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A Beginner's Guide to the Horror Genre

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | August 5, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | August 5, 2009 |

There was a time when the horror genre didn’t seem to take itself so seriously. In fact, up until around 1995, the horror genre was my favorite — I’d see everything, revel in the gore, root for the antagonist, bathe in the mindlessness, and marvel at the make-up effects. In my opinion, the late 70s and the 80s were the golden era of horror films: Directors introduced a modicum of camp to their movies, mocked the dark conventions of previous decades, and bathed the blood in humor — both intentional and unintentional — which I always believed was the best way to create sympathetic characters. That era gave rise to Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Wes Craven, Clive Barker, Sam Raimi and even Peter Jackson, before he starting taking his craft too seriously.

I was never one who really got a lot of enjoyment out of the horror-movie classics, save for Night of the Living Dead. I could appreciate Nosferatu, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Dracula, Rosemary’s Baby and even the Dario Argento flicks (among scores of others), but I didn’t love horror movies until they stopped trying so hard to scare me (Roger Corman and his ilk, excepted). That’s the biggest problem that I find in most of this decade’s horror films as well: It’s not about entertaining audiences or, really, even scaring the bejesus out of them; it’s about ratcheting up the levels of pain. I love violence; I love gore. But I don’t really understand the appeal of brutality.

A few weeks ago, we introduced to you a very rudimentary Beginner’s Guide to Classic films, so today, I want to offer the same for the horror genre. These films are by no means necessarily the most influential, the most well-regarded, or the most studied. I’m approaching it from a populist perspective: These aren’t films you need to know to impress anyone with your horror movie knowledge, these are the movies you need to know to participate in bar conversations. And they also constitute some of the most entertaining and accessible of the genre, which makes them excellent entry points (where they exist, hyperlinks to our original reviews are included).

Halloween (Slasher): While considered one of the preeminent examples of modern horror filmmaking, Halloween, and more importantly Carpenter himself, deserves far more credit. Borrowing liberally from several genres, Carpenter created a synthesis that would in short order become the slasher genre. But unlike its influences, which include Italian gaillo, Hitchcock, and horror productions from years previous, such as The Last House on the Left and Black Christmas, Halloween managed to rise above it inherent limitations and create a style of film that, when done well, speaks to us. Films like Halloween thrill us because while we the viewer see an unkillable evil approaching, the protagonists see very little, humanizing them to a certain extent, even helping to maintain the suspension of disbelief. They remind us of what it was like to be that child, dreading the sunset on Halloween night. After all, we’d all like to think that we would figure out who the killer is, defeat the monstrous evil, and save, at the very least, our own asses. Deep down though, we know we’re just as helpless as Laurie Strode, bumbling along until we finally see the handiwork of our own boogeyman.

If you like Halloween, you may like: Nightmare on Elm Street, Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, Maniac and Scream (you may not like, however, Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake).

Evil Dead II (Horror Comedy): Ash Williams was the first true action hero of horror. He’s John McClaine, Indiana Jones, Rambo, and Dirty Harry, all wrapped up nicely beneath the best chin in the business. And before Rose McGowan strapped a machine gun onto her leg, Ashley J. Williams secured a chainsaw to his amputated arm. And aha: What’s so incredibly genius about Sam Raimi’s premise is that Ash not only gets to be the hero, but also several forms of the villain, be it Bad Ash, Possessed Satanic Ash, Lilliputian Ash, or even Ash’s own possessed and deranged hand. And as brilliant as Sam Raimi’s direction is, as fun and inventive as the special effects are, and as mesmerizing as the camera work is, it’s Bruce Campbell that really sells the show with that hunky square jaw, the dumb-guy hero shtick, and the deadpan delivery. Campbell makes Evil Dead II not only the centerpiece of the Greatest Trilogy of All Time, but the best late-night drink-and-watch-with-friends movie ever put to celluloid.

If you like Evil Dead II, you may like: The Final Destination series, The Toxic Avenger, Re-Animator, Dead Alive and Student Bodies (if you can find it).

