Welcome, fellow travelers in the night.
As you know, some of the earliest works of film have been attempts to frighten the audience, from 1896's Le Manoir du diable, and 1898's La Caverne maudite, which means that when compiling a list like this one, there are unquestionably going to be films left out. Regardless, the tireless minions of Comics Bulletin have pulled out all the stops to bring you a fairly comprehensive list of Fifty of the greatest horror films of all time.
We begin this week with the impossible task of choosing the Top Ten Horror Films from before 1970. We'll be back on Wednesday with the Top Ten Horror Films of the 1970s, and follow each week with another ten films from ten years, until we get to Halloween night and bring you the Top Ten Horror films since 2000.
Feel free to add your voices to the chorus beneath the lists to let us know what we've missed and why!
And now, read on…if you dare!
1931 – Frankenstein (Dir. James Whale)
I have a Halloween party every year where we carve jack o’ lanterns and watch horror flicks. And one of my favorite films to show is James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. I find that while everyone knows of the film, few have actually seen it. And the reaction is almost universal. “Wow! That’s actually an amazing movie!!” Well, yeah.
Why the shock? Because most people only know this film through parody. They are more familiar with Phil Hartman’s or Mel Brooks’s Monster than Boris Karloff’s. They assume that a move made so long ago is going to be cheesy and better suited to MST3K than actually watching it. They are wrong.
Frankenstein was made during one of the Golden Years of Hollywood horror. Talkies were new enough that the visual silent film aesthetic still dominated. The influence of German Expressionism meant films were bathed in deep shadows and filled with symbolism. Director James Whale was an auteur. As an openly gay man in the 1930s, he knew well what it was like to be hated and misunderstood just for being different. And Boris Karloff … if ever there was a man born for a role, this was it. And only this. Karloff would play the Monster in two more films, but by then he was fat and famous and comfortable. Here he is lean and hungry, a desperate creature that shows in his performance.
Karloff’s Monster is also an original creation. Because really, as an adaptation of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is monstrous. Shelley’s Monster is articulate and intelligent; a thing of deep thought and emotion. Karloff’s Monster is mute and subtle. He acts with his hands and face, giving a chilling performance that will endure much longer than Robert De Niro’s more faithful version in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
And a few bits of Frankenstein trivia for you. The film itself was considered so blasphemous that massive edits were demanded, and the film was essentially cut in half. Little bits and pieces have been added back in over the years, but the full film, shown as Whale intended, was not available until 1999. Sixty-eight years after its creation. That’s how long it took the world to catch up to Whale’s vision. Oh, and that Tesla Coil you see in the lab during the famous creation scene? Nikola Tesla made that.
– Zack Davisson
1932 – Freaks (Dir. Tod Browning)
Calling Tod Browning's crowning achievement Freaks a "horror film" is a bit misleading. The truth is that the film is technically more of a thriller, but there's no denying the horror it inflicted on its contemporary audience, who were so shocked by the real life "freaks" Browning chose to fill the cast with that even in locations as civilized as the UK, the film wound up banned for several decades, while in its own United States audiences turned away in droves.
Perhaps what really horrified audiences was Browning's assertion that the so-called "freaks" are the heroes and we normal folk, with our lack of public deformities and odd talents, are the true monsters. In the film, that's depicted through the machinations of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and Hercules (Henry Victor), two relatively "normal" members of the circus the freaks inhabit. Cleopatra is your everyday trapeze artist, albeit a beautiful one, and when she marries the dwarf Hans (Harry Earles), his peers are righteously skeptical of their union. Cleopatra, like her namesake, is out for power and she takes it in the form of Hans' riches and Hercules' more brutish physical strength and handsome looks. They of course get their comeuppance after Cleopatra attempts to poison poor Hans, forced to become freaks themselves in a brutally epic ending in which Hercules is swarmed by the freaks and castrated and Cleopatra is mutilated and fashioned into a duck woman.
