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 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.
Nosferatu (1922). An unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula, F. W. Murnau’s expressionist film is one of those rediscovered masterpieces that would later go on to influence many other areas of cinema, spawn a remake, and model much of Nicolas Cage’s performances. It picks and chooses which original plot elements to keep or change, which sets an early precedent for almost all Dracula adaptations. Here, Thomas sets out to work for the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in the Carpathian Mountains, only to find that the man and many of the events match that of a handy guide to vampires. Unfortunately, when he escapes and returns to his beloved wife Ellen, the fiend follows and so does death. Schreck is wonderfully frightening as the Count, not only in character design but also in the physicality of the role. While most later vampires would be attractive and charming, the inhuman aspects of the monster are clear throughout. The lighting and atmosphere of the production help amplify the moods throughout, from bright hope in the beginning to darkest nights and fear. Additionally, the use of journals, books, and other written material to provide exposition felt in-line with the novel so I liked that. It’s a bit of a pity that, with age and attempted destruction, the editing and score are probably not what they originally were. This is one film we shouldn’t let die.
White Zombie (1932). Contrary to what many believe, but initial Hollywood depictions of “zombies” weren’t the undead, ravenous flesh-eaters we know today. Instead, they were often the bodies of the dead controlled by a warlock through a voodoo ritual. A lot of them leaned into the mysticism of the Caribbean and cultural rituals without really touching on the colonization (or racism) that was inherit in these depictions (and still can be today). In White Zombie, a couple is pulled apart by jealousy and the evil rituals of a voodoo master (Bela Lugosi) while visiting a plantation in Haiti. Lugosi was coming off of Dracula here and a lot of what made his performance so arresting there is attempted as a repeat here (lots of staring) but doesn’t work in the same way. Madge Bellamy is an arresting presence, particularly in the latter half of the film. Despite some of its outdated methods, there were a few genuinely shocking scenes. One, in particular, made me interested in what a modern, updated remake of this could look like as it very much felt like the Amazon warehouse horror stories we hear today. Additionally, the loss of bodily autonomy is always scary. If you’re interested in what made zombies come to life before Venus or a virus, then travel to this depiction of yesteryear.
A Shriek in the Night (1933). This murder mystery was included with a set of public domain horror films I bought so I was curious how it counted. If we expand our definition of horror or terror to “anything including murder” then most of the film is certainly covered, but it only really feels like something closer to the genre in the climax of the film. Two rival reporters work together to solve the death of millionaire when he falls from his penthouse. As the residents of the building come under suspicion, we come to learn more about the millionaire and our suspects as the body count rises. Ginger Rogers is the highlight here, playing the female reporter with all the rapport that feels like the back-and-forth of later films in the 40s. While she’s very can-do for most of the film, the climax reduces her to a bit of a damsel for the sake of heroism but it’s also when it’s at its most scary. The film, as a whole, is darkly filmed and sometimes hard to make out in terms of details. Louise Beavers steals the scenes she appears in, though typecast, and I loved her short monologue. Despite the potential for a good plot, so much doesn’t quite add up here. Perhaps this one ends with more of a yawn than a shriek.
The Invisible Man (1933). The Gothic, in addition to supernatural monsters, loved mad scientists and their experiments gone wrong. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, directed by James Whale, is a fun little blend of terror, madness, and paranoia. Dr. Griffin (Claude Rains), while experimenting with a little known drug, becomes entirely invisible and the power of not being perceived goes to his head. He terrorizes a village, plans for world domination, and flees from the police. Griffin, played sympathetically at first by Rains, transforms into a power-mad narcissist before our eyes—someone beyond saving. The special effects still feel astounding and magical, from the first time Griffin unwraps his head to a pair of pants dancing down the road. He is, in some ways, a very visible Invisible Man since his madness is more of an act out type of behavior than a patient wait-and-see tension. While it is perhaps more comedic than the first run of other Universal monsters, the idea that you could be murdered by an invisible fiend in his quest for world domination—while a bit outlandish—is still terrifying. And, as we’ve seen with the Final Destination franchise and 2020’s The Invisible Man, we don’t need to see death coming to still be afraid of the possibility.
Bluebeard (1944). Look, anytime one of the characters is a puppeteer or ventriloquist, they’re automatically suspect. Gaston, a popular puppeteer who performs in the park and secret painter, becomes enamored with designer Lucille. Unfortunately for her, he has a habit of killing the women he paints and the investigation into Paris’ “Bluebeard” is circling closer every day. John Carradine and Jean Parker are electric together, and there’s such a lovely give-and-take in this friendship/relationship, even as we know Gaston is fighting his murderous tendencies. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how great Carradine was as a leading man. As a noir and early film about a killer, the movie builds tension and sympathy in surprisingly effective ways. And, in terms of reasoning, we could analyze this for days because it still feels relevant in its treatment of women. The soundtrack doesn’t blend well with scenes and can sometimes make it hard to hear dialogue, but there is a musical number. The repeated zoom in on Carradine’s eyes—very much a horror move of the era—is effective enough, but lacks teeth in today’s horror. If we’ve learned anything from podcasts, it’s that people have and will always be interested in crime, true or otherwise.
