Top 10 Iconic Horror Films

I don't normally do the Top 10 list thing, for anything, however I am teaching my first class in September, entitled: Intro to Horror: or Why We Scream and my first discussion out of the gate asks my students what they consider to be the most iconic horror movies of all time. Not to be hypocritical, I believe I should have my own list prepared with a defense behind my choices. So here it is, my definitive list of Iconic Horror Films:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The first time I saw this film was my Freshman year of college. I had just started film school and was completely unaware of the shit storm I was in for. Throughout my four years of film hell I was required to take 7 theory classes which consisted of the history and social theory behind different film movements. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was part of our introduction to the history of film. We would later revisit this film in both our Avant Garde class and history of horror.

Film Synopsis:  (Rel. 1920, Dir. Robert Wiene)
The deranged Dr. Caligari and his faithful somnambulist (sleepwalker) Cesare are connected to a series of murders in a German mountain village, Holstenwall. 

The narrator, Francis, and his friend Alan visit a carnival in the village where they see Dr. Caligari and Cesare, whom the doctor is displaying as an attraction. Caligari brags that Cesare can answer any question he is asked. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare tells Alan that he will die before dawn tomorrow – a prophecy which is fulfilled.

Francis, along with his betrothed Jane, investigate Caligari and Cesare, which eventually results in Cesare kidnapping Jane. Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, but the hypnotized slave refuses after her beauty captivates him. He carries Jane out of her house, leading the townsfolk on a lengthy chase. Cesare falls to his death during the pursuit, and the townsfolk discover that Caligari had created a dummy of Cesare to distract Francis.

Francis discovers that "Caligari" is actually the director of the local insane asylum, and, with the help of his colleagues, discovers that he is obsessed with the story of a monk called Caligari, who, in 1093, visited towns in northern Italy and used a somnambulist to murder people as a traveling act. After being confronted with the dead Cesare, Caligari reveals his mania and is imprisoned in his asylum.

A "twist ending" reveals that Francis' flashback is actually his fantasy: he, Jane and Cesare are all inmates of the insane asylum, and the man he says is Caligari is his asylum doctor, who, after this revelation of the source of his patient's delusion, says that now he will be able to cure Francis. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is one of the most influential German Expression films, it's twist ending was the first of its kind and would later become a staple in Hollywood thrillers and horror films. The German Expression movement has been credited for influencing the Hollywood horror film as many of the Expressionist films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal which would be key plot lines in the horror films of the 40's, 50's and into the 60's.


When most people think vampires nowadays they think pretty boys with great hair and a certain glow. But long before Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Robert Pattinson made women swoon at the sight of their luscious locks, Vampires were portrayed as ugly, thirsty, creatures of the night. Based loosely upon Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" the film Nosferatu portrayed the dark and not so attractive side of the vampire myth.

Film Synopsis: (Rel. Germany 1922, Dir. F.W. Murnau)

Thomas Hutter lives in the city of Wisborg. His employer, Knock, sends Hutter to Transylvania to visit a new client named Orlok.

Nearing his destination in the Carpathian mountains, Hutter stops at an inn for dinner. The locals become frightened by the mere mention of Orlok's name and discourage him from traveling to his castle at night, warning of a werewolf on the prowl. In his room, Hutter finds a book, The Book of the Vampires, which he peruses before falling asleep.

The next morning, Hutter takes a coach ride to a high mountain pass, the coachmen decline to take him any further as nightfall is approaching. A sinister black swathed coach suddenly appears and the coachman gestures for Hutter to climb aboard. Hutter is welcomed at the castle by Count Orlok himself, who excuses the poor welcome as the servants have all gone to bed. While Hutter has dinner Orlok reads a letter. When Hutter cuts his thumb, Orlok tries to suck the blood out of the wound, but his repulsed guest pulls his hand away. Hutter then falls asleep exhausted in the parlor.

He wakes up to an empty castle and notices fresh punctures on his neck, which he attributes to mosquitoes. That night, Orlok signs the documents to purchase the house across from Hutter's own home. Orlok sees Hutter's miniature portrait of his wife, Ellen and admires her beautiful neck. Reexamining The Book of the Vampires, Hutter starts to suspect that Orlok is Nosferatu, the "Bird of Death". He cowers in his room as midnight approaches, but there is no way to bar the door. The door opens by itself and Orlok enters, his true nature finally revealed. At the same time, Ellen sleepwalks and screams for Hutter. She is somehow heard by Orlok, who leaves Hutter untouched.

The next day, Hutter explores the castle. In its crypt, he finds the coffin in which Orlok is resting dormant. Horrified, he dashes back to his room. From the window, he sees Orlok piling up coffins on a coach and climbing into the last one before the coach departs. Hutter escapes the castle through the window by tieing together strips of the bed linen, but has to jump when his improvised rope runs out, and is knocked unconscious by the fall. He is taken to a hospital. When he is sufficiently recovered, Hutter hurries home.

Meanwhile, the coffins are shipped down river on a raft. They are transferred to a schooner, but not before one is opened by the crew. Inside, they find soil and rats.

Under the long-distance influence of Orlok, Knock starts behaving oddly and is confined to a psychiatric ward. Later, Knock steals a newspaper, which tells of an outbreak of an unknown plague spreading down the coast of the Black Sea. Many people are dying, with odd marks on their necks. Knock rejoices.

