When the film version of Stephen King's It was released this past September, it inspired a phrase that had not been heard in a while: "epic horror." The arrival of an "epic horror movie" is sort of like the sighting of a rare but beautiful animal: an event everyone wants to see, but doesn't happen all too often (it's much more frequently seen in horror literature, including many of King's books).
What is an epic horror movie? Loosely defined, it's a film and a story that is not just about a masked killer hunting down a bunch of camp counselors or a single ghost infesting someone's apartment. Epic horror is sprawling, covers a fairly large amount of time (even several time periods) and raises the stakes beyond one life or a handful of lives to something more vast. The monster or nemesis itself is often something ancient or utterly mysterious in nature, with the stakes consequently higher or even apocalyptic.
As we said, this is a loose definition, but it gives us some understanding of what makes for an epic horror movie. In a way, they're almost contradictory; after all, a lot of horror works best when it's contained and claustrophobic. But there have been over the years a number of movies that have gone big, of which we've listed 15. The earliest movie that would fit the "epic horror" mold would likely be 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein (or perhaps, going back even further, 1925's The Phantom of the Opera), but we decided to keep things a little more modern, starting more or less with movies that came into being after the revival of widescreen cinema itself in the 1950s.
With It arriving on digital platforms later this month (December 19, with the Blu-ray release to follow on January 9), now might be a good time to revisit some of these movies. You can share below whether you think they fit the "epic horror" bill or not...
The Birds (1963)
Horror had been kind of on the wane during the 1950s, but Alfred Hitchcock brought it back full blast in the early '60s with the double shot of Psycho (1960) and this nightmarish classic about an unexplained attack on humanity by our avian friends. Although some of the special effects may seem dated now, The Birds generates a feeling of unease that infects the entire movie, mainly because the attacks are never explained. Set pieces such as an attack on the entire town of Bodega Bay and the final assault on a group of people trapped in a farmhouse give the movie scope. And that final shot of the birds watching calmly as the survivors drive off into an uncertain future adds the final apocalyptic touch.
The Exorcist (1973)
Although it takes place primarily in one house and even just one room, The Exorcist begins with a prologue set in Iraq that emphasizes the ancient, unending nature of the conflict that's about to occur. Even when the action moves into the home of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her demonically possessed daughter Regan (Linda Blair), the struggle becomes about much more than poor Regan's life: it's about the place of faith in the modern world and whether traditional notions of good and evil still exist. For all its visceral shocks (of which there are plenty), The Exorcist deals in vast, historical questions.
The Omen (1976)
The Omen dove into the Bible itself — specifically the last book, Revelation — for its inspiration, and came up with nothing less than the impending end of the world, brought about by a battle between the returned Jesus Christ and the Antichrist. We don't see that battle, of course, but The Omen does give us the birth of the little devil (Harvey Stephens) and takes us on a journey that spans London, Italy and finally Megiddo, a site in Israel where the final war will supposedly take place. With its globe-trotting story, geopolitical backdrop (the Antichrist's "adopted" father is a politician) and apocalyptic implications, how much more epic can you get?
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
It was once said about George A. Romero's game-changing zombie masterpiece — the first and best sequel to his 1968 landmark, Night of the Living Dead — that Romero somehow made $1 million look like $10 million on the screen. And it's true: Dawn of the Dead is an astounding piece of independent filmmaking for its time, expanding the isolated siege of his first film into a national and even worldwide apocalypse and concluding with a massive battle between bikers and ghouls in a deserted shopping mall. Other movies have gone bigger with zombies since (including Zack Snyder's very respectable 2004 remake of this one), but Romero's classic was the first.
Flush off the success of his influential Suspiria (1977), Italian director Dario Argento continued the "Three Mothers" series he started with that film in Inferno, perhaps the biggest and possibly most lavish film of his career. While Suspiria was largely contained to one location, a dance academy presided over by an ancient witch, Inferno took place in both Rome and New York and vastly expanded the mythology started in the previous tale. While Inferno suffers from Argento's usual tics — mainly a devotion to imagery over narrative coherence, as well as some dubious acting — it also features some of his most memorable visuals, including the film's signature underground room filled with water.
The Shining (1980)
While The Exorcist had, just seven years earlier, been nominated for every major Academy Award, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining didn't get a single one — which is too bad, because this is also what top-shelf horror looks like when done by one of cinema's greatest filmmakers. Although he made vast changes to King's story, Kubrick still manages to create one of the most atmospheric, frightening and large-scale horror movies of all time here, yet imbues it with a tightening sense of claustrophobia as well. The gradual critical appreciation of the movie over time (it was not well-received when it first came out) has only strengthened its status.
