Halloween is almost here. Last week we brought you some of the most recent horror films to watch in celebration of the pagan holiday. Now we present the classics, the flicks that have been lying in wait, infinitely patient from the dawn of time to the 1980s. There are monsters here, vampires and werewolves and zombies, in black-and-white and in color. Some are gory, some are funny, and some of them are outright spooky.
Choose wisely, and beware. Happy Halloween!
Dracula (1931) (Shudder)
For the month of October, Shudder has added a selection of six great Universal horror movies. This one started them all off. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) may not be the most dynamic or terrifying of all horror movies, but it certainly is one of the most atmospheric—and iconic. It was more directly based on a stage play than on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, and as such it can feel a little stiff. But Browning was a true master of the macabre, and he inhabits the material in a way that no other version of this story ever has.
Then there is Bela Lugosi in the title role; it’s not just a performance. Lugosi becomes one with this role, forever cementing his name in the annals of horror. When Lugosi died 25 years later, he was buried in his black cape. German Expressionist Karl Freund provides the gloomy cinematography, and then went on to direct Universal’s The Mummy (1932)—also available on Shudder—the following year.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (Shudder)
James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is arguably the best of all the horror movies made at Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s. After the enormous success of his Frankenstein (1931)—also on Shudder—Whale was given freedom to do whatever he wanted And he threw every zany, campy, crazy, preposterous, monstrous idea he had into the sequel. Boris Karloff (credited only with his last name) returns as the monster, having miraculously survived the first film. Elsa Lanchester plays the bride, as well as author Mary Shelley in the film’s inspired prologue. Ernest Thesiger is the very campy Doctor Pretorius, who finds Doctor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and blackmails him into creating another monster.
There are creepy little people in glass jars, a snack on top of a ransacked grave, and the monster’s famous meeting with the blind man. Una O’Connor steals several scenes as the town busybody. Look fast for John Carradine in an early role. See also Whale’s equally crazy The Invisible Man (1933) on Shudder.
The Wolf Man (1941) (Shudder)
Ten years after Dracula, Universal’s monster factory became more factory-like. George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) doesn’t have quite the atmospheric or personal touches of the 1930s films, but it’s a little more intense. Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Lawrence Talbot, an American who returns to his ancestral home in Wales for a funeral. He is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Chaney, the son of the legendary “master of disguise” silent-era actor, is the real reason this works. He has a warm, aw-shucks, heart-on-his-sleeve appeal that makes Talbot’s pain and sorrow deeply felt. This is a true curse for him.
Bela Lugosi co-stars in a supporting role as a gypsy named “Bela,” and the legendary Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya plays his mother (if horror films were considered for Oscars, she surely would have been nominated). Claude Rains (the star of The Invisible Man) plays Talbot’s estranged father, and Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday) is here in one of his usual milquetoast roles.
I Walked with a Zombie (FilmStruck)
Hoping to jump on the monster-movie bandwagon, RKO hired the well-read Val Lewton to produce a string of low-budget “B” horror movies, and he came up with nine great ones that weren’t quite what the studio was expecting, but were nonetheless successful. I Walked with a Zombie (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur, is arguably the best. Loosely based on Jane Eyre, it tells the story of a nurse (Frances Dee) who is hired to look after a sick woman, Jessica (Christine Gordon), on a plantation in the Caribbean. Jessica exists in a kind of “zombie” state, but seems drawn to some of the voodoo rituals on the island, getting up and walking toward them. The movie’s dialogue is surprisingly poetic, but it’s the non-speaking passages that are the most graceful and haunting.
Tom Conway plays Jessica’s husband, with a speech about how death lurks behind anything that’s beautiful, and James Ellison plays his hard-drinking half-brother. Tourneur treats the non-white characters sympathetically, including the wise maid Teresa Harris and Calypso singer Sir Lancelot. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak wrote both this and The Wolf Man.
The Tingler (Shudder)
Horror fans might know the producer/director William Castle for his use of theatrical gimmicks, such as “Emergo,” which consisted of a skeleton being slid on a wire over the audience’s heads. But he could occasionally make a terrific movie, too. The Tingler (1959) may be his masterpiece, and an early example of meta-filmmaking in horror. The legendary Vincent Price—the “rapping” voice on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a mortician who studies fear. He believes that when people are scared, a creepy-crawly thing forms on their spines, “the tingler,” that can only be destroyed by screaming.
He tests his theory when he meets the owner of a silent cinema movie theater, Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge), and his deaf-mute wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), who can’t scream. Then, he extracts an actual tingler, which gets loose inside the dark movie theater. From there, Castle installed buzzers in some of the seats to make the audience scream and help “destroy” the creature. Even at home, however, this movie is very funny and clever and just a little bit creepy.
Carnival of Souls (Hoopla, Fandor, FilmStruck, Amazon Prime)
This moody classic has fallen into the public domain, but at least some of the streaming services (Fandor and Filmstruck) offer a nicely restored transfer. Director “Herk” Harvey had been a maker of industrial films when he decided to make a horror feature in the style of Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, and Carnival of Souls (1962) was the result.