The sailors on the ship get sick one by one; soon all but the captain and first mate are dead. Suspecting the truth, the first mate goes below to destroy the coffins. However, Orlok awakens and the horrified sailor jumps into the sea. Unaware of his danger, the captain becomes Orlok's latest victim.

When the ship arrives in Wisborg, Orlok leaves unobserved, carrying one of his coffins. (A passage in The Book of the Vampires reveals that the source of a vampire's power is the soil in which he was buried.) He moves into the house he purchased. The next morning, when the ship is inspected, the captain is found dead. After examining the logbook, the doctors assume they are dealing with the plague. The town is stricken with panic.

Hutter returns home. Ellen reads The Book of Vampires, despite his injunction not to, and learns how to kill a vampire: a woman pure in heart must willingly give her blood to him, so that he loses track of time until the cock's first crowing. There are many deaths in the town. The residents chase Knock, who has escaped after murdering the warden, mistaking him for a vampire.

Orlok stares from his window at the sleeping Ellen. She opens her window to invite him in, but faints. When Hutter revives her, she sends him to fetch Professor Bulwer. After he leaves, Orlok comes in. He becomes so engrossed drinking her blood, he forgets about the coming day. A rooster crows and Orlok vanishes in a bit of smoke as he tries to flee (marking the first death by sunlight in the history of vampire fiction). Ellen lives just long enough to be embraced by her grief-stricken husband. The last image of the movie is of Orlok's ruined castle in the Carpathian Mountains. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: Another German Expressionist film, Nosferatu has received much praise over the years as being the "original vampire movie." It was the ending of Nosferatu single-handedly created the concept that vampires can be physically harmed by sunlight as previously (and in Stoker's novel) Dracula only disliked the sunlight, it could not destroy him however.


A true testament to Freud's hypothesis that all men want to sleep with their mommies. This Oedipal tale of horror told in true Hitchcock fashion portrays Norman as a motel proprietor with a dark secret.

Film Synopsis:  (Rel. 1960, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Marion Crane steals $40,000 from her employer to marry her boyfriend Sam Loomis and then tries to flee to Sam's house, in Fairvale, with the money. Along the way, she trades in her car to evade authorities, and during a storm on the trip, she checks into the isolated Bates Motel, not far from Fairvale. The proprietor, Norman Bates, invites her to dinner at his family house on the hill overlooking the motel. When he leaves to prepare dinner, Marion hears him arguing with his unseen mother, who tells him that she refuses to allow him "bringing in strange, young girls for supper".

Norman brings sandwiches to the motel to eat there instead. The two proceed to have a conversation over dinner, topics ranging from taxidermy to Norman's mother, who he says has been mentally ill since the death of her lover. When Marion suggests that his mother be institutionalized, he becomes very aggressive, saying he wants to do so but does not want to abandon her. Afterward, Marion returns to her room, where she resolves to return the money. Norman, who has become intrigued with her, watches her undress through a hole in the wall, obscured by a painting ("The Rape of the Sabine Women"). After Marion counts the money, she takes a shower. During the shower, an anonymous female assailant enters the bathroom and stabs her to death. Back at the house, Norman calls out to his mother: "Mother! Oh, God, mother! Blood! Blood!"

He runs to the motel, where he finds the corpse; he presumes his mother killed Marion, so he tries to erase all traces of the crime to protect her. He puts Marion's body and all her possessions, including money hidden in a newspaper, into the trunk of her car and sinks it in a nearby swamp.

Sam is contacted by Marion's sister Lila and private detective Milton Arbogast, who was hired by Crane's employer to recover the money. Arbogast traces Marion to the motel and questions Norman, who unconvincingly lies that Marion only stayed for one night. Arbogast wants to question Norman's mother, but Norman refuses to give permission, saying that she is ill. Arbogast calls Lila to update her and tells her he will call again after he questions Norman's mother. Arbogast returns to the house, and proceeds up the staircase. The same assailant who killed Marion emerges from the adjacent room and stabs him to death.

Back at Sam's shop, Lila and Sam are puzzled that Arbogast has not returned for three hours, considering he said it would only be an hour. At the house, in an unseen conversation, Norman confronts his mother and urges her to hide in the fruit cellar, saying that more people will come looking for both Marion and Arbogast. She rejects the idea and orders him out of her room, but against her will Norman carries her down to the cellar.

Lila and Sam go visit Deputy Sheriff Al Chambers, who is perplexed to learn that Arbogast saw Norman's mother in the window; he informs them that, 10 years before, Norman's mother had poisoned her lover and then committed suicide. Shocked, Lila and Sam realize that the only way to find out the truth is to go to the motel themselves. Posing as a married couple, Sam and Lila check into the motel and search Marion's room, where they find a scrap of paper stuck in the toilet with "$40,000" written on it. While Sam distracts Norman, Lila sneaks into the house. Sam suggests to Norman that he killed Marion for the money so he could buy a new motel. Realizing Lila is not around, Norman knocks Sam unconscious and rushes to the house. Lila sees him approaching and hides in the cellar where she discovers a woman sitting in a rocking chair with her back to her. She calls to the old woman — and discovers that it is in fact a mummified corpse. Seconds later, Norman rushes in wearing his mother's clothes and a wig and brandishing a knife. He tries to attack Lila, but Sam subdues him just in time.

