Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
Classic horror movies are treated in two ways. Either they’re cinematic and historical masterpieces or complete garbage. For some reason, modern people love to harp on the low quality filming, shaky plots, and lackluster characters even though contemporary films have those same issues. Each decade has its own fears, related to popular culture, its current events, and the trends in horror at the time. It’s why there are waves of certain features in horror at a certain time.
The golden days of horror films came in black and white, with coiffed heroines who ran in terror and suave heroes who saved the day. They tackled issues such as immigration, communism, the environment, and feminism. People flocked to theaters to see the Universal monsters, the latest Hitchcock thriller, or whatever catastrophe was going to strike the world next. There are lots of amazing films to choose from this era, but I’ve selected five.
- Dracula. It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like without Dracula so I had to throw him into the list somehow. Surprisingly, I’d never seen the full film before now but found myself easily able to quote several of the scenes—showing how ingrained in our culture it has become. The story, if you don’t already know, revolves around the mysterious Count Dracula as he arrives in London at the same time that horrific events take place. What makes this such a strong film today are the actor’s performances. It’s hard to think of Dracula without imaging Bela Lugosi’s penetrating gaze and thick accent, and Edward Van Sloan’s performance as Abraham Van Helsing is a masterpiece. There are lots of quotable, iconic moments in the film and the cinematography still holds up well to modern standards. Any of the Universal monster films deserves to be on this list, but Dracula had to be the first.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s important to note that this film was released in 1958, if only so viewers can watch it with Red-Scare goggles on and enjoy the full Communist metaphor. Dr. Miles Bennell returns from a conference to find that the people of his town aren’t quite themselves, except for his old flame, Becky. Attempting to understand what’s happening to the people of the town, Miles and Becky uncover a sinister plot at hand. Another one of those culturally relevant stories that I hadn’t seen until I put it on this list, I immediately added it to my list of favorite horror films. The characters and acting are great and the horror is very real. It’s a must watch for a horror fan who doesn’t realize how terrifying the pod people are.
- The Birds. Most people would put Psycho as their Hitchcock pick, but I figure my chances of running into Norman Bates are pretty slim. My chances of seeing a bird are extremely high. Therefore, they’re scarier. This film could have been a flop if it had had any other director, but Hitchcock brings his trademark suspense to a story about a small town terrified by random bird attacks. Really, that’s all the story is. There’s a scene about midway through that preys on my natural fear of the whole look-away-and-there’s-more thing. Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor have great chemistry and they carry the forced romantic plot forward with grace, but it’s the birds that are the real stars.
- Rosemary’s Baby. I love this movie for a few reasons. It’s visually spectacular in terms of style and New York in the 60s, and it made me look weird at The Captain for a few hours. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into an apartment in the Bramford, a building with a sordid past, only for Rosemary to struggle through a difficult and evil pregnancy. While perhaps a little longer than need be, the length serves to build suspense and terror as we fear for Rosemary and her unborn child. The ending is iconic, but won’t be spoilt here. It’s inspired generations of tropes about pregnant women in dangerous situations, and we should all be grateful for that.
- Night of the Living Dead. The granddaddy of all zombie films had to be included on this list. It’s what created the popular ideal that makes people shuffle along in groups, pretend to eat others, and moan about. It single-handedly shaped an entire horror genre while almost commenting on humanity and its limits. Barbara and her brother travel into the countryside to visit their father’s grave, but it all goes wrong when the dead don’t stay dead and begin to attack people. What makes this film special is its main protagonist, Ben (played by Duane Jones), who smartly predicts how to avoid the zombie plague and survive while everyone else freaks out in various ways. Barbara, while enjoyable at first, dissolves into a pitiful puddle of passivity, and the other characters display the different reactions people would have to this terror. The ending is shocking and the zombies are still scary even after decades of an oversaturated market and numerous sequels.
While it’s okay to enjoy contemporary horror, it’s important to remember that they’re inspired by the classics. There are homages and acknowledgements throughout new films that play off of what the originals created. Seeing these things within new films shows that their creators and everyone involved know what they’re doing. These five films are only small snapshots of a cinema history that spans decades and covers everything from silent films to the Manson family. They’re important because they scared generations ago and continue to do so today.