The Ten Best Horror Film From Each of the Last Ten Decades

Horror films are a director’s genre. It requires the purity of filmmaking to garner scares and screams. It is Halloween time, which means there are a whole slew of list of the best horror films. But, those lists are boring. Instead, we here at Man of the Hour are going to give you a list of ten films from the last ten decades starting from the 1920s. The list is completely arbitrary but the films are what we consider to be influential and maybe even the best of the decade. These films make the skin crawl and seeps into our general imagination. They also have become classics of the genre and films to be looked up to by all who follow. Here we having everything ranging from vampires to women shifting into animals to all the different types of boogeymen you can imagine. The films are listed in chronological order.

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10. Nosferatu: The first great filmmakers of the young medium of film came from Germany. Their influence on cinema has no bounds especially when it comes to horror. FW Murnau’s Nosferatu is no different. Taking cues from German expressionism, the creepy, disfigured Count Orlok lurks in every corner. He is too tall, his face is too angular, his nails too sharp to be human. His movements are swift and catlike. Horror films changed with Nosferatu, an adaptation of Dracula, with the title only changed because Murnau could not get the rights to the book from Bram Stoker’s wife. In fact, every traditional horror film cliché from the Universal horror monsters takes it from Nosferatu. This, along with the Cabinet of Dr. Caligiri is the OG horror classic. The monolithic castle filled with cobwebs, the shadows, the cape, all comes from this. In fact, the 1931 Dracula directly lifts images and lines for Murnau’s classic. If you want to understand horror films, start from the beginning with Nosferatu.  

9. Freaks: Tod Browning maybe known best for Dracula. But, that was just a prelude to a weirder, more audacious film. I present the 1932 film, Freaks. Browning was only able to make this passion project because of Dracula, and it was so morally reprehensible that the film ruined his career and was a major factor in the adaptation of Hayes Censorship Code in the mid-30’s. In fact, the current version today is just aa shortened version of a more violent and horrifying original. The film follows a group of circus freaks (the term of the time) who has formed a community with the traveling circus. When one beautiful woman tries to take advantage of one of them, they seek revenge on her. The film at once makes you fall in love with a group of oddballs just to lead to a horrifying crescendo that has you creeped out and cheering at the same time. Freaks has since become a cult, midnight classic that is personally one of my favorite movies of all time.

8. Cat People: Val Lewton was the rare producer who can probably fall in the space of an auteur. This 1940’s producer was given the tough task trying to make a full feature out of a list of awful titles from RKO Studios. Infamous titles, such as I Walked with Zombie and Body Snatcher was somehow made into classics with a little bit of ingenuity. Lewton’s most famous feature was Cat People, released in 1942, directed by the French filmmaker Jacques Tourner. The film is both a testament on female empowerment and a creepy tale of not knowing exactly who you married. Horror has a funny way of being subversive that way. The most famous scene from the movie invented the modern conception of the jump scare, working with mood, editing and sound in perfect synchronicity. This technique of scaring audiences has since been named “The Lewton Bus.” Even more surprising is how strange the sequel, The Curse of the Cat People was, which completely upends the genre to make a compelling coming-of-age drama.

7. The Night of the Hunter: I have a fear of baritone voices singing hymns because of this movie. More of a thriller than a horror film, The Night of the Hunter has one of the best boogeymen in film with Reverend Harry Powell, played by the great Robert Mitchum who cemented his legacy as a great boogeyman later as Max Cady in Cape Fear. Horror is a director’s medium and no person has had a greater what-if legacy than the director of this film, Charles Laughton. Laughton had long been a famous character actor, winning an Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII. But, his lasting legacy has been for The Night of the Hunter, a work of visual poetry that pays homage to German expressionism and innovated its own techniques with its innovative use of key light. Also, did I mention that this film is creepy. There is nothing scarier than a boogeyman that is human. Poetic visuals and songs that haunt your dreams make The Night of the Hunter one of the best films of all time.

6. Rosemary’s BabyThe 60’s meant the innocence of 50’s was over. New radical directors were coming into Hollywood and doing radical things with the established norm. None is more evident than Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Here, the perfect couple of Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes moves into a New York apartment. They are the idyllic couple, young and sexy. But, they represented the past and soon were to be corrupted by the devil through Polanski’s European sensibilities. This film is darkly prescient as it puts forth the devil as being one that comes in many different forms. One year after the 1968 release, Polanski would have his pregnant wife brutally murdered by the Satan worshipper, Charles Manson. A dark cloud hangs over this film, looking back at it. This film was the beginning of cynicism, of paranoia. Vietnam is never mention, but it is obvious that the collective negativity of the war hangs over the film. And sometimes, like Rosemary, we have to accept the evil with a motherly lullaby. 