The Body Snatcher (1945). Nowadays, the idea of ‘body snatching’ seems like a thing of complete fiction. However, digging up bodies and selling them for science was definitely A Thing and we can only be grateful that, perhaps, we’ve moved past that. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, this movie follows a doctor who demonstrates dissection, his lab assistant, and a cab driver as they work for and against each other in the pursuit of finding donor bodies. Boris Karloff steals every scene he’s in as John Gray, carrying the role with the right amount of sleaze, greed, and street smarts. The contrast between Dr. MacFarlane and Fettes, his assistant, in terms of their bedside manner is great and the idea of ‘those that can’t do teach’ feels like a real threat here. The screenplay, touched by Val Lewton, feels smooth in how it handles the pace and characters. That said, the subplot about a little girl who is unable to walk feels lackluster compared to the main plot and all the blackmail. This is balanced against a blind street girl (Donna Lee) and one of the better moments of horror revolves around her character. The climax feels like a brilliant fever dream as the psychological weight of the need for this crime versus the cost on the soul comes to a real head. Fans of Boris Karloff, the dark progress of humanity, and the later work of Lewton and Robert Wise should dig up this classic.
Horror of Dracula (1958). This is another adaptation of Stoker’s work, from Hammer Horror in the United Kingdom this time. Here, Jonathan Harker goes to work for Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) in order to help Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) slay the monster. However, his arrival sparks an ongoing battle between the Count and the vampire hunter that will later terrify those closest to them. If we’re looking for early examples of where vampires became sexualized this is a good one; not only is Christopher Lee conventionally attractive, but his victims—while seeming to hate him—also look like they enjoy being bitten. Lee and Cushing play off of each other so well; Dracula and Van Helsing as bitter adversaries always works. The Technicolor is vivid, lush, and timeless in equal turns. While it does take liberties with the adaptation and vampire mythology, they all mostly work for the sake of a quick pace and an updated, fresh film. That said, Mina and Lucy’s roles feel greatly diminished and their agency (what little they had) is less than before. Vampires have always captivated audiences, on screen or on the page, so let 1958’s Dracula seduce you.
The Bat (1959). It’s not Halloween if you don’t enjoy at least one Vincent Price film. While this is perhaps more in line with the mystery genre, we can still appreciate what suspense and horror it has to offer. Cornelia Van Gorder, a writer, is terrorized in her rental property by “The Bat”, a mysterious prowler and murderer who wears all black, has gloves with sharpened claws, and lets loose rabid bats to bite people. It appears he’s searching for money hidden by the previous owner, a recently killed banker, and we have quite a few suspects but time is running short as bodies add up. If the horror was heightened and we threw in a few different sequences, this could easily fit into the home invasion subgenre. Like, I do not want to have my throat clawed out. Vincent Price relishes every scene, purposeful in his line delivery to a point, and his scenes with Agnes Moorehead feel like they could be enemies or lovers at any moment. The maid, played by Lenita Lane, is a bit annoying throughout but she’s meant to be a foil against the rational Van Gorder. Eventually, though, once the body count has gone up, the list of possible suspects is a bit too short and there isn’t too much of a surprise in the climax of the film once they’ve removed the biggest red herring. Still, the concept and execution are fun and a whodunnit usually has at least a good touch of suspense to carry us through.
Village of the Damned (1960). Creepy kids are a staple of the horror genre. They’re the perfect transgression since they’re supposed to be innocent and, when they’re not, it’s usually scary. While it takes a little while to get to the actual children, Village of the Damned details the mysterious and horrific circumstances where the village of Midwich disconnects from the world for a few hours, only to find that the women are now carrying precious, powerful cargo. Our protagonist here is Gordon Zellaby, a professor, who is determined to study these children before it’s too late—for them or for us. The initial unspooling of the plot feels like it’s been forgotten compared to the second half, but those first few minutes before the title were harrowing. Then, for women to become pregnant without consent, feels like the first of many ways this film deftly crosses the lines of morality. But that’s probably the point. George Sanders and Barbara Shelley’s performances as the Zellabys feel well-grounded against the so surreal children. While some of the effects are a bit dated, they’re still incredibly effective and the design of the children has become a part of our zeitgeist in many ways. I would be interested in a midquel or prequel, similar to 2011’s The Thing, where it picks up with one of the other phenomena. Until then, I’m happy to be a part of the original Village of the Damned.
Onibaba (1964). English-speaking countries weren’t the only ones creating horror films in the Classics era. Directed by Kaneto Shindo, this film perfectly balances real world horrors with the symbolism of folklore. It feels timeless and as if it could come out today and still convey the same haunting story. An older woman (Nobuto Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) regularly kill soldiers who pass through the reeds near their home and sell their possessions for food. When a neighbor comes back from the war, the women are drawn apart by their changing priorities and haunted by the choices they make to survive. From the opening scene of this film, you know you’re in for a hell of a ride as the women kill a soldier, strip bodies, dump them in a hole, and then gorge on water and rice before falling asleep while the score beats. It is at once immensely unsettling and powerful. Although the pace begins to flag about halfway through, it picks up again once the haunting hannya mask makes an appearance. In addition to the women, somehow the grass itself is basically a character as everything about it is captured in order to heighten the women’s isolation, the ability to lose yourself within it, the wind whipping or blowing ceaselessly…At its core, this film captures two of the most human horrors of all: what we do to survive and what we do to keep people close. If you think Asian horror is only for the 90s and newer, then you’re missing out on the older demons.
We can appreciate that, through technology, we still have access to 100 years of horror cinema. However, what often happens is that—over time, through cultural changes, thanks to so many other films—the “horrors” of these films don’t feel quite as terrifying as they perhaps used to when they first arrived on the silver screen. Some audiences may completely avoid films pre-1970 because of how they’ve aged (in various ways), but there is usually something of merit to find in these golden oldies. After all, many of our current favorites are based on, remade, or pay homage to these classics.
While it’s fine to mostly enjoy contemporary horror, it’s important to remember they’re inspired by the classics. 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.