The Top 25 Classic Horror Movies

The following is a list of the top 25 classic horror movies through 1968. 

Why 1968?  This is the year everything changed, not so much because the penultimate horror movie that broke all the rules was released (reference Part 2), but because that’s when the Motion Picture Production Code* was scraped and replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system. The code ensured that movies were censored prior to sending them to theaters in order to uphold a common standard of morality.  Without the gradual erosion of the code over the course of the 1960s, much of the horror genre’s evolution would not have been possible.  The gap between the advent of the ratings system and the strict enforcement of the code ultimately allowed several movies into our collective consciousness that didn’t comply with either and – in the process – laid the basis for modern horror (maybe a future article). 

No list is perfect. It’s a difficult task to whittle down influential classic horror films to only 25.  Many very good movies have been omitted – some that are personal favorites.  Even so, no top ‘whatever’ list is without its biases. As for mine, I have erred on the side of genre influence towards the development of modern horror.  But this is not just a list of ‘firsts’.  Indeed, many aren’t ‘firsts’, but they are the ones that were executed with enough thought and attention to detail to expose audiences to fresh concepts in a way that entertained, influenced future filmmakers and furthered our cultural exploration into fear.  You will recognize notable precursors to your favorite movies that have a quality which disturbs and opens the mind to older ways of thinking.  Ultimately, this collection of movies created the threads for what we recognize as modern horror.  In some cases, they come closer to tapping our innate fear towards death, or primal bloodlust.  In other cases, they just begin to and leave it for other filmmakers to penetrate more deeply.

Organization: The films are listed chronologically.  I have kept the plot description brief – instead focusing on commentary and how the movie embodies fear.  But every film is different.  Categories are sometimes combined or left out, depending on the most important takeaways.

Rankings: I find ranking classics a silly exercise as they all have unique qualities and hopefully can be appreciated without a number (other than a date) next to them.  Nonetheless at the end of Part 2, I rank them by influence, quality, originality and how close they come to embodying and imbuing fear towards death in viewers.  The ordering is of no greater value than any other you have seen elsewhere except that it is mine and I have not only watched, but also reviewed many classic horror films.

* – Although the code was not enforced until 1934, several pre-code influences are included because they are that important. 

BEGINNINGS

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Poster

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920 – silent):  Plot: A notable professor discovers a way to control the minds of those inclined to sleepwalk.  Commentary: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari debuted the same year as Der Golem and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The trio constitute the first feature-length horror movies, but Cabinet – described by many as the masterpiece of German expressionism – laid the critical seeds of the horror genre, including onscreen depictions of violence, dark and twisted plot lines, creepy themes and disturbing endings. But more than these elements, the film imbued fear into audiences through characters, story and atmosphere in ways that would help spawn the possibilities of not just cinematic horror, but cinema generally.  Although often called the first psychological horror movie because it broaches issues of madness and mind control, Cabinet also relies on physical violence and the threat of physical violence just as much – creating a more holistic beginning to the genre. The storyline remains compelling even today and the exaggerated sets will remind viewers of Tim Burton films, but unlike his movies, the atmosphere is more than just pointlessly gothic, but integral to the plot.  Viewing Note: The sound doesn’t add much and even detracts a little.  Watch it mute.

Nosferatu 1922 vampire

Nosferatu (1922 – silent): Plot: An ancient bloodsucker travels to Western Europe in search of fresh victims. Commentary: Nosferatu is another product of German expressionist cinema, but instead of relying on nuanced atmosphere and abstract sets, goes for the jugular with a visage grotesque enough to creep out even contemporary viewers.  In addition to being the first film adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is also the first feature film to depict vampires as scary – even if the film isn’t.  In many ways Nosferatu is a culmination of previous expressionist dabblings into abstract fear – combining the shadow work of Cabinet with a monster far scarier than the one depicted in Der Golem.  The visuals culminate in the first movie recognizable from our present-day perch, as a horror movie.

Commentary on other prominent silent films: Der Golem (1920) is the original monster movie and also a product of German expressionism.  When creating the horror masterpiece, Frankenstein (1931), James Whale based the monster and its actions less on Mary Shelley’s depiction and more on the creature conjured by the Jewish sorcerer (of sorts) in Der Golem.  The film is not scary and has only fallen into the horror category in recent years, because of its influence on Whale.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and Phantom of the Opera (1925) are early stabs by American cinema at establishing horror.  Both rely on makeup and facial contortions for scary visuals, but the latter combined them with terrible acts and spawned the first Universal monster.  The films are worth a watch for historical purposes and maintain fairly interesting storylines.  The Cat and the Canary (1927) is also worth viewing, but is not a horror film.  Its significance to the genre lies in fusing German expressionist film techniques with American big budget sets/effects.  It is the critical transitional film that completed the filmmaking foundation that would make Dracula (1931) – the first ‘talkie’ horror film – possible.

