With Halloween fast approaching, EW is picking the five best films in a variety of different horror movie categories. Each day, we’ll post our top picks from specific group—say, zombie movies or demon films—and give you the chance to vote on which is your favorite. On Oct. 31, EW will reveal your top choices. Today, we’re taking on the slasher flick.
Most slasher flicks boil down to the following ingredients: teenagers (usually described as “nubile”) a slow-moving, indestructible serial killer determined to kill said teenagers, death indirectly caused by promiscuity, and the chaste Final Girl, who outlives everyone else to confront the killer in the end.
There once was a time when slasher flicks were truly terrifying—before the genre’s tropes were overdone to a burnt crisp in countless straight-to-VHS B-movies, and before the Wayans Brothers and their Scary Movie spoofs deconstructed it brick by brick. But take a closer look at the slasher films of yore, and you’ll see films that deserve to be called the best—at the very least because of the precedents they set for the genre.
EW’s top five slasher flicks range from the self-aware (Scream) to the exploitative (Texas Chain Saw Massacre)—yet each of these films is a trailblazer in its own right. Some are fun, and some are occasionally laughable…but they’re all classics in their own ways. Not to mention that when it’s done right, there’s really nothing scarier than a good slasher movie.
5. Friday the 13th (1980)
The Vorhees family has been making teenagers terrified of having sex for over 30 years. In the first movie, though, the killer isn’t hockey mask-clad Jason; instead, it’s his mother (Betsey Palmer), who goes on a teen-killing spree to avenge the presumed death of her son. (His drowning was ignored by a pair of copulating camp counselors.) The original film is probably the best of the 12-films-and-counting series, despite its obviously low budget and the inclusion of Kevin Bacon with feathered hair (shudder). While the fashions are in a weird, post-’70s place and the teenagers are unbelievably clueless, what the film lacks in finesse it makes up for by heralding the schlocky horror film into the mainstream—and becoming the gold standard for a bajillion copycat films.
4. Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s Scream is as much a mid-’90s time capsule as it is a horror film. Neve Campbell? Check. An inappropriately-timed house party? Check. Brick-sized cordless landlines? Check. What sets the movie apart is its much-appreciated meta sense of humor. Campbell’s Sidney Prescott is as self-aware a horror heroine as there ever was: When the movie’s Ghostface murderer asks if she likes scary movies, she answers with this gem of a line: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” While Scream’s killer isn’t really as scary as early slasher villains (more on that later), the film gave horror a new direction, showing that scary can be funny on purpose. See also: Drew Barrymore in the opening scene.
3. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a quintessential masterpiece of suspense and restraint. There’s no overt bloodshed and violence, and there’s no superhuman quality to the villain, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins); the terror really did lie in what was apparently ordinary. Hitchcock subverted viewers’ expectations by starting out with a troubled protagonist, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)—and subsequently hacking her up in the shower, a scene which still stands as one of the most terrifying and important sequences of all time. (And not just a flushing toilet had never been seen onscreen before.) The film’s Oedipal undercurrent also makes it one of first psychosexual thrillers, and one that has influenced countless slasher films with its film technique, unseen antagonist, and twist ending.
2. Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a weird juxtaposition of horrific gore and gorgeous filmmaking, thanks to the work of cinematographer Daniel Pearl. The sunset-tinged desert landscapes serve as a scenic backdrop to this hellish tale of a group of teenagers (again with the teenagers!) who get hunted down by a human-mask-wearing villain known as Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). The exploitation-style camerawork gives the film a raw and gritty vibe, building a palpable sense of fear, as exemplified by the scene where doomed Pam (Teri McMinn) traps herself in Leatherface’s lair and finds herself hanging from his infamous meat hook. The film also delves into the psyche of the villain, exploring his truly messed-up family life, giving a motive to the flesh-wearing psychopath.
1. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter’s Halloween really is the epitome of slasher movies. Appropriately, it stars a young Jamie Lee Curtis, progeny of Psycho scream queen Janet Leigh—and it heralded a new generation of the slasher film with its Hitchcockian influence. The movie also introduced the deranged serial killer Michael Myers, who is kept locked up after killing his older sister when he was just six years old (the evilest killers do start young). Myers escapes the sanitarium, dons a William Shatner mask, and goes on relentless teenager-killing spree (of course) in pursuit of Curtis’s Laurie Strode. Like Psycho, the film’s terror didn’t lie in overt bloodshed, but in its skilled use of restraint. Thanks to point-of-view shots through Myer’s eyes, we see the world as the villain does, creating an ominous build-up and release. Likewise, the movie’s jerky camera movements, chilling score, and delayed action still stirs audiences today—proving that torture porn isn’t the only way to provoke an audience.