The Essential Horror Canon: Part 1 (60s & 70s)
60 years ago, Norman Bates stopped Marion Crane's heart and stole ours in the process, changing the landscape of a genre that has shape-shifted more than any other in American cinema.
What follows is a list of the most essential — though not necessarily the best, or even our favorite — horror films since 1960’s Psycho stirred up controversy six decades ago (including Psycho itself). Each decade gets only five entries. We’ll do the 60s and 70s today; 80s and 90s tomorrow, and 2000s and 2010s on Saturday.
I’d heard of Psycho before I was allowed to watch Psycho. My neighbor had a flickering Bates Motel sign in their window each Halloween, and I recall vague but regular illusions to a “shower scene,” though my adolescent mind made certain assumptions later proven wrong. If you can go through life without learning a single detail about Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece before seeing it, you’re either a superhero or just not on Twitter. But that’s the nature of Psycho’s unparalleled invasion of the American cultural bloodstream. Despite its perversity — or maybe because of it — it has slithered its way into the shadowy corners of every American household and mind for the last 60 years.
And none of this even speaks to the film’s enduring legacy on cinema. Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween is named after Marion’s boyfriend, whose surname would again be repeated and honored in Wes Craven’s Scream a few decades later. It’s one of a few 60s films that undeniably influenced the explosion of slasher movies in the 70s and 80s, and its upending of traditional notions of narrative let loose a wave of structure-defying copycats, all the way down to 2018’s Hereditary. - Zach D'Amico
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
The original, lesser-known, non-musical version of The Little Shop of Horrors was directed by producer extraordinaire Roger Corman in 1960, and it spawned a thousand imitators (and one literal imitator). Corman dabbled in exploitation sci-fi and horror in the back half of the 50s, focused primarily on cheap scares and schlock shocks. With The Little Shop of Horrors, Corman melded farce and dark humor into a particular blend that hadn’t been done to great success before, simultaneously providing a launching pad for Jack Nicholson’s career. Corman took the absurdity and the horror of the situation so far that it resulted in laughs, thus spawning an entire sub-genre of horror-comedy mashups. - ZD
The Innocents (1961)
Did you enjoy Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor? Then you probably have The Innocents to thank. One of the earliest and most critically successful adaptations of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s film draws from the stage adaptation by William Archibald, but the rewrite by Truman Capote is what cements The Innocents as one of the decade’s critical horror texts. Ghosts, sexual repression, psychological intrigue, creepy and possibly possessed kids, “is this actually happening” ambiguity — it’s all there, and it set the stage for countless Turn of the Screw adaptations to come, as well as all manner of chilly, austere ghost stories. - Carson Cook
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is often credited for reinventing the idea of zombies as flesh-eating, animated corpses. It’s an astounding accomplishment, but one writer thinks it’s eclipsed by his debut film’s influence on the genre as a whole, marking a seismic shift toward more blood-soaked, splatter horror. That includes a notable influence on the most popular horror trend of the 20th century: the slasher. Night of the Living Dead inspired Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street — and not to spoil anything, but you’ll be seeing at least a few of those later on this list.
As a 28-year-old filmmaker, Romero also managed to seamlessly incorporate social commentary into his film, sticking his finger on the lightning rod of racial politics in 1968 and emerging with a thoughtful consideration of other-ing in the middle of a genuinely terrifying movie. It’s a trend that took a bit more time to catch fire, but once it did, it eventually redefined the genre another time. Pour one out for George. - ZD
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Unfortunately tainted by the Roman Polanski of it all, the on-screen product of Rosemary’s Baby cements its legacy as one of the early modern horror films to fully embrace the ability of the genre to work on a literal and symbolic level — it’s nothing new to note that Rosemary excels as a horror movie about women’s bodily autonomy, but the execution of those ideas never cease to amaze. The film’s success brought on a new wave of interest in satanic-focused horror, which even today is a sub-genre that can be traced back to Rosemary’s Baby; it’s a lineage that includes the “spawn of satan” films of The Omen and its kin — you don’t have to squint too hard to see Damien as Rosemary’s true Baby. - CC
The Exorcist (1973)
A movie that prompted theaters to reportedly hand out “barf bags” made over 45 times its budget. A movie that inspired cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts and Hattiesburg, Mississippi to attempt to enact bans on screenings nonetheless received four sequels. A movie that Rolling Stone called “a religious porn film” received a Best Picture Nomination, nevermind the additional nine nominations and one win. That film, of course, is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The Exorcist is the movie that scary movies are afraid of. It spawned a spurt of studio horror movies like The Omen and The Amityville Horror, and it incredibly brought gravitas to a previously disrespected genre. The Exorcist rules. - ZD
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
$140,000 budget. Mostly amateur actors. One of the most viscerally terrifying movies ever made. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains the gold standard for documentary-style horror on a shoestring budget, paving the way for both the major slasher franchises and the found footage boom that started with The Blair Witch Project — in the case of the latter, the shared usage of “this is a true story” misinformation only serves to bring the terror even closer to home than it already was. Director Tobe Hooper also proved that you don’t need gore to be scary, laughably submitting the film to the MPAA with the hopes of securing a PG rating due to the relatively minimal amounts of gore and then — obviously — being told he had to cut several minutes if he wanted to avoid an X. It’s a lesson in disturbing minimalism that not all of Chainsaw’s prodigy took to heart. - CC
Da dum. Da dum. We all know Jaws, and we all know Jaws’ bona fides as the blueprint for the modern summer blockbuster — for better or for worse, without Bruce the shark our multiplexes from May to July would look a lot different. But Jaws didn’t just invent the blockbuster, it reinvented the creature feature, spawning rip-offs and imitators for decades to come: from Piranha to Anaconda to The Meg, Steven Spielberg’s ocean-set masterpiece proved that killer animals could provide an endless well of inspiration (though the producers of many of these films probably should have also realized it helps to have a Spielberg-level talent at the helm). Show Jaws to a kid for the first time today and I’ll bet she won’t be going anywhere near the ocean (or the pool) anytime soon. - CC
The one that spawned a thousand imitations. If Psycho remains the most well-known film on this list, then surely Michael Myers is the biggest household name in our cast of ignominious villains. Rarely straying far enough from cinemas to be forgotten, Myers has been a staple of horror cinema since his introduction to screens in 1978. Though none of its numerous reboots and sequels have lived up to Halloween’s standards, the central fear-creation tactics weaponized by director John Carpenter have helped revolutionize the genre. From the villain mythology to the bad-guy-POV to the final girl / scream queen, Halloween either originated, perfected, or popularized countless horror tropes that we’re still seeing in 2020. And through all that, Michael Myers is still chugging along. - ZD
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” If that tagline was the only thing Ridley Scott’s landmark film gave us, it honestly might be enough to land it on this list. Fortunately, Alien’s legacy stretches beyond its marketing campaign: a highwater mark in both science fiction and horror, Alien’s atmospherics, design, and structure are nearly unparalleled, inspiring not only a successful (and mostly high quality) franchise of its own but decades of genre-bending horror. Though Halloween may be rightfully considered the blueprint for the modern slasher film, Alien is arguably just as influential in that realm — at the very least, it gave us cinema’s most iconic (and competent) final girl in Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, a character that never manages to lose her cool or her integrity regardless of how ridiculous her sequels get. - CC