MONSTERS

Dracula 1931

Dracula (1931): Plot: The mysterious Count Dracula shows up in London just as many unexplained deaths and disappearances occur.  Commentary:  Dracula was the first complete horror movie. All the elements – length, story, multiple camera angles, judicious use of makeup, shadow and finally… sound – were present by 1930.  More significantly, it set the most important standard for horror movies: It scared audiences – so much so that in response to public outcries theater owners cut out many scenes of the film sent to them by Universal to the point that a ‘standard’ copy does not exist.    It’s almost a side note that Dracula was the first authorized adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. Of greater importance was Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula, which set the tone for vampire character and mannerisms for all horror to come and ultimately proved far more influential than the novel.  Fear: This is not a scary movie by contemporary standards, but Lugosi portrays a surprisingly complex figure.  He’s a tragic killer who is dead inside – the juxtaposition is strangely relatable and sets the course for the horror genre’s exploration into bloodlust and its connection to our innate fear towards death.

Frankenstein poster

Frankenstein (1931): Plot: Dr. Frankenstein is a driven scientist who constructs a human from dead parts, then brings him to life. Commentary: Universal’s second – and equally famous – monster of the talkie era introduced the world to the horror talent of James Whale.  As popular a draw as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein benefited from the former’s earlier success, despite introducing a very different monster to the public.  Although picked out of a Mary Shelley novel (by the same name) and mimicking the behavior of the golem in Der Golem, Whale’s monster overshadowed the others and became a cultural icon, even as the movie became the first horror masterpiece (very much recognizable as one, even from our contemporary perch).  Fear: Although just as iconic as its vampire predecessor, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster plays on a deeper fear.  The former capitalizes on our innate fear of night and the unknown, but Frankenstein turns the fear inward towards human intent and the devastating consequences of misunderstanding. Revealed to audiences in the personage of a monster, Frankenstein is every bit a commentary of our hideously contorted collective nature, which we react to just as thoughtlessly as the nature itself.

Freaks poster 1932

Freaks (1932): Plot: One of the little people in a group of circus freaks as aspirations to marry a beautiful trapeze artist.  But the latter has plans of her own.  Fear:  Instead of the horror being in the appearance of the malformed performers, Freaks follows the tradition began by Frankenstein and looks inward.  The disturbing theme stems not from the monster – or in this case ‘monsters’, but our own viciousness.  But the commentary on humanity is more direct than in Whale’s masterpiece: The look of the ‘freaks’ and even the title of the movie invites participation from the audience on the vicious side in a way designed to make us uncomfortable and even ashamed of our fascination of the grotesque.  In this way, the lens is turned on the audience and begins the tradition of mocking our own voyeurism – pointing to the monster within.  But unfortunately at the end, Freaks shies away from the ultimate consequences and just renders the trapeze artist the visual culmination of her wickedness.

The Old Dark House 1932 Poster

The Old Dark House (1932): Plot: Several travelers seek shelter after a rainstorm causes a pair of landslides that leave them stranded.  The only house around has peculiar occupants. Commentary: The Old Dark House is not a scary movie, but it began the thread in horror of the strange family in the countryside that ‘normal’ urbanites happen to come upon.  Despite a lack of scares and even much of a disturbing theme, the movie has compelling and humorous characters whose antics border on horror comedy and are even recognizable as the prototypes to far more disturbing families, including the cannibals in Spider Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.  Fear: The irony of The Old Dark House reaching cinemas the same year as Freaks is rich indeed.  With the latter critiquing our sick fascination towards those who are different and the former inviting it.  But The Old Dark House has proven far more influential, simply because our society has become more urbanized.  With most people living in cities and suburbs, our fear towards death has become more and more associated with being outside these centers of civilization and encountering others who are not part of them and don’t care to be.  What’s to keep them from doing anything to us in an environment where we are more or less helpless?

King Kong 1933 poster

King Kong (1933): Plot: A film crew sets out for Skull Island in order to film some abnormally large animals.  When they attempt to capture a giant ape – Kong – tragedy follows.  Commentary:  Jaws (1975) is often given credit as the first blockbuster horror movie, but that honor more aptly belongs to King Kong.  With unprecedented violence and creature effects, it astounded audiences and packed theaters for years after its release.  Even though the film merely follows in the Frankensteinesque horror thread of the tragic consequences of misunderstanding, it does so on a scale thought undoable.  Yet of possibly greater significance, through stop motion animation and a dozen never-before used tricks, King Kong soundly demonstrated cinema’s triumph over the stage in its ability to transport viewers to another world and see acts that previously only the imagination could conjure.  Even if the effects are far from impressive by contemporary standards, the story remains compelling and lives up to expectations.  Fear: Whereas Frankenstein focused on the horror of man encountering his own progress, King Kong focuses on the horror of man encountering something alien.  In both cases, man – not the monster – is the ultimate creator of the horror – the real monster and the personification of his own fear.

