‘The Madisonian’s’ Top Horror Movies by Decade

Jenna Ginn, Staff Reporter

As we are getting ready for the spooky season, people like me always look for good movies to watch during Halloween. With jack-o-lanterns, costumes, and delicious candy, apples are always lovely. But what can set the mood? There is nothing like a movie night filled with all the greatest chainsaw-wilding, spellbinding, hair-raising flicks to get you into the spooky season spirit. Even though Halloween is known for its scary movies, these are some you could watch year around or even in July. So break out the stash of extra candy, turn off all the lights, lock every last door and settle in for our list of best horror movies from each decade to watch you don’t want to miss.

1920s: Nosferatu (1922)

In Wisbourg, Germany-based estate agent Knock dispatches his associate, Hutter, to Count Orlok’s castle in Transylvania as the Count wants to purchase an isolated house in Wisbourg. They plan on selling him the one across the way from Hutter’s own home. Hutter leaves his innocent wife, Ellen, with some friends while he is away. Hutter’s trek is unusual, with many locals not wanting to take him near the castle where strange events have occurred. Once at the court, Hutter does manage to sell the Count the house. Still, he also notices and feels unusual occurrences, primarily feeling like there is a dark shadow hanging over him, even in the daytime when the Count is unusually asleep. Hutter eventually sees the Count’s sleeping chamber in a crypt and, based on a book he has recently read, believes the Count is a vampire or Nosferatu. While Hutter is trapped in the castle, the Count, hiding in a shipment of coffins, makes his way to Wisbourg, causing death along his way, which most attribute to the plague. Hutter himself tries to rush home to save his town and, most importantly, save Ellen from Nosferatu’s imminent arrival. In Wisbourg, Ellen can feel the impending darkness as Nosferatu gets closer. But she learns that a sinless woman can sacrifice herself to kill the vampire. The silent film is the original Dracula before it was buried alive in clichés, jokes, T.V. skits, cartoons, and more than 30 other films. The film is based on the Bram Stoker novel, but the title and character names were changed because Stoker’s widow charged, not unreasonably, that her husband’s estate was being ripped off. Nosferatu is a better title than Dracula. Say “Dracula,” and you smile. Say Nosferatu,” and you’ve eaten a lemon. Nosferatu also set the bar for vampire and horror movies; some could say Nosferatu was the O.G. of vampire movies because he is. The film is even known today because of the reference in Spongebob season 2 episode 16, “Graveyard Shift.” 

1930s: Dracula (1931)

After a harrowing ride through the Carpathian mountains in eastern Europe, Renfield enters castle Dracula to finalize the transfer of Carfax Abbey in London to Count Dracula. He is, in actuality, a vampire. Renfield is drugged by the eerily hypnotic Count and turned into one of his thralls, protecting him during his sea voyage to London. After sucking the blood and turning the young Lucy Weston into a vampire, Dracula turns his attention to her friend Mina Seward, daughter of Dr. Seward. She then calls in a specialist, Dr. Van Helsing, to diagnose the sudden deterioration of Mina’s health. Van Helsing, realizing that Dracula is indeed a vampire, tries to prepare Mina’s fiance, John Harker, and Dr. Seward for what is to come and the measures that must be taken to prevent Mina from becoming one of the undead. Dracula has been known throughout the years because he was the first vampire that comes to mind (sorry, nosferatu). The star, Bela Lugosi, could barely speak English and was still a phenomenal performance. Like Nosferatu, the film was also based on the Bram Stroker novel, but what was new about the film? There was sound! Dracula has revolutionized the stereotype of vampires that we have today. The movie was also the first film in which a vampire could gaze into the women’s eyes and bite them. Unlike today’s vampire movies, they bite their necks. Today’s vampire movies have more brutality, and with Dracula, there is more elegance to Dracula. The Dracula myth has been filmed so often that it’s another thing that we see and are like, oh well, it’s another Dracula movie, but the picture has shown that even at its time, it was scaring people silly. 

1940s: The Wolfman (1941)

Upon the death of his brother, Larry Talbot returns from America to his ancestral home in Wales. He visits a gypsy camp with village girl Jenny Williams, who is attacked by Bela, a gypsy who has turned into a werewolf. Larry kills the werewolf but is bitten during the fight. Bela’s mother tells him this will cause him to become a werewolf at each full moon. Larry confesses his plight to his unbelieving father, Sir John, who then joins the villagers in a hunt for the wolf. Transformed by the full moon, Larry heads for the forest and a fateful meeting with both Sir John and Gwen Conliffe. What is there more to say about the wolfman? Except wait? His cane was silver?!?! Just kidding, The Wolfman has been part of the O.G. monsters since day one. Still, the movie is higher than many others because The Wolfman shows that anyone passing by can be cursed, but it also teaches its watchers that you shouldn’t randomly buy something from a random woman passing by. Even in its time, The Wolfman scared its viewers because the horror genre was so fresh. Lon Chaney Jr. played the wolfman because his father, Lon Chaney Sr., had not played the wolfman. He was well-known in the 1920s for playing the original Phantom of The Opera and other vampire movies. Jr played the role because he was tired of standing in his father’s shadow.

