Watershed Moments In Horror Films

The “horror” movie has been around for a very long time, and this article is not a lesson on the history of the genre. Instead, I want to talk about those watershed moments that have in some way shaped the things we watch and those things that frighten us – that moment when we said, “damn that was different.”

Every generation has its films that stand out. In some cases, it is something entirely new, and in other cases, it is re-treatment of an old idea made even better.

At 52, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy a significant number of horror films before current advancements in special effects improved the visuals and before the frequent regurgitation of ideas rendered those films less than scary.

These watershed moments are not about a particular taste in a horror sub-genre (slasher or monster), not about the level of special effects, and not necessarily a list of the “best” horror films.

Instead, it’s about horror movies that presented a new idea, or took something we never considered, and made it frightening, or explored a previous design and nailed it.

Some of these films came from the major studios, but a surprising number were Indie films –  a testament to my belief that scary isn’t all about special effects, “A” actors, and big budgets.

So come with me and let’s explore some of those watershed moments in horror and look at their long-standing impact on either the industry…or the things that make us shiver.

1. They worship Satan

Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968 (production cost 3.2 million/Sales 34 million). Now devil worship was not a new concept…I think the Spanish Inquisition dealt with the topic. But in the movie industry, this was the moment where the audience realized that anyone could be susceptible to the practices of Satan’s minions.

The film’s popularity led to a string of films based on Satanic cults. Movies like The Devil’s Rain and Race With the Devil and even The Omen were all versions of the concept.

One might argue that the film “The Last Exorcism” is really just a combination of this moment and moment #2 below.

2. She’s possessed

The Exorcist was released in 1973 ( production cost 12 million/Sales 402 million)and is responsible for more “remakes” than probably any other film (Halloween might be the exception). It’s one thing to fight off a group of cultist, but what is one to do when a loved one is possessed…involuntarily. We absolutely love this concept, and the slew of films dealing with the idea are endless.

3. There are worse things than ghosts

People die, and then their spirits comes back to haunt. Not a new idea at all. Authors were using this scheme as far back as the Gothic horror books. But…what if people die….and come back as flesh-eating zombies.

Romero’s classic, Night of the Living Dead (production costs 114K/sales 30 million) was not the first time moviegoers saw a zombie but just about every zombie since then follows some of the “rules” he developed in his low budget black and white film.

A film that was actually about consumerism.

4. People are crazy

Alfred Hitchcock took a pretty big chance when he chooses to produce and direct Psycho. And it was a damn good movie at the time. Perhaps one might even say it was the watershed moment, but I have to go somewhere else….Wes Craven’s 1972 film The Last House on the Left (production costs 87K/Sales 30 million).

It was at that moment we realized just how crazy and dangerous people are.

I think the critical difference between the two films is that Psycho dealt with the psychosis of someone who had lost his grip on reality. In the original LHL, we are dealing with a different type of sociopath. A far scarier version because it’s the kind we can run into just about anywhere. More frightening still because they ran in a pack.

Over the past four decades, there has been no shortage of sociopathic rapists prowling the movie screens. And the most brutal is 1978s I Spit on Your Grave, but it was Wes Craven’s film that shared the awful brutality and real terror of rape.

5. People are really crazy

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (production costs 140K/Sales 26 million) moved the genre from “oh they’re a crazy satanical cult” to…they are just out of their freaking minds.

What is unique about this film is first, it claimed to be based on “real events,” today we call this “found footage,” second we weren’t dealing with just one crazy dude, but an entire family, and third, the level of torture and dismemberment was just epic.

It opened the door for films like The Hills Have Eyes and House of 1,000 corpses, Hostel, and even elements of The Strangers.

6. This neighborhood is worse than Dracula’s castle

The horror movie genre, until 1978, followed a pretty standard model. If you went looking for trouble you usually found it. Road trips to Texas, stranger’s apartment buildings, remote hotels were all a recipe for disaster.

But one could find solace in the idea that being home in your suburban neighborhood with the police a quick call away kept you pretty safe.