Wolf Man 1941 poster

The Wolf Man (1941):  Plot: Shortly after returning to his father’s estate, Larry kills a vicious werewolf.  Afterwards, he can’t escape the feeling that he may be becoming one.  Commentary: Since its release, The Wolf Man has become the iconic werewolf movie, but is actually an enhanced version of Universal’s first attempt – Werewolf of London (1935).  With a better story and more impressive creature effects (although subpar by today’s standards), the former set the tone and standard for werewolf behavior in cinema, as Dracula did for that of vampires.  Even though the film belongs with the second generation of Universal monster movies, the story is a stronger achievement than any of the earlier ones as Universal had to invent the werewolf mythology upon which The Wolf Man is based and which now forms the foundation for cinematic forays into werewolfism.   Fear:  Of all the Universal monsters, The Wolf Man comes closest to involving the viewer in the monster’s highly sympathetic predicament that ultimately proves insoluble. The psychological parallel of the ‘wolf in all of us’ is openly discussed in the film, but the inability of Larry to control his frequent transformations is more telling of the grim predicament each of us find ourselves in when confronted with more primal urges, to include bloodlust.  Ultimately, the civilized aspirations of Larry must be sacrificed to this compulsion – reminding us that the ‘civilized’ individual is a mere facade.

UNCOVERING THE HUMAN MONSTER

Picture of Dorian Gray 1945

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945):  Plot: A young man of means wishes that his body would never age or blemish – instead transferring such inevitabilities to an oil painting. He lives his life in careless disregard even as the painting itself contorts.   Commentary & Fear: Based on the Oscar Wilde book by the same name, The Picture of Dorian Gray not only features compelling characters and rich dialogue, but its theme and plot also come closer to tapping our primal fear towards death than any film before.  It is the first purely psychological horror movie, even if it isn’t very scary.  Although Hal Lewton pulled atmospheric elements from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and began developing psychological horror with Cat People in 1942, none of his films had very disturbing themes or well-constructed characters.  Nor did they appropriately express the essence of psychological horror – graphically displayed in The Wolf Man – that the fear must come from adequately imbuing audiences with a sense of the monster within. Albert Lewin grasped this concept and used it in The Picture of Dorian Gray to add depth and greater meaning to the vehicle for horror that Lewton sloppily began to exploit.

Body Snatcher 1945 poster

The Body Snatcher (1945):  Plot: A young medical student earns an apprenticeship with Dr. McFarlane – world-renowned physician – and is charged with dealing with the unsavory John Gray to procure dead bodies for experiment.  Commentary: Based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story by the same name, The Body Snatcher exploits the creepy nature of procuring dead bodies with deft shadow work and a judicious use of moments without theme music. But at the time, audiences and critics paid more attention to its sensationalism, as the film depicts the first on-screen killing of another person (horror fans will find an ironic delight in who kills who).  Although not a bloody scene, it is intense and the camera doesn’t shy away much.  Fear: The same year that Albert Lewin was suggesting that the monster in all of us could be far more disturbing than any physical manifestation, Boris Karloff demonstrated that he didn’t need makeup to play one.  The Body Snatcher exploits our fear of progress by showing us the horrible price for obtaining scientific knowledge. But more significantly, this is the first film to not just hint at, but bluntly show us that true horror comes from the human monster – not just in John Gray, who savagely kills anyone so he can sell the body, but also in Dr. McFarlane – who accepts such measures as necessary.  Combined with The Picture of Dorian Gray (on the psychological end), The Body Snatcher is a fundamental precursor to the human monster par excellence depicted in Psycho (1960).

THE MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE

Thing From Another World 1951 poster

The Thing From Another World (1951):  Plot:  An alien is uncovered in the arctic ice that scientists on a military outpost in Alaska discover to be unlike anything they have ever seen. Commentary: The Thing From Another World was the first Sci-Fi Horror feature film.  The alien is not very scary by today’s standards, but discovering its nature and how it maliciously differs from our own, set the fundamental principle of Sci-Fi horror.  The polar nature of the setting is even somewhat otherworldly.  Fear: The Thing From Another World made clear that our fear towards death is also expressed as a fear of the unknown. And this is what Sci-Fi Horror became, with the very word ‘alien’ meaning ‘a being not known’. 

TOWARDS THE CRITICAL TRANSFORMATION

Diabolique 1955 poster

Les Diabolique (1955 – French – subtitled):  Plot: Christina is the unhappy wife of a school master. Together with his mistress, she plots the man’s death, but after the act, disturbing incidents occur which lead her to question her sanity.  Commentary: Director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s murder mystery sensation led many in the late 1950s to hail him as the new master of suspense – particularly irking Alfred Hitchcock.  And maybe Clouzot deserved the title, but nothing more.  Although there is an onscreen killing and an impressively executed climax (in terms of acting, filming and atmospheric effects), Les Diabolique doesn’t break much new ground.  It is a great movie (somewhat spoiled by a crime-doesn’t-pay ending), but is not the highly influential masterpiece critics have come to think of it as.  The film’s chief value was that it inspired Hitchcock to one up it with a true masterpiece of horror and suspense – Psycho (1960).  But there was virtually nothing in the story or filming of Les Diabolique that Hitchcock himself did not already utilize with great effect.  If anything, Hitchcock’s influence on Clouzot’s execution is blatantly apparent, rather than the other way around…  That said, Clouzot does have claim to one piece of thematic low-hanging fruit: Les Diabolique was the first suspense movie that included a stroke of horror timed perfectly to coincide with the height of the tension.  Marrying horror and suspense – even if it was inevitable – was a critical step for the genre. And using a well-executed vehicle for it like Les Diabolique made that piece of low-hanging fruit taste all the more sweet.

