With all of the well-deserved attention the ‘80s horror aesthetic is getting these days, it can be easy to overlook anything that came before it. But the history of horror is rich with classics — and more than a few hidden gems — that can hold their own with the best of the genre. Here are seven old-school horror movies that still offer up timeless visions of terror.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Just as aggressively visceral and shocking today as the day it was released, virtually every slasher movie follows in the sizable footsteps of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film draws from the acts of real-life serial killers and is, by design, pretty light on plot.
In fact, unlike many of his fellow slasher baddies, Leatherface isn’t even given any sort of ominous backstory here. Instead, all of the focus is put on the central group of teenagers and their battle for survival, which contributes to the primal, unencumbered animalism of the inevitable violence.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
An absolute essential for any zombie fan and an indisputable classic, Night of the Living Dead introduced the definitive version of undead mythology, now nearly ubiquitous half a century later. And these ghouls are good for more than just a splatterfest.
There’s plenty of body horror, sure, with very effectively gruesome makeup, but the creatures are at their most frightening when they act as an abstract pressure cooker for the panicked characters, driving the film’s cynical metaphors for life in 1960s America. Beyond all of its influence and social critique, the movie’s darkest set pieces still bristle with a horrifying dread that makes it a high watermark for the sub-genre.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
This unassuming little film was made on an absolutely shoestring budget and likely would have been lost to time, if not for the fact that its particular brand of eeriness went on to influence the likes of David Lynch and James Wan. The story follows a young woman who is haunted by the specter of death after a near-fatal car crash. (Think Final Destination minus the Rube Goldberg guillotines.) Armed with little more than a nerve-wracking score and an atmosphere of austere vacancy, Carnival of Souls is a perfect example of how it doesn’t take much in the way of finances for a movie to be deeply unsettling.
Allegedly co-written by the director’s preteen daughter, this story of a girl and her six friends visiting her aunt begins with a pseudo-‘60s, Brady Bunch-esque vibe before lurching wildly into a manic fever dream of a haunted house, complete with intentionally bad special effects and a totally incongruous classic rock soundtrack. Every scene is bewildering, unexpected, and, ultimately, bizarrely charming. This is a film that shocks not only with its imaginative scares but also with its sheer lack of inhibition.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was supposedly influenced by this tense tale of a man’s wife and mistress planning to kill him, only to have the corpse disappear after the act. The film borrows from a variety of genres, including crime drama, mystery, and thriller, all with the purpose of gradually building its underlying sense of paranoid psychological horror until it boils over into a wicked climax that turns the whole story on its head.
The Haunting (1963)
This British classic is a haunted house flick in the purest sense of the term. Shot in England and set in New England, the unforgettably imposing Hill House is a setting for the ages. As the heroine and a misguided team of paranormal investigators slink through its ornate halls, foreboding cinematography and uncommonly unnerving sound design make the architecture itself as threatening as any movie monster.
Given this sturdy foundation, the story moves confidently at a deliberate pace. With scares placed economically and precisely at the most effective moments, each one tears at the viewer in the same way that the house tears at the frayed ends of the protagonist’s sanity.
A series of bizarre deaths at a prestigious international dance academy could have, in retrospect, been the basis for a pretty restrained, conservative horror movie. It’s all the more amazing, then, that Suspiria ended up being the wonderfully surreal nightmare that it is.
The luscious, color-drenched sets and sparkling electro-prog score are matched in intensity only by the over-the-top, borderline-fantastical violence — including one of the most absolutely buckwild first kills in the history of horror. All of this combines to make an experience that is elegant, hypnotic, and deeply sinister.