An American Werewolf in London (Werewolf): The werewolf transformation in American Werewolf in London, alone, makes this the best werewolf movie of all time (and that transformation, for all the CGI advancements, still hasn’t been beaten). But what really set American Werewolf in London apart from most of the horror films before it was that it came from a comedic director, John Landis (Trading Places, Kentucky Fried Movie, Coming to America, The Blues Brothers), and that sensibility worked itself into a werewolf film with as many laughs as it had scares. You could hardly do better than combining Landis and Rick Baker (who won an Oscar for a category created because of this film, Best Makeup) with a familiar (and perhaps well-worn) werewolf tale. An American Werewolf in London had it share of often shocking violence, but thanks to the offbeat dark humor, it never felt sadistic or gross. And unlike the parody horror films that Scream ushered in, American Werewolf — like Shaun of the Dead in the zombie genre — respectfully paid homage to its predecessors as much as it poked fun of the tropes.

If you like American Werewofl in London, you may like: Underworld, Ginger Snaps, The Howling, Blood and Chocolate and Wolf.

Return of the Living Dead (Zombies): If you want to familiarize yourself with the zombie subgenre, you need to see the seminal 1968 zombie film, Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead (they are crucial to getting the most enjoyment out of Shaun of the Dead). And while Romeros’ films spawned the zombie genre, his partner in the first film, John Russo, gave rise to the modern zombie spirit, which brought an element of joy to zombie films (Shaun of the Dead may have been an homage to Romero’s films, but it’s spirit is more directly associated with Russo’s Return of the Living Dead. Return of the Living Dead is about the very toxic chemicals thought to have inspired the Night zombies to come alive, which escape a medical supply warehouse and stir up the dead after an infected corpse is cremated and spread in a rainstorm. Romero’s franchise is infinitely superior to Russo’s, thanks to Tom Savini’s kick-ass special makeup effects, but the Living Dead films have something that Romero’s didn’t: An incredible fucking sense of humor and a bare-chested Linnea Quigley punking out on a gravestone. In addition to terrible acting, killer one liners (“Chuck, I never did like you. Oh, but God, hold me tight.”), low-budget gore, and a pretty shitty soundtrack (The Cramps notwithstanding), Return of the Living Dead is also a pretty clever satire on the narcissistic, whiney ’80s youth, whose brains were literally being sucked dry by insatiable zombie Reaganites.

If you like Return of the Living Dead, you may also like: Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Dead Alive the upcoming Zombieland and Romero’sDeadtrilogy.

The Lost Boys (Vampires): I’m sorry, but if you could only see one vampire movie, it’d really have to be Lost Boys. Both Nosferatu and Dracula (1931 and 1992) may be purer in terms of vampire lore, but The Lost Boys is infinitely more palatable. It provides the basic knowledge you need to know of vampire mythology, but it also brings two Coreys, a lot of cool, and a certain amount of homoeroticism, perfect for any vampire movie. It perfectly balances violence, humor, a certain sex appeal, and a lot of teen angst. And ohfuckingod, The Lost Boys was Twilight of our generation. What a miserable realization. Still: There’s no glitter on these vampires (maybe a headband or two), and it’s an excellent entry point for vampire movies, both before and after, which veer to the more serious (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) or the fun (From Dusk til Dawn).

If you like Lost Boys, you may also like: Near Dark, Fright Night, From Dusk til Dawn, Let the Right One In and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Shining (Supernatural): Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, of course, isn’t just a classic in the genre, it’s one of the best movies ever made. It’s also an excellent entry point for supernatural/ghost/haunted house stories that rely on atmospherics — too often, supernatural movies get bogged down on in dreariness, which can kill the momentum (I love The Exorcist, but there are too many slow patches). Supernatural films are, arguably, the most difficult to pull off because they don’t rely on as many genre conventions and because mood, setting, and especially pacing are as important as the characters. The Shining nails it, slowly building toward the terror, capturing the isolation and madness Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) was feeling as he descended into insanity, while the rest of the cast delivered dispassionately captivating performances. More importantly, instead of piling gruesome scene on top of gruesome scene, Kubrick held back, which made the punctuated violence all the more horrific. And like the best horror movies, there’s an undercurrent of humor in The Shining, but it’s perverse comedy — you’re too freaked the hell out to eke out a laugh.

If you like The Shining, you may also like: The Frighteners, The Amityville Horror, The Legend of Hell House, The Others and The Ring.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.