Bad Seed 1956

The Bad Seed (1956): Plot: Rhoda is a young girl who always gets what she wants.  And if someone else stands in her way, or simply commits the capital crime of making her jealous, they’ll get what’s coming… Commentary:  The Bad Seed was the first movie to expose audiences to the disturbing nature of psychopathy and – given the audience’s ignorance of the topic – openly discuss it in the context of nature vs. nurture.  The character of Rhoda is almost a textbook case of a child with a violent antisocial disorder.  She lies to suit her interest and thinks nothing about taking a life.  Unfortunately, because of the unseemly subject matter, the Motion Picture Production Code sensors forced an ending change to demonstrate that ‘crime doesn’t pay’.  Fear: It’s one thing to see the human monster in someone who is a low-life (as in The Body Snatcher) and played by someone known for his portrayal of monsters (such as Boris Karloff), but quite another to see a little girl in the same role.  Although this critic is typically not in agreement with the Academy, it’s worth noting that Patty McCormack was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Rhoda.  Her performance is convincing and the portrait of a psychopath – intimate.  If the human monster – the personification of our fear towards death – could be a little girl… It could be anyone.  The Bad Seed helped plant the seeds of possibility in our cultural consciousness from which a Norman Bates would spring four years later.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 poster

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Plot: Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his home town in rural California and notices some strange behavior amongst a few of the residents… Then many… Commentary: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the next leap forward for Sci-Fi horror after The Thing From Another World. The movie popularized the idea that everybody can look the same, even as they are secretly replaced by malevolent life forms bent on global domination.  Hence, the alien monster doesn’t have to appear grotesque to scare as long as we believe it to be behind an otherwise typical human face.  Fear: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was also the first serious attempt to imbue within audiences the horror associated with paranoia.  Even more disturbing than the pathology depicted in Psycho (1960) paranoia leads to a constant suspicion of those around you and even – more disturbingly – your own state of mind.  Are you the one going mad?  Does it seem like everyone else has been coopted because you are turning into a human monster?  This true to life foray into insanity – apparent in the character of Dr. Miles Bennell – transforms the movie into psychological horror just as much as Sci-Fi horror.  On the more macro level, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers serves as an allegory for invasive ideas – such as political correctness – that destroy the fabric of society even while leaving it physically intact.  The pod people are really just individuals – turned drone and subject to the same pernicious patterns of thought (or lack of it) – creating a monster that exists amongst the crowd – the masses – and because of its sheer numbers, becomes far more terrifying than a Norman Bates.

Top 25 Banner Bates

THE SCARE-GORE REVOLUTION

Curse of Frankenstein 1957 poster

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957):  Plot: Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant will stop at nothing to further scientific progress as they work tirelessly to reanimate the dead.  Commentary: Just when the old Universal monsters seemed tapped out – having appeared in multiple remakes (including many where they meet each other), Hammer studios decided to reintroduce them to audiences in full color.  Previously, the British movie company had met with modest success dabbling in cheap Sci-Fi films, but The Curse of Frankenstein announced their transition to horror with a thunder stroke.  Like its Universal predecessor, the movie was a box office sensation, not for its originality – although the story was altered in a compelling way – but because Hammer filmed the remake in color and capitalized on the new medium to showcase ‘shocking’ (by the time’s standard) gore-rich scenes.  Gore had been used sparingly in genre films to date, but Hammer saw what color could do for it when appropriately combined with scares.  The result horrified.

Curse of Frankenstein Face

Unlike Herschel Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963) that debuted seven years later, Director Terence Fisher didn’t just pour ketchup all over the place, but realistically – if artificially – planted blood mixed with contorted flesh to enhance already shocking moments and singlehandedly begin the Scare-Gore revolution.  Alfred Hitchcock would fine-tune the timing of the scares and accompanying gore for maximum effect, but Fisher debuted the combination with execution adequate enough to exhilarate audiences all over the Western world and renew interest in the Universal monsters. The remake was so successful that Hammer did it again for Dracula in The Horror of Dracula (1958)And again for The Wolf Man in The Curse of the Wolf Man (1961)Soon Hammer had turned the old monsters into a new industry (complete with sequel upon sequel) as successful as Universal’s. The success of the movies encouraged the still nascent television networks to broadcast the old Universal features on late night television.  Fear: Thus, it was Hammer – not Universal – who cemented the ‘Universal’ monsters into new generations and eventually the American cultural consciousness as the first titans of our innate bloodlust and fear towards death.

