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.
Friday Fright Fest 2022 presents…
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). This is actually the eighth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic novella about the duality of man made literal. In order to experience the more transgressive parts of life without tainting his soul, Dr. Jekyll (John Barrymore) develops a mixture that allows him to separate his ‘good’ and ‘evil’ natures. It isn’t until Mr. Hyde, his darker persona, begins to take over and threaten all that is dear in his life, that Jekyll must face the error of his ways. First, Barrymore is brilliant in both roles; he’s an attractive gentleman as Jekyll and a monstrous brute as Hyde. Most of the change is through his physicality and some prosthetic fingers, but his facial expressions really sell this. He creates a character that you could fall in love with, and then destroys him from the inside out. In particular, a scene where Barrymore beats a man with a walking stick is captured in such a way that Barrymore’s gleeful expression and the vigor of his movements are haunting. Although Clara Beranger’s screenplay adapts the novella pretty liberally, the spirit of the story is still present and many of the changes emphasize Gothic elements. If you’re looking for a place to start with silent horror films, this movie brings out the best.
Freaks (1932). Tod Browning’s picture about a traveling circus and freak show and the drama that unfolds within has one of those infamous reputations. Most of my prior knowledge came from its depiction in the Treehouse of Horror episodes or general homage in other media. Ninety years after its release, I can safely say that this film holds up well and is, truly, a classic. Cleopatra, the trapeze artist, seduces Hans, a little person, for his vast fortune. Against that plot, several performers fall in and out of love, gossip and share happy moments between the shows, and a fair share of drama too. Much writing has been done on whether this film exploits or humanizes its disabled performers. One of the reasons I feel it still resonates today is that much of the writing could still be applied to the disabled and neurodivergent communities today: When one of us is attacked, we all take it personally. The film’s commentary on gender and sexuality also lends itself to analysis, and it’s interesting to compare how some able-bodied characters, like Hercules and Cleopatra, treat the “freaks” versus others who don’t look down on them. Many of the performances capture the natural friendships, fall-outs, and romances between characters without dehumanizing their portrayals. For its time, then, this film gives a certain voice to those who were often typecast and silenced. The climax is probably one of the better known in history and certainly amps up in intensity. (Why we don’t have more moments of horror in wagons I’ll never know). By the end reveal—teased at the beginning of the film—audiences may be terrified or feel justified in the actions taken against the antagonist. If you’re looking for an entertaining show with twists and heart, then join us today and watch Freaks.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Sometimes during the course of OcTerror, I encounter films that make me ask, “Why didn’t I see this sooner?” Directed by Lambert Hillyer, this sequel to the iconic Universal picture continues the story in another direction. Psychiatrist Dr. Garth is asked to defend Von Helsing on murder charges following his successful staking of Count Dracula. At the same time, Garth is pursued by Countess Marya Zaleska, who hopes he’ll be able to offer her release. Gloria Holden as Marya is entrancing, and you can’t help but pay her attention any time she’s onscreen. The romantic subplot between Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger) and his assistant, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), has good patter to it and adds a touch of comedy to the Gothic. However, it’s the queer undertones of the picture—slanted as vampirism, the perfect metaphor—which take this to the next level for me. Marya’s self-loathing, fear, and desperation are captured perfectly by Holden, even as her natural desires make themselves continually known. A sequence between the Countess and a girl she paints has such sexual tension to it that, even in the 30s, production tried to quell the queer and couldn’t fully. Additionally, one of my gripes with Bride of Frankenstein was the lack of screen time for the titular character, but here Dracula’s daughter gets the time she deserves. This is a noteworthy sequel, and one I’ll return to night after night.
