In an article titled “Firing Broadsides: Creating a Horror Canon,” I examine the issues surrounding canon-building. When I first proposed a piece on horror canon I thought it would be a fun time researching classic horror titles. I had no idea what I was getting into. Typing “horror canon” into Google didn’t return much, and though Google Scholar yielded better results, I soon came to understand that I was getting involved in something much bigger and more complex than a simple list of movies. Canon was just the beginning. Researching horror canon led me deep into genre history and development. As I learned, canon-building is a lesson in genre: how it grows and develops over time, and how it’s studied and analyzed. Through my readings, I learned that canon-building can be a divisive topic as the politics of inclusion and exclusion are applied during process of canon formation. Why this film instead of that one? Why not this other film also? Thornier still is the issue of what’s genre and what’s not. I recall one author who, when asked the question, “Is it horror or is it thriller?” answered, “That depends on whether you like horror movies.” I’m not here to debate the issue of horror vs thriller, but I have a new appreciation for the difficulties involved in that kind of genre analysis.
What I am here to do is propose a horror canon. Ask any group of horror fans what’s canon and no doubt they will each of them draw up similar lists. This would be the “unofficial” horror canon, an agreed-upon list of movies that are, for whatever reasons, important to the genre; classic films, great or award-winning films, cult films—all enjoy canon status within the hearts and minds of the horror-loving public. But what about an “official” canon, the authoritative list of horror movies that must be seen and studied for a proper education in genre film?
For quick reference I recommend The Vault of Horror’s horror canon, a list of 35 titles compiled by film reviewers and bloggers. What I’m proposing here is something more formal, an annotated list of films that helped shape the genre, defining it and driving it. Early on, canon existed as a way to deal with an overwhelming number of titles—too many to watch in one lifetime—and canonized movies were meant to be representational of the larger population of movies. Later, canon films grew less generic and more exceptional, instead of being exemplary they were outstanding. The new canon I’m proposing will combine these two definitions in an effort to educate the interested in what’s typical and what’s not, what set the standard and what broke the mold.
The aim is to finally present the films chronologically. Enumerated lists have an inherent hierarchy and I want to shy away from ranking canon films. Rather, a chronological list should trace a line through genre history and development, while the annotations will explain why these films specific films were chosen for canonization.
In an effort to make the process as inclusive as possible, I invite everyone to recommend films for inclusion (or exclusion). To get the ball rolling I’ve included a (very) short list of contenders, inspired in part by the list that appears at The Vault of Horror.
• Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Hitchcock had the gall to kill his leading lady in the first half of the film, but it payed off in one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history. The film is an intense study in psychopathy and suspense.
• The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)
A “scariest movie of all time” for an entire generation. It brought horror into the mainstream.
• Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
When everyone else was adapting horror novels, Spielberg made his shark movie. It was the first summer blockbuster.
• Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Although not the first slasher film, it was tremendously successful, spawned the franchise, and inspired another successful franchise, Friday the 13th.
• An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
Rick Baker won the first Oscar for Best Makeup for his effects work, transforming David Naughton into the titular werewolf.
• Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
Revitalized slasher film and introduced mainstream audiences to the postmodern horror movie.
• Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005)
It could be argued that Saw (James Wan, 2004) is a better movie, but Hostel was invoked when “torture porn” was coined. Adam Lowenstein’s erroneous statement about the film’s political commentary have nevertheless helped legitimize the film’s gore.
• Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)
Although not the first low budget found footage movie, it ushered in a new era of indie filmmaking. The marketing technique used to promote the movie was brand new, getting the audience involved and invested in seeing the film.