5. Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott
One of Alien’s most important achievements was to take a popular movie theme and transport it to an exciting new setting – namely outer space. The tension created by the threat of a mysterious killer only grows in the remote, lonely regions of a dark universe. Ridley Scott’s deft direction helps make this a genuine artistic and stylistic achievement, and Alien is deservedly beloved by film fans everywhere.
The members of a space crew are lightyears away from the nearest humans, and all alone with each other – or so they think. When they realize that a malevolent alien creature is also on board with them, eliminating them one by one, panic sets in. Not knowing how to fight a monster about which they know nothing, the crew must find a solution or die in anonymity. The isolation of the characters in Alien is as terrifying as the alien itself, and these elements combine to make an unforgettable horror classic.
4. The Exorcist (1973) – William Friedkin
On paper, this might seem to be the film least likely to appear on a list of popular horror favorites. It contains moments of bizarre blasphemy and twisted terror, and yet viewers who might normally recoil at such things continue coming back for more. For all its controversial religious content, the devout and the doubter alike find something to love; so, while the depictions of demonic possession are obviously exaggerated, The Exorcist clearly taps into some universal themes and fears.
An experienced older priest must face his demons (literally) in this classic shocker. Some adversarial spiritual presence seems to have possessed a young girl, and is determined to ruin both its host and the priest whose destiny might be linked to the demon through an encounter long ago. Though much of the film’s popular appeal comes via its dramatic depictions of demonic possession, the brilliant performances of Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, and Linda Blair shouldn’t be overlooked. They provide an emotional core to the story which elevate The Exorcist to a higher level of cinema.
3. Suspiria (1977) – Dario Argento
Suspiria seems to contain a perfect mixture of diverse elements that don’t always result in a popular movie – the least bit too much of any of these qualities could ruin a film, but they all blend perfectly in this classic. The bright colors, the overpowering music, the scenes of violence, and the thin plot might sink any other cinematic ship, but they keep Suspiria sailing in style.
Suzy Bannion just wanted to learn ballet. But when she arrived at a dance academy in Germany, nothing was at it seemed, and her life was thrown into a tailspin. Far from the elegant school which she expected, Suzy discovered a whirlpool of witches, curses, and terror around every corner. Trying to protect her own life while unravelling the mysteries of the school, she risks descending into insanity along the way. The story of Suspiria might seem simple, but it is undeniably immersive and effective.
2. Jaws (1975) – Steven Spielberg
This early film by Spielberg remains one of his best, and certainly one of his most popular. Made without an astronomical budget and without elaborate special effects, Jaws is nevertheless one of the most effective movies in the horror genre. Part of both its appeal and its terror is the immediacy of the danger – a potential shark attack is something anyone can imagine, and Jaws has probably cost beach resorts plenty of profit over the years. Still, movie fans don’t mind diving into this great film time and time again, and it’s an undisputed favorite.
If you don’t know by now, sharks are what’s on the menu in the landmark film Jaws; and, of course, it’s open season on humans for the duration of the movie. When a swimmer is killed by one of the aquatic assassins, local officials must decide whether or not to close the local beaches. Much to the delight of film fans, they choose to continue welcoming tourists and the money they bring, and a classic is born. With just a few musical notes, Jaws still possesses the power to send chills down our collective spine.
1. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock
In Psycho we find the ideal combination of all the best ingredients that make up a beloved horror movie. A perfect storm of artistry and popularity merge here to create a film that transcends its own genre and its own era. Psycho barely feels like a Hitchcock movie; it lacks any dated features of the 1960’s; it confidently overthrows the popular plot formula; and it features a villain who would influence cinema for decades. Hitchcock’s masterpiece proves that quality art can also be universally loved.
The Bates Motel is by now an iconic part of cinematic history, but in 1960 it was still a mysterious little stop off the highway, full of secrets. When Marion Crane stopped there for the night, carrying secrets of her own, it felt like some kind of karmic alignment. She soon discovered the secrets of the motel and of its eccentric owner, and movie fans were blessed with a timeless classic as a result. Psycho proves year after year that it richly deserves to be one of the most popular films of all time.