After Norman's arrest, a forensic psychiatrist tells Sam and Lila that Norman's dead mother is living in Norman's psyche as an alternate personality. After the death of Norman's father, the pair lived as if they were the only people in the world. When his mother found a lover, Norman went insane with jealousy and murdered them both. Consumed with guilt, Norman "erased the crime" by bringing his mother back to life in his own mind. He stole her corpse and preserved the body. When he was "Mother", he acted, talked and dressed as she would, and when Norman's own personality felt affection toward another person, such as Marion, the "Mother" side of his mind would become extremely jealous; he killed Marion (and two other women) as "Mother". The psychiatrist concludes that the "Mother" personality now has complete control of Norman's mind.

In the final scene, Norman sits in a cell, thinking in "Mother's" voice.

It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son, but I couldn't allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They'll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end, he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man, as if I could do anything except just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. Well, they know I can't even move a finger, and I won't. I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do suspect me. [pause] They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I'm not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, "Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly."

The final shot shows Marion's car being recovered from the swamp. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: Well, the shower scene for starters; shot over 6 days with 77 different camera angles the scene captured the American imagination. Re-created, spoofed, mythologized and analyzed in numerous texts this scene alone has become iconic.

"Psycho is a prime example of the type of film that appeared in the 1960s after the erosion of the Hollywood Production Code. It was unprecedented in its depiction of sexuality and violence, right from the opening scene where Sam and Marion are shown as lovers sharing the same bed. In the Production Code standards of that time, unmarried couples shown in the same bed would be taboo. In addition, the censors were upset by the shot of a flushing toilet; at that time, the idea of seeing a toilet onscreen — let alone being flushed — was taboo in American films and television shows." (Wikipedia)

"The Production Code censors… had no objection to the bloodletting, the Oedipal murder theme, or even the shower scene — but did ask that Hitchcock remove the word transvestite from the film. He didn't." (Entertainment Weekly)

Due to it's graphic display of blood letting during the shower scene Psycho has been widely considered to be the first film in the slasher film genre.

Night of the Living Dead

Brains, I need brains…how do I love George Romero? This film launched the ever-popular zombie-apocalypse genre and has been re-made, analyzed, scrutinized, spoofed and criticized ad nauseam. Night of the Living Dead  is a testament to how a simple horror conception can turn into a pop-culture archetype. Currently Zombies and Vampires are neck and neck (pun intended) for the most popular and the most diverse on screen monsters.

Film Synopsis: (Rel. 1968, Dir. George A. Romero)

Siblings Barbra and Johnny drive to a rural Pennsylvania cemetery to place a cross with flowers on their father's grave. Johnny teases his sister, afraid of cemeteries: "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" Suddenly, a pale skinned man grabs Barbra, and Johnny rushes to save her. A fight occurs, and Johnny is ultimately overpowered and killed when he falls and hits his head on a tombstone. Barbra flees the scene, pursued by the man. Finding refuge in an empty house, she discovers a mutilated corpse at the top of the stairs. The home's telephone is offline and of no use (because her pursuer has just destroyed the cord connecting the house to the phone box on a power pole).

While attempting to flee the house, she encounters Ben, who brings her back into quarantine and later defends the house against straggling zombies. This is followed by an intense argument about Barbara's desire to search for Johnny. After a brief struggle, Barbra collapses in shock, and Ben carries her to a couch. Ben boards up the doors and windows from the inside, and takes a chair outside and scares off the attackers by setting it afire. Ben finds a rifle and a radio as Barbra lies catatonic.

The two are unaware that Harry and Helen Cooper, their daughter Karen, and young couple Tom and Judy have been hiding in the cellar until later. One of the attackers bit Karen earlier and she has fallen ill. Harry wants the group to barricade themselves in the cellar, but Ben argues that they would effectively be trapping themselves. Ben carries the argument, its opposition mounted exclusively by Harry Cooper, and the group cooperates to reinforce the main part of the house. The ghouls swarm around the house, searching for living human flesh.

Radio reports explain that an epidemic of mass murder is sweeping across the eastern seaboard. Later, Ben discovers a television upstairs and the emergency broadcaster reveals that the creatures are consuming the flesh of their victims. A subsequent broadcast reports that the murders are being perpetrated by the recently deceased who have returned to life, dubbed 'ghouls'. Experts, scientists and military are not sure of the cause of the reanimation, but one scientist is certain that it is the result of radioactive contamination from a space probe that exploded in the Earth's atmosphere. A final report instructs that a gunshot or heavy blow to the head will stop the ghouls and that posses of armed men are patrolling the countryside to restore order.

Ben devises a plan to escape using the truck involving all of the men in the house. The truck is in need of fuel, so Ben and Tom go to an outside gas pump while Harry hurls Molotov cocktails from an upper window. On the way out the door, Judy fears for Tom's safety and chases after him. Upon arriving at the pump, Ben places a torch on the ground next to the truck. Tom loses control of the pump, splashing gasoline onto the torch, starting a fire that quickly engulfs the vehicle. Tom tries to drive the truck away from the gas pumps to avoid further damage, but when he goes to exit the truck, Judy gets stuck. Tom goes back into the truck to help her but before they can get out the truck explodes, killing them both. Ben runs back to the house to find that Harry has locked him out. He kicks the door open and, in a fury, fiercely beats Harry.