And then came Halloween (production cost 325K/Sales 70 million).

Halloween introduced us to the silent predator with the big knife who’s walking through our neighborhood and standing in our house. It also introduced us to the most critical concept in the modern slasher film—The Final Girl.

One cannot even begin to list the movies this low budget film inspired. And what horror-movie fan has never picked up a butcher knife and not struggled with the choice between humming a few bars from Halloween or from Psycho.

7. I’ll stick to the pool

I love to swim, and up until the third grade I loved the ocean. Then some jack ass (Steven Spielberg) had to ruin it for everyone. Jaws (production costs 12 million/sales 471 million) added an ominous feel to any trip to the beach. It didn’t matter that the shark is killed at the end because it reminded us that the ocean is where sharks live.

Jaws was not intended to be the movie we saw. But budget overruns and problems with the mechanics of the shark forced creativity. In solving the issues, Spielberg and team, gave us the Shark’s POV, a new approach that became a watershed moment in horror.

Jaws inspired films that dealt with other bodies of water. And soon we found we should be afraid of lakes (Croc) and rivers (Anaconda).

Suddenly everything that swims had the potential to deliver a violent death.

But Jaws was that moment. All these years later, in my pool, at night, I often think about the possibility of a shark attack…regardless of the absurdity.

8. Cheap is the new scary

Okay, I didn’t think the Blair Witch Project (production costs 600k/Sales 248 million) was that scary. It did, however, introduce the idea that a camcorder could add a scary element to the movie experience. Blair Witch gave us a new POV on horror films. And it brought back the “found footage” phenomenon. Paranormal Activity (production cost 150K/sales 197 million), Quarantine (12 million/41 million), and Cloverfield are some excellent examples of how a shaky, POV makes for an exciting viewing experience.

9. It’s all in the angle

Sam Raimi cut his teeth, so to speak, on the film Evil Dead (production cost 350K/Sales 30 million). Although he went on to do higher-cost productions like The Grudge and Spiderman, this 1981 film changed the way horror scenes were filmed.

Things like the rapid dolly shot, following a moving object in the first person, the close up wide angle view are just a few of Raimi’s hallmarks (although the concepts are borrowed).

I  can’t recall a previous horror movie where the audience is actually treated to a vine rape scene (Raimi later stated he wished he had cut the scene).

Since gaining a cult following this film has inspired many horror filmmakers to borrow his filming techniques. And the film itself got a remake, but what you might discover is that old, hazy 1980s version, is still the best version of the story.

10. Oh, goody the monsters are back!

Inundated with monsters in the 50s and 60s North American audiences grew tired of them. Psychos with knives and devil-possessed people were just a hell of a lot scarier than an over-sized lizard…until 1979.

Alien (production cost 9 million/sales 204 million) reintroduced the “monster” in a way we hadn’t seen in a very long time.  Films like The Thing, Relic, Species, Splice, Cloverfield, all probably owe their lives to the success of Alien.

Dan O’Bannon who wrote the script wanted it to be “Jaws in Space,” and he admitted that he took the idea from a bunch of earlier films.

One of the most interesting of watershed ideas in the film is the treatment of men as the “rape victims.” Horror films have always traded on scenes of women being raped but here is the first time a guy is getting something jammed down his throat and having a baby (yes I know that’s not how impregnation works wiseass).

Alien not only resurrected the monster movie, but it brought together so many horror concepts (stalking, monsters, sexual force, face hug, chest explosion, dripping slime, spooked cats) that it’s probably one of the best “one-stop shops” for your horror needs.


I originally wrote this post back in 2012. Surprisingly, seven years later, I still stand by my thoughts on these watershed moments. What has changed, however, is the quality script and story improvements over the past three years.

Today,  horror-films, in all forms, top the popularity lists. It’s not necessarily that there is anything “new” about these recent films. The improvement is likely the result of film-makers taking the genre more seriously.  A topic I’ll cover very soon.



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