Classic horror movies have a reputation for unsettling audiences - especially critics - on the first watch. Blood, scary demises, and formulaic plots can sometimes overshadow a film's groundbreaking impact. It's also true some people, critics included, don't enjoy horror as a genre, a bias easily seeping into reviews. It leads to good movies with bad reviews to live on as genre classics for generations of horror lovers.
Many movies on this list became top horror movies helping to shape and redefine the genre, despite horrible reviews from biased critics. Others may lack a definitively unique element, but this doesn't make them any less watchable.
People had to leave early screenings of 1973's The Exorcist because it was such a jarring, visceral, and haunting experience. Rolling Stone's critic Jon Landau slammed it for being "nothing more than a religious porn film, the gaudiest piece of big-budget schlock this side of Cecil B. DeMille." Jay Cocks of Time described the horror classic as "vile and brutalizing."
Profane and shocking, The Exorcist resonates with viewers on multiple levels. Some worry about the safety of their souls, while others clutch their chests with grief, revulsion, and sympathy. As the demon Pazuzu's actions grow more obscene, The Exorcist tests not only the characters but the audience as well.
Multiple reviews for Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien dismissed it as a B-movie. The Chicago Reader called it "empty-headed" with "gimmicky" cinematography as the sole redeeming factor, while Film Illustrated called it "a horrid film, skillful and studied in its nastiness."
Critics failed to acknowledge how Alien introduced sci-fi and horror fans to one of the strongest female characters in either genre: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). It put the cast and audience into an enclosed space with a brutal acid-bleeding being which uses humans as incubators, and relentlessly hunts its prey. It's a taut, terrifying classic worth a re-watch.
#10 on The Best '70s Movies
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's claustrophobic and unsettling novel received some less-than-flattering reviews during its 1980 premiere. According to a Variety staff writer's review, "The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm, sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric."
Though King has acknowledged issues with how the movie veered from the source material, those artistic changes don't make the film less unnerving. Most audiences considered Nicholson enigmatic and memorably unsettling as he loses his mind in the Overlook Hotel, terrifying his wife and son. The idea of a precarious family hiding alone in an abandoned hotel for winter is compelling enough.
#67 on The Most Rewatchable Movies
Critics did not care for John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing. Variety's review questioned the movie's "sense of intense dread," complaining there was no real fear of seeing the creature. Roger Ebert called it a "barf-bag movie" with "superficial" and "implausible" characters. Vincent Canby of The New York Times described it as "a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie."
The Thing did not have to lurk in the shadows when it was already hiding inside one of the scientists. The dread and fear come from the uncertainty of whether or not a determined interloper is occupying a peer. While the practical effects in the movie are grotesque, the real horror derives from their gradual realization they may not survive. To this day, viewers debate and puzzle over The Thing's ending, solidifying the film's place in horror movie history.