Some of the undead horde converges upon the truck and begin eating Tom and Judy's charred remains. Meanwhile, others try to break through the doors and windows of the house. Ben manages to hold them back, but drops his rifle. Harry seizes the fallen rifle and turns it on Ben, who wrestles it away from Harry and shoots him. Harry stumbles into the cellar, finds Karen dead, and dies.

Shortly after, Helen discovers that her daughter, Karen, has been transformed into one of the ghouls and is consuming her father's corpse. Karen repeatedly stabs her mother with a cement trowel, killing her, before going upstairs. Meanwhile, the undead finally break into the house and Barbra sees her brother Johnny among them. She lets her guard down and is pulled into the horde and killed. Ben retreats into the cellar, locking the door behind him, ironically taking the course of action that Harry had recommended in the first place. The zombies, including Karen, Johnny and the man who attacked Barbra and Johnny at the start of the film, try to break in. Ben shoots the reanimated Harry and Helen Cooper, and waits for the morning rays.

In the morning, a posse approaches the house, hunting the remaining ghouls. Hearing the commotion, Ben ambles up the cellar stairs into the living room. Sheriff McClelland spots him through a window, and, mistaking him for a zombie, has one of the posse members shoot him in the head, killing him. Still shots are shown of the posse members dragging Ben's body from the house and placing it on a pyre, next to the zombie that had attacked Barbra at the start of the film, as the closing credits roll. The film ends with a brief clip of the pyre burning. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: As I mentioned above, this film opened up a whole new sub-genre of zombie films, previously zombies were supernatural entities or mystically possessed humans. In Night of the Living Dead Romero addressed the American fears of the Cold War, nuclear fall-out and biological warfare. Romer's zombie became the model upon which the modern zombie has become based upon.

The Exorcist

This movie never really scared me, being a non-christian (un-believing atheist, that's me) I never understood the whole demonic possession thing. However The Exorcist is about more than just demons and satan, it is about the battle between good and evil. What makes this a classic for me is the unflinching portrayal of Regan as the possessed complete with human excrement throwing, vomit spewing, priest taunting and that disturbing "spider-walk scene" down the stairs. Oh, and did I mention that I really hate creep kids?

Film Synopsis: (Rel. 1973, Dir. William Friedkin)

Chris MacNeil, an actress filming in Georgetown, notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior of her 12-year-old daughter, Regan MacNeil. Regan has a seizure, then exhibits strange, unnatural powers including levitation and great strength. Regan curses and blasphemes in a demonic male voice. Chris initially believes Regan's changes are related to puberty, but doctors suspect a lesion in her brain. Regan endures a series of unpleasant medical tests. When X-rays show nothing out of the ordinary, a doctor advises that Regan be taken to a psychiatrist, whom she assaults. Paranormal occurrences continue, including a violently shaking bed, strange noises, and unexplained movements. The director of Chris MacNeil's film is found brutally murdered outside the MacNeil residence after being asked to babysit Regan.

When all medical explanations are exhausted, a doctor recommends exorcism, suggesting that if Regan's symptoms are a psychosomatic result of a belief in demonic possession, then perhaps an exorcism would have the psychosomatic effect of ending them. In desperation, Chris consults Father Damien Karras, since he is both a priest and a psychiatrist. During a period in which Karras observes Regan, Regan refers to herself as the Devil. Despite his doubts, Karras decides to request permission from the Church to conduct an exorcism.

Father Merrin, an experienced exorcist, is summoned to Washington to help. He and Father Karras try to drive the spirit from Regan. The demon threatens and taunts both priests, both physically and verbally, and Merrin dies of a heart attack. Karras attempts to perform CPR to no avail. Regan giggles as Karras tries to save Merrin. Karras strikes her and chokes her, challenging the demon to leave Regan and enter him. The demon does so, whereupon the priest throws himself through Regan's bedroom window and falls down the steps outside. At the bottom, a devastated Father Dyer – and friend of Father Karras – administers last rites as Father Karras dies. Regan is restored to health and does not appear to remember her ordeal. Chris and Regan leave Georgetown and their trauma behind. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: The Exorcist became the most profitable horror film of that time, and was nominated for a stunning 10 academy Awards of which it won two. The film tackles the taboos surrounding human waste; urine, feces and vomit and challenges that which the audience views as unclean. Multiple texts have been written surrounding the use of a pre-pubescent girl as the possessed, this signifier carries over into feminist criticism that woman is viewed as unclean and that puberty brings about a change in females that cannot be controlled by a patriarchal society.


"You're gonna need a bigger boat" one of the most iconic lines from film history. This movie scared me so much as a kid that I couldn't swim in the deep end of our neighborhood pool for days. I love nature, but seriously if a giant great white shark tries to attack me I'm going all Roy Scheider on its ass to wet myself.

Film Synopsis: (Rel. 1975, Dir. Steven Spielberg)

During a late night beach party on the fictional Amity Island in New England a 23-year-old woman named Chrissie Watkins goes skinny dipping only to be pulled under by an unseen force. Amity's new police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is notified that Chrissie is missing, and deputy Lenny Hendricks  finds her remains. The medical examiner informs Brody that the death was due to a shark attack. Brody plans to close the beaches but is overruled by town mayor Larry Vaughn, who fears that reports of a shark attack will ruin the summer tourist season. The medical examiner reverses his diagnosis and attributes the death to a boating accident. Brody reluctantly goes along with the explanation.

