Great Horrors: Ten horror classics you might have missed

The horror genre promises more than any other in respect to emotive impact, and for this reason it is probably the genre in which failure is most common (along with comedy, perhaps). Horror films are very rarely actually scary, and worse than this, they are usually appallingly made. In fact, horror is one of the few genres in which incompetence and lack of technical proficiency can be overlooked and ironically proclaimed as an asset (E.g. Reanimator, Plan 9 from Outer Space).

It’s for this reason that I have a love/hate relationship with the genre – it is so loaded with potential, and yet so rarely achieves its goal. And so, in order to assist those people looking for horror films of note that are not widely known, I’ve assembled a list of ten films that are not necessarily canon, but probably should be. In choosing the below, I ended up producing a list of about fifty films, so you can expect a sequel to this particular post in the near future.

Eyes without a Face (1960)

For those curious about the origins of the horror genre’s more macabre and brutal imagery, one must look further back than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is Georges Franju’s rather severe tale of a brilliant surgeon who must cut off the faces of beautiful girls in order to cure his heavily disfigured daughter. One of the creepiest films around, all the more so for its gorgeous black and white cinematography and technical restraint.

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch’s surreal meditation on the horrors of rearing a child was largely an expression and exploration of the fears and anxieties that Lynch had felt during the birth of his own child a few years earlier.

Jack Nance plays Henry Spencer, a young man with unusually large hair (very much like Lynch) who finds himself dealing with the unexpected pregnancy of his girlfriend. When the child is born hideously deformed, and closely resembling a giant spermatozoa, Henry’s mental state begins to deteriorate. A kind of ghostly mutated siren who lives in his heater begins to convince him of the benefits of suicide (or perhaps infanticide). And then things start to get weird.

An absolutely incredible film, only for those willing to venture off the path of narrative coherence.

Spider Baby (1968)

Jack Hill’s underappreciated classic takes the (at the time) unique approach of providing a sympathetic view of its deranged villains. A group of mentally disturbed siblings is looked after by the family caretaker after their father dies. His task is complicated by their habit of torturing and murdering unwanted guests. Despite how it sounds, you’ll have trouble not feeling a little sympathy for everybody involved in this tragic affair.

The Beyond (1981)

The Italians aren’t known for their restraint when it comes to horror cinema, and this is no exception. Lucio Fulci’s most effective film (I went to write finest and found the term slightly inappropriate) is narratively incoherent, awfully dubbed and lazily assembled. But over the course of eighty minutes all of these negatives are inverted into a kind of surreal ball of nihilistic hopelessness that will totally ruin your chances of a good night’s sleep. Creepy.

Martin (1976)

One of Romero’s lesser known films, and perhaps his finest, follows the story of a young man who believes that he is an old vampire destined to roam the earth killing people for their blood. However, the film is ambiguous on the truth of Martin’s claims, and a detached clinical style adds to the more disturbing suspicion that Martin is not a supernatural creature, but actually a deeply disturbed psychopath. A film that should not be missed.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicholas Roeg directs this incredibly disturbing film about John and Laura Baxter, a married couple who have recently lost their daughter in a horrible accident. Sometime after the accident the couple end up in Venice, where John begins to catch glimpses of what appears to be his dead daughter. When John finally solves this mystery… well… you need to see this film. It’s particularly notable for some incredible cinematography and forceful use of the colour red to invoke a sense of trauma, loss and desperation.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Before this film was brutally torn to pieces in the disastrous remake starring Nicholas Cage, it was a highly regarded and rarely seen British horror classic.

When a police officer visits a small Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a girl, he encounters a series of deliberate attempts to block his investigation that only serve to peak his curiosity. As his investigation continues, it becomes clear that the community is involved in some rather sinister and archaic practices.

Worth seeing for the unexpected musical number and presence of Christopher Lee alone, this is an obscure little film that gains much of its force from the eerie sense of the everyday which permeates its horrors. Special stuff.

Wake in Fright (1971)

I’ve mentioned this one in an earlier post, but it’s certainly worth revisiting.

This Peckinpah-esque nightmare-vision (originally a novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook) presents an alternative Australia, littered with aimless, uneducated ockers endlessly drowning themselves in incompressible amounts of beer while engaging in acts of extreme violence towards each other AND the local wild-life.

The story, so far as it goes, concerns a school-teacher who finds himself stuck in an outback town (or perhaps small city) on his way to a holiday in Sydney. Having lost all his money in a local game of Two-Up, this teacher finds himself equally horrified and enthralled by the grotesque lifestyle of the locals. Things escalate, as they often do, leading to a night of incredible debauchery, much of which concerns horribly sadistic behavior towards kangaroos.

The Brood (1979)

One of Cronenberg’s best but lesser known films, The Brood follows the recently separated father of a young girl, who has recently seen his wife have a complete nervous breakdown. When a psychiatrist, played by the late great Oliver Reed, starts providing her with a unique form of therapy, the consequences are beyond disastrous. This is a wonderfully tight meditation not only on the trials and tribulations of divorce and its traumatic implications, but also a further examination of the broader themes that have concerned Cronenberg throughout his career. Goosebumps.