1950s: House of Wax (1953)

Professor Henry Jarrod is a true artist whose wax sculptures are lifelike. He specializes in historical tableaus such as Marie Antoinette or Joan of Arc. His business partner, Matthew Burke, needs some of his investment returned to him and pushes Jarrod to have more lurid exposes like a chamber of horrors. When Jarrod refuses, Burke sets the place alight, destroying all of his beautiful work in the hope of claiming the insurance. Jarrod is believed to have died in the fire, but he unexpectedly reappears some 18 months later when he opens a new exhibit. This time, his displays focus on the macabre, but Jarrod has yet to reproduce his most cherished work, Marie Antoinette. When he meets his new assistant’s beautiful friend, Sue Allen, he knows he’s found the perfect model – only unbeknown to anyone, and he has a very particular way of making his wax creations.

There are several mystery elements to the movie about wax people because no one would ever expect a wax figure to come to life. With Vincent Price in the lead role of professor Henry Jarrod, it’s sure to scare a few people. Vincent Price, in my opinion, has got to be one of the greatest horror genre actors of all time. The effects are done with playfulness, zest, and some imagination (they range from a barker paddle balls in your face to a murder leaping from the row in front of you), making this the most entertaining of the 3-d gimmicks. It was one of the more exciting movies because it wasn’t as scary, but it was more creepy since it showed how the wax figures “murdered” people. Some could say that Henry Jarrod put too much life in his wax figures; some could say not enough. The world may never know. The movie revolutionized psycho thrillers. Psycho thrillers would play tricks on your mind, allowing you to enter the film and feel the reality. 

The 1960s: Psycho (1960)

Phoenix office worker Marion Crane is fed up with how life has treated her. She has to meet her lover Sam during lunch breaks, and they cannot get married because Sam has to give most of his money away in alimony. One Friday, Marion has trusted to bank forty thousand dollars by her employer. Seeing the opportunity to take the money and start a new life, Marion leaves town and heads toward Sam’s California store. Tired after the long drive and caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into the Bates Motel. The motel is managed by a quiet young man called Norman, who seems to be dominated by his mother. This 1960 slasher set the bar for movies such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the nightmare on elm street. Thanks, Alfred Hitchcock, for being the Stephen Spielberg of his time. Yet no other Hitchcock film has a more significant impact because of the surprise. Psycho is considered by many to be the first slasher movie, and the success of this film spurred a whole series of slasher films shortly, ultimately opening the door for the subgenre’s golden era, the highly bloody eighties. The movie continues today to terrify people because it’s one of those movies that you know could happen in real life at any time. What makes “Psycho” immortal, when so many films are already half-forgotten as we leave the theater, is that it connects directly with our fears: Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our concern of disappointing our mothers.

1970s: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

A team consisting of a physicist, his wife, a young female psychic, and the only survivor of the previous visit are sent to the notorious Hell House to prove/disprove survival after death. Previous visitors have either been killed or gone mad, and it is up to the team to survive a whole week in isolation and solve the mystery of the Hell House. Haunted house movies generally don’t deliver the goods. There are a few exceptions; the original The Haunting (1963) is the best example. That was a truly terrifying film. The Legend of Hell House is one of these exceptions because it serves up some decent scares and maintains a creepy atmosphere. The plot is similar to The Haunting. Various people spend time in a supposedly haunted house, each with different background and experience, one of whom has already spent time there and was the only one to come out alive. The house is indeed very haunted, and pretty soon, these people are fighting for their lives.

Another thing to keep in mind is that The Legend of Hell House was made for television, and it was never a big box office movie. Featuring excellent performances by all, first-rate direction and production values, and a solid script, The Legend of Hell House is a first-rate horror film in most respects. Another thing to keep in mind is it’s one of the good haunted house movies. Harrowing, intense, and eerie, and it would curl a few hairs because it was based on a true story. 

1980s: Friday the 13th (1980)

In 1957, a young boy named Jason drowned in a lake near Camp Crystal Lake. The following year, two counselors are murdered. In 1980, a descendant of the original owners reopened Camp Crystal Lake with some counselors’ help. The counselors get killed one by one by a mysterious person. Could it be Jason out for revenge? Alright, let’s get this straight (spoiler alert!). THE MOTHER WAS THE MURDERER IN THE FIRST MOVIE! I can not stress that enough. After 12 movies, you would think people would get tired of the film series, with it being overplayed and thrown into many horror comedies and one of the cliches. The movie made 59.8 million dollars at the box office because It was the first to show people being run through with his machete, it showed people getting their heads chopped off, and it was the first movie that showed people being brutally murdered. Halloween came out two years before. Halloween showed the people already murdered, unlike Friday the 13th.

