As I have often alluded to, I am a child of the 70s. Likewise, my horror journey lead me through many films that would now be considered old-school classics. Others might even feel that some of these movies are cheesy, or that they don’t “hold up”. I can assure you that when viewed through a child’s eyes, these films were ALL mind blowing. I want to take a moment to lay out the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark. These are the films that lead to a lifetime of horror fandom.
These films will be placed in no particular order. I simply couldn’t bear choose between my favorite children and rank them. To derive the order of the films I numbered one through ten on a sheet of paper. Their placement in this list will be decided by 1d10.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – The Ultimate in Horror
Many consider, and Malevolent Dark would agree, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to be the king of kings in horror. Never before had a movie descended headlong into the depths of insanity and cannibalistic depravity. Directed by Tobe Hooper, this film may be the best example of wrenching massive critical success from the jaws of a non-existent budget. My first glance of this film came in a brief snippet in the 1984 horror film documentary Terror in the Aisles (1984). Upon seeing that clip, I could think of nothing else but the brutish monstrosity of a man exploding through the front door of a old farmhouse.
After a few months of begging my parents at the local B.A.C. Video Store, they let me rent this masterpiece on Betamax. It changed me forever.
The film took me on a journey into pure and terrifying psychological horror. Tobe Hooper left me completely shaken. The closing scenes were so harrowing that I could only let out a gasp of relief as a broken and bloody Sally Hardesty laughed manically as she narrowly escaped. How bad was it? It is literally the first movie that gave me anxiety as I contemplated watching it a second time the following day. Fortunately I rose to the challenge, and was able to really take the film the second time.
With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper created a masterpiece of horror. It demonstrates a style of terror film-making that is both brutal and barbaric, but technically brilliant and beautiful.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Where it all Began
I have said before at Malevolent Dark, House on Haunted Hill (1959) was the first film that made me love horror. Up until that point, I had witnessed my share of monster movies. King Kong and Godzilla, or better yet, King Kong vs. Godzilla had occupied much of my time. I had great introductions into horror’s great characters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy. These introduction came via two great horror studios, Universal and Hammer Productions. My point is, by that point in my young life (age 5), I already possessed a pretty strong horror resume.
Something about House on Haunted Hill changed things. This film, directed by William Castle, offered a completely different style of horror. House on Haunted Hill is a story of infidelity and dishonesty. It is a film about greed and revenge. At the end of the film, its not entirely clear that Haunted Hill is in fact Haunted, but actually a victim of the horrible people that insist on filling its halls. House on Haunted Hill is a film about the evil that men and women do.
For black and white film in the late 50’s, the inclusion of fully severed heads blew my mind. Castle also pulled off one of the most wicked jump scares to hit the screen. The marital dynamics between Carol Ohmart and Vincent Price (my hero as a young boy) were clearly profound even for a child. Finally inclusion of fantastic modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House provided incredible contrast to the battered cliché of gothic architecture and squeaky wrought iron fences.
House on Haunted Hill is the films that launched a lifelong fascination with horror cinema, and ultimately provides the foundation for Malevolent Dark.
Re-Animator (1985) – Love and Gore from Miskatonic University
I have mentioned it before, and eventually we will do a complete article on the topic. 1985 was a banner year for horror. everything seemed to be clicking. Fangoria magazine had hit its stride with it 50th issue. Special effects as an artform had reached its pinnacle. The artist behind it (Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Dick Smith) became a bigger draw for the studio than the directors. Great films just kept coming and coming in 1985. One of my most anticipated films was Re-Animator.
Directed by Stuart Gordon and based on the great work of H.P. Lovecraft, this film seemed to have everything that a 10 year old boy could want in a film. Speaking specifically of Fangoria issue #50, it featured a wonderful pictorial and article titled “Literary Zombies” written by David Everitt. The article had me bubbling with anticipation. I simply could not wait for its arrival at my local video store. When that fateful day arrived, I could not be more pleased with what I found.
Stuart Gordon’s film bubbled with originality. The over the top performance of Jeffery Combs as the modern day Frankenstein, Dr. Herbert West, oozed black humor and self-aggrandizing narcissism. Some of Gordon’s film soared so high that under normal circumstances it could be considered ridiculous. However, the horrific events and substantial gore consistently keeps the film rooted to the ground. I mean, how else could one get away with a re-animated severed head performing cunnilingus on a scream queen Barbara Crampton?
While 1985 was filled with fantastic horror contributions, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator holds a special place in the deep dark recesses of Malevolent Dark. And, Dr. Herbert West’s crimes against nature would undeniably secure a sacred spot as one of the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.
Phantasm (1979) – Blood and Chrome
This likely won’t be the last time I reference the Saturday Night Shocker. Back in Saint Louis on KPLR channel 11 on Saturday night, the local kids would get treated to a select horror movie at 10PM. Back before our family gained the prestige to own a VCR, this provided my only tether to the world of horror. One of those late night gems was Phantasm (1979), directed by Don Coscarelli. Whoa, what a mind-blowing experieince.
