Classic Horror Films: the Best of the Rest
October 16, 2012
In our survey of classic scary movies, we’ve covered the Universal monster movies, Hammer Horror, and the films of Vincent Price. But we’d be remiss to neglect classic films that fall outside these easily defined categories. Let’s take a look at some of these films.
The German Expressionist Films. Most of the films I’ve talked about have been suitable for family viewing with older children, with the exception of some of the more over the top late period Hammer Films. You would think, therefore, that these early horror films would be among the tamest. You would be wrong. These films are flat-out creepy and disturbing, and I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone but adults. Cinephiles should definitely give them a look, as they laid the foundation of horror films, especially the B&W cinematography of the Universal films.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - This silent film, the prototype for all other German Expressionist films, is the first and arguably most influential horror film. Everything is stylized and strange, from the sets to the actors' movements. Despite it being a nearly a century old, it is still a disorienting descent into madness.
- Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) - Director F.W. Murnau was denied the rights to Dracula by the Stoker family, so he changed the names of the characters and produced this, the first vampire film. This silent film uses chiaroscuro and Max Schreck’s Method acting to great effect. Never have shadows been so menacing.
- M (1931) - Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of psychological terror. You will never be able to hear Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King again without thinking of Peter Lorre’s predatory psychopath.
- Vampyr (1932) - While not technically an expressionist film, this Danish film takes the visual style of the expressionists and then passes it through a surrealist filter. Plot takes a back seat to dream logic in this nightmare on film.
Uncommon Monsters. We want our monsters to look monstrous, but appearances can be deceiving.
- Freaks (1932) - One of us...one of us...This film by Tod Browning (of Universal Dracula fame) subverts the "strange-looking person = monster" stereotype. Featuring real sideshow performers as actors, this film shows that it's what's on the inside that makes one a monster.
- Cat People (1942) - Simone Simon plays a beautiful woman who fears that she may be a shapeshifter who turns into a lethal panther when "romantically aroused." Paging Dr. Freud...
- The Bad Seed - (1956) What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice? Not necessarily.
- Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960) - Before there was the Billy Idol song, there was this plastic surgery disaster. The "monster" is actually the victim, and love is the reason for her torment. Isn't that just "oh so very French?"
Not officially horror films, but...Some movies aren't technically horror movies, but end up scaring the pants off of you anyways.
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) - This classic stars the iconic pairing of Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, as they investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. The foggy moors of Devon would be creepy enough, but add in a legendary hellhound and an escaped murderer, and things get downright scary. Hammer Films upped the horror elements in their 1959 version starring Peter Cushing, but the Rathbone/Bruce version remains my favorite. The new BBC series Sherlock offers an updated and very scary take on the story as well.
- The Thing from Another World (1951) - In this sci-fi classic, a group of Arctic scientists discover a mysterious crashed vehicle that bears a remarkable resemblance to a flying saucer. Being scientists, they take the body found in the wreckage back to their base for investigation. This turns out to be one of those classic BAD IDEAS. (John Carpenter revisited this scenario in 1982 with his The Thing. This film is truer to the source material, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, and features some truly great pre-CGI creature effects. The 1982 version is one of the scariest and most disturbing films I've ever seen and a modern classic, albeit one that is definitely NOT for children or the weak of heart/stomach.)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Robert Mitchum is electrifying as a murderer posing as an itinerant preacher who preys on rural families. He’s slick, charming, menacing, and evil. I'd say this was his finest performance, and that's saying a lot. This film is also the reason for all those LOVE/ HATE knuckle tattoos.
The Master: Alfred Hitchcock. When the master of suspense decided to go for flat-out horror, the results were indeed terrifying.
- Psycho (1960) - Overly polite but anxious motel clerk. The shower scene. The screeching violins. Mother. All these are reasons why you might find it hard to sleep in a little motel in the middle of nowhere, especially if there's a ramshackle mansion next door.
- The Birds (1963) - Terrible things happen, often from unexpected quarters and for no apparent reason. No explanation is given as to why the birds want to kill us. They just do, and they’re everywhere.
"But wait!" you say, "what about that one movie, you know, the one with the zombies?" Yes, I do know that one movie, and a whole lot of other zombie movies and books and TV shows and graphic novels. Remember Patton Oswalt’s zombies, spaceships, and wastelands? We’ll address the brain-hungry undead in our next blog post.