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 ten.
- Frankenstein (1931). Following the success of Dracula, Universal Studios ordered more horror films for their budding ‘cinematic universe.’ They choose to adapt the stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for their next feature, and what followed was what many would call the most influential and recognizable horror film made to date. The film follows Henry Frankenstein before and after experiments with the creation of human life. Boris Karloff plays the Monster to amazing success; he’s sympathetic, terrifying, awesome, and delightful in equal turns as needed. The film holds up well even by today’s standards and, while often repeated, it hasn’t been truly duplicated. The best and most memorable moment features the Monster and a little girl playing by the water, and while I had thought I knew this scene well before actually seeing it in context I was still taken aback and shocked at how much it affected me. A Universal monster must-watch this Halloween.
- The Wolf Man (1941). Another Universal monster movie that I was familiar with, but had never actually seen (most of my context came from the chase scene in The Sandlot). Technically Universal’s second werewolf film but definitely its more successful, this movie follows the unfortunate misadventures of Larry Talbot in Wales before and after he’s attacked by a ‘wolf’ while trying to save a girl. There are some wonderful scenes and Maleva, played by Maria Ouspenskaya, is a highlight for me, but I can’t get over how generally creepy Larry’s behavior towards women is. He literally checks out a girl through a telescope, goes to where she is, admits this while hitting on her, and then continues to hit on her even though she’s engaged. I mean, I get it…he was a wolf before he a werewolf, right? A decent picture nonetheless, but his male privilege makes me squirm more than his werewolf transformation.
- Cat People (1942). Moving from canine to feline, we have RKO Production’s wonderful and sensual take in the same kind of subgenre. Irena, a Serbian immigrant, meets and falls in love with American Oliver Reed, but she carries a strange superstition from her village that she may turn into a cat if she were ever to become deeply angered. The pair struggle with this superstition and Oliver’s growing closeness with his assistant, Alice. There’s this wonderful tension throughout the majority of the film as to whether or not Irena’s worries about the cat people are valid or not, or if her just believing in them is what is causing these problems. Simone Simon’s performance as Irena is perfectly catlike: one second she’s cuddling up to Reed and the next she’s hissing in anger. I also found her accent wonderful. We can also thank this film for the ‘Lewton Bus’ technique—those scenes in horror films where it seems like something monstrous is going to happen and then a mundane object scares us instead. It’s definitely a film worth checking out, particularly for its messages about female sexuality and desire.
- The Uninvited (1944). Before seeing this film, I’d actually seen the stage adaptation years ago so I was familiar with the story. However, a lot of the film relies on the picturesque setting of Windward House along the Cornwall coast—which can’t be as clearly shown on a stage. Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, brother and sister, fall in love with an old house on the coast and persuade the nearby owner to let them buy it for an unusually low price. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Windward House is haunted; there are eerie sobs in the middle of the night, an unexplained draft on the stairs, and an inexplicable chill in the studio. Stella, the former owner’s granddaughter, is drawn to the house for reasons no one quite understands, but it may be too dangerous for her to be there—for all involved. This film has some wonderful atmosphere and sound editing, particularly with the score. It’s not scary by today’s standards, but we can all appreciate a good gothic ghost story from time to time.
- House of Wax (1953). Vincent Price makes his first appearance on the OcTerror film list! The first film to be shown in color 3-D, House of Wax is about Professor Henry Jarrod, a talented wax figure sculptor who works mainly with historical figures instead of recreating lurid murder scenes as most others would do. After tragic events, Jarrod is no longer able to sculpt and instead uses assistants to make his visions possible. The narrative is also told from a woman named Sue Allen’s perspective, as she’s followed by a cloaked figure, takes part in murder investigations, and sees her beau at work at the wax museum. There are quite a few threads in this film, but they manage to tie into each other quite well. The acting is quite wonderful, and I absolutely adored Vincent Price’s oddly sympathetic performance as Jarrod. Even though I could guess at part of the twist toward the end, I was still surprised by its execution and it’s amazing that that can be possible with a film that’s been out this long. A classic for your collection this Halloween.
