nature” conflict, and it has well-sketched characters and engaging storytelling. “Jaws” mostly scares us with what we don’t see, and the verbal re-telling of the fate of the USS Indianapolis is one of the most horrifying parts of the movie!

3. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” from 1960 is a precursor that greatly influenced the future of Horror cinema. It’s one of the best examples of the Horror convention where mental illness breeds monsters. “Psycho” has an excellent twist, and it demonstrates that the “monster” can actually be likable and basically imperceptible.

4. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” from 1978 shows us that often it is actually we humans who are the monsters. And in this Horror movie, instead of a group of victims versus one monster, you have the victim-group versus many monsters. And also, “Dawn of the Dead’s” subtext demonstrates how Horror cinema can be a commentary reflecting our fears and concerns about society.

5. John Carpenter’s “Halloween” from 1978 might just be the most iconic Horror film ever made. It had the strongest initial influence on the Slasher sub-genre as we know it today, and “Halloween” also brings us the first of what I would call the Modern Monsters with Michael Myers. On this list, Michael Myers stands in for Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Pinhead and and all other Horror super-beings, because he was the first of their modern ilk.

6. Ridley Scott’s “Alien” from 1979 is a beastly freak, creature-feature whose monster is obviously an alien, which is an age-old human fear. This film represents the mastery of that 1950s, Atomic Age-blend of science-fiction and Horror. “Alien” is also one of the very best examples of gore in an explicit kill scene.

7. A second John Carpenter film! — “The Thing” from 1982 is, I believe, the all-time greatest adaptation in the history of the cinema — of any film in any genre! (More on that in Movie Podcast Network Special Features Episode 006.) It’s another alien / science-fiction, fear-of-the-unknown Horror film that shoves the weird and the unnatural right up into our faces, causing palpable feelings of discomfort, suspense and paranoia among its viewers to match the onscreen experience of its characters! And to me “The Thing” is Horror cinema’s ultimate example of practical effects. A masterpiece!

8. Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” from 1980 is another Horror masterpiece primarily because the person in the family who is supposed to protect them from monsters becomes the monster. “The Shining” has supernatural Horror elements, even ghostly aspects, so nobody can say that sub-genre isn’t represented in my list! This film is truly scary.

9. My personal all-time favorite Horror film is Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” from 1974. It is a nightmare adapted to film, except it seems absolutely real, like you’re living in the moment… Creepy. Unsettling. Transgressive. There is a scene involving a very old man, a hammer and a terrified girl that changed something inside me after I first saw it, and I have never been the same since… The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made! Another masterpiece!

10. Last but not least is William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” from 1973. For me, as a believer, this Horror film is almost too effective. This movie is arguably the scariest Horror film ever made — it’s not my personal scariest — but I would bet that most non-Horror fans would consider this the all-time scariest Horror film. Infamous. Supernatural. Demonic possession, and its victim is a child who has been possessed within the safety of her own home. What could be scarier? A mother has no idea how to save her child… “The Exorcist” is a Horror film that I hardly ever watch because I don’t like the way it makes me feel.

That’s my list of the 10 Most Essential American Horror Movies That Best Represent the Genre for my friend Sarah and anyone else who wants to explore some of the all-time greatest classics of American Horror Cinema. These are the show notes for Jay of the Dead’s 5 Minutes of Horror. You can check out our long-format episodes on the Movie Podcast Network at Horror Movie Podcast.com, where we’re Dead Serious About Horror Movies.

8 thoughts on “5 Minutes of Horror: The 10 Most Essential American Horror Movies That Best Represent the Genre

  1. While I do think you mostly did a great job at picking out standout horror movies in history, I do find you’re ignoring modern horror. I’m thirty years old and there isn’t a single film on your list that came out in my lifetime. Horror has changed a lot in my lifetime. Naturally, only having ten movies to choose, you’re a bit limited, but I do believe a few of these (Despite being great) could be left off in favor of a film like 1996’s Scream. It’s a self aware horror that also helped kicked off a new popular time period for horror. Since the focus of this list was to represent American Horror Cinema, I believe your list is a bit incomplete without at least Scream representing modern horror if not also including a movie like Paranormal Activity to represent found footage/paranormal horror boom periods.

    • Good points, Sal. Thanks for listening to my list!

