Written By: Dan Geer
Since the Summer season has ended and Halloween is approaching, I figured I’d compile a list of my Top 10 Classic Horror Films.
Some of these films people might consider silly by today’s jaded and cynical standards, where everything has to either make you jump or have tons of blood and gore. All that stuff is cool and all, but with classic horror films it was the horrific nature of the subject matter contained within as well as the moody look and feel of these films that scared people back then for the most part. They had style.
It took me a while to compile this list, because there are so many to consider. And many of my favorite films did not make it on here only because it’s a “Top 10” list. I could probably make a Top 30. But I have given it a lot of thought, and have finally come up with 10 horror films that I feel made their mark in film history in regards to the horror genre.
Here they are:
10. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Summary (imdb.com): The radiation from a fallen satellite might have caused the recently deceased to rise from the grave and seek the living to use as food. This is the situation that a group of people penned up in an old farmhouse must deal with.
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” At the time, the very idea of the dead coming back to life to feed on the flesh of the living was enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This movie actually showed it. No clever editing or tricks. Just a camera shooting an undead person eating a leg (or whatever).
This is the movie that set the bar for all zombie movies that followed. It just goes to show you what can be done with a low budget, no-name actors and a sick vision of horror. This movie still stands the test of time, especially the film’s shocking ending. For me, I look at this film as the bridge between the old classic horror genre and modern-day horror genre.
9. Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Summary (imdb.com): When his sister Elizabeth dies suddenly, Francis Barnard visits his brother-in-law Don Medina to find out exactly what happened to her. Don Medina lives a lonely life since his wife’s death. He loved her dearly and can’t explain what she died of. Francis clearly isn’t welcome and it is only Don Medina’s sister Catherine that seems to have an interest him. As Francis and Catherine explore the events surrounding Elizabeth’s death, Francis learns of Don Medina’s horrific childhood experiences and discover an attempt to drive him mad.
I love the Edgar Allen Poe films that Roger Corman directed. This is one of the most well-known, along with House of Usher, of which it has a similar tone and feel to. He would shoot these films in a matter of days and manage to produce some of the most eerie-feeling horror films of that generation. It was a change from the usual types of horror films of the 30s, 40s and 50s, because Poe’s stories were mainly about what man is capable of when driven to madness, showing that mere men can be even scarier than monsters in the dark.
8. The Wolf Man (1941)
Summary (moviefone.com): “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the moon is full and bright.” Upon first hearing these words, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) dismisses them as childish folderol. After all, this is the 20th Century; how can a human being turn into a werewolf? Talbot soon learns how when he attempts to rescue Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) from a nocturnal attack by a wolf. Collapsing, Talbot discovers upon reviving that Jenny is dead-and, lying by her side, is not the body of a beast, but of a gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). The son of fortune teller Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), Bela was a lycanthrope, or “wolf man.” And now that he has been bitten by Bela, Talbot is cursed to suffer the torments of the damned whenever the moon is full.
Even though The Wolf Man is my least favorite of the Universal Studios Monsters on this list, he is still one of the greatest monsters of all time. What true classic horror film fan doesn’t love the most famous werewolf of all?
Not only is the makeup by Jack Pierce extremely memorable (along with Frankenstein and The Mummy), but the moody atmosphere of the film still captures my imagination to this day. Full moons, heavy shadows, fog on the ground, etc. – this film did it all very well. I just love the look of this film!
Lastly, Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Lawrence Talbot/the Wolf Man is unforgettable. Probably the only other monster from Universal besides Frankenstein’s where you actually feel sorry for the guy.
7. La maschera del demonio (1960)
(Black Sunday – USA title)
Summary (imdb.com): A vengeful witch and her fiendish servant return from the grave and begin a bloody campaign to possess the body of the witch’s beautiful look-alike descendant. Only the girl’s brother and a handsome doctor stand in her way.
