Everyone loves a good horror film, right? And we all can name the one we saw at a tender age that set us on a path of terror worship, that obsessed us, that messed us up, that scarred us for life…
In recent years, I’ve been on a mission to assemble an ongoing list of the most influential genre films ever made that traumatized impressionable minds and jumpstarted careers in fear. Thanks to a steady stream of fright flicks hitting theaters, VOD, cable, disc, and digital, now’s the time to check in with the current purveyors of cinematic chills to see what movies have kept them gasping since childhood!
Amber Sealey, director (No Man of God, now in theaters, digital, and VOD)
I grew up in a pretty small town where people didn’t often go to the movies, but there was a Betamax video store where my dad was friends with the owner. When it went out of business (VHS won that war!), he gave Dad a bunch of the Betamax tapes. So, we kids would watch them over and over.
When I was about 10 or 11, I asked if I could watch Cat People  and Blue Velvet , and Dad said, “Fine.” Who knows what he was thinking, but the titles and cover art appealed to me. I likely thought they were romance movies. They scared and confused the heck out of me, and in the following years, I just watched Grease and Dirty Dancing on repeat to regain my innocence. That said, the weirdness of both of those movies embedded deep within me, and I’ve always retained an appreciation for things that are left of center and dark.
Jason Filardi, screenwriter (Bringing Down the House, 17 Again); co-creator/co-writer/co-executive producer (Chapelwaite, now on Epix)
The movie that scarred me for life is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre . My older sister’s boyfriend took me to see this movie when I was 11. They were playing it in the movie theater at Connecticut College. I’ve never had a movie have such a visceral impact on me ever since. It frightened me to the bone! I thought I was actually watching the real thing. It looked and felt like a documentary. The acting was so real. Marilyn Burns screaming and screaming, covered in blood. Grandpa hitting her on the head with the hammer at the dinner table. The room of bones. The meat hook! To this day, the hitchhiker scene is still one of the creepiest and scariest scenes in horror history.
And then, to make matters even worse, in the middle of the movie, a man dressed like Leatherface stormed into the theater wielding a running chainsaw! He ran down the aisle and then back up it, scaring the living hell out of everyone, and then ran out! Can you imagine that?! It was incredible!
Mathieu Turi, writer/director (Hostile and Meander, now on VOD)
The Thing  by John Carpenter. I was 6 years old (!), and I watched it from behind the couch. I didn’t really get what I saw, but I know it changes everything. Why? Because from then on, I watched Alien, Terminator, RoboCop, and Predator before my 10s. It was forbidden, so I was even more attracted to it.
Ben Lovett, composer (The Signal, The Ritual, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, and The Night House, now in theaters)
Without question, it was the Large Marge scene in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure . It scared the absolute hell out of me; to this day, I instinctively turn my head at the moment she turns and does the Claymation thing. I also have a really vivid memory of being mortally terrified at Lily Tomlin nearly going into the garbage disposal in The Incredible Shrinking Woman . I was 3 years old, so it instilled in me an acute awareness that should one not be careful, one just might perish in the sink.
In terms of what horror film, though, it was definitely the original Poltergeist . I was 4, my parents divorced and my dad got HBO. One night, I wandered into the living room in the middle of the night, flipped the TV on, and there was Carol Anne putting her hands up into the static. I probably haven’t been right since, but it’s also likely that’s where my interest in the genre began. Thanks, Dad.
Karim Hussain, cinematographer (Possessor, Random Acts of Violence, Antiviral and Séance, now on disc)
Dario Argento’s Suspiria , if it created a scar in me, it’s the most beautiful, colorful, and phantasmagoric scar ever carved into flesh and one’s mind. A film that taught me at a young age that terror cannot only be beautiful, it can be a work of pure, undiluted art. And that music doesn’t have to play by the rules to be both frightening and innovative.
Maxi Contenti, writer/director (The Last Matinee, now on DVD, digital, and VOD)
It’s kind of impossible for me to point just one out. I saw tons of horror movies as a kid. I still don’t know how my parents let me get away with it—and, yes—got some crazy nightmares.
But somewhere on top of the list, for sure, is kid Jason coming out of the water in Friday the 13th . That scared me hard. In my native Uruguay in the ’90s, we had a weekly TV program on Fridays called Viernes 13 (yes, Friday the 13th!). There I saw lots of horror and still recall when I first saw that scene. That moment at the end of the movie is so very special. I love how it manages to always surprise you, even if you have seen it hundreds of times. That perfect timing…still gives me chills.