      First things first, I’d love to read your list. Please add it. (And that goes for everyone else who listens to this…)

      To answer your comment, I did specifically consider “Scream” and found footage… (I was also torn about leaving off “Poltergeist.”) And while you may have me on the unsavory combination of Comedy Horror, if you take a bird’s-eye view of this past century of Horror, Found Footage and even Comedy Horror (to me, at least) are barely blips that hardly register on the radar.

      Yes, there are a lot of Comedy Horror songs, so as I said, you may have me there; however, even though I love the Found Footage convention personally, I think in the grand scheme of time it will settle into the background of so many other Horror conventions, such as dim lighting, jump-scares, etc., to where it’s merely a backdrop element than its own sub-genre style of Horror.

      But if I were walking away from the past century of Horror cinema’s most prominent sentiments, I would be left with the impressions found in the 10 films on my list.

      What’s your list, Sal?

      Your pal,

      • For a list of only ten movies, I can understand why you’d pass over this recent boom of found footage and supernatural movies. Especially in the case of the latter, supernaturals are still popular and the history of them haven’t quite been finalized. With found footage, even though it was all of the rage around the beginning of this decade, was it long enough for a movie like Paranormal Activity in the top ten? Probably not. However, that’s when I think about Blair Witch Project and the whole found footage/using the internet to add buzz for a movie. In which case, I think Blair Witch Project is another modern, besides Scream, that is fitting for this list.

        I do think you’re being a little unfair on Scream, discrediting it from being on the list solely because part of it’s acclaim is being associated with your beloved sub-genre of horror/comedy. Sure, Scream isn’t as old as Frankenstein, but it’s already twenty-one years old! Think of all of the current horror fans that weren’t even born at the time of Scream’s release. Chances are, there’s some HMP listeners that that describes. Perhaps you’re not giving some of these more recent horror movies their due credit because you were a fan of horror far before those movies were released, thus your judgment of them in horror history is a little skewed?

        Off of the top of my head, my list:

        – Nosferatu – Gotta represent the silent era and vampires

        – Frankenstein – No problem there

        – Night of the Living Dead – It’s fair to go with Night or Dawn. They both represent the same change in horror with Night having the benefit of launching this new sub-genre of zombies and Dawn having the benefit of having a deeper social commentary. Even though I prefer Dawn, I think Night makes a bit more sense on a top ten for most influential.

        – The Exorcist – The definitive religious based horror.

        – Halloween – No problem there.

        – Alien – Representing space based horror.

        Scream – The return of the horror popularity.

        The Blair Witch Project – The unofficial start of found footage/viral marketing.

        I’m a bit unsure of the last two movies. Every movie you had on your list that I don’t are certainly great, but how many of them truly altered an aspect of horror? As brilliant of a movie as Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, I believe adding it to this list would be taking away a spot for a movie that popularized a sub-genre of horror.

        I’ll think about this list some more.

  2. This is a really well crafted list, Jay. I reckon you don’t really know me, but I’m a big, big fan who (believe it or not) OCCASIONALLY wonders WTF you’re going on about. This isn’t one of those times.

    I’m a big horror-comedy man, so I’d probably have to shoe horn Evil Dead 2 somewhere on the list, but my list may well end up inferior for doing so.

  3. I really like the list you created Jay, it definitely features a good variety of ‘heavy hitters’ and I like the way you built from mild to extra spicy. I also think Sal made a good point, but I’m kind of struggling to decide what films of the last 30 years could replace those respected classics. I agree that Scream was a game changer for and I personally would bump Jaws to include that.

  4. Jay, your list looks pretty solid for a newcomer to horror if they want to view the essentials. I would agree with Sal that Night of the Living Dead makes more sense than Dawn, and I would advise someone to see that first before viewing the other movies. I also would probably leave off Jaws because I’m assuming that most adults, even those not into horror, have seen that.

    So what would I replace Jaws with? That’s a tough one, especially if we’re sticking with American films. I agree with others that maybe a more recent one would make sense, though I feel like Scream – though it would still be enjoyable to a horror newbie – would have more an impact after having seen far more than 10 essentials. The Blair Witch Project might do well, even though it’s not really a film I enjoy much. The Ring would my personal choice though (if it’s not cheating to have a remake of a Japanese film). It’s hugely influential and represents the ghost-driven horror film, which I don’t think really breaches your list (with the possible exception of The Shining, though it’s more about Jack Torrence than the Overlook ghosts).

