Horror movies have a way of transcending artistic boundaries simply because they’re largely regarded as an artistically “low” genre. The genre’s classics often have unique insight into the fears and anxieties of the time that mainstream movies wouldn’t touch for fear of controversy. As a result, they often uncover powerful truths overlooked by more respectable genres. That’s true even in cases where the film itself takes a while to find its audience.
Given their merits, numerous horror films were far ahead of their time, and often don’t receive credit for the themes and ideas they discuss until years after the fact. A list of some of the most notable follow, arranged chronologically by year. Each of them did something unique (either in theme or visual style) that broke new ground, but was largely overlooked at the time — even those that were big hits.
10 Freaks (1932) Put Real Disabilities on Display
Almost 100 years later, the sheer visceral impact of Tod Browning’s Freaks has yet to abate. Flush with the success of Dracula, the director followed it up with the tale of scheming circus performers who try to exploit a wealthy member of the sideshow. When their deceit is revealed, the other performers take a brutal revenge.
Browning used actors with real disabilities who had worked in sideshows before, including conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and the Earle Family, who went on to play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. It bombed upon initial release as audiences were horrified, and remains controversial to this day. But it depicts its subjects as worthy of dignity and respect, making a plea for acceptance that reverberates as powerfully as its more disturbing images.
9 The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Embraced Comedy as Well as Horror
James Whale helped create the modern horror movie with the two Universal Frankenstein films, but the second really pushed the boundaries of what horror films could talk about. Whale — a gay man who all but lived openly in an era of legal oppression — injects a good deal of LGBT subtext in The Bride of Frankenstein, such as Dr. Pretorius luring Henry Frankenstein away from his fiancée.
That comes with a fair helping of camp, as well as a lot of open humor in the bargain. While its horrors are as potent as its predecessor’s, the film’s comedy may be what strikes modern audiences the most. Actors like Una O’Connor actively play for laughs, and even Karloff’s Monster has a jolly moment or two. Whale played the same trick a few years earlier with The Invisible Man, but he perfects it here, and gives license to every horror comedy that followed.
8 The Night of the Hunter (1955) Turned Horror into a Fairy Tale
There’s nothing supernatural in The Night of the Hunter, which concerns a grifting sociopath disguised as a preacher chasing two children for the money hidden in one of their toys. It bombed so badly on release that director Charles Laughton never worked behind the camera again. Its reputation has grown in leaps and bounds since then, however, becoming one of the greatest films of the era.
It works by sidelining a photorealistic world in favor of something far more expressionistic. It essentially adopts the children’s point of view, with perspective and scale distorted, and characters embracing active archetypes. It isn’t new as the Universal cycle draws heavily on the same conventions — but it removes the haunted forests and Gothic castles. Instead, it takes on the air of a dark fairy tale, placing its all-too-human monster in sharp contrast.
7 Peeping Tom (1960) Helped Psycho Invent the Slasher Movie
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho changed the horror genre forever, delivering human evil as terrifying as any supernatural creature. Peeping Tom opened the same year to far less acclaim, only to emerge in later years as a near equal. It follows a serial killer who murders women and records their dying moments with a movie camera.
Even more than Psycho, Peeping Tom puts the audience in the killer’s shoes. It carefully explores his psychological traumas and compulsion for killing, using voyeuristic techniques to indict the viewer in what’s happening. Psycho establishes the foundations of the slasher movie, but Peeping Tom reminds fans of its proximity to an all-too-real world.
6 Night of the Living Dead (1968) Brought Racism into the Spotlight
1968 was marked by riots, Vietnam, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. But very little sign of that can be seen at the movies that year, with the likes of Funny Girl and Oliver! dominating the box office. Even masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes looked away from the headlines for their content, while the year’s big “political” film was The Green Berets with John Wayne. Hollywood was pointedly not talking about what America was going through.
Then, George A Romero’s low-budget zombie film opened in October. Not only did it launch the zombie apocalypse genre, but it speaks to the moment in ways no mainstream movie could. The shocking ending — in which the Black protagonist survives an undead siege only to be shot dead by a racist sheriff’s posse as he emerges from shelter — shone a spotlight on the real blood in America’s streets. White supremacy is the film’s real monster, which inspired subsequent horror films like Candyman and Get Out to explore the same topic.