Peeping Tom (1960)

An absolute masterpiece from Michael Powell that pretty much destroyed his career. The title probably didn’t help. This textually rich meditation on voyeurism and perversion follows the “adventures” of a deeply disturbed photographer tormented by memories of severe child abuse. You’d feel sorry for him if he weren’t a serial killer.

This is one of those films that stopped me in my tracks and further opened my mind to the possibilities of cinema. This is good. Hitchcock good.

The Shining (1980)

Okay, I know this is a pretty obvious member of the high-brow horror canon, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out, so I’ve added it as number eleven.

There are those who have criticised Kubrick’s film for a lack of adherence to its source material, the Stephen King novel of the same name (King is one of the critics). I personally have no great reverence for King’s work, and am quite astounded that he could be anything but grateful that a supreme auteur like Kubrick would even deign to open his book in the first place.

While it is true that Kubrick’s film no longer focuses on the protagonist’s descent into madness via alcoholism, this seems to be a minor concern as he opens the text up to a larger meditation on death, immortality, the unseen and everything in between. It’s no surprise that an entire cult has built around attempting to interpret the textual complexities and abstractions of this near perfect film. A masterpiece.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

108 thoughts on “Great Horrors: Ten horror classics you might have missed

  1. Excellent post! I’m a massive horror fan, but even I must concede that a lot of it is utter dross. You’ve listed some of my personal favourites – Don’t Look Now is truly fantastic, and as for Peeping Tom? Well! There are always a few that I’ve been meaning to see, and you’ve inspired me to try and dig these out.

  2. Thank you for the excellent introductions and trailers. It helps me know which ones I can watch without risking nightmares! I have always liked horror movies with a purpose, a lesson in human frailty. Thanks for liking my post Repurposed Poems.

  3. I love your choices here, I have seen six of them but will definitely be looking for the rest. I thought I had seen every horror movie ever made but I have been proven wrong. 🙂 I remember watching The Brood and being very scared but loving it just the same. I was always kind of enamored by Oliver Reed though, I saw a lot of his movies.

    The only movie that ever really terrified me though was The Exorcist, even the book spooked me.
    Thanks for following my blog!

  4. Excellent selections. I wonder if authors and filmmakers are really two different animals then (referring to King and Kubrick) – I’m of the camp that believes the two minds are interchangeable, if not perhaps opposite sides of the same coin.
    -sandy.

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  6. Hello, and thanks for following my blog “Silver Screen Reviews”.

    You seem to have listed a number of interesting horror-flicks. I’ve only seen three of those films; Eraserhead, Shining and Don’t Look Now.
    I watched Eraserhead a few years ago at my summer-job. It was a dull, rainy day with no customers, so I popped this film in. It was possibly one of the most disturbing and weird afternoons I have ever had.
    I watched Don’t Look Now a few years ago. My mom, who had seen the film around the time it was published, had told me that it was one of the most frightening films she had ever seen. Well, it certainly was not the most frightening film I’VE seen, but still interesting and even rather shocking.

  7. I have seen most of these and will catch the ones I haven’t seen as soon as they stream or I can find them. The original The Wickerman and The shining still give great creepiness. Iknow there’s all the hubbub about Kubrick, and what King intended, but the versions King supported with Cusak, and with DeMorney just felt forced and caused me to yawn. I watch creeper shows that are horrid just in case there’s something redemptive about them, like remakes of The Thing From Another World. Carpenter’s version hit right on, everything afterwards…ah well maybe I’m a bit of monster movie purist. I’ve been watching horror films since “Nightmare Theater” as a little girl with older siblings on the floor in front of the TV huddling under blankets, oh my goodness “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” gave me nightmares for years! I was probably 7 when I first saw it with my brothers and sister. I do miss that horrific feeling of being scared to go to the bathroom by myself so one tried not to pee their pants until you could convince someone to walk you to the bathroom during the commercial (especially since our oldest brother instituted the ritual of watching with all the lights off in the house–spooky!

    Nice blog!

  8. Thanks for the follow! Have you ever seen the American release of “The Beyond”? It was released here as “The Seven Doors of Death” and the extra editing makes it even more slapdash looking! Overall, I was kind of disappointed in the film, but it remains one of the all-time great endings.

  9. The scariest movie I ever saw was Iris. About Iris Nurdich the authoress, from a young intelligent vibrant woman, to a scared little shell of a person. It was scary because it was real.

    The genre of ‘scary’ movies usually involves the impossible or unlikely, and we entertain ourselves pretending fear to protect ourselves from the real fears of life

  10. I think you have a great list here. I haven’t seen Eyes without a Face but it looks like something I’d like.

    Eraserhead… Well, I know I’ve seen it. It was under less than ideal circumstances and I may have been intoxicated. Long story. Anyway, I remember liking it but not sure I could have told you what it was about. Shame on me.

    Spider Baby – How could I have missed this? Definitely going on the “must see” list.