Or that's what would have been the ending had Browning's studio bosses at MGM not interfered. Instead the film was given a more melodramatic ending, with Hans living a life of luxury though still wallowing in depression, meant as a way to appease audiences who were allegedly terrified by Hans' giddy transformation into a figure of vengeance himself, alongside his freak brethren. That alteration did nothing to turn audiences, as they were still disgusted with the film and its cast, particularly the remaining ending scenes that featured the freaks crawling through the mud and the rain to seize the would-be murderers.
But Browning's original vision lives on in the works it has inspired and influenced, including Katherine Dunn's seminal work of freak vengeance, Geek Love and Alex Winter's massively underappreciated fuck you to Hollywood and his post-Bill & Ted's career, Freaked, both of which feature the freaks getting their comeuppance against society and those who have wronged them. And isn't that the most powerful kind of horror? The kind that makes you feel evil yourself after? Except in this case it's made all the more gruesome by the realization that our own instinctual fear of otherness is at fault and not some supernatural entity.
– Nick Hanover
1942 – Cat People (Dir. Jacques Tourneur)
Budget should never be a factor in great filmmaking, even in a genre so seemingly effects-dependent as horror. While The Blair Witch Project might be one of the best examples of scaring audiences with a minimalist conceit that spawned i
ts own oft-maligned subgenre, Jacques Tourneur's Cat People is a shining example of innovative, classic horror filmmaking on a budget.
Hired as the head of RKO's horror division with his only requirements being that he produced low-budget horror movies with smutty potboiler titles that were dictated by the studio, Val Lewton otherwise had artistic freedom. Cat People was the first title tossed his way, which begs more effects than the — um, let's go with "modest" — budget could afford, but the Russian (now Ukraine) born Lewton wisely chose to use one of his old pulp stories ("The Bagheeta") as a framework, working with screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen to create a much stranger script than one might imagine for a film called Cat People — an idiosyncratically personal film about fear of the Other, exoticism and fear of one's own heritage and possibly even one's own sexuality.
Above being a weirdo personal vision in an unexpected place, one of the major accomplishments of Cat People is Tourneur and Italian cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca's use of chiaroscuro lighting, creating a film noir effect that supplies palpable mood in the absence of creatures — reflecting the dark unknown that fuels the unsettling themes of the film and gives both the characters and gives the audience something to fear even though there are only a handful of sets reused from other productions. This forced minimalism of withholding the economically impossible threats became a staple of Lewton's productions, giving RKO a nice run of hits.
Not only was Cat People a massive hit credited with saving RKO from Bankruptcy, but Lewton and Tourneur also managed to deliver it under their allotted budget. Meanwhile today Oren Peli is producing glorified home movies for like $5 million.
– Danny Djeljosevic
1957 – Night of the Demon (Dir. Jacques Tourneur)
British screenwriter Charles Bennett, perhaps best known for his early work with Alfred Hitchcock, had purchased the rights to the short story "Casting the Runes" (1911) by M.R. James and sold his screenplay to producer Hal E. Chester shortly before traveling to America – a decision he regretted due to Chester's rewrites and attempts to commercialize some of the more fantastic elements of the story (most significantly, the inclusion of a stop-motion demon that, while apparently discussed early in the production, went against the wishes of both the screenwriter and the director, Jacques Tourneur). However, despite the production interference and a turbulent relationship between Tourneur and Chester, Night of the Demon is a visual and psychological success on par with Tourneur's earlier horror classics Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
The plot follows an American psychologist, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), who arrives in England to attend a convention where local Satanist Dr. Julian Karswell's (Niall MacGinnis) cult was to be exposed. However, the professor leading the investigation, Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) has died under mysterious circumstances. Well, mysterious for the characters in the story. The viewer has watched cringing, as a gigantic demon appeared from a cloud of smoke and murdered him. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between Holden and Karswell as we wait for the predicted return of the demon, this time intent on murdering Holden.
Night of the Demon is a Master Class in lighting and set design, as well as in the building of psychological tension. Visually, Tourneur's use of dramatic shadows and long hallways, along with slight warpings of the actual image at key moments, create a palpable sense of dread as staunch Rationalist Holden begins to doubt his hold on reality. At the same time, Holden's and Karswell's ideological sparring creates one of the first subdued, more realistic representations of a Satanist on film – a representation undermined by Chester's inclusion of the demon against Tourneur's preference of keeping it off-screen and implied.
