The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Dr. Frank-n-Furter looks saucy in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”

There’s no film that embodies the term “cult classic” more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman (Shock Treatment, The Night, the Prowler) and starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, this delightfully deviant rock opera started showing in 1975 and saw its greatest success with midnight showings. Some theaters have been hosting midnight showings regularly since 1975, making this the longest theatrical release in history. This quirky film gathered a strong cult following and became a cultural phenomenon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful independent films in history. Despite coming out in 1975 (with the original stage play coming out 1973), this is still sharper and edgier than most films being made today. It doesn’t really discuss controversial topics so much as celebrate them, and this is more fun than most other films from any era.

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Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary looks scared in Rosemary's Baby

“He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!”

Good horror movies seem to be a dying art. I grew up thinking I hated horror movies. It wasn’t until I went back to the classics that I discovered that I really liked some of them. The biggest change (aside from gratuitous use of jump scares) seems to be the transition from the power of imagination to bad CGI effects—no special effect will ever be as scary as what the brain can conjure based on context clues from other characters. Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Tenant) and starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, is a classic horror film that scares through restraint and subtlety, and what it doesn’t show is more terrifying than the special effects today, 50 years later. It’s also an exceptionally smart horror film, with a depth missing from most mass-market horror films today. Is this 50-year-old horror film worth watching today? Yes, absolutely.

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Carrie

Carrie White stares in horror, covered with blood, in Carrie (1976)

“Telekinesis… thought to be the ability to move… or to cause changes… in objects… by force of the mind…?”

Growing up, I’d been turned off to the horror genre for a few reasons. Horror films in general never really felt deep, emotionally speaking, and were full of stereotypes. They also seemed to revel in misogyny and weak female characters. 42 years after its release, Carrie is still a breath of fresh air. Directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface, Dressed to Kill) and starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, this was a landmark horror film that wasn’t content to stick to simple characters and situations. The character of Carrie White was painfully real and vulnerable, but strong in her own way, and the emotional core of the movie was raw and powerful. And, unlike most horror films, women run the show here—despite a gratuitous opening scene, there are some pretty empowering scenes here, as well as some open discussion of the hardships of being a woman. It honestly feels a bit dated today, but the tension and sense of dread hanging over the whole film is as heavy today as it was in 1976 and this still holds up as a classic and very influential horror film.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Matthew and Elizabeth hide in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“People are being duplicated. And once it happens to you, you’re part of this… thing. It almost happened to me!”

(Yes, I’m reviewing the 1978 remake, not the 1956 original. Don’t judge me!)

Alien invasion movies were a pretty big thing in classic film. They asked lots of questions: What if they’re good? What if they’re bad? What if they think we’re bad and come to judge us? Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman (mostly known for writing the Indiana Jones movies) and starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, puts a bit of a different spin on it: what if they’re neither good nor evil, but so different that we can’t coexist? But this is not a boring morality study—this is a tense thriller! It doesn’t take the time to ask and answer a lot of deep questions, as many sci-fi movies do, but it moves quickly and is definitely not boring. If you’re in the mood for a tense and somewhat scary look at an alien invasion, this might be just what you’re looking for.

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Psycho

Psycho

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

When Paramount agreed to let Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest, Vertigo) make Psycho, they were sure it would be a flop—so much so that Hitchcock actually negotiated 60% of the profits rather than a flat rate. I had never seen the movie before last night, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how good it would be. Well, Hitchcock proved Paramount and my doubts wrong—this is a masterpiece. Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles, this is as clever as it is classic, and, while it may be a bit tame by today’s standards, the suspense holds up very well. I’m not usually a big fan of horror movies, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It’s endured as one of the best horror films of all time, and that position is well-earned.

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Alien

Alien (1979)

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

The sci-fi genre has produced some brilliant movies; but for a long time, it failed to produce one thing: heightened suspense. Sci-fi movies made you think, but they rarely got your heart racing. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and starring Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, changed the genre. With a tagline like, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. It’s not just a great sci-fi suspense movie—it’s probably one of the best suspense movies ever made. It doesn’t skimp on the science fiction, but this movie is downright terrifying, and it does it without resorting to cheap jump scares or excessive gore. Though often imitated, this is a movie that stands up very well today and earns its spot on the watch list of any serious cinema fan.

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The Shining

The Shining

“Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

I’ll admit: I’m not the biggest fan of the horror genre. But The Shining does what most horror movies don’t even dream of: it’s truly a work of art. Directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange), based on a book by horror master Stephen King, and starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, it’s a horror movie that escapes the pitfalls of many other horror movies, such as cheap scare tactics and shallow characters. The result is a beautiful and well-written movie that’s frightening without being over-the-top.

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Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead

“Just look at the face: it’s vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who’s lost a bet.”

We live in a world today where there are well-written zombie serial dramas, successful zombie action movie franchises, and even zombie romantic comedies. It’s easy to forget that, for a long time, zombies were only a cult hit—they were not exceedingly popular, even when they had a commercial success. But when Resident Evil brought traditional action to zombie movies in 2002 and 28 Days Later brought smart writing to zombie movies in 2003, the stage was set for zombies to move into the spotlight. In 2004, Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World) co-wrote and directed the first mainstream zombie comedy movie, Shaun of the Dead, starring Simon Pegg. Bear in mind, I’m watching this just after binge-watching six seasons of The Walking Dead. Does it hold up 12 years later? I think so.

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