Horror movies and shows are a big part of my life and have been for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching movies like The Addams Family and Beetlejuice. I was also lucky enough to grow up during the strange period of time in the 90s when there were tons of spooky cartoons getting heavy airplay.
While I was a fan of this style of entertainment, it would be a long time before I was allowed to watch rated-R films so I felt like I had to play catch up in my teenage years well into my 20s. Hell, to this day I’m still playing catch up on movies I haven’t seen that are deemed classics of the genre.
So, today I present to you a list of movies that I think anyone new to the genre should check out. But, instead of just rattling off the obvious classics that you will get in any list, I want to share with you all the films that I think are excellent representations of various themes within the genre that are a bit outside the normal box.
The Haunted Palace
If you’ve spent any amount of time within the horror community, the name Vincent Price should be familiar with you, especially if you are familiar with Michael Jackson’s song Thriller or the movie Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price is among royalty in the horror genre and worked on a number of incredible films that are often considered must watches.
Films like The House on Haunted Hill or any of the Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe series are highly regarded amongst fans of Price’s work. While I do enjoy all of these films, even considering The House on Haunted Hill an all time favorite, one that often gets overlooked is The Haunted Palace.
The Haunted Palace is often considered a part of the Poe series even though it is loosely based on a story by HP Lovecraft called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The film is set in Arkham, Massachusetts, much like a lot of Lovecraft’s work, and centers around a town that is cursed after burning the local Warlock. Years later, Charles Dexter Ward and his wife come to a town full of hesitant residents as they have inherited the property of said warlock. From there, the craziness slowly unfolds.
This pick is on my list because not only is it super fun but you can also see some places where later films possibly took inspiration from the story. Not to mention, this is the perfect example of the evolution of film from the Golden Age of Cinema in the 30s and 40s into something more playful in the 50s and up. Films that have great stories but aren’t afraid to have fun with how they tell those stories. I highly recommend this one!
Werewolves are an absolute staple in the horror genre and with that comes several films that highlight the troupe really well. Movies like The Wolf Man, An American Werewolf in London, and The Howling are great examples of films that perfectly personify the lycanthrope within cinema.
My personal favorite movie about werewolves is hands down Ginger Snaps. As a teenager, this movie really spoke to my angsty goth soul. It was one of those movies that every time it was one, my bestie Ian and I would watch it.
This movie centers around two sisters living in Bailey Downs, Ontario, Canada. They both are incredibly fascinated with the macabre and find themselves as outsiders amongst their peers, not to mention their overbearing mother, wonderfully played by Mimi Rogers. Then, one evening, Ginger is attacked by a mysterious creature and remarkably survives. As the days go on leading up to the next full moon, Ginger’s personality changes and she becomes a bit estranged from her sister, Bridget. The movie mostly centers around Bridget’s quest to save her sister from potentially becoming a werewolf.
At a deeper level, this movie deals a lot with the challenges of being a female teenager in the 21st century while using the theme of werewolves as a metaphor. It also dives into the feelings of depression that face a lot of teenagers now and how destructive a co-dependent relationship can be. It has a lot going on underneath the surface and that is why it has remained a favorite of mine for the last 20+ years.
The lines between horror and comedy, especially in cinema, often cross paths. I’ve heard several filmmakers say that making a comedy believable takes the same serious approach as making a horror film. I find this notion incredibly interesting so when I have the chance to enjoy a horror/comedy, I take the opportunity to watch it from that perspective.
Young Frankenstein is a great example of a perfect pairing of horror and comedy. Not only is it a really fun interpretation and parody of Frankenstein but also a perfect comedy film. One of the reasons for this is because the cast play their roles incredibly seriously. Almost like they didn’t get the memo that this movie was supposed to be funny.
Why not as often talked about, to my personal tastes, I feel the same can be said about the 1989 horror/comedy classic, The ‘Burbs. As the name implies, this movie takes place in a typical American suburban neighborhood. Nothing special is going on at the start of the movie other than establishing the mundane routines the inhabitants of this neighborhood typically pursue. But, as Ray, played by Tom Hanks, gets deeper into his much needed vacation, his boredom begins to lead him to suspect something is up with his strange new neighbors.
This suspicion, especially while being instigated further by his ridiculous neighbor buddy Art, portrayed by the hilarious Rick Ducommun, begins a strange adventure to find out what exactly the new neighbors are up to. As the mystery unfolds, the scenarios get more and more ridiculous but are played almost completely straight by the cast, making it even more funny.
It’s almost like watching an even stranger version of Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. The paranoia just continues to intensify the deeper the movie goes while the main character keeps bringing more people into the fold.
I remember as a kid watching this with my mom on some sort of holiday break. I want to say Thanksgiving. We watched the original version of The Blob, The Birds, and Ants! (It Happened at Lakewood Manor, which for some reason I always confused with The Towering Inferno). Since then, this movie has been a favorite of mine and one I try to rewatch often.