    Kendall R. Phillips has a book called Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture, in which each chapter looks at particular moments in 20th-century America and which films, in his view, had a pulse on the anxieties of the country at the time. Here are his picks:
    1) Dracula (1931)
    2) The Thing from Another World (1951)
    3) Psycho (1960)
    4) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
    5) The Exorcist (1973) and 6) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (in the same chapter)
    7) Halloween (1978)
    8) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
    9) Scream (1996)
    10) The Sixth Sense (1999)

    This got me thinking – if I had to pick a single American horror film to represent a particular decade, which ones would I pick? That would be another tough list, but here’s my shot at it:
    1920s – The Phantom of the Opera
    1930s – Frankenstein
    1940s – The Wolf Man
    1950s – Invasion of the Body Snatchers
    1960s – Night of the Living Dead
    1970s – Halloween
    1980s – The Thing
    1990s – Scream
    2000s – The Ring

  5. * * *

    I just recently came across your podcast and started listening to it. When you mentioned that you had put together a “Ten Horror Essentials” list for a friend, and sort of challenged listeners to do the same, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see if I could narrow a list down.

    Which I did, so I figured, I ought to pass it on to you to read, since you seem to like getting this sort of stuff from listeners. So here you go. My Ten Essentials List. I wanted to put together the list before looking at yours, and then compare and contrast, so I haven’t seen your list.

    Like the podcast a lot, btw. Haven’t checked out the other ones you mention yet.

    * * * *

    10 Most (Arbitrarily) Essential American Horror Movies That Best Represent the Genre.

    (By year)

    {1} The Wolf Man (1941)

    American Horror’s Founding Fathers can arguably be said to be the early Universal Studios stable of monsters. By 1941 Universal had scored big with monsters derived from pre-existing literature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Bram Stoker’s Dracula; The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The Wolf Man, like its 1935 predecessor “Werewolf of London”, was an original screenplay, and indeed, along with the earlier film, invented just about the entirety of the Werewolf Mythology that has become canon in just about all forms of horror storytelling ever since, which includes such items as passing the curse on through a bite, and the involuntary transformation taking place at the full of the moon, neither of which existed before the films.

    The werewolf tale was Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde” with a folkloric twist, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the tormented victim of a werewolf’s bite, set the bar for a Horror Archetype: the Good Man who doesn’t want to be a monster but can’t help himself. Until the time when werewolves morphed from being a hated curse to a sort of superpower, victims of the affliction in American cinema – indeed, even victims of a non-supernatural “Stop me before I kill again” psychosis – all carried the echo of 1941’s Larry Talbot.

    {2} Carnival Of Souls (1962)

    A low-budget indy that sowed the seeds of one of the more twisted vines in the American Horror garden; dreamlike, hallucinogenic, psychological horror. A woman survives a crash off a bridge that kills her two companions, only to find that her life has become a waking nightmare/dream. The surreal disconnect with reality, its aura of otherworldly and psychological confusion, is an obvious influence on iconoclastic filmmakers such as Tim Burton and David Lynch. A good film to have as part of one’s foundation for exploring American Horror Cinema.

    {3} The Haunting (1963)

    Shirley Jackson was New England’s Flannery O’Conner: a regional writer with a gothic sensibility. Be it Demon Lovers or Haunted Houses, she placed her Gothic horror squarely in the world in which she lived. Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” practically defined “Quiet Horror”; the idea that what is unseen and implied can be as scary or scarier than anything more explicit, and it still stands tall in its exemplary “less is more” approach to fear. Any film with similar sensibilities most likely owes a debt to The Haunting.

    {4} Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

    The influence of this one single film has been so pervasive, and the generations of progeny so varied and prolific, it could almost be classified a crime to spend time investigating what American Horror Cinema has to offer and not take in Romero’s ur-Walking-Dead-as-Cannibals movie. Even if it wasn’t a truly great horror film in its own right, which it is, it would still be required watching. ’nuff said.

