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Top 10 Groundbreaking Horror Movies of All Time





Welcome to the first Top 10 list of 2012! In celebration of the off-kilter weirdness that is the upcoming release of the anthology film The Theater Bizarre, we bring you a list of other movies that stand out from the crowd. We at Dread Central proudly give you, in chronological order, 10 of the most groundbreaking horror films of all time. Enjoy...

It's difficult to name just 10 groundbreaking horror films because so many of them have led the way for things to follow. There are plenty of films in the genre that trailblazed: Very early entries like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set the tone for things to come. Early slashers like Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre certainly inspired legions of filmmakers. The first entries of powerhouse franchises could be considered groundbreakers as well by introducing new icons... Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw all paved the way for incredibly lucrative franchises. And some films opened the doors to new sub-genres like Alien for mainstream sci-fi/horror and Hostel for the unfortunately nicknamed "torture porn" sub-genre.

You could argue a spot for any of those films on the Top 10 Groundbreaking Films list, but this is what we came up with. Please feel free to comment below, or give us your own Top 10 Groundbreaking Horror Films.

Top 10 Groundbreaking Horror Movies of All Time

Nosferatu (1922)
Directed by FW Murnau

When he couldn't secure the rights to use the name Dracula, FW Murnau simply renamed everything from Bram Stoker's book and created this historic film. He named the movie Nosferatu and then was brilliant enough to find Max Schreck to play Count Orlock (Dracula) in a role that would influence vampire films for decades. Nosferatu took the first step for the vampire sub-genre which would run from Bela Lugosi to Robert Pattinson. From Christopher Lee to Alexander Skarsgaard. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, even Eddie Murphy all portrayed vampires that can trace the inspiration for their performance back to Murnau, Schreck and Nosferatu. It's difficult, if not impossible, to turn on a television and not be able to find some kind of program or film which doesn't contain a vampire, and it all started right here.

Frankenstein (1931)
Directed by James Whale

Although Frankenstein certainly deserves a spot on this list, this film is also a representative selection as you could include so many of the classic movie monsters here. King Kong, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera and the Mummy were all iconic characters that led the way in horror. Frankenstein, however, stuck out as the most memorable of this remarkable group. Also adapted from a classic piece of literature, Frankenstein was, of course, based on Mary Shelley's book. The film contained grave-robbing, torture of the monster and the murder of a child. Pretty heavy stuff for the early '30s. It's funny to think that so many of today's cartoonish Halloween decorations were actually inspired by this beast constructed from the rotting pieces of other corpses. An iconic figure that may be the most recognized monster of all time, Frankenstein is a true original piece of artwork that is a rightfully part of the United States National Film Registry.


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The Buz's picture

I know everyone is saying it..but Alien really deserves to be on this list. Like...so so much. Can't believe it was left off.


Submitted by The Buz on Sun, 01/19/2014 - 12:44am.
MonsterMash's picture

Great list, but I think Chainsaw should replace Last House. Sure Last House came first, but Chainsaw is far often more imitated. It's also a better film. Chainsaw, Gojira, The Legend of Boggy Creek, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, and Incubus are some I would add to extend the list.


Submitted by MonsterMash on Sat, 01/18/2014 - 9:07pm.
Nyarlathotep's picture

Great list, not at all what I was expecting (honestly expected a more modern, less thought out list that I could rip apart 8D). I agree with most of it, though of course everyone's top ten list in this category would be at least slightly different. I think that mine would most certainly would include AWIL and maybe JC's The Thing and some others, but I don't really see any "wrong" answers in there. I will defend Blair Witch too because as much as some people may have hated it and it's constantly vilified, there is really no denying it's influence on the genre (which is what this list is about).


Submitted by Nyarlathotep on Sat, 01/18/2014 - 8:10pm.
Slasher_Diva's picture

Great list but feel Black Christmas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were very groundbreaking as well...


Submitted by Slasher_Diva on Sun, 06/03/2012 - 12:56pm.
nazo's picture

Another movie that hasn't been mentioned, but deserves to be for setting the standard for decades of monster movies and nature run amok movies, is Them! It's also interesting to think about the great horror movies that didn't have as much of an influence on the genre, like The Thing.