Daniel Farrands, writer (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers); writer/director (Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman, on DVD and VOD September 3)
When I was 12 years old, our neighborhood babysitter Kathy (who was all of 17) showed me a magazine that changed my life. It was called FANGORIA. Her older brother used to stash them in his room like other kids would steal their dads’ Playboys and Penthouses. This particular issue featured the soon-to-be-released Friday the 13th, Part 2. After seeing the photo of Mrs. Voorhees’ head stashed inside a refrigerator (there was a lot of “stashing” going on back in 1981, apparently), I knew immediately that I had to see this movie…
It just so happened that my mother was going out of town that weekend and had asked Kathy to babysit for my sister, my brother, and me. This was my golden opportunity to make my move, and I let Kathy know (in no uncertain terms) that she would be taking me to see this film. Her response was, “Oh, hell, no! Your mother will kill me!” (Looking back, I don’t think either of us saw the irony in her statement.) I persisted, however, and we ended up walking over to the local multiplex where I first experienced the terror of Jason on the big screen. At one point, I thought my heart was going to explode from my chest. I remember crouching on the (sticky) floor and peering at the screen through the row of seats in front of me. The frenetic Harry Manfredini score, the constant lurking presence of a pre-hockey-masked Jason, the final showdown between Jason and Ginny Field; it was all too much for my pubescent little mind to process. I was completely and utterly freaked out. And I spent the remainder of the summer turning on lights wherever I went, convinced that the unmasked Jason with his mangled skull and half head of gnarly hair was going to pop out of the darkness or come crashing through my bedroom window.
I suppose the greatest thing to come from my pre-teen trauma was that I soon became obsessed with horror and spent most of my middle school/high school years making my own versions of Friday and, of course, Halloween. When I was 14, I wrote a letter to the [Friday the 13th] series’ producer, Frank Mancuso Jr., who wrote back to me with a lot of encouragement and advice and who continues to be a mentor and friend even now, 40 years later. My involvement in the franchise has run the gamut from books (Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th) to documentaries to special edition DVD releases of the films. I suppose surviving Jason that summer scarred me in one way, but also awakened my own creativity and passion for a genre that has given me a gift of a career and a connection to other fans and artists who share that passion. So, thank you Steve Miner, Frank Mancuso Jr., and Amy Steel … but especially thank you to Kathy: You were truly the best worst babysitter of all time.
Natasha Kermani, director (Shattered, Imitation Girl and Lucky, now on DVD, digital, and VOD)
Honestly, a very early viewing that scarred me for life was the opening sequence of Final Destination , which I saw several years after it had come out at a friend’s sleepover party. The image of being inside the plane as it was exploding was so incredibly visceral and real and felt very plausible to my child self. That whole sequence really taps into the feeling of powerlessness and growing sense of dread. Not to get too serious, but I think that my generation, who as kids witnessed 9/11 unfolding in real-time, will always have this feeling of impending doom that pops up from time to time—the idea of a wildly unpredictable and chaotic event happening around you, with no way to stop it or even escape it. I still get freaked out just thinking about that nightmare sequence!
Peter Sefchik, digital FX artist (the Harry Potter, Shrek, and Star Wars franchises); director (Behemoth, now on digital)
My older brother worked at a video store, so there were lots of films I saw at too young of an age. Movies like The Omen and Angel Heart really left me shaken, but the one that scarred me for life (in the very best way) was Jacob’s Ladder . It’s informed so many of the projects I work on. I love a film that starts off as a familiar genre, like a war movie or a family drama, then veers into horror. It catches you while your guard is down. Who can forget the hospital scene in that film? Even today, it’s a stomach-churning affair, capped by one of the most iconic shots in horror—the eyeless surgeon driving a needle into Jacob Singer’s brain. I remember walking out of the cinema, and my brother telling me that the movie didn’t make any sense to him. Well, it made perfect sense to me, even as a kid, and left me hungry for more!
Peter “Drago” Tiemann, director (The Stairs, now in theaters and digital)
In the early ’80s, I would regularly wait for my mom to go to bed so I could sneak out and turn on late-night television. Elvira’s Midnight Macabre was my favorite, and I would soak in every crazy campy sci-fi or terrifying horror the Queen of Darkness would play on her show.
Normally, I would go to sleep afterward, but one night I decided to stay up and scan the channels. It was summer break, so I was filled with energy and not tired at all. I stopped on a channel that proclaimed an Italian horror was going to be on next. I was definitely intrigued, so I kept the TV on, went and made a bowl of cereal, and came back to watch The Beyond  by Italian director Lucio Fulci. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. From the beginning of the film, I was hooked. Barely touching my cereal, I edged closer to the screen.
Unbeknownst to me, The Beyond was my introduction to a grindhouse-style horror with terrifying practical special effects of eyes popping, faces melting, and lots of gore. I couldn’t turn away from it, and yet my anxiety was palpable. I remember at some point, probably the plumber scene in the basement, I screamed so loud I had to turn the TV off and run into my bed, fearing I woke my mother. After a few minutes of no sounds in the house, I came back out, finished the film, then went to bed, but never slept. I was still awake when my mom came out to make coffee in the morning. The Beyond haunted my dreams for several months afterward, but never stopped me from watching more horror films. In fact, that film is what galvanized my passion for horror, both on the screen and printed paper.
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