By James David Patrick
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.”
Hitchcock cites fairy tale literature as a child’s introduction to horror, but he’s also speaking indirectly about the maturation of horror cinema. The special effects have become more realistic and the violence more explicit, but what frightened us in 1958 remains true for 2018. Classics had to earn your attention through mood and narrative, not with threats of gratuitous jump scares and stomach-churning grotesqueries.
Here’s a list of 11 essential classics of horror cinema that you might have overlooked, all of which are available to view on physical media through Netflix DVD. I’ve drawn the line in the ectoplasm at 1970 because the aesthetics of horror shifted dramatically with the dissolution of the Hays Code and the introduction of the MPAA film ratings system in 1968. American filmmakers immediately began exploring newfound freedoms with regards to graphic depictions of sex and violence, literally rendering the films made before the ratings system a product of a bygone – but no less worthy – era of cinema.
You watched The Conjuring (2013) and maybe sought out Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1960) because you hear it’s the classic haunted house flick – but neither will crawl under your skin quite like Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaption of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw about two children possessed by pure evil. Few horror tropes prove as unsettling as creepy children. Only dolls and clowns come to mind.
Clayton avoids shock scares altogether in favor of atmosphere and a steady escalation of tension as the children’s governess, Miss Giddens (played by Deborah Kerr), attempts to reconcile her understanding of reality with the apparent supernatural evil all around her. Credit to Kerr for a breathtaking performance; the audience cannot determine whether the events are real or a projection of her damaged psyche.
In an age where horror movies increasingly rely on visual shock to frighten us, The Innocents reminds that the experience of terror, in its purest form, is most potent in the mind’s eye.
Before movie studios were willing to commit to houses of legitimate haunts, any mysterious goings on were always explained away by film’s end. The most prominent early example of this “old dark house” subgenre was The Cat and the Canary (1927), an adaptation of the John Willard 1922 darkly comic stage play.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the finest example of this type of horror film is James Whale’s The Old Dark House, starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Gloria Stuart. Equal parts gothic creeper and absurdist black comedy, Whale’s wildly inventive and quirky shocker/romance/comedy might blindside a viewer already well versed in the rather more earnest first wave of Universal horror.
Even though many filmmakers have tried their hand at “the old dark house” since 1932, this cult masterpiece parodies the genre conventions just as James Whale invented them. In many ways The Old Dark House represents the last word on the subject of the old dark house. Few filmmakers can claim to have created and broken the mold in the same breath. Oh, by the way, be sure to have a potato.
George A. Romero invented the modern zombie movie monster in Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the zombie traces its cinematic origins all the way back to 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari where the title character controlled a “somnambulist,” a sleepwalker that behaved much like our contemporary zombie.
Until Romero’s zombie apocalypse, however, the movie monster remained the product of Haitian voodoo, the living dead servants of a controlling “master.” Zombies cropped up infrequently throughout the 40’s and 50’s. In 1966, Hammer Films, in their only zombie feature, made the final definitive pre-Night of the Living Dead film – Plague of the Zombies.
Even though Plague represents pretty standard fare for Hammer Films (flashes of violence and busty women rooted in a gothic setting), it stands out as a unique, atmosphere-driven zombie film that often gets overlooked due to its proximity to Romero’s masterpiece.
And speaking of zombies… if you’re a fan of horror cinema you should be familiar with the name Val Lewton. Lewton produced a series of low-budget horror films for RKO during the 1940’s. Most recognize Cat People (1942) as Lewton’s masterpiece, but it’s his second film for RKO, I Walked with a Zombie, also directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, that most often gets overlooked.
Betsy (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, travels to a plantation on the island of Saint Sebastian to care for the ailing wife of plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway). She discovers a troubling history of slave trade and a secret Voodoo culture embedded in the island. Betsy falls in love with Paul and becomes determined to make him happy by curing Jessica. When all else fails she turns to Voodoo and begins a deeper dive into the world between life and death.
Without another particularly applicable genre, I Walked With a Zombie is a horror film – but a horror movie in that it creates unsettling tension through light, shadow and a philosophical exploration of unsettling exotic thematics. Tourneur and Lewton treat native rituals with a researched and respectful distance; it’s the gruesome history of the cursed island itself that suggests a spiritual or supernatural terror. It’s a Jane Eyre melodrama enveloped in unsettling chiaroscuro, a beautiful elegiac lament for colonialist savagery.
A double dose of Mario Bava because I couldn’t choose just one. Bava’s influence on modern horror is immeasurable. While Dario Argento gets most of the credit for creating the giallo genre (a psycho-sexual police procedural proto-slasher defined mostly by visual motifs), it’s Bava that planted the seeds in the early sixties with 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (widely considered the first giallo-brand horror film), The Whip and The Body and Blood and Black Lace.
The fetishistic The Whip and the Body showcases Mario Bava experimenting with color and lighting and expanding the already well-trodden gothic horror elements that had served him well in films like Black Sunday (1960). Kurt Menliff (played with delicious relish by Christopher Lee) returns to his familial castle to reclaim Nevenka, an old flame now married to his brother. One late night, sadistic Kurt recouples with masochistic Nevenka. Kurt turns up dead and his ghost reappears to the naughty denizens of the castle.
The moderate psychosexual S&M depicted here eclipses any graphic violence. The Whip and the Body positively oozes with creative lighting techniques, gothic atmosphere and off-kilter romance. Lee’s use of the titular whip made this film notorious in 1963 and maintains the power to shock even today.