Submitted by nazo on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 12:22pm.
Cinemascribe's picture

This is a solid list ,but there is one surprising absence - ALIEN. Much in the same vein that Halloween and Night of the Living Dead took concepts which had been touched on in previous films (maniacs on the loose, zombies) and reinvented them in such a way that it changed the definition of - and our expectations for - those sub-genres in the years to follow, so did Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece redefine science fiction/horror. Creature features involving a threat from alien life had been seen before ( It! The terror from beyond space (also about a violent E.T. stowaway) and Forbidden Planet (with it's invisible id-based beast ravaging the crew of astronauts) both come to mind).

What ALIEN did was turn the concept on its head by dropping the juvenile sensationalism and actually presenting the material through an adult perspective. The science fiction was hard science fiction, with the presentation of future human technology owing more to Arthur C. Clarke than Gene Roddenberry in its depiction of the Nostromo as nothing more remarkable than a huge, oily tanker (complete with steam tunnels and ongoing maintenance issues ) floating in the void.

Even the monster lent itself to a more scientific design. Instead of some ridiculously conceived rubber suit or puppet designed to provide cheap jumps scares and lots of bloodletting, the Alien was a labor of love. Here we had a creature that was specifically designed with an entire biological purpose. Sure, we had seen microbes or spores drift into Earth's atmosphere from space. We had seen meteors fall to earth and split open, releasing some monstrosity imprisoned within or saucers flat out landing in central park..but the Alien was a first. It was found. It came to be a threat in a series of precise and detailed stages. You didn't just get one look at the larval stage before shock cutting to a scene where it emerges from the dark standing fifteen feet all, ready to face fuck the first Homo Sapien it could get its hands on before it ate them..this thing had a life cycle which we were forced to endure as it first horrified the crew (and audiences), then allowed them a sigh of relief before getting to the really horrible part where the Alien reaches maturity. At that point we switch from Sci-Fi to full on turn-your-blood-to-ice horror as the pitcure becomes an excercise in unbearable suspense. Watching the opening scenes of ALIEN,the movie seems so quiet and meditative that if you skipped the majority of the film and came back to it during Ripley's final confrontation with the creature on the "lifeboat", you'd have no idea how the movie got there.

ALIEN changed the game and Sci-Fi/Horror hasn't been the same since.It was definitely one of the most groundbreaking films out there.


Submitted by Cinemascribe on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 3:51am.
moderator Alien may not have been in
Debi Moore's picture

Alien may not have been in the Top 10, but it was given an honorable mention: "And some films opened the doors to new sub-genres like Alien for mainstream sci-fi/horror..."


Submitted by Debi Moore on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 1:29pm.
GODFLESH69's picture

I sill remember seeing Alien in theater it totally wrecked me and left me wanting more how many knockoffs came after? It's often imitated but never duplicated a true genre mashup that changed the game.


Submitted by GODFLESH69 on Sat, 01/18/2014 - 9:16pm.
Cinemascribe's picture

I guess this is where the different strokes mantra comes into play WIB, because I actually would have given it more than an honorable mention..

This is the part where I preface the next comment with an acknowledgement that the original Halloween is my all time favorite horror film and I've seen it more times than any other genre film in my lifetime. I was seven years old when it came out and it was the very first R rated film I ever managed to sneak into . I got into a shitload of trouble when my mom found out (and I had nightmares for two weeks afterward..which was HOW she found out), but it was worth it.

Yet, even though I actually prefer Halloween, I think ALIEN did more for changing the face of its respective sub-genre than Carpenter's film did. Carpenter executed his film with incredible skill...of that there's no doubt. But he didn't necessarily "break new ground". Black Christmas (killer targets people in specific location in a film based during a specific holiday , ominous open ending suggesting killer is still on the prowl) , Psycho (maniac in what would become iconic "costume" -in this case the mother persona, replete with wig and robe- armed with butcher knife stabs various victims to death as they cross his path, mother of all issues related to family) and TCM (seemingly unstoppable masked psycho kills teenagers/young adults with primary weapon,face never shown, has scene with "final girl" who gets away, killer is injured in the final scenes, only to live) had done the same things years earlier. Hell, Halloween is actually at heart meant as Carpenter's homage to Hitchcock's film. Put another way. although Carpenter assembled the elements with a level of finesse which most of us had never experienced, those elements were nonetheless familiar from previous cinematic efforts.