A short time later, a boy named Alex Kintner is brutally killed by a shark at the beach. Alex's mother places a bounty on the shark, sparking an amateur shark hunting frenzy and attracting the attention of local professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). Brought in by Brody, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) examines Chrissie's remains and concludes she was killed by a shark.

A large tiger shark is caught by a group of fishermen, leading the town to believe the problem is solved, but Hooper is unconvinced that the shark is the killer and asks to examine its stomach contents. Vaughn refuses to make the "operation" public, so Brody and Hooper return after dark and discover the dead shark does not contain human remains. Scouting aboard Hooper's boat, they come across the half-sunken wreckage of a local fisherman's boat. Hooper explores the vessel underwater and discovers a massive shark's tooth, but also the fisherman's body, which makes him drop the tooth in a panic. Vaughn refuses to close the beaches, and on the Fourth of July numerous tourists arrive. After a prank by two boys causes a panic, the shark enters an estuary, killing a man and almost taking the life of Brody's son. Brody forces Vaughn to hire Quint. Brody and Hooper join the hunter on his fishing boat, the Orca, and the trio set out to kill the shark.

Brody is given the task of laying a chum line while Quint uses deep-sea fishing tackle to try to hook the shark. As Brody continues chumming, an enormous great white shark looms up behind the boat; the trio watch the great white circle the Orca and estimate it weighs 3 tons (2.7 metric tonnes) and is 25 feet (7.5 meters) long. Quint harpoons the shark with a line attached to a flotation barrel, designed to prevent the shark from submerging and to track it on the surface, but the shark pulls the barrel under and disappears.

Night falls without another sighting, so the men retire to the boat's cabin, where Quint tells of his experience with sharks as a survivor of the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and where they sing, "Show Me the Way to Go Home". The shark reappears, damaging the boat's hull before slipping away. In the morning, the men make repairs to the engine. Attempting to call the Coast Guard for help, Brody is stopped by Quint, who destroys the radio with a baseball bat. The shark attacks again, and after a long chase Quint harpoons it to another barrel. The men tie the barrels to the stern; but the shark drags the boat backwards, forcing water onto the deck and into the engine, flooding it. Quint harpoons the shark again, adding a third barrel, while the shark continues towing them. Quint is about to cut the ropes with his machete when the cleats are pulled off the stern. The shark continues attacking the boat and Quint heads toward shore with the shark in pursuit, hoping to draw the animal into shallow waters, where it will be beached and drown. In his obsession to kill the shark, Quint overtaxes Orca's engine, causing it to seize.

With the boat immobilized, the trio try a desperate approach: Hooper dons his SCUBA gear and enters the ocean inside a shark proof cage, to stab the shark in the mouth with a hypodermic spear filled with strychnine. The shark destroys the cage but gets tangled in the remains, allowing Hooper to hide on the seabed. As Quint and Brody raise the remnants of the cage, the shark throws itself onto the boat, crushing the transom. As the boat sinks, Quint slides down the slippery deck and is eaten by the shark. Brody retreats to the boat's partly submerged cabin; when the shark attacks him there, he shoves a pressurized air tank into the shark's mouth, then takes Quint's M1 Garand and climbs the Orca's mast. Brody begins shooting at the air tank wedged in the shark's mouth, causing it to explode and blow the shark to pieces.

As the shark's carcass drifts toward the seabed, Hooper reappears on the surface. The survivors briefly lament the loss of Quint, then cobble together a raft from debris and paddle to Amity Island. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: Jaws is the cornerstone upon which the great edifice known as the Summer Blockbuster rests. Due to its "wide release" distribution pattern the film was able to open in hundreds of theaters nationwide simultaneously. The success of this distribution campaign made it the highest grossing film for that time, with over $470 million worldwide by end of its first run, this equates to $1.9 billion by 2010's standards. Jaws was highly acclaimed by critics and filmmakers alike, and was honored that year with three Academy Awards. And in 2001, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.


Ah, teen angst…Carrie has become the quintessential coming of age horror film. Feminist texts have dissected it, filmmakers have lauded it, and movie buffs around the globe have chewed on it for years. In fact both books "The Dread Difference" edited by Barry Keith Grant and "Laughing and Screaming" by William Paul depict Carrie post blood-bath on their covers. The first time I watched Carrie I was pre-pubescent myself, I had a hard time identifying or understanding the social issues surrounding the border between womanhood and adolescence. It wasn't until I began to undertake horror and feminist studies in college that I saw the important impact Carrie had on American cinematic culture and its portrayal of women.

Film Synopsis: (Rel. 1976, Dir. Brian di Palma)

Carrie White is a shy teenage girl abused by her religious mother, Margaret. The girls at school also harass Carrie, with Chris Hargensen being especially cruel.

Carrie experiences her first period while showering after gym class, and the other girls throw tampons and sanitary pads at her before Miss Collins intervenes. As Carrie becomes more upset, a light bulb pops just before Miss Collins tells the other girls to leave. Miss Collins brings Carrie to the principal's office, and while cosoling her, the principal calls Carrie by the wrong name, inadvertently emphasizing how overlooked she is. When Carrie corrects the principal and says "it's Carrie," an ashtray falls from the principal's desk. Later, while Carrie is walking home, a neighborhood boy crashes his bicycle after taunting Carrie.