Shot in black and white with a sinister, nightmare-inducing, organ-driven music score, it tells the story of Mary (the method-acting-trained Candace Hilligoss), the only survivor of a terrible car crash, who accepts a job as a church organist. She begins seeing things, like a strange ghoul standing outside her car window (while the car is moving) and other freaky things in an abandoned carnival. It’s more of a triumph of nightmare logic than of storytelling, but it’s unsettling and spooky enough to have established a cult following. Even George A. Romero was a fan; it inspired him to make Night of the Living Dead.
Black Sabbath (TubiTV, Shudder, Fandor)
Italian director Mario Bava is not as well known as he should be, but he’s a master filmmaker who helped usher horror into the modern era. Black Sabbath (1963) is one of his earlier efforts, an anthology film that still sends shivers down the spine. (It was titled by distributor AIP in a deliberate effort to recall Bava’s hit Black Sunday from 1960.) Boris Karloff stars as a kind of host to this trilogy of short pieces, and also appears in the second story, “The Wurdalak.” The other segments include “The Drop of Water,” about a nurse hired to prepare a corpse for burial, and “The Telephone,” set entirely in a basement apartment.
Bava was a pioneer at blending bold, unusual colors to suggest strong emotions; and at least one of these stories still packs a terrifying punch. The famous heavy metal band borrowed its name from this movie. TubiTV offers (free with ads) the American cut, with Karloff’s own singular voice on the soundtrack, while Fandor and Shudder offer the Italian version, which is considered superior. The choice is yours.
Japanese filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi never achieved the fame or acclaim of some of his fellow countrymen, but he did make one heck of a great, beautiful horror anthology with Kwaidan (1964). Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, it shows a good eye for framing, deep-focus photography, staging, economic cutting, and—most especially—changing of lighting within a single shot.
It features four stories: “The Black Hair” had already been done by Kenji Mizoguchi in his masterpiece Ugetsu; “The Woman of the Snow”—which was cut from the original U.S. release and is now restored—tells the story of a man who encounters a witch, with a particularly spooky scene; “Hoichi the Earless” is the longest and most engaging, running about an hour, about a blind musician who finds himself beckoned to play each night for a group of ghosts; and finally “In a Cup of Tea,” is the best and probably the scariest, where a samurai discovers a smiling face in a dish of water he is about to drink. Toru Takemitsu provides the haunting music score.
Roman Polanski has proved himself a master of stories about paranoia in limited or enclosed spaces, but that theme was never more intensely crystallized than in the black-and-white Repulsion (1965), which, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown notwithstanding, could be his best work. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol, a shy, repressed girl who lives with her sister in London. She can’t stand her sister’s lovemaking with her boyfriend and is disgusted when men come on to her.
When her sister and the boyfriend leave for the weekend, Carol is alone in the apartment, among many horrors of her own making. She leaves a skinned rabbit out to rot, imagines hands coming from the walls, and brutal intruders. Soon, real and imagined violence become intertwined in a sustained, delusional nightmare. Gilbert Taylor’s shadowy, threatening cinematography is essential.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Amazon Prime)
We lost director Tobe Hooper this year, but he left behind a unique body of work, including this, his best-known film, a masterpiece and a cultural landmark. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—sometimes spelled with “Chain Saw” as two words—thrilled audiences and appalled many others. Some thought it signaled the beginning of a new era, while others believed it foresaw end of the world.
It has lost little of its primal power. A group of young people on a road trip pick up a weird and scary hitchhiker, then run low on gas and find a house in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the house is occupied by a family of cannibals, including the famous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). Hooper uses bright sunlight to achieve a new kind of horror previously achieved by darkness and shadows. The sense of heat and even smell here is palpable. Additionally, his startling use of sound was a revelation at the time; star Marilyn Burns is still considered the greatest screamer in the history of movies.
Young Frankenstein (Netflix)
Not strictly a horror movie, of course, but Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) is so true to the first three Universal Frankenstein films that it makes perfect Halloween viewing. Brooks used original props created by Ken Strickfaden, shot in black-and-white, and used 1930s transitioning techniques, and the result is probably his best—and certainly his best-looking—film.
Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the infamous scientist, who distances himself by pronouncing his name “Frawnk-en-STEEN.” When he learns he has inherited his grandfather’s castle, he goes there, discovers his grandfather’s notes, and decides to continue his experiments. (“It could work!” he shouts maniacally.) Unfortunately, the monster is given an abnormal brain and the trouble starts again. Peter Boyle plays the monster, Teri Garr is a cute lab assistant, Marty Feldman is Igor, the hunchback (whose hunch keeps shifting), Madeline Kahn is Frankenstein’s fiancé, Cloris Leachman is the weird housekeeper, and an uncredited Gene Hackman plays the old blind hermit.