Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.
They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went 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 usually treated in three ways. They’re cinematic and historical masterpieces, underrated cult classics, 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 often have those same issues. Each decade has its own fears, related to popular culture, current events, and the trends in horror at the time. It’s why there are waves of certain features in horror.
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.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Like most people of my generation, I’m most familiar with Disney’s animated version of Victor Hugo’s Gothic novel. And, obviously, this silent film version is not that in that it maintains quite a few of the plotlines from the book and isn’t a musical. This film is almost one hundred which is kind of baffling that we have movies in our culture that have lasted that long, but it holds up pretty well to the test of time. While silent films are a medium that have all but died out, the basic story has lasted through constant adaptations for a reason. Basically, Quasimodo (played by Lon Chaney here) is the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame who becomes embroiled in a complicated love affair between the gypsy Esmeralda, the Captain of the Guard Phoebus, and Jehan, the evil brother of the archdeacon. This has all the greatest elements of a historical Gothic story, elevated by some nice performances, and fantastic set pieces. While Lon Chaney isn’t onscreen much for being the titular character—especially in the middle part—he brings so much physicality to the role, and the makeup and prosthetic make him a truly grotesque figure. Patsy Ruth Miller is captivating as Esmeralda and, even though the character doesn’t have much agency in this version of the story, she does her best with the role. While there isn’t much in the way of “horror” as we would expect today, the film does deliver a few thrills (a parkour crawl down the Notre Dame) and the presence of a ‘monstrous figure’ fits a few standards. The plot itself is rather complicated but the film manages to squeeze as much exposition as necessary into the title cards and not much is lost. Overall, this is an entertaining film that still satisfies all these years later—even if it is not quite horrifying.
- The Mummy (1932). Don’t laugh, but I was scared to even watch this movie because of the Scooby-Doo episode “Scooby-Doo and a Mummy Too.” That mummy terrified me as a kid! 1999’s The Mummy not as much. Turns out I didn’t have too much to be worried about other than a good time. Universal does it again—this time telling the story of an Egyptian mummy brought back to life by an ancient scroll who is determined to reunite with his lost love, who he believes has been reincarnated. Boris Karloff stars as Imhotep and just as his physicality was perfect for Frankenstein’s Monster so here is it perfect for the gaunt and reinvigorated mummy. He is at once wonderfully ‘foreign’ and charming. Zita Johann is perfectly alluring in her dual role, and her costumes are absolutely to die for. While obviously we can talk about the racism, imperialism/colonialism, and other messages that are inherent within this time period of archaeology, Egyptology, and film, it’s still okay to appreciate a film by its own merits and admit it’s also a product of its times. A lot of the plot follows similar notes to 1931’s Dracula, but whether that’s representative of tropes of the Gothic genre or in-studio collaboration is hard to say. The cinematography, particularly in the wider shots and in a flashback to ancient Egypt, is wonderful. This film, like many Classics, wraps up rather quickly, but it does feel a little unfulfilling since our ‘love interest’ in opposition to Karloff’s Imhotep doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could be. As far as the Universal Monsters go, The Mummy is buried a bit in the middle; not quite as noteworthy as the others, but it certainly should be remembered. Here’s hoping that any future remakes will be successful.
- Phantom of the Opera (1943). You’ll note that a lot of ‘classic’ Gothic stories have been retold and redone so many times over the decades. This is the second film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel and the first in technicolor; it’s also the only Universal horror film to win an Oscar. And yet most of us probably think of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical first when the title comes to mind. The plot is the same: a mysterious “Phantom” stalks the Paris Opera House, demanding that soprano Christine Dubois be given better roles or bad things will befall others; much of the plot also revolves around Christine being wooed by Inspector Raoul Dubert and baritone Anatole Garron. Most of the film focuses on that second plotline and leans toward a romcom tone rather than Gothic horror. The addition of musical numbers from the onstage opera scenes makes it tonally seem in line with the period, but out of sync with what you’d expect when you’re looking for spookiness. When the Phantom’s mask is taken off and his deformity is revealed it’s not even that bad, to be honest. The cinematography works well, particularly in those stage scenes and the sets are absolutely gorgeous. Everyone in the cast delivers solid performances and the music is, as you’d expect, lovely. It’s a bit like a short trip to the opera with interludes to another kind of show. So, no, this film isn’t quite as Gothic or terrifying as you might want, but if you find the prospect of deciding between two men or a career while another dude threatens you from backstage scary then it kind of works well enough.