5. Carrie: The 70’s was a glorious decade for horror films, both big and small. Small budget horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre thrived in midnight showings and films like The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien were bonafide blockbusters. But, no horror film better defined the 70’s than Brian De Palma’s Carrie. De Palma is a great director that follows the pastiche of the greats from the past, especially that oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. All of his interests, from the visual storytelling to the campy subject matter comes ahead to the first ever Stephen King adaptation. Like many of the new Hollywood filmmakers, Carrie is without a doubt a De Palma film, filled with virile passion and gusto. It starts off as an innocent high school movie cliché but De Palma plants seeds of darkness throughout. The opening shot is a dreamlike slow motion track through a woman’s locker room and it pans to Sissy Spacek, perfectly cast as the innocent Carrie. Soon, she loses that innocence and slowly hell breaks loose to a climatic third act that is influential, it requires its own article. 

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is the perfect encapsulation of the 80’s. Actually, I should say the series. Freddy Krueger in the first film is held back in restraint. He is still a wisecracking boogeyman who haunts the dreams of people in a perfect slice of suburbia, but soon he becomes a commercial product. The films become more outlandish, Krueger becomes an anti-hero because he makes funny stingers at the end of each death and there seemed to be no end to the spin-offs and sequels. The fact that there are dolls of Freddy is genuinely more frightening than most of the sequels combined. Krueger becomes a symbol of capitalism itself. That is not to say that the first film is not scary because Wes Craven is called a master of horror for a reason. Here, he takes the place in which most of us feels safe the most, sleep, and makes it the feeding ground for a boogeyman that has unlimited powers. Without Freddy, this film could have been a John Hughes movie, with the matinee idol of Johnny Depp to boot. Instead, Craven’s dark satirical bite destroys that mall-culture and teen-dom of the 80’s. It’s ironic that the films will become a symbol of it.

3. Audition: The first film that I ever heard of through purely word of mouth was the Japanese horror film, Audition. I would hear from classmates, “Have you seen this movie?” “This is the scariest movie.” Takashi Miike’s 1999 horror film has quietly been the most influential film for contemporary horror films. While The Blair Witch Project influenced a style of horror filmmaking and Scream created a self-referential style, Audition designed a new way of scaring people. Many have credited it as the first torture porn film that has been emulated by Saw and Hostel. And there is merit to that as the film follows a Japanese movie director trying to find a replacement for his deceased wife. Of course, as always the case, that does not go exactly as plan. But, Audition is more than just a torture porn film. What people forget is that beyond the f’ed up nature of some of its scenes, Audition is a deep cultural critique of Japanese culture. It is a slow build horror film that keeps the audience on its toes waiting for the next scare. And when it comes, boy, does it hit hard.  

2. The House of the Devil: In the late 2000’s, a collective of mumblecore style filmmakers created a sort of a collective to make interesting films on a micro-budget. These are filmmakers who are unafraid to cite Truffaut and Silent Night Deadly Night as influences in the same breath. Ti West is one of the shining stars of that group of filmmakers and his House of the Devil has been his calling. There is not better representation of the late 2000’s than this film. It is filled with the 80’s nostalgia pastiche yet, it does not follow the same rules as it. There is a babysitter cliché, house alone in a desolated area and possible witches and it all comes together in a film made by someone who has been watching horror films his whole life. This is another example of the slow burn, in which, besides the first act of horror, nothing happens at a snail-like pace. But, the film keeps slowly heating up until finally the whole film erupts into a boil.

1.       The Babadook: Indie horror of late has taken on a new type of prestige that is not usually associated with the horror genre. With films like It Follows and the more recent Iranian horror film, Under the Shadow, the horror genre is no longer a dirty word that is associated with mindless violence and jump scares. One of the films that helped change that perception is the Australian horror film, The Babadook. Very few films have had me as exhilarated coming out of the theater than this Jennifer Kent film about a widowed mother and her son experiencing the horrors of this monster that seems to be out of a picture book. Of course, the monster is a manifestation of grief, giving a little weight to the film but this is also just a well-made piece of filmmaking. It at once creates a kid that seems like he is from hell and then in the next moment makes you care about him. We are truly put into the mother’s shoes in that respect. Let’s just say, this film made me realize that parenting is hard.