My point about Scott's film is that he literally reinvented the elements of the sub-genre he was exploring. To my knowledge, his approach to the monster from space concept was at the time unique in its conceit.. craft the story with a determination make it as plausible as possible. Forget rubber abominations that kids could imagine going toe to toe with while wielding a ray gun. He took the b-movie Sci-Fi conventions of the fifties and actually did something entirely new with them. ALIEN reshaped the form of Sci-Fi/Horror by giving the audience cause to walk away from the film convinced that if -in our future- humankind ever did encounter hostile life out there in the void, this was pretty much how it would likely play out.

That being out there, I really did admire the list provided here. My remarks in deference to ALIEN are nothing more than my personal perspective. I particularly appreciated seeing the nod to Last House on the Left. Even today when I watch that film, I'm impressed that Craven had the guts to make it at that time. He had to have known watching the dailies that it was going to cause a firestorm of controversy. I certainly hope he was grinning from ear to ear during the more brutal takes.


Submitted by Cinemascribe on Thu, 01/26/2012 - 7:49am.
Sirand's picture

100% agree. And next to Halloween, Alien has been the most imitated movie ever.


Submitted by Sirand on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 11:51am.
kiddcapone's picture

I can understand why those movies made the list with the large exception of Last House on the Left. I highly question if that piece of shit had a major influence on anything. It was piss poor in every category. It's like watching a horrible student film from college with lesser production value.

If you want cruelty and violence, Bloodsucking Freaks, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Blood Feast certainly came first. And let's not forget Twitch of the Death Nerve which was also released before Last House on the Left.

Besides A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, everything Wes Craven's done has been shit or mediocre at best.


Submitted by kiddcapone on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 1:10pm.
Sirand's picture

Read up on your film history. Last House on the Left shook the status quo in the 70's. It caused riots in the theaters. It resulted in more shock-waves than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which I'm shocked wasn't on this list).

It may be a really flawed film, but it's unquestionably one of the most groundbreaking. Bloodsucking Freaks & H.G. Lewis movies were just goofy. Last House was dangerous.


Submitted by Sirand on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 3:01pm.
Slasher_Diva's picture

I SO agree......


Submitted by Slasher_Diva on Wed, 05/15/2013 - 12:52pm.

So I decided to go out and do a google search on "Last House on the Left" and "riot." In the three pages I searched I came up with two relevant results. One called it a "laugh riot," and one had Craven giving secondhand accounts of "near riots" during screenings. I did not exactly scour the internet, but it left me unimpressed. Even Uwe Boll talks up how great and "controversial" his movies are.

Acknowledging that for a movie to be groundbreaking it does not need to stand the test of time, every other film on that list does. It makes this one stick out like a sore thumb. I am surprised you, Sirand, of all people, would not have preferred either Godzilla or Ring for how much attention they brought worldwide to Asian horror. They opened the doors for all sorts of great horror, and Godzilla really defined the kaiju movie. As mentioned in other responses, Alien broke so much new ground it is not even funny.

I am not going to argue that LHtoL was not groundbreaking for its time. I was not there, and I have not studied film enough to say it was not. I am entirely willing to say that I just listed three other movies that I would have put on this list instead of LHotL without more than a couple seconds thought.


Submitted by conundrum on Mon, 01/30/2012 - 6:43pm.
moderator If this list did nothing
Debi Moore's picture

If this list did nothing else, it brought conundrum out of wherever he's been hiding for all these past several months, and for that I'm extremely happy! Welcome back, buddy! :)


Submitted by Debi Moore on Mon, 01/30/2012 - 7:21pm.
kiddcapone's picture

Apparently film history neglects the "groundbreaking" Last House on the Left because just doing basic searches doesn't result in any mention of RIOTS in theaters. ARRRGGGHHHHH, WHAT A SHOCKING MOVIE, LET'S RIOT...ARGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Definition of GROUNDBREAKING: being or making something that has never been done or seen or made before.