Fortunately for myself, I had never heard of this film prior to it making the Saturday Night Shocker playlist. Coming into this film with literally no understanding and no foreshadowing from trailers that reveal too much. Right from the start Phantasm reached out and held me in it clutches. When the flying sphere of death makes it first appearance, I could only stare at the screen with awe.
But, there is so much more to this film. The obvious bits came in the form squashed re-animated from the recent dead. The The Tall Man played by Agnus Scrimm offered a iconic bad guy. Pan-dimensional portals and a science fiction mystery that refuses to give up the ‘what’ or the ‘why’ leaves the filmgoer befuddled. Underlying all of that fantastic story-telling was a story of profound sadness.
After losing his parents in an un explained tragedy, lead character Mike Pearson loses his only caregiver, his brother Jody. As a youth, the uneasy feeling of loneliness pervades the rest of the film. Yet, he manages to create this loving bond with his brother’s best friend, Reggie. After all of this emotional development and posturing of hope the shocking end kicks you in gut and leaves you with sinking feeling of despair.
Phantasm still stands as one of the most original horror movies of all time and is essential viewing for all horror fans in the eyes of Malevolent Dark.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) – Ewww, it’s gross
If it weren’t for the practice of jamming trailers at the beginning of video-tapes, this one might have escaped my grasp. The trailer seemed very strange and off-kilter. It introduces the crazy circumstances of a group of theater students have a jolly good time with rotting corpses that they had unearthed. Was it a comedy? Was it horror? I couldn’t tell for sure, but I had to see it.
What I found in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), was a fascinating combination of both comedy and horror. Directed by Bob Clark and written by Alan Ormsby, this film proves highly effective and strikingly stylish. In all honesty, it really doesn’t go deep into uncharted territory. By this time, George Romero had already created all of the farmhouse claustrophobia anyone could handle. But Bob Clark’s film does something better. It enshrouds itself in a thick fog of dread and tension.
Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things deftly moves from childish antics and lame black comedy to suffocating dread in the confines of a cottage collapsing with the living dead. Due to the prolific careers of its producers, this little-known film would lead me to classics such as Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream (1974), Deranged (1974). Yeah, it appears 1974 was a good year for horror as well!
The foreboding tension of this film somehow overcomes its many flaws and obvious financial limitations. Still, it left an indelible mark, and left me feeling uneasy as the final sequence rolled. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things easily secured a place on The 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.
The Amityville Horror (1979) – Get Out!!!
The Amityville Horror has a tendency to polarize horror fans. Critics either love it or hate it. Retrospectives of the film love to call it dated and questionably authentic. To be honest, everyone has an opinion, and all opinions can be valid. However, opinions depend on context. I can’t remember exactly when I first saw this film, but I was really young. As far as haunted house films go, this was my post-graduate research after House on Haunted Hill (1959). For an impressionable youth, The Amityville Horror delivered all of the goods.
Back before The Blair Witch Project (1999), this was the closest thing we had to found footage. The movies come packaged with the claim that the events of this film are true. To a child, those claims were indiscernible from reality. From my point of view, this film was as real as the television I watched it on, and that made for a terrifying affair. The simple thought of young man murdering his family in cold blood while they slept horrified me. I came from a loving home. How could I relate to an evil of that magnitude?
The Amityville Horror offers enough scares, and many of the scares were directed at children. First there was Jody, the invisible pig that tormented the Lutz’s youngest daughter. As silly as it sounds today, the red eyes peering from the window frightened me. The children’s babysitter gets locked in the closet as she beats her fists to a bloody pulp trying to escape. One of their sons gets his hand smashed by a windows sash, and nobody in the house has the strength to free it. I could only empathize as George Lutz sped away from the home without the family dog, Harry.
The Amityville Horror traumatized a young mind. Say what you will, but I am a proud apologist for The Amityville Horror. This film scared me as much any up until that point. Malevolent Dark considers it to be a foundational work.
Dawn of the Dead (1978) – When Hell Is Full, The Dead Will Walk
Choosing an entry from George Romero created quite a dilemma. Would it be prudent to choose the obvious classic that started it all, Night of the Living Dead (1968)? Not this time, I went with the one that I have watched at least 50 times, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. In retrospect, as much as I love Night of the Living Dead, this was the right choice all along.
My first indicator that this would one day end up on this list occurred when one night I went to stay at a friends house. We were all amped up for this zombie movie that his older brother rented, but before we could watch it, his mom pulled the plug. “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I have ever seen!”
I don’t know about disgusting, but Romero’s sequel contains some incredibly bodacious special effects by the master Tom Savini. But it contains much more than that. Dawn of the Dead paint a bleak picture. Decades before The Walking Dead, Romero described what the depth that the world would sink to when a crisis of unimaginable magnitude came upon it. What’s more, he packaged obscure social commentary that would suggest that the zombies were dead long before their heart stopped beating. Romero described a world of walking dead in terms of crass commercialism.