- Diabolique (1955). Our first foreign horror of the year comes from France and has a few surprises in store for viewers. Years before Hitchcock would bring on-screen murder to America, Henri-Georges Clouzot adapted the story of a wife and a mistress working together to plot the husband’s murder. The murder takes place within forty-five minutes, and what follows is a horrifyingly tense mystery as the body disappears. Actresses Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot carry more than their weight as the badass mistress and vulnerable wife. The subtitles and French itself are reasonably easy to keep up with so I’d recommend it as decent translation of a foreign film, even for those who hate reading subtitles—the pacing moves slow enough that it’s easy to keep up. The murder itself is reasonably well thought out, and the cinematography in the tense moments of the film is heart-stopping good. There and twists and turns throughout the film and I was left guessing up to the last second.
- Psycho (1960). To be honest, I didn’t really like Psycho the first time I watched it. In hind sight, this is probably because I watched the film with contemporary hype-goggles on and I was expecting to be blown away by a masterpiece, scared out of my mind, and…I wasn’t? After watching it a second time without the hype-goggles, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the film and—while it still isn’t my favorite Hitchcock film—I can admit that it is a masterpiece. Psycho begins with Marion Crane, a real estate secretary who steals $40,000 so she and her boyfriend can get married, pay off debts, and live happily ever after. However, the film turns after she disappears after spending a night at the Bates Motel with its mysterious proprietor, Norman. There’s Norman’s nagging mother, Marion’s concerned boyfriend and sister, and a detective who’s looking for the money and Marion—they all come together beautifully in the end. The shower scene, of course, is iconic. Anthony Perkin’s performance as Norman Bates hit all the right notes with me this time, and I think that the writing and story definitely stand the test of time.
- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). I was more familiar with the feud between stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford than I was with the film that put the two of them in the same room, but this psychological horror is cringe-worthy in the best way. Jane and Blanche Hudson are two aging Hollywood has-beens now secluded in an old mansion. Jane, or Baby Jane as she was known in her Vaudeville days, didn’t really have the talent for the big screen and nowadays she’s stuck caring for Blanche, who was paralyzed after an accident. Jane suffers from alcoholism and deteriorating mental health, and takes her anger out on her sister—isolating her in the mansion, cutting off her communication, denying her food…It gets worse. Bette Davis delivers an award-winning performance as the unhinged Baby Jane, and Joan is likewise amazing as the long-suffering and sympathetic Blanche. Every time it seems like the stakes in this film couldn’t be raised higher, they crank the dial up another notch. Sometimes hard to watch, but in a good way.
- The Haunting (1963). Based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, this film plays with audience’s expectations as to whether it’s supernatural or psychological in origin. A group of researchers choose to stay at Hill House to document paranormal phenomena as proof of the supernatural, but instead find that the house may be more than they can withstand. Many strange occurrences begin as soon as our protagonist, Eleanor Lance, steps onto the grounds: she feels as though the house is watching her, there’s loud banging on the walls during the night, voices echo from inside the walls, cold spots in areas, and writing that appears. Eleanor’s thoughts are broadcast to the audience and they make for an almost claustrophobic interiority. The acting is wonderful and the sound design for the entire film was top notch and genuinely frightening in certain scenes. The entire atmosphere of the movie is unsettling and scary to behold.
- Repulsion (1965). Going from one claustrophobic film to another, Repulsion follows the anxiety-driven life of Carol Ledoux, a Belgian manicurist living in London with her sister. She’s particularly anxious when it comes to men and sex, and the ongoing affair her sister has with a married man is cause for concern—especially when the sister leaves for a vacation to Paris with the man shortly after the film begins. What follows is a psychological decline as Carol hallucinates, imagines, and creates phobia-driven scenarios in the small apartment to which she has confined herself. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I can say that Catherine Deneuve’s performance as Carole was fairly spot-on when it came to small and large behaviors that negotiate day-to-day life with these imaginary horrors playing in your mind. There’s something in this film to make everyone cringe—whether it’s a skinned rabbit sitting out for days, a too-friendly landlord, or nightmares that seem much too real. It’s a gorgeous film with a good score and some nice scares.
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 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.