    The Beyond:  This is definitely a classic. I’ve enjoyed many an Italian horror movie and a few giallos as well. Many of them are clumsy and almost all of them are incoherent, but the good ones linger in your brain. Sometimes you feel a bit dirty afterwards, but it’s worth it. This is a wonderful example of the genre.

    Martin: I’m pretty sure he was just a psychopath. Good movie but I’m not sure it would make my top 10.

    Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man – Both of these were in the Cult section of the video store in my hometown. Both of them were rented, viewed and enjoyed. I miss the video store sometimes…

    Wake In Fright – Haven’t seen this one.

    The Brood – Cronenberg was a staple of my viewing when I was growing up. He was a master of making you think there were things going on in the world, just below the surface. He seemed to have this over-arching theology/metaphysic that he would hint at in his movies. I spent many an hour talking with my cult-section friends about what it all meant.

    Peeping Tom – I’ve wanted to see this for years. I guess there was always something I wanted to see just a bit more. Or maybe I was with someone who wouldn’t want to watch it.

    The Shining – This is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. Even after repeated viewings it still scares me. I’m neither here nor there about Stephen King, but this is a great movie. If Kubrick departed from the source material, so be it. I can understand why King would have done things differently, but there ended up being a great film being made. Isn’t that enough?

    By the way, King has written a sequel of sorts to The Shining. The Torrence kid grows up and is very unhappy and then horrible things start happening to him. Go figure.

    • Wow! What an extensive response – thanks!

      If you find the time, please do check out the film’s here you haven’t seen.

      I think I might give King’s sequel a miss 🙂

  11. I really need to see more lists like these as I do feel that the horror genre (of late, and just in general) has a tendency to fall flat on delivery. I’ve been trying to delve deeper into the genre though, and so far Dario Argento and Lynch (of course) amongst a few others have really left a good impression. So again, thanks!

  12. good list! I’ve been meaning to check out ‘Spider Baby.’ I think ‘The Shining’ is a bit overrated. I’ve never heard of ‘Wake in Fright.’ I’ll be sure to add to the qeueu.

  13. You’ve listed the original Wicker Man and you slammed the remake! Now you have my full attention! Other than The Shining and The Brood, which I’ve seen, I look forward to the others. The 70s had the best horror! Thank you!

  14. Great list, some of these I have not seen yet and will have to check out. I do love lesser known horror films. They are often better than the more mainstream stuff.

  15. Weirdly enough, the first movie on your list, Eyes Without a Face, is the first horror movie I ever saw, and it gave me nightmares for years. It might be why I rarely watch horror flicks. I saw it in English, and I thought it was called Woman Without a Face. Was there an American version done around the same era?

    This is a good list. I’m going to watch the old version of Wicker Man.

  16. We have a video store in town that specializes in having EVERYTHING. In Portland, OR “Movie Madness” will most likely keep in stock every one of these hard-to-find videos. Probably on VHS, but they have a labyrinth on Belmont Street if you are ever in town. With all the CGI pud whack material, I’d rather get some fireplace jiffy pop and pop in a 70s flick and have a beer. Hell yeah.

  17. I own DVDs of six of these. The only one I haven’t seen yet is Wake In Fright. Looking forward to checking that one out. Been hearing nothing but good thing about it.

  18. Thanks for following my posts, and thank you also for this marvelous list. I recently saw Wake In Fright, and found it fascinating. The sense of disorientation is, to me, what makes it such a disturbingly great film. Here’s hoping more people discover this Ozploitation epic!

  19. Great compilation. I’ve not heard of “Wake in Fright” but your inclusion of it piques my interest. You’ve also reminded me that I need to track down Romero’s “Martin.” Saw Fulci’s “The Beyond” recently, and it’s become one of my horror favourites. What a great, creepy ending that film had.

  20. I personally cannot watch horror films because they give me nightmares, but my friend loves them! I’m passing this list on! (love the list format btw).

  21. You missed The Wicker Man remake! Going on for 2 hours of mind crushingly terrifying bemusement and unintentional hilarity.

    I watched Chernobyl Diaries recently and was disgusted by its grotesque manipulation of a real life tragedy with all the horror cliches. Naff.

  22. The others sound quite interesting… But I absolutely detest the shining. I find it just boring and pointless, with a flat character arc. But that’s just me.

  23. I saw the Brood in a cheesy drive-in In New Jersey back in the 80’s. We laughed at it but then again we were obnoxious teenagers who laughed at everything…until we saw the original Evil Dead.

  24. It’s interesting how “The Shining,” has stood the test of time as a powerful horror movie. And indeed, it’s still very scary, and I’ve seen it a number of times.

  25. One horror film that still resonates with me is The House That Screamed. I saw it on Creature Double Feature when I was a kid–it’s all about a very strict headmistress at an isolated, all-girls boarding school and her son who is looking for someone to love. He begins murdering girls at the school and assembling their parts to make the perfect woman–since, of course, his mother thinks none of the girls at the school are good enough for him. I don’t think they ever released the movie on DVD but, for me, it’s a classic. 🙂

  26. I missed all of those but the Shining. The movie that gave me nightmares was “the vanishing”, a European production — man that was a tough one.

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