A NEW DIRECTION

Psycho 1960 poster

Psycho (1960):  Plot: Norman Bates is a normal guy who runs an old motel and lives with his mother on the outskirts of a small town. When an attractive woman requests a room for the night, she stirs emotions that make him uneasy.  Commentary:  Psycho was inspired by a novel by the same name written by Robert Bloch in 1959, which in turn was inspired by Ed Gein’s murders in rural Wisconsin.  Alfred Hitchcock had already been waiting for the opportunity to make a ‘better’ Les Diabolique and Bloch’s novel seemed like the ideal basis for one. Centering the storyline on the shower scene and changing Norman Bates into a ‘normal’ and otherwise affable guy were just a couple of the content adaptions Hitchcock made that overshadowed the success of the novel and helped turn the film into a masterpiece.  But it’s almost an afterthought that Psycho accurately portrays a violent psychotic with identity issues (no mean feat), as the film is justly given credit for thrusting the horror genre in a radically different direction – away from metaphorical monsters and into the realm of real ones. Yet such a shift would never have occurred had Hitchcock not made filming choices that combined to imbue fear in audiences in ways that horror had not previously come close to.  Casting Anthony Perkins as the lead was probably the most crucial. His superior performance as the average – even weak-minded – Norman Bates – to whom the drop of a pin (or more accurately, movement of a penis) triggers a personality shift – would type cast him forever.  But there was also the choice of strings for a soundtrack and the intimate camerawork.  Of probably greater genre importance was Hitchcock’s judicious use of scares and gore to highlight previously unthinkable scenes and demonstrate the potential of the Scare-Gore Revolution begun by The Curse of Frankenstein.  Fear: The monster was now in full view – stripped of makeup and metaphor – and the monster… was anyone.   Could be anyone.  After Psycho tapping that deep fear – the kind we keep hidden from everyone – became everything…  Fear of what the film would show…  Fear of how seeing it would change your outlook – impact your actions…  (After seeing Psycho, many people were even afraid to take showers.) Indeed, the film chilled the American public so thoroughly – that it horror directors couldn’t help but pay attention.  As John Carpenter said, “Psycho was the signpost everybody followed.”

Eyes Without a Face 1960 poster

Eyes Without a Face (1960 – French – subtitled): Plot: After a car accident, Christiane – the daughter of a brilliant scientist – is horribly disfigured.  Her father and mother will stop at nothing to ‘fix’ their daughter’s face. Commentary and Fear: At the same time Hitchcock was making use of strings in kill sequences, Georges Franju demonstrated the chilling effect of silence. Although the camera shies away from the full effect of Christiane’s face accept in the blurriest of scenes, the film’s disturbing theme is more than enough to make up for any visual shyness: In the tradition of Dr. Frankenstein, Christiane’s father is ruthless in his goal of replacing Christiane’s face, regardless of the consequences.  Together he and his wife demonstrate that they are the truly disfigured – a la Freaks – as they bate others to their estate only to carve them up for their daughter’s sake.  But unlike in Freaks, they commit horrible acts out of love.  The juxtaposition of the human monster rising from love – parents’ love for their children – begins a new and much more unsettling tradition in horror – contorting that which is sacred and thought good (culminating in The Exorcist (1973)). In the end, Christiane is the most sympathetic and her actions at the climax foreshadow those of other tragic heroines, such as Carrie.

The Innocents 1961 poster

The Innocents (1961):  Plot: A young woman takes on the job of head mistress for a well-to-do Londoner.  Her charge is his niece and nephew who live in a country manor on spacious grounds.  Commentary: The Innocents was not the first cinematic retelling of a ghost story (that honor belongs to The Uninvited (1944)), but Director Jack Clayton’s ingenuity established a genuinely creepy atmosphere that set the standard for supernatural hauntings and their scares. Clayton fuses candlelight – better shadow work probably does not exist – with a combination of cavernous echoes, solemn choir music and sparing use of instrument-driven sound to create a cine-scape more eerie (by a long shot) than any prior. Together with scenes that slowly fade into others, viewers are left in a tense state of apprehension – waiting – believing – that something creepy is about to happen.  Sound familiar?  It should, as it has been copied, or adapted in most every cinematic ghost story since, including such films as The Changeling (1980), The Others (2001) and Insidious (2010).  In many ways, The Innocents did for hauntings what Psycho did for the rest of horror – it became the signpost that all other filmmakers (who dabbled in the supernatural) would follow.  Fear: With The Innocents, cinema reached a point where we could feel the fear and apprehension associated with ghosts.  But the fear lies not in their existence – which in many ways is reassuring – but the unsettling nature of it. What if the only thing beyond this life was a tortuous and disturbed consciousness… forever?