In my early 20s, while working my first job at Blockbuster, I became obsessed with Japanese horror films, also known as J-horror. One of my all time favorite films is Halloween (1978) because of its simplicity and under-reliance on gore. So, once I began diving deeper into J-horror, I was obsessed with how terrifying the genre could be without being overly gory. Especially during this time when movies like Saw, Hostil, and The Hills Have Eyes were pioneering the “torture porn” genre of horror.
Films like The Grudge and The Ring were big hits for American audiences but few knew that these were actually American remakes of Japanese horror films Ju-On and Ringu. I decided to start with these two films and a couple of anthologies that my store had available. The created a strong foundation for me on how amazing J-horror movies really were and got me obsessed with finding more.
Then, I stumbled upon a movie that was a part of the 8 Films to Die For series called Reincarnation. This film was directed by Takashi Shimizu who also directed the first two Ju-On movies, so this was right up my alley.
Without giving anything away, which would be easy to do with this one, the movie is centered around a young Japanese actress that begins hallucinating and seeing dead people. The same thing is happening across the city to other folks. During this time, a director decides to make a film about a tragic incident at a large country hotel. Our main character gets a starring part in the film.
I leave it there because this film is worth watching as blind as possible but I highly recommend it. Not only is it a great introduction to the J-horror genre but also a fantastic ghost/haunted house story. It kind of feels like Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining but obviously with its own characteristics. Check it out if you can find it!
The Exorcist III
Even if you aren’t familiar with the genre of horror, more than likely you are at least mildly aware of the cinema classic, The Exorcist. Widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time and often referred to as “the scariest film ever made,” The Exorcist has crossed over the barrier of awareness for society and into the mainstream consciousness.
Immediately, you may be thinking to yourself that this is probably just another odd sequel in an attempt to create a franchise from a successful film. One one hand you would be absolutely correct. On the other hand, you’d be doing a bit of a disservice to this film with that immediate judgment.
The Exorcist III is the spiritual successor to The Exorcist only in name and sharing of some characters. The Exorcist III is actually based on William Peter Blatty’s 1983 novel, Legion, which was his follow-up to The Exorcist novel the film was based on (and very faithfully, I might add). The story itself didn’t have anything to do with an actual exorcism until the studio got involved with the production of the film, which was directed beautifully by Blatty, himself.
Even with heavy studio involvement, Blatty does a great job with his directorial debut in creating a film steeped in atmosphere. One of the defining characteristics for me with this film is that it has no actual depictions of horror or gore. It uses the tension and suspense built through the story and how it is visually depicted to instill a sense of fear in the viewer. Somewhat similar, in my opinion, to how Halloween (1978) doesn’t rely on gore to create a horrific atmosphere.
This is evident in the fact that the movie has one of the greatest jump-scares in all of horror cinema. I remember waking up to this moment one halloween when I was a teenager and fell asleep during a movie marathon. Scared the shit out of me!
In addition to the excellent story, the film is supported by a stellar cast, specifically George C. Scott as Lieutenant Kinderman (a character from the original Exorcist story) and Brad Dourif as James Venamun / The “Gemini Killer.” The fact that neither of these actors received awards for their performances is near criminal.
I highly recommend sitting down and giving this one a watch. If you are a Shudder or AMC+ subscriber, I would also encourage you to check out the episode of The Last Drive-In featuring the movie. Joe Bob’s commentary on the film really makes for a fun watching experience.
Trick r Treat
When you think of holidays like Halloween where horror stories are often told and celebrated, not one single story comes to mind, usually. It’s a wide variety of stories that one might hear over a lifetime that reminds someone of the season. That’s one of the reasons I think horror anthology films and television series are so popular within the community.
While movies like Creepshow and shows like Tales from the Crypt are great examples of anthology horror, 2009’s Trick ‘r Treat is the perfect example for the Halloween season. I won’t spoil it but this movie ends up telling several stories in a way that becomes seamless the longer you watch the film. All stories including the main character of Sam in some capacity. Sometimes actively. Sometimes as a background element.
The movie itself acts as a singular tale of the spirit of Halloween and the consequences of not respecting the rules of the holiday. It’s hard to explain it without giving it away completely so I will leave it at that. Elements of the film have become a bit mainstream so you will more than likely recognize some things on your first watch.
No matter what films you watch within the horror genre, you will come to find that certain styles intrigue you more than others. That’s why I encourage you to watch tons of movies and shows to see what you like and dislike. You’ll find that most people in the horror community will pretty much watch anything. Even the cheapest, worst movie ever probably has something in it that you might find enjoyable. So, reserve your judgments as best you can, keep an open mind, and enjoy the ride. Stay scared, my friend!