5 Scream (1996)
Wes Craven handily deconstructs a genre he helped define in this hit film wherein Neve Campbell is targeted for the sins of her murdered mother while being terrorized with all manner of horror movie trivia. The well-worn rules of the genre are espoused by film geek Jamie Kennedy, as a survival guide on how to survive the killing spree. By placing the action in a comparatively realistic environment that acknowledges the slasher conventions, Craven effectively and brilliantly ups the scare factor, while working with a smart and funny script. Its cast of then-hot young actors (Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan) is equally game.
4 Candyman (1992)
As beautiful and thought provoking as any horror film ever made, Candyman terrifies thanks to some very disturbing gore, Bernard Rose’s sure-handed direction, Philip Glass’s (!) creepy score, and Tony Todd’s whispering performance as the titular killer. Based very loosely on a Clive Barker (Hellraiser) story called The Forbidden, the movie follows Chicago grad student Helen Lyle, who is doing a research paper on urban legends. She stumbles upon the legend of The Candyman, a hook-handed spirit (the son of a slave, murdered for loving a white woman) who comes when summoned by name while gazing into a mirror. Looking for info on some very real murders attributed to the supposedly mythic figure brings her to the projects, and that’s when the real trouble starts. Helen not only becomes the object of The Canyman’s rage and desire (he is angry she is telling people he’s just a story, but wants her to join him in the afterlife), she is framed for his deeds as well, in a twist which has viewers wondering whether or not he’s just a figment of her imagination. Most likely not, though.
3 A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven pushed the slasher genre further into the supernatural and surreal when he conceived of a child murderer, burned to death by the angry parents of his community, returning to claim the surviving children in their dreams. A terrifying enough concept on paper, the film gave us Freddy Kreuger, arguably the most dynamic icon in all horror history. Though Freddy drifted into more comedic territory as the series wore on (most notably in the third installment, which is the true series high point), in this first film he is dimly lit and all murderous business, making it difficult to sleep for Heather Langenkamp and a young Johnny Depp. A true landmark. Believe it or not, this move was inspired by real events.
2 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The low budget masterpiece many consider the true granddaddy of the format, this film 40 years on remains simply scary, from Leatherface’s very first kill (which is ironically made with a blunt instrument, a meat-hammer). A group of road-tripping young folk fall prey to the cannibalistic Sawyer clan in central Texas, with Gunnar Hansen portraying its famous masked member, definitely the first character of his particular kind. Practically horror filmmaker has cited its formative influence and its all around quality is astonishing, despite the budgetary constraints and lack of seasoned professional actors in the cast. As good as simple horror like this can get.
1 Halloween (1978)
The film that many argue created the genre as we know it today, and it’s a pretty good argument. On All Hallow’s Eve, mental patient Michael Meyers escapes from the loony bin he’s occupied since adolescence (he stabbed his sister to death fifteen years previous), and hightails it to his hometown of Haddonfield to carve up babysitters like so many ripe pumpkins. A young Jamie Lee Curtis stars as main prey Laurie Strode, and Donald Pleasance makes his first appearance as foremost Michael Meyers scholar Dr. Loomis. Though the film is predated by others concerning grotesque maniacs slicing up teenagers (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Halloween is seen as the film that truly introduced many hallmarks that became staples of the genre, such as the virtuous, virginal lone survivor. Viewing the film today still elicits dread, with its now classic ominous theme music, and seemingly unstoppable Shatner-masked killer. It stands, quite reasonably, as the holiday’s own A Christmas Story, and spawned many (increasingly inferior) sequels and a reboot.
Friday The 13TH (1980) – The film that ran with the “horny teen” trope and introduced us to Jason Voorhees, if not quite yet how we know him today.
Psycho (1960) – Hitchcock’s suspense masterpiece, containing the first truly iconic butcher knife in cinema.
Child’s Play (1988) Chucky the killer doll’s very solid first outing.