    {5} Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

    Roman Polansky was from Poland, but Ira Levin’s Urban Horror tale of Satan Worshipping witches was pure America. Levin took mythology that carried the baggage of Puritan witch trials and robe-wearing Sorcerers and injected it with a contemporary, hip New York sensibility: young, up and coming professionals and worldly, urbane elders. Polansky, a student of the world-famous Film School in Wroclaw, Poland, brought his euro art-cinema sensibility to an American horror story, and thus influenced filmmakers to come who wanted to achieve an artistic gloss with their own horror films. Polansky’s use of a ghostly Fur Elise echoing through the Gothic Apartment building as a backdrop to the drama is fondly remembered by Cinephiles the world over.

    {6} The Exorcist (1973)

    Not only one of the great horror movies of all time, but also one of the greatest works of cinematic art, period.

    A few things pop culture tends to remember about The Exorcist: Green Pea-soup vomit; Spinning head; Masturbating with a cross; Tubular Bells.

    A few things pop culture tends to ignore about The Exorcist: Tubular Bells notwithstanding, A big budget horror movie with almost no incidental musical score at all. In contrast to the lack of music, a sound design that reaches the heights of artistic genius. A hyper-realistic filming and acting style that grounds a tale of the supernatural solidly in the Real World. A screenplay by an ace writer at the top of his game, adapting his own novel. A veritable film student’s blueprint on how to accumulate ever-increasing tension and horror believably.

    The Exorcist laid the groundwork for the cinematic “Possession/Exorcism” mythos in Anerica for decades to come.

    {7} Halloween (1978)

    The movie that set the bar for the stalker/slasher movies, it has little resemblance to a vast majority of its imitators. This is because most of those that followed lacked Carpenter’s instinct for the sort of Quiet Horror that “The Haunting” utilized so well. What Carpenter did was to marry it to Visceral Horror, so the payoff to the psychological tease is a knife in the gut. In his own films, Carpenter’s Visceral Horror evolved into bizarre and graphic body horror: in other hands, it would evolve into Loud Horror, which would then evolve again in Splatterpunk. But the best of them never forget that a whisper can be as scary as a scream, and when it came to teaming them up, Halloween showed them how it could be done.

    {8} Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

    While the 1956 adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel (which had the most upbeat ending of all the iterations of the story: the Power Of Love defeats the invaders and they flee back into space) is unquestionable a SciFi/Horror classic, this remake smoothly transitions the overt McCarthy-Era paranoia of “They Look Like Us” that characterized Don Siegel’s 1956 version, into the “You Can’t Trust Anybody, Not Even – Especially Not – The Authorities” ethos of the post-Watergate ’70s. America has always piggybacked sociopolitical commentary on its Horror, and the way this film – twenty years after its predecessor – accomplished the exact same feat, for a new political climate, makes it a good addition to the Ten Essentials List.

    {9} Alien (1979)

    Roger Corman’s prodigy grandchild. Roger Corman holds a special place in American Horror Cinema; he perfected a formula for the monster/siege flick, and gave American audiences an archetypal scenario to suck into their collective unconscious.

    But it took Ridley Scott, et al, and the making of Alien, to raise Corman’s monstrous twist on the Agatha Christy “Ten Little Indians” plot to the level of High Art. Rather than the cyberpunk noir he would later explore in Blade Runner, he populated his crew with good old American Blue Collar slobs. Not characters to look up to, but, like Corman’s teenage protagonists of his drive-in bound B-flicks, characters for the audience to identify with, and to empathize with as they get picked off one by one.

    Add to that better production values and the time to make sure it got done right, and Alien becomes Roger Corman’s legacy realized; a true American success story.

    {10} In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)

    American Horror Icon John Carpenter meets American Horror Icon H. P. Lovecraft in the best cinematic take on Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos ever made: an achievement even more impressive when one considers that neither Lovecraft, nor any of the vast panoply of horror manifestations that HPL brought to the page, are mentioned even once in Carpenter’s film. Carpenter makes this list twice because while Halloween nearly created a sub-genre by itself, ITMOM shows Carpenter’s, and by extension, American Horror’s — evolution in the ever-shifting balance of visceral and psychological horror. Eldritch Horrors and an untrustworthy reality where nothing is quite as it seems, are right up Carpenter’s alley, and he brings it to the screen with more verse and gusto than any straight Lovecraft adaptation ever did.

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