- The Curse of the Cat People (1944). I reviewed Cat People in 2017 but this film is a “spiritual sequel” in so many ways. While it picks up a few years after the first film with the same characters and acknowledges the events and message of Cat People, it’s only tangentially related. We don’t really even care about ‘cat people’ here so much as ‘cat person.’ Oliver and Alice are married now and concerned about their daughter, Amy, who is more than a bit introverted and prone to daydreaming. They worry she may have been ‘cursed’ by Oliver’s dead wife, Irena (played again by the superb Simone Simon), especially when Amy begins acting out. As far as sequels go, don’t worry about it too much—you probably could watch this without watching the first movie; there isn’t a lot of exposition at first but later in the film we get caught up. The only thing that really ties the two together and works well is the theme of ‘belief’—Irena’s belief that her passion would turn her into a cat, and Amy’s belief in Irena because she needs a friend. We get another Lewton Bus technique in this film and it’s particularly effective because of some red herring foreshadowing. There’s a subplot about an elderly woman and her daughter and it’s fairly dramatic and hidden within this other movie. Also, the costumes are fantastic throughout this film—particularly Julia Dean’s outfit; like, I want to be retired and lounge about in my jewels from rich suitors. Ann Carter delivers one of the more realistic performances from a child actor in a horror film. She’s relatable in her loneliness and vulnerability but comes off as the weird kid in just the right way too. Overall, this film does what so many modern Renaissance films are doing today. It takes a rich family drama, something which may or may not be true, and wraps it up in a Gothic story to make it something entertaining and just a bit spooky. Just as much as classic as the first film.
- The Fly (1958). While the core of both this and the later Cronenberg adaptation come from a short story by George Langelaan, the structure and heart of the movies differ. Both films are concerned about a scientist, working on teleportation, whose atoms becoming intermixed with those of a fly during experimentation, and how his romantic partner—here his wife—has to deal with the downfall of his hubris. In the original, the structure is built more like a murder mystery where we unravel why Hélène has killed her husband, André. This obviously diffuses some of the tension since we know how the experiments end, although not how it happened. Rather much of the suspense is built around the need to find a singular and unique fly, and, for the most part, it works. The buzzing and paranoia heighten as the film drags on, and the pay-off is actually quite nice. Vincent Price plays François, André’s brother, who is desperate to discover what exactly has happened. As usual, the man is brilliant. The film contains the same usual messages about going too far into the unknown, but layers it here a bit more with family life since we can see how wrapped up in his work André increasingly becomes, and at what cost. The murder itself—while not vividly shown—is delightfully gruesome in concept. While it may not have the same pace or thrills that Cronenberg’s does, 1958’s The Fly delivers on its own charms and you frankly can’t go wrong when Vincent Price is onscreen. So check it out and see what all the buzz is about.
- The Blob (1958). While sci-fi horror—particularly of the 50s variety—is not exactly my forte, there’s a certain kind of charm to the zaniness of this film. Part of it is in how often the characters are distracted from the main plot by other side quests, and part of it is how obvious we can get about the symbolism for the Red Wave of Communism. Still, it has a lot of classic elements that make it feel so wholesome and All-American as apple pie. Steve (Steve McQueen in an early role) and Jane discover their town is being threatened by an extraterrestrial threat in the form of a Blob one night but have a hard time convincing authority figures that it’s real—how can they save everyone when no one will believe them about the danger? Parts of the film are just silly or dumb, but in the good way. However, what really worked for me, was the increasing desperation for belief as the Blob continues to grow and kill. Like, part of it is a “cry wolf” situation and the other bit is your usual “quiet, middle America” trope. The Blob is also a cool concept. I like that it’s this basically indestructible Jell-O mold that absorbs people and gets bigger. Can you imagine how many teens saw this movie and then made jokes about their mom’s cooking? The film is moderately eco-conscious, and while it has plenty of tropes, forgettable moments, and things that don’t stand out, it’s generally a fun time. It also has a fun opening number. So get absorbed by The Blob for a few hours.
- A Bucket of Blood (1959). I was in a high school English class when I saw this film for the first time. I can’t remember why we watched it—maybe we were studying poetry?—but I remember we quoted it frequently in the weeks after. Walter is a busboy at a beatnik café with dreams of making it big but no real talent who stumbles into fame when he accidentally murders his landlady’s cat and turns it into a sculpture. Yeah, that scene I just described made a class full of teens laugh to varying degrees and, years later, it still works. This is a film that balances comedy and horror well because Walter is a ‘simple’ guy: we’re meant to laugh at him and then be horrified when he does things you’re not supposed to. The commentary on beatnik culture is also amusing; we’re just as much meant to laugh at the pretentiousness of the artists and poets as we are at Walter who’s idolizing them. We also get insight on pride, art, murder, and greed—not for the first time in horror—but here in a patron/artist relationship. Dick Miller portrays Walter not just as kind of an almost loveable weirdo wannabe, but as someone who’s so desperate to be a part of this ‘high art’ world that he’ll do anything to stay on top. The horror itself continually amps up and is memorable—maybe not explicit to our standards of today—but great for its period. Also, Bert Convy’s coat, his whole outfit actually, is a vibe and I love it. While Corman and Miller’s The Little Shop of Horrors is probably the better remembered of their collaborations, this film is a fine piece of work, worthy of immortalizing in some way.
