1. Psycho (1960)
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin
Up until 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was known as the "master of suspense," but his brand of white-knuckle tension was reserved for thrillers and noir mood pieces. With Psycho, his adaptation of author Robert Bloch's popular novel of the same name (based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein), Hitch was a man on a mission: Responding to critics who'd been saying he was past his prime, the defiant filmmaker wanted to scare the hell out of them. In turn, he also defined the modern horror film as we all know it.
The bloodshed is barely visible, yet Psycho's mentally imbalanced themes chill more than any amount of gore could. Anthony Perkins, a rather unimposing-looking guy, plays Norman Bates, the proprietor of a roadside motel where the doomed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) checks in one night and interferes with Bates and "mother's" lifestyle. Knives come out, composer Bernard Hermann's shrieking score kicks in, and Psycho stabs its way into the history books.
Amongst its many first-rate elements, Psycho is notable for its brilliant sense of audience manipulation. At the time, Leigh was a big-time movie star, so offing her so early into the picture was a ballsy, ingenious move (one suggested by Hitch's wife and close collaborator, Alma Reville). It's a tactic that set the standard used by subsequent horror directors like Wes Craven and John Carpenter to find new ways to truly, deeply shock audiences.