ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) Directed by Roman Polanski
More conspiracy thriller than horror movie, Baby nurses a mother lode of phobias. As Rosemary (Mia Farrow) slowly intuits she’s been raped by Satan, she wrestles a myriad of believable demons: uncaring doctors, intrusive neighbors (primarily Ruth Gordon, who copped an Oscar), and a monstrously self-centered husband (John Cassavetes). Farrow’s alarming enactment of emaciated desperation got a spur from then husband Frank Sinatra’s offscreen behavior: She was devastated when he initiated a divorce in mid-production. Meanwhile, Charles Grodin’s turn as a chilly obstetrician made him an unpopular dinner guest. ”When I sat, women moved,” he says. ”I had to go on Johnny Carson to show people I’m a nice guy.”
POLTERGEIST (1982) Directed by Tobe Hooper
Based on a story by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist was released just one week before E.T., and it seemed like the latter movie’s evil twin. Both were tales of suburban California families whose lives are upended by otherworldly invaders, but while E.T. seemed a Christian parable of death and resurrection, Poltergeist had a more sinister take on the afterlife. Its haunted house was a piece of the American dream literally built on a corrupt foundation, a graveyard full of unsettled ghosts. Even the film’s most benign elements — the toys in the closet, blond moppet Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke), and kindly medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) — seemed full of ominous dread. That three of the franchise’s stars suffered untimely deaths led to talk of an offscreen curse, which surviving cast members dismiss and refuse to discuss, but which makes the film that much creepier.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) Directed by Wes Craven
The screen debut of the character who gave striped sweaters a bad name, Nightmare introduces a suburban monster who stalks teens while they sleep. Craven makes the most banal aspects of adolescence hellish, whether it’s turning the sanctity of childhood bedrooms into murder zones or a phone into a demonic tongue. (And ”One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” irrevocably changed the way we feel about playground chants.) Freddy eventually turned into an all-too-jokey shadow of himself — but there’s nothing funny about him in this first installment. Bonus: A young Johnny Depp gets eaten alive by a bed.
THE THING (1982) Directed by John Carpenter
A loose remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 sci-fi Cold War allegory, Carpenter’s Thing isn’t concerned with messages; it’s just a terrifying meditation on paranoia and subzero dread as a group of scientists at the South Pole (led by Kurt Russell) is infiltrated by an alien that assumes the bodies of its victims in very messy ways. And despite its many gross-out F/X, no moment in the movie is more unsettling than watching cuddly Quaker Oatmeal pitchman Wilford Brimley go insane. Carpenter is frankly surprised by the film’s latter-day esteem. ”When The Thing was released,” he says, ”it was one of the most hated movies of all time.” Time to set the record straight.