Margaret, who walks from door to door "spreading the gospel of salvation through Christ's blood", receives a call from Miss Collins about the locker room incident and tells Carrie that the "curse of blood" is punishment for sin. She locks Carrie in a closet and forces her to pray. In her bedroom that night, a miserable Carrie stares at her mirror until it shatters.

Sue Snell, one of Carrie's gym classmates, expresses regret for teasing Carrie at school. The next day, English teacher Mr. Fromm reads a poem written by Tommy Ross, Sue's boyfriend. Fromm invites the class to critique Tommy's work but mocks Carrie when she speaks, which irks Tommy. Sue, feeling guilty for teasing Carrie, convinces Tommy to take Carrie to the prom and show her a good time.

Carrie suspects she may have a telekinetic gift, and researches it in the library. Later, Tommy asks Carrie to prom but Carrie flees, fearing another trick. After a pep talk from Miss Collins, Carrie accepts Tommy's invitation when he later approaches her at her home. Carrie tells her mother that she is going to the prom, and Margaret insists the prom is an occasion of sin, refusing to let her attend. However, Carrie causes the windows of the house to slam shut, revealing that she has telekinesis. Margaret believes this is Satan's power, but Carrie again insists she will go to the prom.

Meanwhile, Miss Collins berates the girls who tormented Carrie in the locker room, subjecting them to a week-long boot-camp-style detention. All the girls show remorse except for Chris, who holds a deep hatred for Carrie. After Chris throws a fit, Miss Collins bans her from the prom. Chris tells her delinquent boyfriend Billy that she wants revenge on Carrie and goes with Billy and other kids to a farm where Billy kills a pig. After draining the pig's blood into a bucket, Billy places the bucket above the school's stage.

Chris makes a deal with her friend Norma Watson (P.J. Soles) and Billy's friend Freddy to rig the election of prom king and queen so Tommy and Carrie win. As Carrie gets ready for the evening, her mother tells her that everyone will laugh at her. Carrie defies her mother, leaving with Tommy. Though her classmates are surprised to see Carrie at prom, they begin treating her as an equal. Sue Snell sneaks into the prom to ensure everything is going well for Carrie.

To her surprise, Carrie and Tommy are named prom king and queen. As the couple approaches the stage to be crowned, Sue discovers Chris hiding behind the stage holding a rope attached to the bucket of pig's blood resting on the rafters. However, Miss Collins forces her out, believing she is there for mischief. As the crown is placed on Carrie's head, Chris pulls the rope and Carrie is drenched in pig's blood. As the crowd looks on in silence, Carrie imagines the whole room laughing and jeering at her. Carrie's telekinesis takes over, closing the doors to the gym and turning on a fire hose. Norma is killed by the fire hose along with many other people, and Carrie kills Miss Collins with a falling rafter. Mr. Fromm is electrocuted causing a fire in the gym. Leaving her classmates inside the school as it burns, Carrie walks home, covered in blood. Chris and Billy catch up with her in Billy's car, intending to run her over, and Carrie uses her powers to flip the car and explode, killing Billy and Chris.

At home, Carrie breaks down in her mother's arms after taking a bath. Believing the devil has taken over Carrie, Margaret brings the girl to her knees and stabs Carrie in the back. Carrie falls down the stairs and is cornered in the kitchen by her mother. Carrie sends kitchen knives flying at Margaret, pinning her to the wall and killing her. Overcome with guilt and grief, Carrie uses her telekinesis to collapse the house where both she and her mother are crushed by falling debris.

Some time later, Sue, the only survivor of prom, dreams of visiting the plot where Carrie's house stood. As she places flowers on the ground, a bloody hand reaches out, grabbing Sue's wrist, who then wakes up, screaming in her mother's arms. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: For all of the reasons stated above and more, Carrie was considered a "landmark horror film."  It has also been considered the biggest influence on the slasher genre of the 70's and 80's.


The new psycho-killer and social criticism of the immorality of American youth. Halloween spawned multiple re-makes, spin-offs and many of its filmic conventions became standard fare for the slasher horror genre.

Film Synopsis: (Rel. 1978, Dir. John Carpenter)

On Thursday Night, October 31, 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers murders his sixteen-year-old sister Judith with a large kitchen knife at their home in Haddonfield, Illinois. His parents arrive home minutes later and find him in a trance-like state. Michael is incarcerated in Smith's Grove Warren County Sanitarium, where he is placed under the care of child psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis. Eight years of treatment convince Loomis that Michael is pure evil. An additional seven years is spent trying to keep Michael locked up. However, on October 30th, 1978, Michael is to be transferred and prosecuted as an adult. As Loomis and his assistant Marion Chambers  arrive at Smith's Grove to take the 21-year-old Myers to court, Michael attacks the car nearly killing Marion, steals the car and escapes. Loomis goes in pursuit of Myers. He learns that Judith Myers' tombstone is missing, and is convinced that Michael will return home.

Michael, wearing a mechanic's coveralls and a mask, indeed returns to his now derelict home in Haddonfield. There, he stalks teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and follows her and her friends Annie Brackett and Lynda Van Der Klok  as they walk home from school. Laurie becomes unnerved after spotting Michael several times that day, but Lynda and Annie dismiss her concerns. That evening, Laurie meets Annie, who is babysitting Lindsey Wallace across the street from where Laurie is babysitting Tommy Doyle.