- Peeping Tom (1960). The sixties opened with two films about murdering voyeurs who would make Freud have a field day—Hitchcock’s Psycho and Powell’s Peeping Tom. I’ve already discussed the former, but here we’ll talk about the British latter and its merits. Mark Lewis is obsessed with his camera—what and who he sees through it, and how he can capture them—but the extent to which this depravity descends devolves after Mark gets to know Dora, a tenant in his building. The key aspect of this film is obviously the cinematography. Not only does it often put the viewer in Mark’s perspective—making the audience a voyeur as well—but it does so in a way that goes beyond Psycho in that we are put behind Mark’s camera more than once. Not only that but the content and secret of Mark’s snuff films is withheld from audiences almost till the very end, which creates an almost fetishistic desire for us to know and want to see what he is showing the other characters. Instead we are treated to their reactions—horrified, repulsed—and have to imagine based off of what they are seeing. The film has one of the more creative murder weapons in horror, and it also deals with explicit material (both nudity and violence) in a rather refreshing way for its time. So, yeah, there’s a lot to be critically obsessed with, but, from a general audience’s standpoint, there’s plenty to entertain as well. Carl Boehm manages to balance Mark’s psyche on a knifepoint, making us almost hope that he’ll overcome these tendencies for the possibility of a romance; he’s charming in his awkwardness. If you’ve dotted your Is and crossed your Ts with Hitchcock then it’s time to cross the pond and take a peep at this titillating flick.
- Eyes Without a Face (1960). What horrified people then and still obviously horrifies us now are masks, deformed faces, people without faces. This French film takes that premise and runs with it, adding just enough of an emotional heart to make us care about whose face should be behind the mask. Dr. Génessier is determined to perform a successful face transplant on his daughter, Christiane, following a disfiguring car accident—and he doesn’t care how many ‘faceless’ girls he has to go through until the technique is perfected and his daughter is whole again. First, Édith Scob delivers a quiet, yet impactful performance as Christiane; even while wearing a mask for the bulk of the film, her eyes, physicality, and vocals express great nuance. The mask itself is great—perfectly blank, doll-like, and creepy in its own way. The heterografting scene, even sixty years later, is still vivid and set my teeth on edge in all the right ways—despite the minimal gore to pass the censors at the time. And unlike some other films this one doesn’t shy away from making Christiane actually ugly enough to deserve to wear a mask. There’s enough potent symbolism within the film to give something new to every watch through; the weight and value put on faces and beauty and the particular freedom of the ending feels like an interesting kind of earned which would later come about in films like The Witch. Overall, this is a film which sets its own standards in its tales of mad surgeries, obsessions, and anguish, but it is one of influence to be sure.
- Carnival of Souls (1962). Remember when joyriding was a major part of cinema? And not just the Fast and Furious franchise, but horror movies? This film remembers. After a car accident (caused by a drag race), Mary moves to Utah for a job as a church organist; the issue is there’s a strange, gaunt man following her everywhere she goes and she feels drawn to an abandoned carnival nearby as her life devolves. There are a few things that make this film effectively creepy for me. One is the ongoing disassociation Mary feels from her life, possibly caused by trauma, and acted so well by Candace Hilligoss. Second is that gaunt man who randomly pops up to scare Mary (and me). Third is Mary’s neighbor, John, who is every ‘nice guy’ a woman has every had to interact with wrapped in one cringe-inducing package. The movie aesthetically feels like static or white noise, aided by the Utah setting, which only adds to the uneasiness and off kilter feeling throughout. The sound design is really great as we go from Mary’s own organ music to eerie organ music in the desert to a complete lack of sound and a disconnection from the film itself almost. There is quite a bit that can be ‘interpreted’ as to the meaning or ultimate plot and I have my own theories, but it’s the overall atmosphere and tense dread of the film that gives it its lasting effect. While some aspects could perhaps be further developed, for its budget and short film schedule, this artsy horror film manages to create something that feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone and something unholy best left untouched. And yet, it still follow you.
While it’s okay to enjoy contemporary horror, it’s important to remember 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 knows 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 beginnings of what would become the slasher genre. They’re important because they scared generations ago and continue to do so today.