If you're thinking of watching The Cabin in the Woods once it is released in the UAE (a date for which remains to be seen, as the movie's release has been postponed for two weeks now) – and you should – it's important that you know as little about the film as possible when you buy a ticket. But understand this: the genre-bending movie from the mind of the cult icon Joss Whedon is being called the latest in a long line of horror game-changers.
The macabre has been a feature of cinema since its earliest days, but a tendency towards repetition has meant that horror can often lose its power, or worse, become ridiculous. For this reason, the genre often makes giant leaps forward when a new movie finds novel ways to scare. This doesn't mean that every great horror renders whatever came before it mere child's play, however, or that movements cannot overlap. This is a guide to some of the genre's greatest game-changers and the films that followed them.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Legacy: Dracula; Frankenstein; The Mummy
In the late silent era, Hollywood's Universal Studios proved more adept than any other at frightening audiences, with a string of hugely successful monster movies. Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel and starring Lon Cheney Sr as the tortured bell-ringer, Hunchback was the first of what became a classic slate of gothic literary adaptations. It succeeded by moving its terrifying monster out of the shadows and allowing audiences to feel both protective and repulsed at the same time.
Legacy: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Halloween; Friday the 13th
Forty years into a glittering career that had already included Vertigo and Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock surprised the world with a simple black-and-white picture that would go on to invent the slasher genre. The story of a woman on the run, preyed upon by a creepy hotelier with a macabre secret, the film was so shocking at the time of release, it caused one film critic, CA Lejeun, to immediately resign from her job at The Observer newspaper.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Legacy: The Last House on the Left; Dawn of the Dead; The Blair Witch Project
As well as inventing what we now know as the zombie genre, George A Romero's brilliantly satirical portrait of societal breakdown is most remarkable for the game-changing business model it introduced. Made for little more than US$100,000 (Dh370,000) but reaping more than 100 times that at the box office, it proved that a great idea is all that's needed for a horror film to work. Also; a little bit of gore can go a long way.
Legacy: I Know What You Did Last Summer; Urban Legend ... countless awful remakes of classic slashers
Horror had been clinging on for dear life for more than a decade when Wes Craven had a simple idea that would, briefly, revitalise it. What if the preyed-upon characters were just as aware of slasher movie conventions as the audience? The movie succeeded by both embracing and subverting the genre, but the self-aware Scream had the unfortunate long-term legacy of opening the door to dozens of poorly updated slasher remakes, from Halloween to A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Legacy: Pulse; Haute Tension; [Rec]
Hollywood never had a monopoly on terror, but the late 1990s saw a greater coming together of international horror audiences, thanks to Hideo Nakata's brilliantly dark technological frightener. The past decade has seen an explosion of inventive, intelligent and unrelenting horrors from around the world, with Japan, France, Spain and Scandinavia leading the charge. Ring's twisted fairy tale-like story and terrifying imagery were enough to captivate any horror fan, no matter what language they spoke.