Top 10 Horror Movies from my Childhood

Some of the movies that made me the fan I am today

My horror fandom started at an early age. I inherited a love of monsters from my father, who grew up during the age of double feature matinees and late-night broadcasts of the old Universal classics. My tastes in genre movies started with the ones he showed me, and branched out from there. Below are ten of the movies that I saw in the first decade of my life that defined what I continue to love about the genre today.

 

Nosferatu

Noferatu (1922)

I dug monster movies as a kid because I thought monsters were neat. Nothing else on this list really scared me on first viewing – I liked them mostly because they were fun. But Nosferatu, one of the very first I ever saw, that was a whole different story. Part of it was the hideous, rat like features of Graf Orlok (Max Schreck). Part of it was the unsettling strangeness that came from the absence of dialogue and natural sound, and the strange speed at which 18fps footage was converted to VHS. But some aspect of it is just beyond comprehension or classification. Even as an adult, F.W. Murnau’s liberal adaptation of Dracula is not a movie I can watch alone; it gets under my skin like few stories ever produced.

 

Gremlins

Gremlins (1984)

Oh, the controversy that surrounded this at the time! I remember one of my teachers telling us how upset she was that parents were taking their kids to see Gremlins; I recall stories of parents dragging their children from the theatre when the infamous microwave scene hit. And I remember that I, and all the other kids I knew, loved each and every minute of it. We got the humor; we enjoyed the roller-coaster ride; we weren’t afraid of the monsters, we were living vicariously through them as they laid waste to the stupid, venal, hypocritical world of grown-ups. Maybe that’s what parents and teachers were really afraid of: not that we’d be psychologically scarred, but that we’d be inspired.

 

ReturnOfTheLivingDead

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

I opened the newspaper, and I was sold: punk rock zombies spray-painting on their own graves! I cut out that ad and taped it to my bedroom wall. I HAD to see the movie. So, reluctantly, my father braved the nervous and judgmental stares of the rest of the audience as he took his six-year-old son to watch the dead rise from their graves and eat human brains. I am told that the crowd lightened up considerably when I started laughing. Of course I was laughing; it was a comedy! I got the jokes, and I had the time of my life. Oddly enough, I find the movie scarier now than I did then; Tar-man cornering Tina in the basement of the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse is a genuinely chilling scene, right?

night_of_the_living_dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

My old man is a researcher and an archivist. There was no way he was gonna take me to see RotLD without showing me the original first! I mean, what kind of negligent parent would he be not to give me some sense of the story’s lineage? My enthusiasm for ensemble movies driven by in-group conflict certainly owes a lot to George A. Romero’s classic. And all media-conscious kids have that moment where they realize that characters they like can die; for some, it was Roy Fokker on Robotech; for others, it was Rufio in Hook; for me, it was Ben in Night of the Living Dead.

 

bride_of_frankenstein

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

When you grow up loving monsters, you don’t always spend a lot of time asking yourself why. James Whale’s masterful The Bride of Frankenstein is the movie that first put me completely on the side of a sympathetic, tragic monster. He never asked to be different – he never asked to be at all – and yet he is hounded, hunted, tormented – even crucified – just for the nature of his creation, and for things he did in an infantile state of mind. For someone who never felt like he belonged, this was a movie that said, “I understand; you’re not the only one who’s different, who is misunderstood, who feels like a freak.” This was the movie that made me introspective about my love of monsters.

 

TheWolfMan

The Wolf Man (1941)

This one stands out in part because it was the first VHS tape that I ever owned. Not something that my father had bought and we watched together; not something we rented and copied; a birthday present that was really, entirely mine. And poor, tragic Larry Talbot; like the Frankenstein Monster, it wasn’t his fault, but in this case, the curse came upon him because of one of his few unselfish acts, because he tried to come to someone’s rescue. And what a curse! To lose control of his body, to lose control of himself, to become a threat to the people he loved the most. This hurt. This broke my heart. I was enchanted. I wanted to tell stories like this myself. And, frankly, that scene with the gravedigger still creeps me out today.

 TheMonsterSquad

The Monster Squad (1987)

Was ever a movie more perfectly tailored for monster-loving kids? I was just becoming a devotee of the classic Universal series, and along came a picture that brought together Dracula, Frankenstein, a Mummy, a Werewolf, and a Gil Man (an even more satisfying line-up than any of the old monster rallies had ever quite managed) and said, “Hey, kids, not only is it okay for you to be watching these, it’s IMPORTANT! Only you can prevent the apocalypse!” My friends and I started our own monster prevention club; we were so engaged that some of our teachers honestly didn’t seem to get that this was suspension of disbelief, and that we didn’t really think there were vampires in our neighborhoods (making us increasingly uncertain about the intelligence of these supposedly wise elders).

