Ever since the dawn of man, there has existed a portion of humanity that loves to be scared. For years, literary works from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley helped to satisfy these desires, but with the advent of the silver screen, fans of the macabre, the supernatural, and of terrifying monsters were given a whole new outlet to provide them with the thrills and chills they so desperately craved.
For this list, we’ll be looking back at some of the most influential and entertaining films of the horror genre. However, in honor of a genre that’s existed for over a century, we’ll only be examining those that were released prior to 1970. Now, let’s turn out the lights, grab a flashlight, and take a look at the 10 best old-school horror movies:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates
One of the best political allegories of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an efficient, chilling blend of sci-fi and horror, as a small-town doctor learns that the population of his community is being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates. However, despite the heavy subtext, the film remains original and insightful without becoming preachy, which is a true testament to the discipline of director Don Siegel. A top-notch thriller on par with the best Hitchcock films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers epitomizes the American outlook and cold war hysteria of the era as no other film from the decade does.Advertisement
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning
Creature from the Black Lagoon is an excellent example of an entertaining creature-feature that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. There aren’t any deep, hidden messages; there are no shoehorned allegories, metaphors, or lessons to be learned; there’s just the story of an amphibious, clawed humanoid that slaughters several explorers and kidnaps their sole female member after the crew attempts to capture him. The Gill Man is played off as a sympathetic monster, but it’s the simple premise of men out of their element fighting a man in his element that really drives the narrative. In truth, it’s not particularly scary by today’s standards, but it still delivers solid popcorn-horror entertainment.
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Ruth Landshoff
One of the silent era's most influential masterpieces, Nosferatu's eerie, gothic feel set the template for the countless fantasy and horror films that soon followed. It’s the classic tale of the Vampire Count Orlok, who expresses interest in a new residence and real estate agent Hutter's wife, with Max Schreck’s rat-faced Count Orlock remaining arguably the scariest vampire ever depicted on-screen. While some tend to interpret this tale as a subtext to Nazism or anti-Semitism, at its core, it's simply the tale of a monster that brings ruin and death in his wake. That such a tale has managed to survive its era, considering the obstacles that could have totally removed it from view, is all the more remarkable.
The Mummy (1932)
Director: Karl Freund
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners
Emphasizing mood and tone rather than thrills is the approach Karl Freund takes in The Mummy, and the result is a melancholy and atmospheric depiction of eternal passion, heartbreak, and occult reincarnation. The film sees Egyptian high priest Imhotep brought back to life after nearly 3,700 years, wreaking havoc upon the members of a British field exposition. However, when he discovers a woman whom he believes is the reincarnation of his beloved priestess, he falls madly in love. Boris Karloff delivers one of his best performances of all time, giving viewers an antagonist who’s both sympathetic and distinctively human. Nonetheless, there’s no exoneration for his crimes, and while the heroes prevail, it’s not by their own doing, leaving you with a film that’s both appropriately and beautifully bleak.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman
The late George A. Romero’s debut zombie film Night of the Living Dead follows a group of terrified survivors who seek refuge in an old farmhouse when the dead suddenly come back to life. More importantly, though, the film sets the template for just about every single zombie movie that’s come since, such as the idea of a slow-moving enemy that’s easy to escape, meaning that only your fellow man or your own mistakes can be your downfall. The downbeat, realistic atmosphere gives the film a thrilling sense of tension, which continues right through to the very depressing conclusion. Night of the Living Dead is perhaps one of the greatest low-budget cult movies ever made, and certainly one of the most influential.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Director: George Waggner
Cast: Claude Rains, Warren William, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi
The Wolf Man is arguably the best installment in Universal’s classic horror stable that isn’t based on an existing literary property. In it, we follow the journey of a sensible man who returns to his homeland where he’s attacked by a lycanthrope and cursed to suffer horrific transformations whenever the moon is full; a curse his logical mind simply can’t accept to be true. It’s one of Universal’s darkest early horror films, and the overarching themes of man vs. myth and loss of individualism are brilliantly displayed thanks to a smart, well-executed script and Lon Chaney Jr.’s excellent portrayal of the titular man-turned-monster. The Wolf Man is a must-see for anyone who loves monster movies, and while it’s only 70 minutes in length, it still contains more intelligence, wit, and chills than many of today’s by-the-numbers horror offerings.
Director: James Whale
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff
Frankenstein brilliantly explores the fine line between genius and madness, as an obsessed scientist assembles a living being from the parts of exhumed corpses. The production and set design add volumes to the atmosphere and beauty of the film. Whale helps, as well, with some ingenious shots and sequences such as the "progressive close-ups" when we first see the monster. Younger viewers might have a difficult time watching Frankenstein if they’re not used to black and white, slower paced, understated films with a different approach to acting, but it’s one of those acquired tastes that’s absolutely worth acquiring.
Director: Tom Browning
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners
Bela Lugosi's timeless, chilling portrayal of Dracula in 1931 is what set the standard for nearly every major vampiric role that’s come since. Director Tom Browning uses the first two acts to bring the content of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel to life while expanding upon the source material in the third act and paying homage to the popular stage play by John Balderston and Hamilton Deane. The electric tension between the elegant Dracula and the vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing is heart-pounding, and who could forget the lustful gaze of Mina Harker as she’s hypnotized by the Count’s sinister charm and succumbs to his will? Admittedly, the final scenes become a bit static, particularly once the action moves to England, but Dracula remains an undisputed classic among horror films.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart
Although versions of this film exist in the decades immediately before and after, it’s the 1931 iteration of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that most horror fans consider to be the definitive take on the classic 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson novella. It’s the terrifying tale of a man becoming a victim of his own dark side, as a dangerous potion turns the brilliant Dr. Jekyll into the monstrous and animalistic Mr. Hyde. Fredric March delivers a breathtaking, Oscar-winning performance in the two-pronged titular role, with appropriately creepy, nuanced overacting that lends believability to the fact that Jekyll and Hyde truly are two distinct entities inhabiting the same body. From a technical standpoint, the film boasts gorgeous cinematography, with unique and atmospheric shots that compliment a wide array of unparalleled set pieces. In an era where Universal was the undisputed home of horror, this Paramount Pictures classic broke new ground for the genre.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive
The Bride of Frankenstein is an eccentric, campy, technically impressive, and frightening picture that has aged remarkably well, telling the classic tale of Dr. Frankenstein tempting fate once again by creating a suitable mate for his monster. After initially refusing to do a sequel to Frankenstein, director James Whale would eventually falter when Universal agreed to let him have complete artistic freedom, and it was a big gamble that certainly paid off in the end. The classic characters from Mary Shelley’s iconic novel truly come to life in this film, and few directors have managed to blend horror, comedy and pathos as successfully as Whale. More so than the original, this film is regarded as the high point of the Universal horror series and will forever serve as a testament to Whale’s genius.
What about you? What are your favorite old-school horror movies? Let us know in the comments section!