Romero also captured some incredible performances. Roger’s (Scott Reiniger) and Peter’s (Ken Foree) Tango and Cash act went far beyond their individual character. Futhermore, Ken Foree would find a permanent place in horror by reappearing in films by Stuart Gordon and Rob Zombie. Gaylen Ross would also show up in 1982’s slasher Madman. Nevermind the fact that Tom Savini exercises his acting chops as one of the marauding rogues.
The final icing on the cake comes in the form of an incredible soundtrack from frequent Argento collaborators Goblin.
The original Dawn of the Dead stands as a classic horror film. It is one of the best zombie films ever made.
Suspiria (1977) – Dario Argento’s Witchery
To put it quite plainly, Dario Argento’s masterstroke, Suspiria (1977) created a rift in my narrow focus world of horror. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I already had a few Italian horror films under my belt. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie comes to mind. However, no movie that I had seen brought together the mix of color, sound, music and beautifully fantastic gore like Suspiria did. It would trigger the beginning of a journey into international horror cinema that continues to this day.
Suspiria elevated the horror genre into an art form. Right from the beginning as Suzy Bannion receives a cold gust of wind, the soundtrack forebodes and builds tension. It then burns the eyes with brilliant hues of neon pink and electric blue. Just as the audience stumble in awe of the spectacle, Argento bludgeons the senses with extreme violence and gore. Yet, none of this is window dressing. The entire film is built on a foundation of old world evil, and secret covens of ancient witches.
Suspira also introduced me to the magic of Claudio Simonetti and the band that Argento would frequently collaborate with, Goblin. Never before had I experienced an soundtrack so interwoven and aware of the horror occurring around it. Quickly I stitched their relationship together with the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack.
Dario Argento’s film would also serve as my entry point to the rest of the “The Three Mothers” trilogy. More importantly, it set me off to stumble across Argento’s wonderful giallo films. Suspiria is a film that is absolutely required to know Malevolent Dark.
Burnt Offerings (1976) – Oliver Reed, Need I Say More?
Burnt Offerings (1976) is another film that came to me by way of the Saturday Night Shocker on KPLR. Its also another film that I went into with zero knowledge of the movie, the trailer or anything else. What I found in Burnt Offerings (1976) was a very smart haunted house film that terrified me. This house did not torment its residents with slamming doors and rustling chandeliers. Instead it infected the minds and souls of its residents as it rejuvenates itself through the pain and suffering of its tenants.
To put it simply: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis. What a cast! I had already been introduced to Karen Black through her work in Trilogy of Terror (1975). Then there was the great Oliver Reed, immediately recognizable from his work in Curse of the Werewolf (1961). He would also star prominently in The Brood (1976) and The Devils (1971). This guy was a literal powerhouse with his stage presence and he struggles to not steal every scene he is in.
This film stuck with me for years after first watching it. For one, Burnt Offerings has a scene where Oliver Reed watches his son drowning while the swimming pool pulls him down. He’s unable to move and can only watch as his son continues to go under. Something about this scene kicked me in the gut. I mentioned this previously, I had no frame of reference for a father that would let his child be hurt. The idea was so foreign and terrifying for me.
Finally, the film ends very poorly for the family. They would not escape with their dog like in Amityville horror. They die and the house consumers their souls. I found the ending to be very guttural and impactful.
Burnt Offerings a great little haunted house movie that challenges some traditional spook-house clichés.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – A Modern Classic By Rob Zombie
Those paying attention to details may notice that this one is not like the others. Almost exclusively, every selection on this list was filmed prior to 1990. Likewise, many of these foundational films came from my childhood. However, Rob Zombie did something in 2003 that was unexpected. He quite literally saved the horror genre for me, and his film House of 1000 Corpses might be the single biggest reason that I am writing today.
Back in the late 90’s horror films had largely lost their mojo for me. It’s not that there weren’t any good movies. There were good movies, but they all had the shimmering feel of over produced Hollywood films. Jump scares and CGI had replaced the craft of the horror film. Rob Zombie showed me that there was still gas in the horror movie tank. What’s more, Rob Zombie showed me that I was not alone in my love for good old days of horror.
Rob Zombie brought familiar faces to the table like Karen Black and Sid Haig. He showed his love for the local horror show on Saturday night. He introduced new horror icons like Captain Spaulding to the world. Zombie told a fantastically wacky story that nearly falls off the rails with its boldness. Finally he added a stylistic flair that would make Dario Argento proud without also making him feel ripped off.
House of 1000 Corpses revitalized the horror genre and gave hope to old-school horror fans looking for a way forward.
Thank you for reading the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark
Hopefully you enjoyed our little trip through memory lane. Obviously, throughout the years hundreds of quality horror films have gone through my fingers. Of those hundreds there are many that I love. In fact, there a few other films that could have made this list if I were just picking favorites. This was about picking the ones that made a real and lasting impact. These are the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.