 

Psycho

Psycho (1960)

When I was younger, I don’t suppose that plot mechanics meant much to me, but by the time I saw Psycho, I was nine years old, and able to appreciate a tight structure and the impact of a dramatic revelation. And the surprises Psycho had to offer just about blew my mind! They just killed the lead character in the middle of the movie! What’s going to happen now?! And an ending that totally changes your perspective on what has come before! Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the novel by Robert Bloch (who I was lucky enough to meet shortly before his passing) revealed new levels on repeat viewing; it invited – even demanded – analysis. It was an awakening.

 

invasion_of_the_body_snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

As my ability to engage with stories a little deeper began to develop, my mother decided to start showing me a few of her favorites, which did not tend towards horror the way my father’s picks did. But Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers was one big, notable exception to that. She showed me this at around the same time as To Kill a Mockingbird, both narratives that are long on social commentary. There are two contrasting common interpretations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I’ve always favored the reading that it is an indictment of McCarthyism. The important thing here, though, is that it helped me understand the idea of INTERPRETING a story at all; along with Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, this was one of the movies that alerted me to the concept of allegory.

 

a_nightmare_elm_street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

At nine – or maybe just barely ten – years old, without ever having seen a slasher movie, I’d managed to form a pretty low opinion of the sub-genre. Let it never be said that I was an unpretentious child. I’m not sure what motivated me to check out A Nightmare on Elm Street; this was the first time I ever sought out a horror movie that neither of my parents had seen or taken an interest in. I went in expecting meaningless, pointless bloodshed. But the story of Fred Krueger and the children of Elm Street was deeper and more complex than I had anticipated. Wes Craven wasn’t just a hack unleashing a generic brute on stereotypical teens; he was getting inside the heads of his audience, just as Freddy was getting inside the heads of his victims. And once he got in there, he opened my mind.

 

From there, I just kept going. As I grew into double digits, I exposed myself to terrors as nearby as the bland American suburbs (Halloween) and as far off as the stars (Alien). These days, I have favorites from every era and every subgenre of horror, produced across the decades, all around the world. But without the ten movies on this list, I might never have experienced those thrills, those wonders, those wonderful, terrifying, exciting and inspiring MOVIES!

 

BONUS HONORABLE MENTION:

an-american-werewolf-in-londonAn American Werewolf in London (1981)

Honestly, in terms of impact on my tastes and status among my favorites, this one really belongs on the list. The only problem is, I can’t remember exactly when I first saw it, so the significance of that initial viewing and the nature of my first response are lost to time. It’s pretty great, though, isn’t it?

 

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7 Comments on this post.

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  • Josh Millican
    13 November 2014 at 11:12 pm - Reply

    Gremlins and Return of the Living Dead really made an impression on me too. I remember thinking, “Being scared and grossed out is fun!” The other one that really blew my mind as a kid: The Fly with Jeff Goldblum–goddamn that shit was sick!!!

    Also, I really like your take on kids identifying with the gremlins. Never put it together like that before, but it’s totally true. Good insight!

    • Evan Baker
      13 November 2014 at 11:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks! I’d never really put it together like that until I was working on this list, and it just kinda clicked into place.

      The Fly definitely had a big impact on me, as well, but I think I saw it after A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I’d made that a cut-off point. If I’d included movies I saw in just the next year after that, I never could have narrowed it down to only ten total.

  • Josh Millican
    14 November 2014 at 12:07 am - Reply

    If you haven’t seen it yet, you must see More Brains, the documentary about Return of the Living Dead narrated by Scuz. The stuff that went on behind the scenes was nuts! In a lot of ways, it’s a miracle that movie got made.

    • Evan Baker
      14 November 2014 at 1:09 am - Reply

      I have seen it. In fact, the editor is a friend of mine. He also worked on Never Sleep Again and Crystal Lake Memories.

      Have you read The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead?

  • Josh Millican
    14 November 2014 at 1:43 am - Reply

    Sweet. I feel a list: Best Horror Documentaries. Include Birth of the Living Dead and Room 237 and we’re already up to 5!

    Haven’t read that one, but I take it comes with your recommendation?

    Invaluable, Evil Dead doc–6!

    • Evan Baker
      14 November 2014 at 2:32 am - Reply

      It does, indeed, come with my recommendation. It goes into a lot of depth on the production of the first film, and also has a reasonable amount about the sequels.
      I haven’t seen Room 237, but I’ve been meaning to check it out for awhile.

  • Josh Millican
    14 November 2014 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    Room 237 is a great watch, as much for the ludicrous theories as the actual history. After you see it, let me know if you saw Stanley Kubrick’s face in the clouds, because I sure as hell didn’t!

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