Sometimes Halloween is best when we get nostalgic and remember our past costumes, past sojourns at trick-or-treating, past jack-o-lanterns, and past viewings of scary movies. The following 20 streaming selections are re-watchable horror movies from days gone by, or, perhaps, waiting for a few fresh, innocent viewers. In any case, get ready for somnambulists, vampires, killers, monsters, mutants, demons, and giant bugs! Happy Halloween!
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(Amazon Prime, Kanopy, TubiTV, Fandor)
Robert Wiene’s essential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is an unquestionable landmark in cinema, influencing everyone from Murnau and Lang to Hollywood filmmakers of the 1940s. Rather than attempting to capture “realism,” which was the general method of the time, Wiene went the opposite route, slathering the screen with forced perspectives and all kinds of bizarre diagonals and slants; there is hardly a right angle to be found in this film. It results in vivid, dreamlike logic and a terrifying lack of control.
Werner Krauss stars as the doctor, who enters a carnival with his main attraction, a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) who predicts people’s deaths, and may well be the cause of same. When his best friend is found murdered, Francis (Friedrich Feher) immediately suspects Caligari and sets out to prove his hunch. A prologue and epilogue were apparently added over Wiene’s objections to lessen the overall impact of the film’s sheer, unrelenting madness.
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is a fever-dream-infused piece of horror that remains one of the most beautiful and eerie movies of all time. Based loosely on writings by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, this 75-minute feature (with very spare dialogue and English subtitles) tells the story of traveler and occult enthusiast Allan Gray (Julian West), who arrives at a small village, checks into an inn, and subsequently enters into a world of weird nightmares.
There are shadows that move by themselves, a vision of Gray’s own funeral (complete with a little window in his coffin), and a climax in a flour mill. Some of these images have the effect of bad dreams; they can give you pinpricks and make your blood run cold. The movie is shot in black-and-white and in soft-focus, giving it an ethereal, deliberately non-realistic look that’s difficult to nail down to any specific attitude. It’s a masterpiece, worthy many viewings. “Julian West” was a stage name for Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who helped finance the movie.
Son of Frankenstein
What Halloween would be complete without a screening of something from the Universal horror canon? Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939) is the third in the Frankenstein series, and it’s a step down from James Whale’s masterful Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but it still has a great deal going for it.
Boris Karloff returned for his final turn as the monster, and Bela Lugosi gives a terrific performance as Ygor, the servant with a partly broken neck. (It was the fifth of eight films that horror icons Lugosi and Karloff made together.) Basil Rathbone stars as the titular son, who moves his family to his father’s old castle, and finds the body of the old monster. He, of course, tries to resurrect it to restore honor to the family name. Director Lee makes terrific use of the bizarre sets, and a melancholy score by Frank Skinner completes the mood. Mel Brooks borrowed heavily from this movie for his 1974 parody Young Frankenstein.
Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.’s The Blob (1958) is one of the great, fun sci-fi classics of its decade, a little lighter on the usual message-driven fare about nuclear war or communism. Twenty-eight-year-old Steve McQueen stars in his first movie as a teenager who sees a meteor land on earth. Before he can track down its landing site, the meteor cracks open and a red glop of goo climbs out and eats an old man who had been poking at it with a stick.
The red goo continues to roll all over town devouring people and growing bigger, eventually attacking a theater full of people, who are absorbed in a scary movie! Nothing seems to stop it, not acid, not bullets. The weird practical effects for the blob itself are still pretty effective, as opposed to most of today’s films in which we can assume that it was done by computer. Be sure and tap your toes to the amazing title song, “The Blob,” written by Burt Bacharach and performed by the Five Blobs, an essential tune in any Halloween mix.