5 The Thing (1982) Turned Body Horror into an Epidemic
Horror movies have developed the idea of pandemics to great effect, notably in the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the better entries in the zombie apocalypse genre. Nothing approaches The Thing on that front, however, merging the idea of a pandemic with body horror the likes of which cinema had never seen. The movie infamously bombed upon first release (with E.T.: The Extraterrestrial dominating the zeitgeist at the time) only to grow in popularity until it’s now considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
Rob Bottin’s special effects play a huge role, as a thawed creature from outer space assimilates and imitates members of an Antarctic expedition. It makes for some of the movie’s most horrific moments with tendrils enveloping victims, invading their systems, and transforming them into monsters from the inside out. At the time, the AIDS epidemic was raging, with the sitting president refusing to even acknowledge the issue. In time, The Thing was followed by the likes of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, and James Gunn’s Slither, which also used practical effects and body horror to convey an often otherworldly pandemic.
4 Creepshow (1982) Beat Superhero Movies to the Comic Book Look
Anthology films were nothing new when George A. Romero and Stephen King collaborated on Creepshow. Indeed, its focus on the EC horror comics of the 1950s is matched by several admirable earlier efforts, notably 1972’s version of Tales from the Crypt. But Creepshow sets itself apart by openly embracing comic-book visuals, framing scenes with white panels, adding narration boxes, and even using colored lighting to achieve an overtly four-color look.
Contemporary comic-book adaptations also dabbled in such fare. The Batman 1960s TV show had its famous fight sound effects, for instance, and the 1970s Wonder Woman opened with Lynda Carter literally jumping out of the page. But Wonder Woman also took pains to show its heroine in a realistic universe, as did The Incredible Hulk and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. It took Tim Burton’s Batman to change that equation in a big way. Still, Creepshow got the jump on him by seven years, confirming horror’s place in comics history before the superhero tsunami hit, and helping directors like Burton break free of photorealism.
The original Fright Night engendered a mini-wave of 1980s vampire movies, including the Gen X classic The Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. It works as a riff on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, as a teenage boy spots a vampire next door and enlists a has-been horror movie actor to come to his aid. It’s tailor-made for the video era, reviving the genre’s hoary conventions with a fresh and clever story.
It’s also been embraced by the LGBT community, who cite its powerful queer subtext and empathy with outsiders. The vampire, Jerry Dandridge, lives with a male human familiar for instance, while his eventual minion “Evil Ed” is ostracized for being different. Actors Stephen Geoffreys and Amanda Bearse both subsequently came out, while Roddy McDowall — who plays horror host Peter Vincent — had lived “openly closeted” for decades when he appeared in the film. In an era when the LGBT community was either invisible or relegated to onscreen punchlines, it set a precedent allowing others to follow, starting with The Lost Boys, another vampire film with strong LGBT themes.
2 Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1992) Shattered The Fourth Wall
Horror movies love bringing the audience into the mayhem, whether it’s the 3D craze of the 1950s or the gimmicky likes of William Castle. The 1990s produced a bumper crop of self-referential horror movies, well-aware of their status as constructs and letting audiences in on the joke. The Scream series carried the banner, joined the likes of John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty.
Wes Craven, who created the Scream movies, got the jump on everyone with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. It posits fictional versions of himself, Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp menaced by a version of the monster they all created: Freddy Krueger. It puts a delightful coda on the Nightmare on Elm Street saga, while allowing Craven to grapple with the unintentional cultural impact of his dream-killing boogeyman.
1 Jennifer’s Body (2009) Broke the Mold on Women’s Stereotypes
Jennifer’s Body was hurt on first release by an inept ad campaign and an unfavorable release date in the dead days of September. While it’s not a perfect film, the singular relationship of its two central characters is something special. At first glance it looks like the popular girl exploiting her shy friend, as Megan Fox’s manipulative Jennifer ends up possessed by a demon and Amanda Seyfried’s wallflower bestie has to sort it out.
But as the movie proceeds, it turns into a far more complex study of their relationship. Both grapple with male expectations and stereotyping, which set them against each other almost from the get go. Yet, both also find strength and encourage each other even when they’re at odds. It’s hardly the first feminist horror movie, but its subsequent cult status helped pave the way for the likes of Midsommar and The Babadook.
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