The criteria used here for groundbreaking was cruelty and violence. Last House didn't do anything that wasn't done before and even by your own admission was "flawed". Just because you deemed the movies I listed (excluding Twitch of the Death Nerve) as "goofy" doesn't negate the fact they were both cruel and violent AND predates 1971. LHOTL was just as goofy in spots.

Last House wasn't "dangerous", it just fucking sucked. The only RIOT that ensues afterwards is laughter.


Submitted by kiddcapone on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 3:40pm.
LifeMi's picture

2000 Maniacs and Blood Feast were hard to take seriously; Last House was a straightforward horror film. Furthermore, does anyone outside of the horror genre even know what 2000 Maniacs and Blood Feast are? Last House was more mainstream and yes, it DID cause riots when it was released. I've even heard of heart attacks and people trying to destroy the reels in the projection booths. I can see why Last House is on this list, because it was a groundbreaking film for its time.


Submitted by LifeMi on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 6:34pm.
kiddcapone's picture

People also tried to destroy the reels in the projection booths after The Devil Inside but it was probably for other reasons.

If Last House was a straightforward horror film, then I guess I wasn't supposed to be laughing at it? I thought it was a dark comedy?

There's a different between controversial and groundbreaking. LHOTL wasn't the first of it's kind and certainly wasn't the last. It's not even regarded as being a quality flick that holds up over time.

If just being controversial makes it groundbreaking then I guess we can throw in 25 other films from the last few decades that elicited the same type of negative reaction. Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on your Grave, Faces of Death, A Serbian Film, etc.


Submitted by kiddcapone on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 8:48pm.
Sirand's picture

You may not personally like it, but it's a film whose impact undeniably changed the genre and it's an integral part of film history. Virtually every raw, real-world horror film has owed a debt to it.


Submitted by Sirand on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 3:18am.
LifeMi's picture

I'm not saying it was groundbreaking because it was controversial; it was groundbreaking because it was one of the first few films to display brutal violence in a real world context (i.e., a world where vampires, zombies and monsters didn't exist). Furthermore, it was the film to launch Wes Craven's career, leading to the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, both of which had a huge impact on the genre. Those films wouldn't have happened had Craven not made Last House and established himself in the horror genre.


Submitted by LifeMi on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 9:14pm.
Scott Hallam's picture

This is what the Top 10 lists are all about, initiating discussion and getting everybody to chime in with their opinions. Thanks for the lively debate guys. I love it!


Submitted by Scott Hallam on Wed, 01/25/2012 - 1:42am.
Vanvance1's picture

Evil Dead 2 for defining the black humour sub-genre of horror.

P.S. While I can't refute how influential Blair Witch was I can chime in with the comment that it's the only film in this list with no merit as art or entertainment.


Submitted by Vanvance1 on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 3:49am.
Gus Bjork's picture

It's a very well thought out list. The only disagreement I have is Freaks. It's such a stand alone, I don't think it really influenced anything to come, at least directly.


Submitted by Gus Bjork on Mon, 01/23/2012 - 8:21pm.
Scott Hallam's picture

Thanks very much. I included it because I felt it just raised the bar and was such an extreme offering for the time period. I'm sure it blew audiences away and made the intelligent viewer at the time expect more from films. But it's tough to narrow it down to just 10. An argument can be made for so many titles.


Submitted by Scott Hallam on Mon, 01/23/2012 - 9:59pm.
nonserviam03's picture

I actually had the exact opposite reaction when I got to The Blair Witch Project. Love it or hate it, it was definitely groundbreaking. I'm glad it was on there.


Submitted by nonserviam03 on Mon, 01/23/2012 - 6:10pm.
MonsterMash's picture

I've never understood the Blair Witch hate that some people have. It's the best found footage has to offer. It builds tension, has likable characters, good acting, and a great what-the-hell-is-happening ending that demands speculation after the end. It deserves a spot on this list. Then again, I think without Boggy Creek, we wouldn't have Blair Witch, or even the found footage sub-genre.


Submitted by MonsterMash on Sat, 01/18/2014 - 9:15pm.

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