The Raven (1963)
One of Roger Corman’s cycle of eight Edgar Allan Poe films, The Raven (1963) is ostensibly based on Poe’s famous poem, but it’s actually the silliest of the cycle, a fun monster mash with three horror icons, and Jack Nicholson besides. Vincent Price stars as Dr. Erasmus Craven, who mourns the death of his wife Lenore (Hazel Court). He receives a visit from a talking raven, who claims to be a wizard under a spell. Craven transforms him back, to Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre), and he learns that the ghost of Lenore may be hanging around the castle of the culprit, Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). So they head there, joined by Craven’s daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson), for a showdown.
Even at a scant 86 minutes, the movie sometimes seems to get a little stuck, but overall, it’s ridiculously enjoyable. The great horror/sci-fi author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) wrote the screenplay.
Blood and Black Lace
The Italian-born master filmmaker Mario Bava started as a cinematographer and turned director in 1960, and while stories and dialogue were never his strong suit, he more than made up for it with vivid atmosphere and low-budget inventiveness; indeed, he pioneered several aspects of the horror genre that are still used to this day. He could evoke fear and darkness out of astoundingly bold and varied colors (red may have been a favorite). Of all his films, Blood and Black Lace (1964) arguably best showcases this use of color, and also has arguably the most cohesive plot.
The story takes place in the fashion world, where many beautiful models run around, trying on lovely clothes. The models are hardly as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside; things like theft, drugs, abortions, and blackmail are common among them. A killer with a blank mask begins attacking and taking out the models, one by one. With grisly precision, Bava pays special attention to the tense anticipation leading up to the deaths, using deep shadows and creepy mannequins to emphasize the terror. Many agree today that this movie was one of the first of the “slasher” genre.
Made during Robert Altman’s peak creative period, between M*A*S*H and Nashville, Images (1972) was perhaps his only foray into horror. It has all the brilliant psychological torment of Polanski’s Repulsion, but ironically spread out across a brighter, more colorful, widescreen frame. Susanna York stars as Cathryn, a housewife staying in a remote house (in Ireland) with her mostly absent husband (Rene Auberjonois) and working on her children’s book; we hear passages of said book, which was written by York in real life.
She begins to suspect her husband of shady dealings, and she begins to see and hear strange things, perhaps ghosts or perhaps real people. When she lashes out and kills one such intruder, she waits for the corpse to disappear... and waits. Altman tells this story with no explanations or backstory, just complete interior psychosis. It mostly alienated audiences of the 1970s, though York received the Best Actress award at Cannes, and the film received one Oscar nomination, for John Williams’ score. Today it can be seen as one of Altman’s most fascinating—and terrifying—films.
As if answering for his dark, interior films Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski cast himself in The Tenant (1976), effectively putting himself through the same hellish ringer as his leading ladies. It’s one of his greatest and darkest films. A timid clerk named Trelkovsky (Polanski) rents a Paris apartment formerly occupied by a suicide victim. He slowly goes mad, finding teeth embedded in the wall and trying on the dead girl’s clothes. At times it seems as if the neighbors are tormenting him or that the dead girl is somehow haunting the room.
Some scenes are so subtly psychotic that you may not quite realize how anxious you are until the final fadeout. Isabelle Adjani, beautiful and nerdy in big eyeglasses, co-stars as a friend of the former occupant, and three Oscar-winners, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, and Shelley Winters, turn up in various creepy roles. It’s based on a novel by Roland Topor.
The Hills Have Eyes
Wes Craven’s second major movie after his harrowing debut The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) was very definitely inspired by Tobe Hooer’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but has its own distinctive feel. It’s creepier... and squirmier, helped a great deal by the iconic image of Michael Berryman as one of a family of cannibal mutants. When a family in a station wagon and an RV takes an unwise shortcut, they break down in the desert, near where the creeps live.
The mutants attack, steal food and ammo, and kidnap a baby, which they intend to enjoy as a snack. The movie has an intense visceral impact, with Craven using the dark and the craggy natural landscape as elements of the unknown; anything could be anywhere at any time. Dee Wallace, later known for her roles in The Howling, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Cujo, co-stars. It might be easy to assume that the “normal” people are the heroes, but actually the only hero here is a four-legged one. There are three other sequels and remakes to date, none of which can touch this one.