The Ape (1940). While Boris Karloff was one of the kings of terror in the early days of horror, not all of his pictures have held up—despite the quality of his acting. The Ape, at its very heart, has an intriguing concept while using the ‘mad scientist’ trope, but loses a lot of that quality in some convolution. Dr. Adrien (Karloff), a doctor trying to cure polio, makes progress in his experiments when he begins using spinal fluid. At the same time, an ape has escaped from the circus and seems to go on an attack spree. Can the two plots somehow be related? The titular plotline is what’s attempting to intrigue audiences, but I was more interested in Dr. Adrien’s quest for a cure. In modern hands, perhaps, we could see a darker, less primate-focused remake with one of our contemporary diseases. From a historical standpoint, then, The Ape is noteworthy for how polio—a condition we have all but eradicated today—is the driving point for the horror. Other than that, a few sequences are interesting and Maris Wrixon and Karloff redeem what is otherwise an unremarkable cast. Many elements of the plot aren’t properly connected to offer full understanding or satisfaction. If you’re looking for B-movie thrills they may not all be here, but it’s not a terrible way to pass the time.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Among the slew of Universal Monsters pictures, we start to veer into the ‘meets’ category in the latter sequels. Although this film is billed as a follow-up in the Frankenstein franchise, most of the runtime is spent with Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man. After being resurrected, Larry Talbot (Chaney) seeks help in ending his immortal life by way of Frankenstein (Bela Lugosi). My review of The Wolf Man didn’t give enough credit to Chaney’s portrayal of lycanthropy-infected Talbot, but this film definitely dives into the cursed existence of the werewolf. Compared to most of the plot and characters around him, Talbot is one of the few redeeming things about this lukewarm sequel. Frankenstein, resurrected yet again, doesn’t have much to do beyond terrify townsfolk and provoke scientific curiosity. Lugosi doesn’t quite have the same oomph Karloff does in the role, even with the limited screen time. Many of the themes are repeated: man’s primal nature versus the polite façade and the inevitable doom of science when taken too far. The climax is fun to watch and a thing of monster daydreams but ends too soon with a bittersweet finale. Many other critics have responded well to this film, so I may in the minority who found it entertaining but not what the mad doctor ordered.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Based on the murder spree of Billy Cook and notable for being the first American noir directed by a woman, this taut thriller takes a limited cast and terrifying scenario and doesn’t pump the brakes for its entire runtime. Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) are on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico when they pick up Emmett Myers (William Talman) and are quickly held at gunpoint and Myers’ whims. Most of the tension comes from the possible threat of Myers and his gun, and every opportunity to escape or ask for help ratchets up the paranoia. With Ida Lupino’s direction and Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography, the harsh landscape of the desert and the claustrophobia of the car contrast. The beginning newsreel is notable for the quick violence which establishes Myers’ killer history, but the ending does feel like it wraps up too quickly. O’Brien and Lovejoy play well against each other, and each man portrays a different kind of masculinity in the face of this danger. In addition to the main hold-up plot, we also see the hunt for Myers by law enforcement. Supernatural or violent plots involving hitchhiking may be more popular nowadays, but we can’t underestimate the power of two friends trapped in a car with a dangerous man.
Godzilla (1954). The first of a franchise that would span continents and 36 films, it may be surprising—as it was to me—to realize that yes, this movie has a giant monster, but most of the plot doesn’t directly deal with it. After smaller incidents near Odo Island, scientists, politicians, and the general populace of Japan must contend with a prehistoric beast set on destruction. It’s amazing to watch this film and realize its impact in how other creature features were made. Like Jaws, we don’t see much of the kaiju initially—bits and pieces are enough to terrify—until it’s revealed in all its glory and hell-bent on chaos. Most of the plot follows Dr. Yamane, Dr. Serizawa, Ogata, and Emiko. We also have a romantic subplot as love attempts to triumph even during times of disaster. Others have said you can feel the national catharsis in this film, as if Japan is exorcising the demons of WWII and further atomic testing in its waters through Godzilla. American warfare and atomic testing (like Bikini Atoll) had various effects on Japan, and much of it was covered up by politics and diplomacy. Godzilla, then, is an effect that cannot be hidden or explained away, even though the consequences of its violence are similar to nuclear attack. The film lingers in the deaths and injuries, including radiation sickness, caused by this monster, and they horrify in multiple ways. Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) portrays the moral scientist well; he’s a man who has immense power but knows the consequences of using it might be just as extreme. The ending feels appropriate in many ways, and obviously leaves room for those sequels. If this is a classic you haven’t seen yet, watch in awe and terror at Godzilla as soon as possible.