We wouldn't see a Satanist this believable – and unnerving because of it – again until Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Devil Rides Out (1968).
– Paul Brian McCoy
Yes, there are technically three Steve McQueen’s. One is a kilt-wearing avant-garde director. One is a crappy M83 song. But there is only one true Steve McQueen. America’s bad ass, better known later in movies like The Great Escape and Bullit, set a bar of manliness in American culture that has rarely been crossed. A cultural icon, the swagger of McQueen oozes through any film in which he starred, even his staring debut, 1958’s The Blob.
The Blob, if viewed today, plays out like a Simpsons parody of a drive-in movie of the 50s, mostly because it set the rules for every cliché of a 50s drive-in movie. It is riddled with themes of the Red Scare It open’s on “Lover’s Lane”. A movie theatre is attacked. Burt Bacharach does the theme song. If anyone plays “fantasy 50’s b-movie horror movie”, you just won your league.
Less scary compared to today’s jump scares and torture porn, The Blob seems tame. But what makes it a classic is the amount of rules it set in b-movies. If an influence is bad, it’s still an influence. The Blob may not be high art, but it wasn’t trying to be. A snapshot of an idealized time of a time so fascinated with appearances and reception, The Blob is a great example of “you just had to be there”.
– Dylan Garsee
1960 – Psycho (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Icons can't be planned; they can only occur and be worshipped after the fact. Psycho is iconic now because of all it predicted and all its imitators, heralding a new sensibility in unlikely emergence from an established director and at the very end of the Hollywood studio system. Hitchcock wasn't supported by his studio in choosing to tell Bloch's dark story, so he arranged financing himself, and shot on the
cheap using crew and concepts from his successful suspense television series.
But that doesn't mean anything about Psycho is shoddy, just that Hitchcock worked with economy and precision in a post-Production Code world. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins were established stars, sex symbols who would survive the demise of the studio system and whose professional charm and all-American normality sets us up by casting alone for the surprises that lay in wait. Leigh has the premiere 1950s hourglass figure, but we didn't usually see the actually conical headlight bra that created the silhouette so prominently, as we do when we witness Leigh in a bedroom with her married lover, plotting a theft that will finance their unsanctioned future.
It's a film noir premise, one where we root for the gorgeous leads despite ourselves, or at least consider doing so, as Leigh heads off into the desert, switching cars and changing her mind about the crime even after she meets the enigmatic Bates in his taxidermied isolation. The last thing we expect is the story not to be about Leigh after all, but rather about Norman, or moreso, about his own much darker past and present, and the psychosis that has warped this seemingly benign and fey young man. His mystery is unraveled by shock after shock, in a then frank revelation of sexuality, violence and obsession.
The slasher movies to come are born in the almost tastefully suggestive shower murder scene, and the depravity that horror movies will increasingly revel in begin here, as audiences got a glimpse of the corruption that can live at the end of winding road, or inside a dark old house. In a way, this was Hitchcock returning to his earliest roots, of intrepid couples fighting Nazis, or coping with greedy criminals with wit and skill. This film offers little in the way of a hopeful reprieve at the end, however. Marion Crane's short and tragic road trip in her new car culminates in the bottom of a swamp, to be retrieved at the end only as more evidence of Norman's ongoing madness.
It's also an example of Hitchcock's ongoing attachment to surreal imagery and the psychological exploration of neurosis. He frequently turned to psychiatry to explain aberrant behavior. There have been sequels and prequels to the story over the years, but the only movie that comes close to capturing its high-pitched weirdness is Brian DePalma's lovingly knowing homage, Dressed to Kill, which deals not with the demise of 1950s morality, but with the even wilder excesses of the 1970s
– Shawn Hill
1963 – The Haunting (Dir. Robert Wise)
Looking at today’s horror industry, it would seem that the only way to frighten us anymore is to show us everything and try to shock our senses and minds through overload. The Hostel, Saw, and Human Centipede franchises make serious bank on this method. The Haunting (1963) stands in stark contrast to this conclusion, however. We see nothing, really, and yet are just as, if not more, terrified by what we are experiencing through the characters’ eyes.