During the evening Michael watches Annie through the windows of the Wallace house. Annie later arranges to pick up her boyfriend, and takes Lindsey across the street to stay with Laurie. When Annie gets into her car, Michael emerges from the backseat, strangles her, and cuts her throat. Tommy sees Michael carrying Annie's body into the Wallace house and thinks he is the Boogeyman. Laurie dismisses this and sends Tommy and Lindsey to bed. Lynda arrives at the Wallace house with her boyfriend Bob Simms. They learn that Annie and Lindsey are out, and have sex. When Bob later goes to the kitchen he is choked, pinned to a wall, and killed by Michael. In the bedroom, Michael strangles Lynda with a phone cord as she calls Laurie.

Laurie is worried by the telephone call consisting of muffled gasps. She walks across to the Wallace house to investigate. There she discovers the three bodies plus Judith Myers' missing tombstone. Myers attacks Laurie at the top of the stairs, but she falls down the staircase. Michael gives chase, but Laurie manages to escape back to the Doyle house. Myers gains entry to the house, but Laurie jabs a knitting needle into his neck. She goes upstairs to check the children but Michael has survived and followed her. She tells the children to escape and call the police, locking herself in a closet. When Michael breaks through the closet door, Laurie stabs him in the eye with a wire clothes hanger, causing him to drop the knife. She then stabs him in the torso with the knife and he falls to the floor; Laurie exits the closet.

Loomis sees the panicked children running from the house and enters the Doyle house. Behind Laurie, Michael gets up and begins to throttle her. Loomis appears and shoots him six times, sending Michael through a window and flying off the balcony. Loomis assures Laurie that everything is all right. When he looks over the balcony, however, Michael's body has disappeared. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic:  Critics of Halloween suggest that the film was providing a social critique of the imorrality of the nation's youth and that those who broke the law must be punished, and whether Carpenter agreed with this assessment the theme of punishing errant teens by an unstoppable male force continues in the slasher films of the 80's and 90's (Nightmare on Elm Street, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Friday the 13th to name a few).  In 2006, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"


Star Wars opened up a whole new can of worms in 1978. No longer were our demons and nightmares fixed to our own planet, now we had space to worry about. Once again our fears of the unknown got the better of us and a whole new kind of horror had been developed, one which centered around the already popular Sci-Fiction genre. Ghosts and goblins were the least of our worries in space.

Film Synopsis: (Rel. 1979, Dir. Ridley Scott)

The commercial towing spaceship Nostromo is on a return trip from Thedus to Earth, hauling a refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore and carrying its seven-member crew in stasis. Upon receiving a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planetoid, the ship's computer awakens the crew. Acting on orders from their corporate employers, the crew detaches the Nostromo from the refinery and lands on the planetoid, resulting in some damage to the ship. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) set out to investigate the signal's source while Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) stay behind to monitor their progress and make repairs.

Dallas, Kane, and Lambert discover that the signal is coming from a derelict alien spacecraft. Inside it they find the remains of a large alien creature whose ribs appear to have been exploded outward from the inside. Meanwhile, the Nostromo's computer partially deciphers the signal transmission, which Ripley determines to be some type of warning. Kane discovers a vast chamber containing numerous eggs, one of which releases a creature that attaches itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert carry the unconscious Kane back to the Nostromo, where Ash allows them inside against Ripley's orders to follow the ship's quarantine protocol. They unsuccessfully attempt to remove the creature from Kane's face, discovering that its blood is an extremely corrosive acid. Eventually the creature detaches on its own and is found dead. With the ship repaired, the crew resume their trip back to Earth.

Kane awakens seemingly unharmed, but during a meal before re-entering stasis he begins to choke and convulse until an alien creature bursts from his chest, killing him and escaping into the ship. Lacking conventional weapons, the crew attempt to locate and capture the creature by fashioning motion trackers, electric prods, and flamethrowers. Brett follows the crew's cat into a large room where the now-fully-grown Alien attacks him and disappears with his body into the ship's air shafts. Dallas enters the shafts intending to force the Alien into an airlock where it can be expelled into space, but it ambushes him. Lambert implores the remaining crew members to escape in the ship's shuttle, but Ripley, now in command, explains that the shuttle will not support four people.

Accessing the ship's computer, Ripley discovers that Ash has been ordered to return the Alien to the Nostromo's corporate employers even at the expense of the crew. Ash attacks her, but Parker intervenes and decapitates him with a blow from a fire extinguisher, revealing Ash to be an android. Before Parker incinerates him, Ash predicts that the other crew members will not survive. The remaining three crew members plan to arm the Nostromo's self-destruct mechanism and escape in the shuttle, but Parker and Lambert are killed by the Alien while gathering the necessary supplies. Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence and heads for the shuttle with the cat, but finds the Alien blocking her way. She unsuccessfully attempts to abort the self-destruct, then returns to find the Alien gone and narrowly escapes in the shuttle as the Nostromo explodes.