The Bad Seed (1956). While films such as Village of the Damned or Orphan have their own takes on dangerous children, this earlier movie sets a high standard. Practically perfect in every way, little Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is doted on by her parents and neighbors. After one of her classmates drowns, however, her mother (Nancy Kelly) begins to suspect something dark may be hiding behind Rhoda’s smile. What I found most notable about this film is how it seems to take the adaptation of the stage play seriously. Most of the action is set inside the family home and the acting falls somewhere in between stage and screen in how dramatic everything is played. Most of the plot is carried by women, with men supporting, and all of the actresses deliver in their roles; three of them (McCormack, Kelly, and Eileen Heckart) were nominated for Academy Awards. Like other films in this subgenre, The Bad Seed does depend on a few twists and turns to give motivation for the dangerous deeds, but McCormack’s performance hits a great balance between aggravating and convincingly sweet. Unfortunately, due to the Hays Code, the ending was adapted to fit standards of the time. This leads to a clunky and almost humorous finale that feels tacked on rather than natural. A product of its time, too, the film ends with a curtain call and a tongue-in-cheek joke about spanking. Overall, though, most of the film is carried by engaging performances, a fun plot, and the beginnings of an always horrific trope.
The Last Man on Earth (1964). Due to the different title and adaptation, the unfamiliar may not know that this Vincent Price feature, like the later 1971 and 2007 films, is based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Here, Dr. Morgan (Price) survives through each monotonous day after an apocalyptic plague has turned almost the entire population into vampiric creatures. In the years since the plague began, Morgan has become lonely and depressed, but remains steadfast in his quest to destroy the undead no matter what. What I love most about this film, especially the beginning, is how it captures the loneliness and boredom in which Morgan lives his days. He has had the same routine for years now and his only company is the creatures which try to kill him at night. The audience then empathizes when he tries to befriend a dog or encounters another sane person. We’re hoping that all will go well in this hell of a world. This feature, however, is bleak, and Price performs the role with a requite heaviness. While not all of the elements come together perfectly due to production limitations, the ultimate horror weighs out and certain images will stick with audiences long past the last moment.
I Saw What You Did (1965). Do not be tricked by the top billing for Joan Crawford; although she is magnetic as always, she’s also only in about ten minutes of the movie. Instead, most of the runtime is focused on Libby (Andi Garrett), Kit (Sara Lane), and Tess as they make the mistake of prank-calling the home of Steve Marak (John Ireland) who has just murdered his wife. When both parties miscommunicate based on the titular line, can it lead to anything good? The film flips tonally between a more serious murder thriller and a teen romp about getting up to trouble while the parents are out. The basic idea, especially in a time before *69, Caller ID, or cell phones, is fun, and it didn’t always go where expected. Director William Castle elevates certain moments of tension, especially in moments of danger or the climax, but releases it with other prolonged sequences and the film loses some of its momentum. The film, although not overly violent, does contain a notable shower scene which has its own shocks, and Ireland’s performance as Steve leaves audiences never quite knowing whether to feel pity or fear for his circumstances. For its time, there seems to be a cavalier attitude about the antics of these teen girls (with a vulnerable kid sidekick), and you have to hope people didn’t actually prank call in the hopes of securing dates with married men. Maybe not all there and maybe not as good as it could be, but I saw what he did and know his name.
We can appreciate that, through technology, we still have access to over 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 horrifying as they perhaps used to. 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 end of the Hays Code. They’re important because they scared generations ago and continue to do so today.
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