The Haunting does this primarily through atmosphere. The grave tone of the narrator who tells us the deadly history of the house, the striking black and white photography that creates shadows everywhere, the sets which make everything look like a gaping maw or an outstretched hand set our senses on edge in another way, coercing us to strain to look closer and to allow our imaginations to wander as we do. And in doing so, we are joined by the characters, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist determined to open the door to the supernatural, and his guests, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), Theo (Claire Bloom), and Eleanor (Julie Harris), whom he believes he can use to unlock that door. Everyone is here to find out just what is going on in this old house.
It is Eleanor who proves to be the key, and as we hear her beleaguered and somewhat unstable thoughts in voiceover, we come to understand why. She’s never been outside her own home, really, and yet it’s as though she’s lived a life parallel to that of the house. Her neuroses make her more sensitive to the terrible groans that fill it, and we become more sensitive as a result—but this identification also undermines our confidence in what we are seeing.
Unlike the terrible 1999 remake with Liam Neeson where the furniture, light fixtures and statuary are as fidgety as a 4 year old during a sermon, the 1963 version gives nothing away. (Virtually) nothing moves, and yet everything seems about to do just that, leaving the audience never truly reassured that we know what is really going on in the cursed house and Eleanor’s mind. Instead, we are left with our own doubts and inflamed imaginations to try to suss out what we’re seeing.
And we are certain we saw something. Something out of the corner of the eye or deep in the background. Absolutely certain. Or is Eleanor’s fragile mind just playing tricks on ours as well?
– Laura Akers
This Italian production is the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, and in many ways is the best, despite Matheson's own opinion. He originally wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Hammer Productions, but British censors wouldn't allow its production. So instead, the script was sold to producer Robert L. Lippert and produced on the cheap in Italy. A number of other hands took passes at the script, turning it into something Matheson refused to put his name on. Instead, he used the pseudonym, Logan Swanson, a combination of his and his wife's mothers' maiden names.
Although it was originally criticized for its low-budget production, deliberate pacing, and what some considered the miscasting of Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the disturbed survivor of a vampire plague, The Last Man on Earth's reputation has improved over the years and is now considered a classic. The masses of shambling, undead vampires converging on Morgan's fortress-like home served as a direct influence on George Romero's ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead just a few years later, and Price's shell-shocked performance is actually powerful and a little disturbing – especially as he wanders the empty streets murdering the sleeping undead.
And while the film veers away from the novel's plot before everything is said and done, it embraces a similar brutal nihilism. The true horror of the film is driven home in those final minutes, when Morgan learns that he has become a figure
of fear for these "survivors" of the plague. They are managing their vampiric infection and attempting to rebuild society, but Morgan has unwittingly been murdering them too, unable to tell the difference between the sleeping monsters and sleeping survivors.
The crazed vampire hunter becomes the hunted and is ultimately murdered – impaled on a spear in an abandoned church, raving and calling the infected freaks, and declaring himself the "Last Man on Earth." Price imbues the scene with a final, fatalistic humor as Morgan dies, amazed that the "freaks" were actually afraid of him.
It avoids the classic last line of the novel, but carries a similar impact, albeit a more tragic, personal impact than the defiant individualism of Matheson's original story.
– Paul Brian McCoy
1968 – Rosemary's Baby (Dir. Roman Polanski)
Pregnancy has long been a fertile well of inspiration for horror but perhaps the most well-regarded and famous horror work with pregnancy at its center isn't even about pregnancy. Instead, Roman Polanski's American debut Rosemary's Baby is a horror film about possession– possession of power, whatever the cost; possession of a body; and possession of the spirit.