Who can forget the opening scene of this film with the witch (Babara Steele) getting hammered in the face with a spiked mask? Or the incredible face transformation effect that still holds up to this day? No other movie has ever quite been able to replicate the gothic ambiance that Italian director Mario Bava captured on film here. I’m not sure what sets it apart from other horror films, but it is definitely one that stands out as one of the most atmospheric and shocking horror films of its time.
6. The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
Summary (imdb.com): After a long journey, Philip arrives at the Usher mansion seeking his loved one, Madeline. Upon arriving, however, he discovers that Madeline and her brother Roderick Usher have been afflicted with a mysterious malady: Roderick’s senses have become painfully acute, while Madeline has become catatonic. That evening, Roderick tells his guest of an old Usher family curse: any time there has been more than one Usher child, all of the siblings have gone insane and died horrible deaths. As the days wear on, the effects of the curse reach their terrifying climax.
This is director Roger Corman’s first outing making an Edgar Allen Poe film, and to this day I say it is still the best. Corman is notorious for putting in creepy dream sequences or flashbacks in his Poe films, and the dream sequence in this film still freaks me out. The music, the wasteland that the cursed mansion rests upon, the demented paintings on the wall of the Usher family, etc. – all do a wonderful job of setting the tone for this ominous tale, not to mention Vincent Price’s unforgettable performance as Roderick Usher.
5. Horror of Dracula (1958)
Summary (imdb.com): Jonathan Harker takes employment with Count Dracula, ostensibly to catalog his vast library. In fact, he is on a mission to kill the Count, a vampire. Before he can do so however, the Count gains the upper hand and Harker soon finds himself as one of the walking dead. Dracula has taken an interest in Harker’s fiancée, Lucy Holmwood and it is left to Harker’s colleague, Dr. Van Helsing to protect her. He has difficulty convincing Lucy’s brother, Arthur Holmwood, of the dangers or even the existence of vampires. Soon, however, Arthur’s wife Mina is targeted by Count Dracula and he and Van Helsing race to find his lair before she is lost to them forever.
While this version of Dracula from Hammer Film Productions does not have the same sort of charm and spirit of the 1931 Tod Browning version starring Bela Lugosi, there is plenty to love about this re-vamp (ha!) of the classic vampire story. Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing have good chemistry on screen here, even more so than in their previous Hammer Film outing, The Curse of Frankenstein. I would say that Horror of Dracula is probably the most memorable for the two horror veterans out of all their time spent together on screen in various Hammer Horror film productions.
This remake or re-imagining, along with many other attempts to remake the original Monster films from Universal Studios, never quite captured the same sort of look and feel of those originals. But they did create admirably ghoulish environments of their own (filmed in color this time) and brought back those great movie monsters for a whole new generation. Christopher Lee’s Dracula also had vampire fangs, while Lugosi’s did not, and the film made moderate use of blood and gore which was pretty much unheard of at the time for horror films. How cool is that?
Sequels: The Brides of Dracula (1960) Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
(A word to the wise: The sequels are pretty much bombs after Dracula: Prince of Darkness)
4. The Mummy (1932)
Summary (imdb.com): In 1921 a field expedition in Egypt discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep, who was condemned and buried alive for sacrilege. Also found in the tomb is the Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life. One night a young member of the expedition reads the Scroll out loud, and then goes insane, realizing that he has brought Im-Ho-Tep back to life. Ten years later, disguised as a modern Egyptian, the mummy attempts to reunite with his lost love, an ancient princess who has been reincarnated into a beautiful young woman.
To this day, this original version of The Mummy is still the best. Jumping right from playing the monster in Frankenstein, Boris Karloff brilliantly takes on the role of the evil Im-Ho-Tep in this film. Sure, there were other Mummy movies that followed, with a different Mummy named “Kharis,” and of course the Hammer Film renditions. Those were all fun in their own right, but no one did it better than Karloff.
The most memorable scene for me is in the first few minutes where the archeologist is reading the Scroll of Thoth and the Mummy eerily comes to life. Yes, it isn’t nearly as scary as it probably was for the audiences of the time, but that scene still has the ability to send a chill down my spine.