TOWARDS THE MODERN HORROR MIND

Carnival of Souls 1962 poster

Carnival of Souls (1962): Plot: Mary Henry seeks to escape her past by moving to a new town, only to find herself stalked – or haunted – by a stranger.  Commentary: Carnival of Souls is a dreamlike trip into a world where things seem a little disjointed and the only constant is a strange clown who seems to show up most everywhere. Although not the first independent horror film, Carnival of Souls, demonstrated the advantage that Indy films could have: Filmmakers are not beholden and are free to break outside of convention.  Plus, small budgets limit camera work and far from detracting from potential – if executed properly – can lead to more intimate portrayals. Embracing this poverty-of-effect, Director Herk Harvey created a film far ahead of its time.  Harvey uses limited sound during a period when Hollywood was awash with theme music, to bring us close to a gritty and unsympathetic world that seems to be fading from Mary’s grasp.  His simple atmospherics (reminiscent of German expressionism) also help us sink deeper into the same abyss that is clutching at her.  The ending is not happy-less, but it is disturbing and was unheard of in 1962 (even if it suffers from cliché-dom today).  Indy films would revolutionize the genre many times over and Harvey set the tone with this daring out-of-the-box foray.  Fear: (SPOILER ALERT) In many ways our fear towards death is a fear of nothing at all and could seem a relief once we actually accept it.  But this process of acceptance can be terrifying… As Carnival of Souls illustrates.

The Birds 1963 poster

The Birds (1963): Plot: Crows and seagulls start attacking humans for no particular reason in a small seaside town – wreaking havoc on the residents.  Commentary and Fear: With The Birds, Hitchcock provided a capstone to the Scare-Gore Revolution by bringing his well-timed and especially gruesome suspense sequences into full-color (to include a body with its eyeballs plucked out).  But The Birds also provided a crucial content breakthrough for the genre.  Hitchcock didn’t only use otherwise innocuous animals and turn them into bloodthirsty beasts, but – even more disturbing – provided no explanation for their behavior.  Far from being a shortcoming of the story, it proved even scarier.  At the climax, Hitchcock also begins to tackle the no-way-out scenario, as the principle characters are surrounded and trapped within a house, while the crazed birds outside stop at nothing to get at them.  It would take George Romero’s little-Indy-film-that-could a few years later to play out the scenario completely – with all of its grim consequences, but The Birds planted the seeds and demonstrated that a lack of explanation is even more frightening – more irrational – just like death.  And this lack of any reason behind that cold hard reality that will eventually overtake all of us – just as the birds almost do to those trapped inside – is what truly disturbs.

The Haunting 1963 poster

The Haunting (1963): Plot: A team of psychics venture into a house with a devilish past – determined to discover the nature of its supernatural history.  But one of them – Eleanor – seems unusually sensitive to the phenomena they witness.  Commentary and Fear: The same year Hitchcock was putting the capstone on the Scare-Gore Revolution with The Birds, Robert Wise realized it could be just as scary for cinema-goers to question whether or not they were becoming the ‘human’ monster depicted in Psycho.  Instead of focusing on atmosphere to heighten the creepiness – as in The Innocents, Wise turned the nascent ghost story thread (began with The Uninvited (1944)) in the psychological direction and presents an intimate portrayal of the self-questioning associated with paranormal experiences.   Eleanor battles the monster within herself – one that may or may not be motivated by a malevolent force – and in the end, does it make a difference?  It threatens to consume her to the point where she becomes as dangerous to herself as Norman Bates was to others. Wise’s close camerawork and stream-of-thought technique invites the audience to experience what Eleanor does, in what became the blueprint for the haunting of not a house, but an individual (played masterfully by Julie Harris). The Haunting merged the psychological with the paranormal and laid the groundwork for movies such as The Shining (1980) and Event Horizon (1997)

Last Man on Earth 1964 poster

The Last Man on Earth (1964): Plot: Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the only human left alive after a plague kills or transforms the others into vampires.  When not doing what’s necessary to survive, Morgan spends his days uncovering and staking them, then burning the bodies.  Commentary: A case could easily be made that The Last Man on Earth should be recognized as the first modern zombie movie.  Many aspects of this grainy black and white film seem eerily similar to Night of the Living Dead (1968) – right down to the soundtrack.  Although called ‘vampires’, the behavior of the dead is more akin to that of zombies.  They’re slow, don’t seem to require blood to stay alive, plus they have a tendency to form hoards and surround the houses of survivors (survivor).  At the same time, the ‘plague’ aspect of the film telegraphs other zombie adaptations, such as 28 Days Later (2002)… Regardless, this final and most similar forerunner to Night of the Living Dead, features a compelling storyline (based on the novel, I am Legend) and is well-acted, even if it suffers from a low-budget.   Fear: As the title suggests, Morgan’s odds look grim.  He is the first to confront the no-way-out scenario that the zombie subgenre would immortalize. Although the ending reveals that humans will live on in a more mutated form, it still confronts us with the disturbing theme of a soulless existence – where the best that can be hoped for is that after death we live on as some shadow of ourselves.