The plot of Rosemary's Baby basically centers around the Woodhouses, a struggling young couple who move into an old apartment complex and find themselves thrust into the odd world of its tenants. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) is an actor desperate to become famous, and soon. His wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow, in her breakout role) is less a character and more a symbol of the confusion surrounding the gender politics of the '60s. Rosemary is smart but not street smart, and throughout the film she struggles to make her own voice heard, to be awarded her own identity as others attempt to immerse her in identities they feel she's better suited for.
The pregnancy of the film's title is yet another aspect of that confusion and the way Rosemary is possessed by those around her. For all practical purposes, Rosemary is raped by her husband, who impregnates her while she is seemingly under the influence of an herbal concoction her "harmless" elderly neighbors have given her. His defense is that he didn't want to miss the window of fertility, as they were trying to conceive.
It's in this act that all of the possession aspects of the story and the film come together in a perfect storm of anxiety, confusion and horror. Those Rosemary has trusted have acted against her interests, they have possessed her mind, body and spirit and the supernatural elements that soon enter the film as a result are secondary to Rosemary's struggle. One could make the argument, in fact, that the supernatural elements aren't even real, but instead a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that Rosemary is suffering from as a result of the horrible act of victimization she has dealt with. What is real is Rosemary's possession, her loss of power, her loss of control over her own body which in its own way soon betrays her, continuously. Is Rosemary's husband part of some dark ritual, eager to sacrifice her unborn child in order to gain access as an actor? Or is he merely a victimizer, a man who has used his power to possess his wife, who trusted him completely? Is the darkness Rosemary sees in him and those who support him a literal darkness of spirit, with sinister Satanic undertones? Or is it metaphorical, a kind of dark cloud that hangs over their relationship in the wake of The Conception?
The film's now classic ending provokes this kind of duality, famously ending without an actual reveal of the titular baby but instead honing in on Rosemary's reaction instead and her verbal disowning of her own child. The horror for the viewer comes from that uncertainty, the revelation that we don't know who to actually trust. To complicate matters, Polanski's own life mirrors the film, darkened as it has become with his own victimhood and victimization, sex and violence and possession and ambiguity all forming their own personal perfect storm, art mirroring life mirroring art mirroring life forever and ever.
– Nick Hanover
1968 – Night of the Living Dead (Dir. George A. Romero)
This may sound hyperbolic, but Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important films of the Sixties, and one of the most important horror films of all time. And if director George Romero is to be believed, nearly everything that makes the film great was accidental. The script, co-written by John A. Russo, was based on a short story Romero had written inspired by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and originally intended to be an extremely low-budget horror-comedy.
The lack of funds forced them to film in rural Pennsylvania on cheap 35 mm black-and-white film. Blood effects were chocolate syrup, zombie wounds were mortician's wax, costumes were second-hand clothes from cast members and Goodwill, and the consumed flesh was roasted ham and animal entrails donated by actors. Even the script was barebones, with much of the dialogue being improvised. But what they lacked in finances and supplies, Romero and Russo made up for with innovative ideas and a determination to see their vision on-screen uncut and uncensored, despite nearly scuttling their chances for a distribution deal.
Eventually, the Walter Reade Organization agreed to distribute the film uncensored, but they changed the name from Night of the Flesh Eaters to Night of the Living Dead, and in the process, accidentally removed the copyright notice from early releases. In one of the worst legal decisions in film history, Romero and company had the option to shelve those original prints, do a small edit, and then obtain a new Copyright; but for whatever reason, they didn't. Because of this, the original cut of Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, legally sold by anyone with the cash to put out a cheap copy and is free to download. According to Wikipedia, as of September 30, 2012, it is the Internet Archive's second most downloaded film.
And Romero and Russo got no financial restitution for any of that. If you're looking for a DVD copy for your collection, look for one with Romero's commentary track. That's the one he personally approved.
Oh, I almost forgot. This is also the film that ushered in a sea-change in splatter effects, darkly nihilistic themes, social commentary, and also created the first contemporary movie monster – the flesh-eating zombie – and inspired nearly 45 years of zombie cinema.
– Paul Brian McCoy
Be sure to make your voices heard and be back on Wednesday to tell us what we missed, and what we got right, in the Top Ten Horror Films of the 1970s!