Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; Tobe Hooper) -- Here's an odd one -- a gore film that's considerably less gory than its title would suggest. What is it? Strange, my friend, very, very strange. The plot is familiar enough: A group of free thinking young'uns inadvertently run into trouble -- with lethal consequences. In this case, however, trouble comes in the form of a backwoods clan with lots of cutting tools in their possession and murder, mayhem and cannibalism on their minds. The film's unflinching presentation and depiction of the family -- the "supper scene" is especially harrowing -- makes for many uncomfortable, squirmy moments. The fact that it was based (albeit, loosely) on the exploits of a real mass murderer makes it even more disturbing.
Night of the Living Dead (1968; George Romero) -- More than any other film, Romero's low-budget b & amp;w zombie classic established the modern paradigm for horror cinema, not only in America but also around the world. Like an irrational nightmare from which you can never awaken, Night of the Living Dead is unrelentingly terrifying. Particularly disquieting is the way the survivors devolve into savagery and paranoia as the hungry undead threaten to overwhelm their fortifications. Though followed by countless imitations, the gritty original still satisfies like no other. "They're coming to get you."
The Evil Dead (1982; Sam Raimi) -- Despite its almost non-existent budget, director Sam Raimi managed to revive the entire horror genre -- and scare the crap out of us -- with his masterful treatise on demonic possession. Raimi's idiosyncratic visual style, grisly effects, rollercoaster pacing and liberal use of humor to break the film's considerable tension and dread elevate The Evil Dead well beyond the typical horror/gorefest. Though it delivers there as well. Big time.
Rosemary's Baby (1968; Roman Polanski) -- Creepy, stylish and deeply unsettling, Rosemary's Baby, set in an apparently tranquil upscale urban environment, never fails to elicit chills. Like Hitchcock, Polanski demonstrates here an uncanny ability to manipulate his audience throughout the film -- from vague feelings of paranoia to sheer terror. Mia Farrow's shattering portrayal of an expectant mother who may or may not be carrying Satan's spawn is letter-perfect (and the rest of the cast is top notch as well). A very well-made, very scary film.
Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966; Mario Bava)
While there are many great English-language horror films out there, few have been able to blend the necessary ingredients -- suspense, dread and terror -- with as much visual panache as those found in Italian horror cinema. Hence, all my picks are from Italy.
By 1966, Mario Bava had honed his gothic horror filmmaking craft on such classics as Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, but it was with this terrifying ghost story that he really hit his stride. In truly one of the best examples of subtle horror filmmaking, Bava set out to chill instead of shock, and did so by creating a powerful atmosphere that exudes a hypnotic, hallucinatory effect. The story involves the arrival in a desolate Eastern European village of a young coroner who soon discovers the inhabitants are cursed.
Suspiria (1977; Dario Argento) -- With Suspiria, director Dario Argento turned from more or less straight-ahead slasher flicks to a more supernatural premise, creating what many consider to be his horror masterpiece. Shortly after American ingenue Susie Banyon arrives at a celebrated German ballet academy to study, she comes to find that all is not as it seems to be. As she slowly discovers, the academy hides a dark secret; sinister proceedings inexorably lead to a fiery finale. Argento overwhelms the senses through the use of primary colors, creative camerawork and a pounding soundtrack. This film is not only Argento's crowning achievement, but also one of the best horror films of all time.
Zombie (1979; Lucio Fulci) -- Some chill to the sound of nails scraping on a chalkboard or the thought of somebody walking over a grave. For me, it's the eyeball; I can't stand the thought of a foreign object touching my eye. You've heard the expression, "better than a stick in the eye"? Well, in this Fulci shocker, that phrase takes on new meaning during one excruciating scene. Elsewhere on the accursed tropical island of Matoul, the undead (products of scientific experiments gone awry) generally run amok, terrorizing a group of stranded victims in this ode to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
Cannibal Holocaust (1979; Ruggero Deodato) -- In the late '70s, a group of Italian exploitation directors decided to turn their attention from the glut of gut-munching zombie films and plunged headfirst into the Amazonian jungles to create some of the most brutal movies to hit the big screen. Thus was the cannibal subgenre born. Packed with scenes of savagery and unremitting nastiness, this movie also succeeds in generating a sense of foreboding, horrifically capturing the feeling of being lost. A group of young American filmmakers disappear without a trace into the South American jungles. When their footage is later discovered by a rescue team, we get an opportunity to view the results of their doomed expedition. (If the plot line sounds familiar, it is. The premise was pinched almost wholesale for the 1999 cheapie, The Blair Witch Project.) Still startling over 20 years later, this is a film that many will find simply unbearable to watch.