The horror genre has seemed to be on an ever-increasing rise in popularity since the early ’70s. Apparently the mainstream viewers cottoned onto the appeal of gore and scaring yourself shit-less – who would have thought?
However, there’s a major problem that comes with the rise of popularity for any genre – the lack of originality that inevitably follows. It becomes difficult not to step on the toes of what has already been done before, which is why when directors achieve something new and exciting in their approach to scaring us, they need credit where credit is deserved.
In the light of the recent acclaimed release of Andy Muschietti’s It, we look at some of the most influential and original horror movies of all time, and what it was about them that set them apart from the rest of the genre.
Let’s start with a classic of course, created by the father of horror and a director whose name we won’t be forgetting for a long time. You can’t have an article about films that changed the horror genre and not include Alfred Hitchcock!
Based on the novel by Robert Block, Psycho‘s narrative holds disturbing twists and becomes increasingly tense throughout. Deemed the first ever ‘psychoanalytical thriller’, every technique used in Psycho has since been repeated several million times. The inspiration for the character of Norman Bates was Texan Ed Gein, whose hobbies were grave robbing and human skinning. Despite not even making the minimum three kills to be qualified as a serial killer, he is the inspiration for many other famous characters, including Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface and Jame Gumb – quite the legacy.
Fun Fact: The film’s famous shower scene gained worldwide recognition for its camera techniques and post production editing. Within 3 minutes, 50 camera cuts and 77 different angles were used. Psycho was also considered controversial for being the first film to show a flushing toilet.
Would you believe that Paramount Pictures actually turned Hitchcock’s proposal for this masterpiece down not once, not twice, but three times?! But the man was far too determined to accept rejection and he personally funded the whole production. It was a worthwhile risk in the end, since Hitchcock saw a payback of $50,000,000. Not too shabby.
The Shining (1980)
Many critics consider this to be the ultimate adaptation of a Stephen King novel and one of the best horror films of all times, largely due to the star performance of hot shot actor Jack Nicholson. However, you’ll be shocked to discover that what is now considered as one of the greatest psychological horrors was not greeted with such high remarks at the time of its release.
Even Stephen King had a list of faults to pick with Stanley Kubrick’s creation, stating that the film failed as a horror because “it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little”. He also complained about its famous casting, because Nicholson was too compelling as a crazy man from the beginning and therefore the change in his mentality is less apparent. I don’t know about you, but I think attempting to murder your wife and son shows a big change in sanity.
As great as Stephen King is, perhaps he should keep to just writing novels because Kubrick made him eat his own words with the overall success rate of The Shining – it made $44,017,374 in the US alone. One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the effort that went into producing such an incredible set. The Overlook Hotel scenes were filmed in London, and at the time of its release it was the largest set ever to be built; mainly because it included a full re-creation of the exterior maze.
Fun Fact: The signature quote of the film ‘Here’s Johnny’ was actually improvised by Nicholson and ranked 68th on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes list.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Not everyone will agree with this being on my list, but I think it’s earned a place in horror history (and I really love Bruce Willis). This film crosses over into the supernatural side of horror which can be equally – if not more – terrifying that your average gore-filled thriller. The 90s was a time when the sub-genre of psychological thriller became really predominant, which means there was a lot of overkill on this particular angle and in my opinion, The Sixth Sense was one of the only ones that did it justice.
The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense really made the film stand apart from the rest, and you would never have seen it coming… unless some crappy friend blurted it out beforehand. This film revealed a softer side to action man Bruce Willis, and in turn he won a Blockbuster Entertainment Award, a People’s Choice Award and was nominated for the Saturn Award. Even more successful for his role was his co-star, Haley Joel Osment, but I won’t even begin that list. The very memorable quote “I see dead people” claimed the 44th spot in AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes list.
The film was a big success, initially due to its stellar cast, but over time it’s still held up because of the terrifying narrative that left us all feeling haunted. The opening weekend grossed $26.6 million alone, and the film’s overall worldwide gross was $672,806,292. It also spent six consecutive weeks in the No. 1 spot at the box office which – again – isn’t too shabby.
Fun Fact: Director M. Night Shyamalan included a colour code in which Dr Malcolm only touched red items throughout the whole film. Next time you watch it, keep an eye out.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch phenomenon is renowned for being the film that tricked the world. The introduction of ‘found footage’ into the genre was a revolution which has since been overused. The film’s PR team did wonders in their method of distribution; they initially created false websites, police interviews and evidence to make it appear as if the three filmmakers starring in Blair Witch were actually abducted a year before, and that the film was genuine found footage of theirs. Though the ruse eventually fell apart, it was still enough to spark a worldwide interest in the film.
Fun Fact: Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick wanted to make the situation feel as real as possible during filming, to the point that they would deprive the actors of food, harass them at night and make them walk endlessly throughout the day. Now you might understand why Heather was so unbearably annoying in the film.
Almost 19 hours worth of usable footage was recorded in only 8 days. Ultimately what made The Blair Witch Project impressive was the strong suspense build up and the convincing realism, so much so that some viewers reported having to leave the screening because of experiencing motion sickness from the hand held camera.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
It was originally developed as an independent film with an extremely tiny budget of $15,000 for the whole film, and the actors lead roles of Katie and Micah were only paid $500 each. Paranormal Activity was an incredible financial success story for the genre and brought life back into the ‘poltergeist in the house’ trope. The box office total on release was $193,355,800, which almost certainly ensured Katie and Micah a pay rise.
The director Oren Peli never envisioned the sheer success that was to come; he premiered it originally at Screamfest Film Festival where Dreamworks bought the domestic rights. Their instinct was to remake it all on a bigger scale, but a test screening of the original found audience members having to leave the theatre in fear. Very quickly they realised they were already working with something special.
Since then there have been multiple sequels and prequels released, to the point it’s all got rather bizzare. We’re still waiting on a real answer as to what truly happened in the first film. The more films they add, the more they just leave us with unanswered storylines, and now it seems to be the franchise is one big tangled web. Perhaps they should have left it as a one hit wonder, but either way, it must have been one very impressive wonder to birth a whole decade of rip offs.
Let us know if you agree or disagree, and what other films should join the list!