Spider Baby 1964 poster

Spider Baby (1964):  Plot: The surviving members of a family line that suffers from a peculiar form of degeneration unexpectedly play host to distant cousins.  Commentary: Spider Baby is a horror comedy that updates the The Old Dark House model of the bizarre country family and adds a healthy dose of childhood fun and games, which of course include murder and cannibalism.  Told with a tone and angle, sympathetic to the family, Spider Baby invites the audience to take part in the fun… And that’s all it is – even if somebody gets hurt (or eaten).   Fear: The film’s brilliance lies in how funny it makes otherwise shocking and grotesque acts seem – telegraphing the family that would remake horror anew in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).  Except in many ways, Spider Baby is even more disturbing, not because it’s scary, but because it isn’t.  Told from the perspective of a family pretty much like the one in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), what horrifies is how easy it becomes to sympathy. Are there horrifying acts – acts that can be universally condemned – or is it all just a matter of time, place and perspective?  Spider Baby challenges us to consider that right and wrong are only relative and satisfying bloodlust is okay… Even fun!

Repulsion 1965 poster

Repulsion (1965 – French – subtitled): Plot: Carole’s difficulty coping with advances by the opposite sex, fuels her decent into madness and eventually murder. Commentary: Director Roman Polanski paints an intimate portrait of Carole’s transformation into the ‘human’ monster. Unlike his more popular Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which is just a latter day Invasion of the Body Snatchers,  Repulsion brings audiences into the mind (or at least as near as possible) of Carole through close camera angles that rival Hitchcock’s in their aptness and an evenly paced storyline that compels but also unfolds gradually.  Carole’s experience is detailed and at times abstract as her thoughts are not always coherent, but unlike in The Haunting, there is no possibility of a malevolent spirit motivating them… just pure mind. Additionally, the poverty (but not absence) of music in Repulsion invites us deeper into the experience than we – as viewers – were allowed in The Haunting – where the soundtrack detracted at times.  But because Carole’s fear of the opposite sex manifests in bloodlust Polanski also includes some creative – even artistic – kill sequences (with plenty of blood) – spicing the psychological horror with some impressive visuals.  Fear: In many ways Repulsion takes Psycho and reverses the fear.  The portrayal is so intimate as to seem personal and pose the question: What if you were the one who was becoming Norman Bates?  Demonstrating that the descent of self is often far scarier than seeing it in another. 

CREATIVE DESTRUCTION

Night of the Living Dead 1968 Poster

Night of the Living Dead (1968): Plot: A freakish coincidence of cosmic forces causes the dead to rise from their graves. Commentary and Fear: Although drawing from elements of The Last Man on Earth, The Birds and Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead is still a work of creative genius – and not because Director George Romero replaced vampires (or seagulls) with zombies.  Rather, the film destroys all previous conventions and presents viewers with the definitive no-way-out scenario that others shied away from.  Even the person who survives the night also meets a tragic end.  Coupling this most disturbing theme with a shockingly gruesome (by the time’s standard) climax that punctuates the former’s brutal savagery succeeds in depicting death in cold soulless terms.  To this day, the nature of its horror is difficult to grasp as our minds constantly search for how to escape the reality of an approaching and unstoppable onslaught of the inevitable.  Many, who are dying rationalize that their children live on… But what if they didn’t?  What if no one did? And worse – what if there was nothing after for the soul – the being of existence… nothing but rotting flesh.  Dealing with that – facing it – coping with it is the pure brilliance of the film, as we come face to face with a happy-less ending – the destruction of our fear towards death only when the latter conquers the former.

Influence

(Rankings are determined by each film’s overall influence on the genre, especially towards the development of modern horror.)

  1. Psycho
  2. Night of the Living Dead
  3. King Kong
  4. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  5. Nosferatu
  6. Dracula
  7. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  8. Frankenstein
  9. The Innocents
  10. The Curse of Frankenstein
  11. Freaks
  12. The Haunting
  13. Repulsion
  14. The Old Dark House
  15. The Thing From Another World
  16. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  17. The Last Man on Earth
  18. Carnival of Souls
  19. Spider Baby
  20. The Birds
  21. Les Diabolique
  22. The Bad Seed
  23. The Body Snatcher
  24. The Wolf Man
  25. Eyes Without a Face

Originality

(Rankings are based on holistic originality, determined not just by story, but also technique and the nature of disturbing theme.)

  1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  2. Carnival of Souls
  3. Eyes Without a Face
  4. Psycho
  5. Freaks
  6. The Innocents
  7. Frankenstein
  8. The Old Dark House
  9. The Thing From Another World
  10. The Birds
  11. Dracula
  12. Les Diabolique
  13. King Kong
  14. Spider Baby
  15. The Haunting
  16. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  17. The Last Man on Earth
  18. Repulsion
  19. Night of the Living Dead
  20. Nosferatu
  21. The Bad Seed
  22. The Body Snatcher
  23. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  24. The Wolf Man
  25. The Curse of Frankenstein

Quality

(Rankings are determined by adeptness of execution, to include acting, writing and cinematography.)