The Thing (1982)
An isolated research station in Antarctica becomes the battleground for one small group of men fighting to save the world from a seemingly unstoppable parasitic organism from space. When you put it that way, John Carpenter's The Thing does indeed take on gigantic overtones, and its themes of paranoia and what constitutes a human being remain as powerful as ever. While nominally sci-fi, The Thing's earthbound setting and the nightmarish body horror of the monster's shape-shifting abilities makes this a rare crossover into the "epic horror" category as well.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Underrated at the time, the third entry in George A. Romero's ongoing zombie mythos was — even with its budget cut drastically due to his refusal to tone the film down enough for an R rating — just as big as Dawn, with its dysfunctional cast of soldiers and scientists hunkering down in a vast underground network of caverns as what seems like millions of zombies rampage just feet above through the countryside. The movie's clashes between reason and firepower, as well as the beginnings of a new stage of evolution for the reanimated dead themselves, are prime examples of Romero's lofty thematic ambitions as well.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Although it's not as entirely faithful to the original novel as its title suggests, Francis Ford Coppola's take on the classic vampire tale is lavish and unique. It starts in the past with Dracula's origins as a warlord and moves forward from there, making his long and lonely existence a metaphor for the undying nature of evil. The movie is sumptuous and grand from the start, employing in-camera visual effects as much as possible to create something operatic and truly different from many other horror films and certainly any other adaptation of the Stoker novel.
Pulse (Kairo) (2001)
The Japanese horror wave of the late 1990s and early 2000s arguably reached a peak with this film (a.k.a. Kairo) from acclaimed director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. At the height of his powers, Kurosawa created a string of eerie movies that transcended the horror genre but also often left the viewer wondering exactly what was happening. This enigmatic classic (remade weakly by Hollywood in 2006) focused on ghosts somehow using the Internet as a conduit between the worlds of the living and the dead, with the two realms becoming almost interchangeable. There is imagery in Pulse that is truly frightening, and even if you don't know what it all means, the implications are vast and chilling.
28 Days Later (2002)
Director Danny Boyle went back to horror's low-budget beginnings and also revamped the zombie genre with a gritty, handheld style of filmmaking that lent 28 Days Later an immediacy that the genre had been lacking for some time. But the more "realistic" way in which he shot the film also accentuated the spectacle he was able to conjure up as Cillian Murphy makes his way through the empty streets of London and fights off hordes of fast-moving humans-turned-monsters. The Boyle-less sequel, 28 Weeks Later, also amps up the large-scale action but is less compelling as a story.
The Mist (2007)
Stephen King's classic novella was turned into a cult favorite by director Frank Darabont, who left behind his King prison stories to tell this bleak horror tale. Mostly set in a supermarket surrounded by the mysterious, otherworldly mist and the horrifying creatures within, Darabont turns the story into a microcosm of how society would behave under such circumstances (the rational vs. the extremist and superstitious), while never letting us forget the unseen, monstrous terrors that await outside. Darabont, like other filmmakers on this list, does wonders with a relatively small budget.
The Conjuring/The Conjuring 2 (2013/2016)
The two adventures (so far) of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) together form a compelling if highly fictionalized story of belief vs. skepticism and the power of faith. The first movie's haunting actually sets the table for the sequel's bigger and more complex story of the Enfield Poltergeist, making the events and the stakes seem ever bigger and implying that they are just one part of an ongoing conflict between people like the Warrens and unfathomable forces from beyond our understanding.
Train to Busan (2016)
South Korean writer/director Sang-ho Yeon doesn't do anything especially groundbreaking with his live-action debut, which is about a father trying desperately to get his daughter to her mother's house by train amidst a zombie apocalypse. But what he does do in jawdropping fashion is create a string of pulse-pounding, suspenseful action sequence as a group of characters we come to fully care about must extricate themselves from one terrifying situation after another as the train keeps moving forward. Breathlessly paced and massive in scope, Train to Busan is the best new zombie movie to come along in a while and more ambitious in its way than anything we've seen from a certain AMC series.
Seven young children struggle to save themselves and their families from an ancient, implacable evil in this scary, faithful and surprisingly emotional adaptation of King's doorstop of a book. The bizarre, unknowable nature of It is what brings the story into the realm of the epic, as well as the revelation that this entity has been preying on this town -- on this patch of Earth -- for as long as anyone can remember. Pennywise the Clown is just one manifestation of the darkness that surrounds us, looking for any way to get in, and we can't wait for a look at its true form in the sequel.