Decades after their release, we still enjoy watching scary classic horror films. Some movies on my list are considered to be pillars of the horror genre, created sub-genres of their own and set the bar for generations of filmmakers to come.
15. House on Haunted Hill (1959) Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart
An eccentric millionaire offers five strangers $10,000 if they can spend one whole night with him and his estranged 4th wife in a haunted house.
Some actually consider this film comical or fun, but taking into account that audiences were not as knowledgeable about horror films gimmicks, as they are today, this movie was quite scary for its time. Director Williams Castle used camera tricks, shadows, ugly witches and skeletons to create the quintessential haunted house movie.
14. The Body Snatcher (1945) Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell
A ruthless doctor and his young student get into trouble with their murderous supplier of illegal cadavers.
Based on the short story of Robert Louis Stevenson, a fictional account of the real life surgeon Robert Knox and the murderous exploits of his corpse suppliers, Burke & Hare, this film was dark, disturbing and featured some fine acting from Boris Karloff. Some people even consider Karloff’s role as the Cabman and grave robber John Gray better than his turn as Frankenstein’s monster. This was the last movie that Karloff and Lugosi would appear in together.
13. Nosferatu (1922) Max Schrek, Greta Schroder
An ancient vampire named Count Orlock leaves his home in Carpathian mountains by ship, terrorizes the crew, and eventually settles in the little town of Wisborg, where he sets his sights on the beautiful wife of his real estate agent.
Unlike Dracula, Max Schrek’s vampire wasn’t suave or sexy. No, this creature was more like animal that prowled around in the dark before pouncing on victims. Like other German Expressionist films, this is a silent film, however, not original, as the filmmakers were almost sued out of existence by the Stoker estate for ripping off the Dracula story.
12. Eyes Without a Face (1960) Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob
After causing an accident that severely disfigures his daughter, a brilliant surgeon kidnaps young women to steal their faces, in hopes of finding a new one for his sweet and melancholy Christine.
A sinister story and a particularly grisly surgery scene, considered too gory even for modern audiences, lay at the heart of this macabre and atmospheric film from France. Many filmmakers, including Halloween Director John Carpenter, were influenced into using a plain white mask as a means to provoke scares.
11. The Wolf Man (1935) Lon Chaney, Claude Rains
After being bitten by mysterious creature, a man struggles with the brutal murderous aftermath.
Imagined being cursed with a blood-lust during each full moon that you can’t recall the next morning. Lon Chaney plays the tortured Larry Talbot, a hero wrought with guilt and despair, once he realizes he’s also the villain in his own story. Inspired by historical accounts and wolf fables alike, Curt Siodmak wrote an original screenplay about the legend of the wolf man, including the poetic curse, specifically written for the scene between Lon Chaney’s tragic Larry Talbot and the gypsy Maleva, played by Maria Ouspenskaya :
Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
10. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester
Under the constant goading of the evil Dr. Pretorius, Dr. Frankenstein returns with a new goal, to build a mate for his monstrous creation.
This horror sequel was lighter in tone than its predecessor, but still managed to terrify audiences with its violence and because the villain, Dr. Pretorius, was even crazier than Frankenstein. Despite the extremely limited screen time, Elsa Lanchester channeled what she learned from watching badly behaving swans at a local pond into an iconic horror character.
9. The Haunting (1963) Julie Harris, Claire Bloom
A scientist studying the paranormal invites two women to a haunted mansion, one of whom is suffering from grief over the recent loss of her mother.
Director Robert Wise used odd camera angles, lurking shadows, creepy sound effects and the actor’s terrified looks to build the tension of this mostly psychological thriller. These suspense techniques would become staples of every horror film thereafter.
8. The Mummy (1932) Boris Karloff, David Manners
Archaeologists resurrect the Egyptian mummy Imhotep, who steals the scroll of life and escapes. Years later, they find him posing as the evil Ardeth Bay, who’s on a sinister mission to reincarnate his bride.
Like Dracula, Imhotep/Ardeth Bay is a thinking monster with a goal, get the girl, by any means necessary. Despite popular belief, there was no previous tale or historical account mentioning a mummy’s curse. The famed Scroll of Thoth was fictional, created by screenwriter John L. Balderston, who once covered the real opening of the Tomb of Tutankhamen during his early days as a journalist. The Mummy was based on the another story entirely, written by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer. With so many mysteries surrounding the legends of the pharaohs, it was easy for a fictional screenplay to slide into public consciousness as fact.
7. Frankenstein (1931) Boris Karloff, Colin Clive
An obsessed scientist Dr Frankenstein creates a man composed of human body parts from exhumed corpses.
Adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley, Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the tragic monster, would stir sympathy from audiences, but the violence and grotesque subject matter, once thought blasphemous by puritans, scared audiences to death in 1931. Nonetheless, the movie was a big hit, due in part to the spooky atmosphere, the chilling story, and the monster’s look, in which Boris Karloff endured sitting for 8 hours in the make-up chair. Film goers would come to accept this version as the quintessential look of the monster.
6. The Black Cat (1934) Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi
After a car accident, two American honeymooners are trapped in the castle of a devil-worshiping priest.
Director Edgar G. Ulman’s loose adaption of one of Poe’s most chilling stories, was the first film to underscore music throughout the entire movie. Adding a chilling orchestral atmosphere changed the landscape of horror films, where audiences begin to anticipate something horrifying happening before it even does. The Black Cat also marked the first time two acting heavyweights, Karloff and Lugosi, would appear on screen together.
5. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt
Hypnotist Dr. Caligari locks Cesare, a somnambulist, in a closet and uses him to commit ghastly murders.
Considered by many to be the birth of the horror genre, the striking visual style, with bold, distorted painted lines, crooked backdrops, and dark shadows, along with the shocking subject matter, was peak German Expressionism that drew attention to Germany’s film-making talents and influenced American film-making. Filmed between two world wars, many believed the film was filled with symbolism, even predicting the rise of Hitler and his mindless killing Nazi soldiers that terrorized the world in subsequent years. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a chilling thought.
4. Village of the Damned (1960) George Sanders, Barbara Shelley
After an alien encounter, inhabitants of the village Midwich, give birth to mysterious children, who grow up too fast and go on to become quite deadly.
This low-budget film showed you didn’t need special effects or monster make-up to be scary. You simply needed a great story about creepy telepathic kids with glowing eyes and a mysterious sinister agenda. Based on the John Wyndham novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, this sci-fi thriller followed closely to the book and terrified audiences by posing the question, what would happen if an alien species came down to earth one day and deposit their eggs in human hosts, like a cuckoo bird?
3. Dracula (1931) Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan
An ancient vampire named Count Dracula arrives in England from his home Transylvania and terrorizes the Harkers and Steward families, including the young Mina, before finally meeting his nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing.
Between the charisma of Bela Lugosi, the intense melodrama, and the dark spooky production values, Universal’s first monster movie set the stage for what would go on to be known as the Golden Age of Monsters. For his part, Lugosi clearly established Dracula as the debonair aristocrat, who became the quintessential vampire villain, that would spawn generations of vampire movies, books, stories, music and pop culture references.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea
A group of strangers barricade themselves in a farmhouse one night, when for unknown reasons, the dead return to life to prey on humans.
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” It doesn’t get much scarier than the dead eating the living. Ben’s fight for survival and the tragic aftermath resonated with audiences. Writer and Director George A. Romero never intended his low budget horror film to become representative of racism and cultural differences in the United States at the time. The comparison overshadowed the movie’s other relevant topics, such as family obligations, cannibalism and survival ethics. Nonetheless, the film, which slipped in Public Domain after a clerical error, became a pop culture sensation, spawning a new sub-genre in horror films and continues to inspire thousands of budding horror directors around the globe to this very day.
1. Psycho (1960) Janet Leigh, Tony Perkins
After embezzling $40,000 from her boss, a secretary goes on the run and stops by the shady Bates Motel, operated by a creepy man and his domineering mother.
Known as Hollywood’s first ‘Slasher’ film, it’s impossible not to think of Psycho when taking a shower, particularly while traveling. Director Alfred Hitchock shocked movie goers by gruesomely killing off the main character halfway through the movie. After more twists and turns, the master of suspense delivered a nail-biting ending that rocked audiences to their core. Based on the Robert Bloch novel, Psycho, Hitchcock masterfully bought up all copies of the book and to keep the movie’s plot and ending a secret, thus leading people to believe Psycho was influenced by the demented real story of American serial killer Ed Gein, who had been captured only a few years early. In the early days of horror, monsters ruled the screen but by the early 60s, American audiences understood now that men were far more scarier creatures.
Turner Classic Movies just released info that they’ll be honoring the works of five major horror stars, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Lon Chaney, every Wednesday. In addition, every Sunday will feature Mummy movies. And, Amazon Prime is featuring Night of the Living Dead, Les Diaboliques, The House on Haunted Hill, Nosferatu and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari this month, so, you’ll have a chance to catch some of these films, perhaps for the first time or maybe the 100th time. Happy Halloween!