2. Jaws (1975)
Box Office Total: $482.9million
Arguably the greatest monster movie in Hollywood history, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws rewrote the horror genre, and in doing so it created a genre all of its own: the blockbuster.
Featuring many of the elements we now associate with blockbuster cinema – a killer cast, sharp and crisp images, a linear story of good and evil, regular moments of excitement, a constant escalation of events towards an explosive finale – Jaws took the greatness of the monster movies and action movies that had preceded it, and had people queuing around the block to witness it. It was among the most recognisable merging of genres in an era of filmmaking experimentation, the first big event movie. Spielberg mastered the art with Jaws, which remains undeniably one of the most important movies in history.
It is still the third highest-grossing horror film ever released, even when the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation, and that speaks of its universal appeal and the importance of its quality and timing. But with mass appeal comes an equally important assumption: that to be popular, a film must be low on challenging material. Jaws is no doubt exceptional, genre-building, and historically significant, but horror must go beyond the confines of your average film, it must also challenge you, challenge the powerful, force change and create discomfort amongst the most comfortable. Jaws is great, but it doesn’t do that…
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1. The Exorcist (1973)
Box Office Total: $428.2million
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is simply the greatest horror film of all time. The fact that a movie so profoundly disturbing and massively controversial would make a list like this is both surprising and welcome, for so frequently has challenging and revolutionary filmmaking failed to capture mainstream attention and buy itself an audience (just think of all the great horror films that haven’t made this list).
Disturbing even close to fifty years after its release, The Exorcist revolutionised the impact of the horror genre. To do so it borrowed from the cinematography and iconography of the Universal Classic Monster films of the 1930s and 40s, colouring those techniques with some New Era filmmaking edge experienced in European cinema and the works of Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola and company, and used this amalgamation of styles to tell of some of the most contemporary fears in the United States at the time, challenging the studio system, film censors, lawmakers and religious groups in the process. Few horror films have ever been so impactful, and even fewer remain so unmissable and exceptionally frightening to this day.
From a remarkable director at the very peak of his powers, and a cast of some of the most respected names in the horror genre’s history, The Exorcist delivers unforgettable moment after unforgettable moment, and looks and feels every bit the classic that it undeniably is.
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Horror cinema is viewed by many as a sub-culture, a particular fandom, and as such talented filmmakers have treated it as a proving ground for illustrating their filmmaking prowess without ever considering the genre the be-all end-all of their careers. This list somewhat surprisingly exemplifies that, many of the genre’s biggest hits being their director’s springboards to other things. And yet there remains no doubt that the quality and skill on show in this list of highest-grossing films is among the best you’d see in any genre, that horror relies so heavily on so many filmmaking principles that it’s impossible to make a good one without skilled people in key roles. Maybe, then, there will come a time in which the horror genre reigns supreme, its challenging material and exceptional skill celebrated for the revolutionary force it undoubtedly is. Until then, we have these outliers, these moments in history, these must-see culture shifting movies, the highest-grossing horrors of all time.
Were you surprised by some of the omissions? What order would you put these films in? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for more insightful movie lists.