In creating the seminal Blood and Black Lace, Mario Bava ratcheted up the sex and violence because, as he said, he’d grown “bored with the mechanical nature of the whodunit.” He reinvented the genre by de-emphasizing narrative (the investigation) and character development, instead prioritizing the more visceral elements that had always been mostly hidden off-screen – the stalk-and-kill murders and overt sexuality.
The giallo’s focus on style over substance, of garish colors, creative kills, and inventive first-person camerawork begins here. For all intents and purposes, the modern slasher genre as we know it begins here.
Best known for being a B-movie director of infamous self-promotion, William Castle made a name for himself as a purveyor of theatrical gimmickry. In order to sell his 1958 psychological thriller Macabre, he gave every customer a $1,000 life insurance policy should they “die of fright” during the film. He also stationed nurses in the lobbies and hearses outside the theatre.
He may have outdone himself with The Tingler, a horror film about a creature attached to your spinal column that activates with fright and can only be destroyed with screams. Castle installed military surplus wing de-icers in certain seats throughout the theater to vibrate in sync with the on-screen frights. At one point during the film, the creature supposedly gets loose in the theater and star Vincent Price begs the theater to “scream—scream for your lives!”
In 2018, The Tingler won’t spook anyone with or without airplane parts in your seat. William Castle was a showman that knew how to entertain an audience, and The Tingler represents Castle’s boundless creativity and knack for pure entertainment.
Originally titled Dance of the Vampires, MGM lopped 20 minutes off the movie and changed the name before release. Roger Ebert gave it one star. The notoriously crotchety New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “as dismal and dead as a blood-drained corpse.” One of the knocks against the film is that it is neither all that frightening nor funny. So why would I recommend it here among other classic horror offerings? Like The Tingler, it’s just an unpretentious good time.
Eccentric Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran) and his dim apprentice Alfred (Polanski) search Transylvania for vampires. When Alfred becomes obsessed with a local tavern keeper’s daughter before she’s abducted by, obviously, vampires. The duo attempts to save the beauty by following her into the lair of the Count von Krolock.
This is Polanski’s riff on a Hammer horror film. He magnifies the elegance and sophistication and adds a touch of humor in order to direct the viewer’s reading of the film as a light satire. Unlike your average half-baked parody, The Fearless Vampire Killers looks amazing. The sets and set design, the lighting, Sharon Tate… these elements are all part of a dreamy gothic horrorscape with a bloodthirst for understated comedy.
Like most of the Poe adaptations, Roger Corman has taken great liberties with the Edgar Allan Poe source material. You could count on one hand the number of adaptations that have successfully recreated the essence of Poe on film. The horror in Poe’s writing often lies within the characters’ damaged mind and lacks external motivation that reveals itself within conventional narrative film.
Vincent Price stars as Prince Prospero, a European prince who treats peasants like disposable entertainment. When the plague of the “red death” appears in his land, he gathers his loyal subjects into his castle refuge and holds a masquerade ball to bide their time. The plague proves unstoppable and soon infiltrates the castle walls, walking among the libidinous revelers.
The red-cloaked masquerader invading the Prince’s ball is a face-value metaphor for the plague and the end that no man can avoid. While most Poe adaptations wallow in a milieu of shadow, Masque takes advantage of the Prince’s lavish interior design. The result is a Technicolor masterpiece featuring bright primary colors, royal purples and creeping, insidious dread.
1939’s Rowland V. Lee-directed Son of Frankenstein further embraces the expressionistic style of filmmaking that heavily influenced the look and feel of all the early Universal horror films. Grotesque and distorted sets cast long, otherworldly shadows. It’s this high-contrast, unnatural setting that draws us into the film as something far more proficient than a simple fright flick.
Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry Frankenstein – original creator of “the monster.” Wolf moves back to his father’s castle, wife and son in tow, and aims to restore his father’s good name. The villagers, however, greet Wolf with some resistance. Off camera, they’re sharpening pitchforks and readying torches with lighter fluid. Poor Wolf’s only friend is Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh, who never fails to remind his friend about how his father’s monster ripped off his arm. Boris Karloff returns as the monster for the final time, and Bela Lugosi gives his signature turn as Ygor.
Widely considered second-tier Frankenstein after James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein proves to be every bit as entertaining as its predecessors. If nothing else, Son of Frankenstein should be required viewing for fans of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), which uses the 1939 film as its primary source of inspiration.
Not everybody craves a blood-soaked Halloween. Comedy and horror make excellent bedfellows. How potent is a quick laugh in the face of quaking terror? What makes Evil Dead 2 such a successful film? The preposterous coupling of laughter with the innate terror of demons from another dimension. Laughter breaks the tension, allows the viewer to more fully embrace the emotional strain of pure fear.
Don Knotts plays Luther Beggs, a typesetter at the local paper with aspirations to be a fully accredited news reporter. He believes to have seen a murder outside a local “haunted” mansion, but while he details the incident to his boss, the “victim” walks into the room. Luther’s a local joke, a man-child prone to histrionics. So when the opportunity presents itself, Luther volunteers to sleep one night in the haunted mansion. He’ll write about it, prove his mettle, and sell many papers with his tales of terror.
The mirror image of Evil Dead 2 looks something like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. The more horrific elements swapped for Don Knotts. The dark comedy swapped for creepy old mansions and inexplicable Scooby Doo goings on. The difference between The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and a true horror movie feels like a canyon — and yet, how far does it actually stray from a haunted house film of the same generation? Compare The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with The Haunting (1963) or The Legend of Hell House (1973), two films that bookend Mr. Chicken by a few years on each side. The real difference is that The Ghost and Mr. Chicken regularly breaks tension with a well-timed pratfall.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll usually find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music and 80’s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.