1990s: Silence of the Lambs (1991)

F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling works hard to advance her career while trying to hide or put behind her West Virginia roots, which, if some knew, would automatically classify her as backward or white trash. After graduation, she aspires to work in the agency’s Behavioral Science Unit under the leadership of Jack Crawford. While she is still a trainee, Crawford asks her to question Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist imprisoned, thus far, for eight years in maximum security isolation for being a serial killer who cannibalized his victims. Clarice soon deduces the assignment is to pick Lecter’s brain to help the F.B.I. solve another serial murder case, a murderer coined by the media as “Buffalo Bill.” She also figures that Crawford chose her, as a woman, to be able to trigger some emotional response from Lecter. After speaking to Lecter for the first time, she realizes that everything with him will be a psychological game, with her often having to read between the cryptic lines he provides. She has to decide how much she will play along, as his request in return for talking to him is to expose herself emotionally to him. The case takes a more sinister turn when a sixth victim is discovered, this one from whom they can retrieve a crucial piece of evidence if Lecter is being forthright about its meaning. A potential seventh victim is a high-profile Catherine Martin, the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin, which places greater scrutiny on the case as they search for a hopefully still-alive Catherine. Who may factor into what happens is Dr. Frederick Chilton, the warden at the prison, an opportunist who sees the higher profile with Catherine, meaning a higher profile for himself if he can insert himself successfully into the proceedings. Thank you, Anthony Hopkins! Silence of the Lambs was never intended to be a horror movie. It is a true psychological thriller, and what makes it so powerful is that it deals with the taboo subject of cannibalism.

In our human minds, we can’t even wrap our minds around cannibalism. Hannibal’s lector helped shed light upon the concept of killing them and eating their flesh and organs. Based on the book, Anthony Hopkins researched his character Hannibal Lecter, which was not based on Ed Gein like the antagonists of Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, respectively, but on Italian menace Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Who was a surgeon who murdered his lover, buried him, then ratted out by the guy who helped him? What a shame he was sent to death row. The Hopkins interviewed him, and Trevino got out of death row and devoted his life to helping orphans and the poor until he died in 2009. The way Hopkins based Hannibal off of Trevino is entirely unforgettable. He couldn’t have picked a better man to portray. 

The 2000s: The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

When the Campbell family moves to Connecticut, they soon learn that their charming Victorian home has a disturbing history: not only was the house a transformed funeral parlor where inconceivable acts occurred, but the owner’s clairvoyant son Jonah served as a demonic messenger, providing a gateway for spiritual entities to crossover. It was one of the first movies that introduced Ed and Lorane Warren and how they were proving that even though the movies might be far-fetched, the films were proving that there are spirits on earth. What makes it so terrifying is that they couldn’t just happen in Connecticut. It could have happened pretty much anywhere. The movie touches on real-life experiences; you never know what could happen when a spirit haunts your life. Sometimes you have to be careful and understand what you’re dealing with because if you don’t, it could lead to some hazardous situations. 

2010s: Annabelle (2014)

John Form has found the perfect gift for his pregnant wife, Mia – a beautiful, rare vintage doll in a pure white wedding dress. But Mia’s delight with Annabelle doesn’t last long. On one horrific night, their home is invaded by members of a satanic cult, who violently attack the couple. Spilled blood and terror are not all they leave behind. The cultists have conjured an entity so malevolent that nothing they did will compare to the sinister conduit to the damned that is now Annabelle. The Warrens were infamous demonologists whose most extraordinary “case files” have resulted in such “real life” horror films as The Amityville Horror, A Haunting in Connecticut, and The Conjuring, which featured Annabelle, a demonically-possessed doll acquired during the Warrens’ adventures that tourists can still visit at the museum. However, some people might be disappointed that Annabelle wasn’t an actual glass doll, as shown in the film. She was a little raggedy ann doll, and even though she may look harmless, she is something you don’t want to mess with. Warren’s work demonstrated the often messy logic of lived religion, combining Catholic ideas about demonology and the supernatural with a milieu of material gleaned from New Age metaphysics and popular culture. Unfortunately, John and Mia Form are fictional characters, and the husband didn’t give Annabelle to his pregnant wife. The real Annabelle doll was given as a birthday present by a mother to her daughter, Donna, a nursing student turning 28. Donna’s mother purchased the Raggedy Ann Doll from a hobby store in 1970. Given the style of the actual doll, the infamous Annabelle doll was most likely purchased new since that particular Raggedy Ann Doll with the calico dress does not predate the 1970s. If you look at The Conjuring, you can see the original owners and how it terrorized them, and it’s unfortunate for Hollywood because nothing about the original film was genuine about what had happened. Based on a true story, the film scares people because you never know what could happen to a favorite doll or stuffed animal.

The 2020s: No One Gets Out Alive (2022)

In this recent Netflix exclusive, Ambar, an undocumented, desperate Mexican immigrant, moves into a rundown Cleveland boarding house after her mother’s death. Soon odd things start happening to her, both at the new boarding house and outside. Then the unsettling cries and eerie visions begin. Ambar begins to dream about her mother on her deathbed. What is the meaning of her dreams? And are those real dreams? It’s a thriller and one of the movies that is one seen and set up upon another, building more and more tension as the evil is revealed throughout the film. The details of the film’s monster might surprise you.

And those were our picks for horror movies throughout the decades. We all have our opinions on what the best horror movies might be. So enjoy some candy or apple cider. Don’t spill it on yourself when you watch these films. I hope you have a great year, and we’ll see you on the other side.