As she prepares to enter stasis, Ripley discovers that the Alien is aboard the shuttle. She puts on a space suit and opens the hatch, causing explosive decompression which forces the Alien to the open doorway. She shoots it with a grappling gun which propels it out, but the gun is caught in the closing door, tethering the Alien to the shuttle. It attempts to crawl into one of the engines, but Ripley activates them and blasts the Alien into space. Ripley puts herself and the cat into stasis for the return trip to Earth. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: Like Carrie, Alien has been lauded as a feminist film, with a strong, maternal female character (Ripley) who must destroy that which endangers her and her family (the crew of the Nostromo). Alien  has won numerous awards including an Academy Award for Special Effects and it has remained highly praised in subsequent decades, being inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002 for historical preservation as a film which is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Alien is appraised for containing a multitude of cinematic style including Existentialism, Film Noire, Science-Fiction, Feminist and Slasher which spoke to a wide cross-section of viewers. To this day it is regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time as Roger Ebert writes:

"One of the great strengths of Alien is its pacing. It takes its time. It waits. It allows silences (the majestic opening shots are underscored by Jerry Goldsmith with scarcely audible, far-off metallic chatterings). It suggests the enormity of the crew's discovery by building up to it with small steps: The interception of a signal (is it a warning or an SOS?). The descent to the extraterrestrial surface. The bitching by Brett and Parker, who are concerned only about collecting their shares. The masterstroke of the surface murk through which the crew members move, their helmet lights hardly penetrating the soup. The shadowy outline of the alien ship. The sight of the alien pilot, frozen in his command chair. The enormity of the discovery inside the ship ("It's full of … leathery eggs …").


This movie falls into the "creepy-kid" genre once again for me. But I have to say that the first time I saw it I couldn't sleep because I too had a killer tree outside my window, or so I imagined. Also, I found the midget woman to be very disconcerting, Poltergeist clinched my hatred of clowns as well.

Film Synopsis: (rel. 1982, Dir. Tobe Hooper)

Steve and Diane Freeling, and their children Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne, are living a quiet life in a California suburb, when a group of seemingly benign ghosts begin communicating with five-year-old Carol Anne through the static on the family's television sets. A number of other bizarre occurrences follow, including an earthquake that only the Freelings feel, glasses and utensils that spontaneously break or bend, and the ominous announcement by Carol Anne that the ghosts are there with them. Diane begins to realize the presence of beings in her home, which fascinates her. But when she brings these things to Steven's attention, he is disturbed and worried.

One night, during a rainstorm, a gnarled tree comes to life and grabs Robbie through his bedroom window. However, this is merely a distraction used by the ghosts to get Carol Anne's parents to leave her unattended. While Diane and Steven rescue Robbie, Carol Anne is sucked through a portal in her closet. The horrified Freelings realize she has been taken after they begin to hear her communicating through a television set.

A group of parapsychologists from UC Irvine, Dr. Lesh, Ryan and Marty, come to the Freeling house to investigate. They determine that the Freelings are experiencing a poltergeist, rather than a true haunting. Dr. Lesh explains that the spirits have not moved on to "the light" after death, but are stuck between dimensions. They have taken Carol Anne, Lesh says, because as an innocent 5-year-old, her "life force" is as bright to them as the light, and they believe she is their salvation.

During the investigation, Steven, a real estate agent for the subdivision development he lives in, is approached by his boss, Lewis Teague, about a promotion. The new project will involve selling lots on a newly acquired hilltop parcel of land that currently houses a cemetery. When Steven balks at the idea of relocating the graveyard, his boss shrugs it off, explaining that the company had done it before, in the very neighborhood where Steven now lives.

After a series of frightening paranormal episodes, Robbie and Dana are sent away for their safety. The parapsychologists leave with the data they collected, but Dr. Lesh and Ryan soon return with a spiritual medium, Tangina Barrons, who informs Diane that Carol Anne is alive and in the house. She also explains that, in addition to the peaceful lost souls inhabiting the house, there is a single malevolent spirit she calls the "Beast," that is using Carol Anne to keep the spirits away from the light.

The assembled group discovers that while the entrance to the other dimension is through the children's bedroom closet, the exit is through the living room ceiling. They send Diane to rescue Carol Anne, tying her to a rope that they've managed to thread through both portals. As Tangina coaxes the agonized spirits away from Carol Anne, Diane retrieves her daughter and they emerge through the living room ceiling, falling to the floor. Tangina announces that the spirits are gone.

However, while the spirits have moved on, the Beast has not. On the family's final night in the house, the Beast attacks Diane and the children. Diane runs to her neighbors for help, and in the process, slips and falls into the unfinished swimming pool, from which coffins and rotting corpses erupt. Her neighbors, terrified by the ghostly energy blazing from the house, refuse to help. Diane pulls out Robbie and Carol Anne from the house, and Dana returns from a date to find coffins and dead bodies exploding from the ground throughout the neighborhood.

As Steven returns home to this mayhem, he realizes that when Teague relocated the cemetery under the subdivision, he'd done it on the cheap and only moved the headstones. Teague appears soon after, joining the Freelings' neighbors in their horror at the Freeling house's explosive possession. An enraged Steven confronts him with the fact that by leaving the bodies in unmarked graves and building houses on top of them, Teague had desecrated their burial grounds. As the Freelings drive away in terror, the house itself implodes into another dimension, to the astonishment of onlookers. The family checks into a Holiday Inn for the night. Taking no chances, Steven puts the television outside. (Wikipedia)

Why Iconic: Aside from the alleged curse surrounding production of the film and untimely deaths of two of the films youngest female characters, Poltergeist was well received by critics of the time and is still considered a classic of American horror genre. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and has been spoofed, referenced and written about in film, television and print, most notably in popular adult animated sit-coms like "Family Guy", "American Dad", "The Simpsons" and "South Park."

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