  1. Psycho
  2. The Innocents
  3. Repulsion
  4. Eyes Without a Face
  5. The Birds
  6. The Bad Seed
  7. The Haunting
  8. Les Diabolique
  9. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  10. The Body Snatcher
  11. The Old Dark House
  12. Carnival of Souls
  13. Frankenstein
  14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  15. The Curse of Frankenstein
  16. Spider Baby
  17. The Thing From Another World
  18. Dracula
  19. The Wolf Man
  20. King Kong
  21. Freaks
  22. Night of the Living Dead
  23. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  24. Nosferatu
  25. The Last Man on Earth

Fear Towards Death

(Rankings are determined by how closely the film comes to imbuing fear towards death within audiences.)

  1. Night of the Living Dead
  2. Psycho
  3. Freaks
  4. Spider Baby
  5. Eyes Without a Face
  6. The Last Man on Earth
  7. Repulsion
  8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  9. Carnival of Souls
  10. The Birds
  11. The Innocents
  12. The Haunting
  13. The Bad Seed
  14. Les Diabolique
  15. The Picture of Dorian Gray
  16. The Body Snatcher
  17. The Wolf Man
  18. Frankenstein
  19. The Curse of Frankenstein
  20. The Thing From Another World
  21. Dracula
  22. King Kong
  23. The Old Dark House
  24. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  25. Nosferatu

FINAL WORD

Well, that’s it… There are others that could easily be on this list.  Some favorites include The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), The Blob (1958), Black Sunday (1960), Village of the Damned (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968)… Many more. There is one notable exception, however, that should NOT be included and I feel obliged to spend some time on why…

NOTABLE EXCEPTION

Peeping Tom Poster

Peeping Tom (1960): Plot: Mark Lewis is a photographer obsessed with filming everyone and everything – especially when people are at their most intimate and vulnerable selves. Commentary: Peeping Tom is one of those movies that film snobs want to believe is better than its more popular contemporary – Psycho, but isn’t.  It’s a good movie that proposes we are complicit in the horror because of our desire to watch horrible things.  In other words, the real horror is on the other end of the camera in our own minds – voyeurs each and every one – trying to vicariously sate our primal bloodlust… A neat concept, but sloppily executed.  For one, the message is heavy-handed and borders on preachy, unlike the brilliantly subtle but still grotesque critique of audiences put forward in Freaks (1932).  Recently, the film has also been subject to so many myths about its brilliance that I’ve lost count.  Probably the most laughable is that Hitchcock based Psycho on Peeping Tom.  This would be a remarkable feat, considering that he wrapped up filming of the former months before the latter was released (I guess Hitchcock – in addition to everything else – discovered how to travel through time).

Comparison: But since critics like to prop up Peeping Tom at Psycho’s expense, let’s see how it holds up: Unlike Psycho’s genuinely likable Norman Bates character, none of the characters in Peeping Tom are sympathetic.  Poor writing detracts from otherwise masterful performances – hampering the ability of audiences to connect with them. For example, at first Mark Lewis seems the picture of a psychopath – executing a design borne of obsession – one his victims play a crucial role in.  But wait! He’s a psychopath with a heart of gold, as his crush on the redhead downstairs begins to conflict with his compulsion to film (and kill) others.  (This is equivalent to Michael Myers putting the knife down because he discovers he’s in love with Laurie…) Instead of this exception making Mark a nuanced character, it only makes his pathology inconsistent, as psychopaths don’t have consciences.  Whereas, Norman Bates is a textbook psychotic, Mark becomes a conflicted psychopath when convenient for the story, but in the end (when not convenient) really isn’t that conflicted. 

Furthermore, unlike Hitchcock’s decision to use a musical theme of just strings and shoot his psychotic in black and white, Director Michael Powell’s ridiculous choice of soundtracks and full-color depiction seriously impede the otherwise highly disturbing theme – which looks for the blood-lusting psychopath in all of us – from penetrating beneath the skin.  Color could have been a brilliant choice, but Powell failed to exploit it – shying away from most of the killings except the one at the climax – and even then there isn’t so much as fake blood accompanying it.

Finally, unlike Psycho, Peeping Tom didn’t have a significant (if even perceptible) impact on the genre.  But on that score, it did help Hitchcock’s masterpiece in crucial way. Powell made the fatal mistake of releasing his film to critics prior to the general public.  It was (in some cases justifiably) panned and attendance for the release was poor.  Hitchcock decided to not release his pathological masterpiece to critics prior to the general public, for that reason – knowing that their judgment is often poor and assessments ill-conceived – traits they still have today.

(Perhaps, this was a bit of a rant… But I’m sick of people telling me what a brilliant movie Peeping Tom is.)

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