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.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935). After the huge success of James Whale’s Frankenstein, Universal Studios demanded a sequel and, after much negotiation and arrangement, it was made. Lucky for audiences and history that it’s one of the best follow-ups ever made. Taking some inspiration from Mary Shelley’s novel and adding additional material, the story follows Henry Frankenstein and Doctor Pretorius as they develop a female creature; at the same time, our beloved Monster wanders the countryside, chased by townsfolk, as he tries to make friends and develops. The performances are absolutely wonderful, particularly those of Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester. For being the titular character, the Bride doesn’t have much screen time but—like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs—she makes the most of it. The humanization of the Monster and the audience’s growing sympathy for the character help to move us through the story and contrast nicely against our rather inhuman scientists and their motives. The special effects, particularly with Doctor Pretorius’ experiments, are well done. This film takes so many of the things that worked well in the first and amplifies them, adds next material, and contributes to horror as a whole. With or without the genre, this film is a Hollywood classic.
- I Walked With a Zombie (1943). I’ll admit before reading Robin R. Means Coleman’s Horror Noire, I’d never heard of this film. Luckily I found a Val Newton double feature in my hometown over the summer and was able to finally see it. Is it in some ways outdated? Yes. But it’s also a good representation of what the cultural representation of a ‘zombie’ was before Night of the Living Dead changed things, and a film that has some insight into the racial tensions between the white owners of a sugar plantation on Saint Sebastian and their Black workers, whose ancestors were brought to the island as slaves. The plot follows Betsy Connoll, a nurse sent to care for Jessica, the mindless wife of Paul Holland. What begins as a case of the zombie in the tower, descends into a history of family drama and questions as the Black workers, who practice voodoo, demand that Jessica be put to rest. This a film drenched in its setting and atmosphere; you can practically feel the breeze on your skin. The affair between the characters, while a bit sudden and off page, seems to work. The lives of the Caribbean workers, particularly the voodoo ceremony and the music, bring vibrancy and contrast nicely to the almost dead and stagnant lives of the Holland family. The titular zombie does her job well and Darby Jones—who doesn’t say a word—is excellent in his part. For what it does and its time, this is a wonderful film.
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Another classic from Universal Studios, this film hails a lot of the horror-adventure trademarks we would come to see in the latter half of the century; you can see its webbed fingers all over The Mummy (1999) and Anaconda: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. A geological expedition in the Amazon uncovers evidence of a link between land and sea animals; however in their hunt for evidence they uncover an undiscovered, living species that, when threatened, turns deadly. Similar in many ways to the characterization of Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature is a sympathetic character, especially from an ecological standpoint. Did he ask for the expedition to come traipsing through his undisturbed habitat? Absolutely not. Millicent Patrick’s design for the Gill-Man is simply iconic, and the scene in which Julie Adams innocently swims through the lagoon is one of the best. While at times the adventure part of the plot drags, the moments with the titular creature are highlights. The underwater sequences are amazing and I feel like modern movies are lacking in that regard, often choosing to shoot from above and focus on the fear of what could be beneath instead of what is actually lurking (or there’s too much CGI). The ecological themes of the film are rather timeless and it’s obviously impacted our contemporary films by its inspiration of Best Picture-winning The Shape of Water. In many ways, this is a 1950s creature feature with plenty of heart, adventure, and thrills.
- House on Haunted Hill (1959). Every time I watch this film I somehow forget how much I love it. An eccentric millionaire and his wife invite five strangers to a haunted mansion for the chance to win $10,000 each if they can survive the night. Vincent Price is a pure, sensual delight and he’s in top form. Carol Ohmart holds her own as his wife and their back and forth banter about how much they want to kill each other is simply wonderful. Like, imagine if Gomez and Morticia Addams actually hated each other. Most of the film is a vehicle for the conniving couple’s brilliance and Carolyn Craig’s lungs as she spends the majority of the time screaming. The plot is a bit intricate at times and, if you’re not following along, it can get lost among the general ‘haunted house’ mayhem, but it’s worth paying attention. Although it’s being remade for the second time, the original is 100% where it’s at because you cannot go wrong with Vincent Price, spooky houses, murder, and mayhem.
- The Innocents (1961). Adapted from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, this film closely follows Miss Giddens, the new governess of two orphans, as she begins to suspect that her charges may not be as innocent as they appear. Deborah Kerr’s performance as Miss Giddens does carry the film, but it’s how she plays off of Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), Flora (Pamela Franklin), and Miles (Martin Stephens) that really sells the story. The children alternate between wonderfully innocent and somehow sinister, and you’re never quite sure of where you stand with any of these characters. The setting is absolutely gorgeous and used for a variety of purposes, but it still feels relatively novel for a film that isn’t about a haunted house to put such effort into the appearance of the estate. One of the merits of the film, similar to The Haunting (1963), is in the uncertainty of whether the events are paranormal or psychological. Either way this is a classic film that looks beautiful, unsettles in equal turns, and will leave you questioning who is really innocent by the end.
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.