I firmly believe you can determine a great deal about a society from what scares it. Horror movies are a wonderful demonstration of what makes us uncomfortable, what scares and what disgusts us. People began making horror films almost as soon as the technology was available. In this first list I tackle the earliest horror films up thru the end of the 1950s. This was an age influenced by two great wars, the rise of the Nazi party, the changing roles of women and the beginning of the Atomic Age.
Did I miss one of your favorite movies? Be sure to COMMENT below.
10. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
This film is a horror cult classic and one of the best of the haunted house genre. Vincent Price is incredible in this film (as he is in most!). This suspenseful film follows a group of people who agree to be locked into a haunted house for a $10,000 reward once day breaks (if they survive of course). Over the course of the night the characters get picked off one by one by both the natural and supernatural. I haven’t seen the remake and I’d love to know how you guys think it stands up to the original.
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
During the 1950s science fiction reigned supreme. The age of the atomic film had begun. The influence of science fiction on horror is not new but the 1950s created a beautiful meshing of the two genres. This film demonstrates how beautiful that marriage can be. Aliens invade Earth and begin to take over humanity. This film is also a clear metaphor for the Red Scare (Who is alien? Who is human? Who can you trust?). This alien invasion story is by far one of the best in science fiction. The 1978 remake is definitely also worth a peek and does justice to the original.
8. Cat People (1942)
One of the most amazing things about horror movies is that I find they reflect the audience much more than they do the filmmaker. Films are made based on what scares us. And what topic is scarier to us (sadly, even in 2012) than sexuality? Especially female sexuality. Cat People is suspenseful without relying on gore and scary without relying on the scenery.
7. Freaks (1932)
Freaks is absolutely one of my favorite horror movies. There is something just incredible about watching these characters blossom under the strangest conditions. It follows the story of a person with dwarfism and a young woman who is trying to exploit him for his money. Once it is revealed that he is being used he and his community of sideshow freaks exact revenge. Though we may view her punishment as harsh – it is an awful lot of fun to watch. We find ourselves cheering for the sideshow community. I also love this movie because it is an incredible glimpse back into the history of disabled people in society. The actors in the film were genuine carnival performers and sideshow attractions. And watching them fight against “normal” is actually inspiring.
6. Dracula (1931)
Although Nosferatu tackled the vampire genre in 1922, Dracula really created something entirely new and refreshing. I would consider Dracula to be the birth of the “sexy vampire” genre. Starring the horror legend Bela Lugosi, this film is an absolute masterpiece of early horror. This is one of Bela Lugosi’s greatest films and the one he is best known for. Dracula would be remade many times over the years but each remake tips it hat to the original.
5. M (1931)
M follows a string of child murders in a town and the paranoia that ensues. The tension in this film is palpable. As more and more children disappear, people begin to turn on one another. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is seeing the way the different segments of society handle the child murders (parents, law enforcement, organized crime ring). In a day in age where we are morbidly fascinated with things like the Casey Anthony murder trial M is a film that remains as relevant today as it was in 1931.
4. Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein is the origin story of one of Universal Studios’ most recognized monsters. It follows Mary Shelley’s basic storyline while also adding to the Frankenstein mythology. When many people think of Frankenstein we think of a mad scientist working in a lab surrounded by lightning and scientific equipment. The doctor exclaims “It’s alive. It’s ALIVE” and the monster rises up. This is the film that added the birth of the monster to the canon. Frankenstein proved to be very successful to Universal Studios, led to a number of sequels and made a star of Boris Karloff.
3. Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Phantom of the Opera is an incredibly important film in the history of horror. Its use of make-up and prosthetics to create the horrifying look of The Phantom was unprecedented at the time. And while the reveal seems mundane and tame to us in 2012 it was horrifying and grotesque in 1925. It boosted the career of the first American horror film star, Lon Chaney Sr. Lon Chaney Sr. was incredibly dynamic in the world of horror and this film best represents his talents combined – his incredible use of makeup, acting and his ability to transform into any character. His influence is still felt today and the makeup artist has become one of the most important roles in the creation of horror films.
2. Nosferatu (1922)
This film follows the basic storyline of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The reason names have been changed around is that Dracula was not yet in the public domain and his family forbade a film adaptation. The film follows a young man who has recently visited what he is beginning to suspect is a vampire. The vampire follows him home leaving a trail of death along the way. The Monster is finally defeated by the heart of a pure woman but not before tragedy ensues. This film is a must-see for those who enjoy vampire films. The Count is far from the sexy vampire that is currently in fashion. He is hideous; a true monster. He is certainly not what anyone swoons over in Twilight. Another incredible film to come out of post WWI Germany.
Bonus Tip: Once you’ve seen Nosferatu, watch Shadow of the Vampire (2000). It’s an incredibly funny take on the making of Nosferatu.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Some people argue that this film gave birth to the entire genre of horror films. Everything about this film is distorted and disorienting. It embraces German expressionism and uses it to create a world that is tinged with confusion and darkness. The Germans really influenced the genre in this era and it isn’t surprising. Who would best understand horror than a Germany after World War I? The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari follows the story of Cesare who, under the control of Dr. Caligari, has gone on a killing spree in this strange town. Dr. Caligari keeps Cesare asleep calling Cesare “The Somnambulist.” There is an unnerving feeling to the dizzying sets, dark makeup and silent killer. What I would consider the most remarkable thing about this film is that it was the very first film to ever have a twist ending.