3. Dracula (1931)
Summary (imdb.com): After a harrowing ride through the Carpathian mountains in eastern Europe, Renfield enters castle Dracula to finalize the transferral of Carfax Abbey in London to Count Dracula, who is in actuality a vampire. Renfield is drugged by the eerily hypnotic count, and turned into one of his thralls, protecting him during his sea voyage to London. After sucking the blood and turning the young Lucy Weston into a vampire, Dracula turns his attention to her friend Mina Seward, daughter of Dr. Seward who then calls in a specialist, Dr. Van Helsing, to diagnose the sudden deterioration of Mina’s health. Van Helsing, realizing that Dracula is indeed a vampire, tries to prepare Mina’s fiance, John Harker, and Dr. Seward for what is to come and the measures that will have to be taken to prevent Mina from becoming one of the undead.
Bela Lugosi IS Dracula. There have been many actors down the years who have played the blood-sucking monster, like Christopher Lee, Frank Langella or Gary Oldman – but none of them stand out as “iconic” like Lugosi does. Whenever we think of the traditional image of Dracula, we think Lugosi. The black cape, the cowl, the medallion around the neck, the slicked back black hair, etc., it is all taken from Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula. And, of course, his thick Hungarian accent put the icing on the cake to make his Dracula the definitive depiction of the famous undead monster.
As far as classic horror environments go, this movie beats them all hands down, with rundown gothic castles, giant cobwebs, coffins, vampire bats, spooky fog, the howling of wolves in the night (or “children of the night,” as Dracula refers to them as), etc. This is how monster movies are supposed to look. Director Tod Browning was a master of horror ambiance.
2. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)
(Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror – USA title)
Summary (fandango.com): The film begins in the Carpathian mountains, where real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wagenheim) has arrived to close a sale with the reclusive Herr Orlok (Max Schreck). Despite the feverish warnings of the local peasants, Hutter insists upon completing his journey to Orlok’s sinister castle. While enjoying his host’s hospitality, Hutter accidently cuts his finger-whereupon Orlok tips his hand by staring intently at the bloody digit, licking his lips. Hutter catches on that Orlok is no ordinary mortal when he witnesses the vampiric nobleman loading himself into a coffin in preparation for his journey to Bremen. By the time the ship bearing Orlok arrives at its destination, the captain and crew have all been killed-and partially devoured. There follows a wave of mysterious deaths in Bremen, which the local authorities attribute to a plague of some sort. But Ellen, Hutter’s wife, knows better. Armed with the knowledge that a vampire will perish upon exposure to the rays of the sun, Ellen offers herself to Orlok, deliberately keeping him “entertained” until sunrise. At the cost of her own life, Ellen ends Orlok’s reign of terror once and for all.
Nosferatu is actually a direct rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Screenwriter Henrik Galeen had the story take place in a different location and the character names changed in hopes of avoiding disputes regarding the story material, but that did not help since Stoker’s widow went to court over the matter demanding that the film be destroyed. Thankfully not all prints were destroyed, and it is now completely restored and readily available on DVD for all to enjoy. I highly recommend the Ultimate 2-Disc Edition from Kino Video.
Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula may be the most iconic, but Max Schreck’s “Count Orlok” portrayal of Dracula is still the creepiest. He’s bald, pale, has long pointy fingers and sports fangs for his two front teeth. I sure don’t want this dude standing at the foot of my bed at night. I wish they would stop sexualizing the character of Dracula on film and just make him creepy and nasty-looking like Count Orlok, having no other craving except for the blood of the living.
Film buffs will love director F.W. Murnau’s German expressionistic masterpiece, with its non-realistic jagged set pieces, exaggerated light and shadow effects, etc. This film is definitely an important landmark in the history of cinema, and every horror fan needs to school themselves by watching this movie.
On a side note, the salt storehouses that served as Count Orlok’s home still exists today in Lübeck, Germany! Hopefully none of his descendants reside there…
Here, for your viewing pleasure, is an unrestored cut of the entire film. It is a public domain version, so the picture and music suck. So I still recommend buying the DVD since it is more accurate to the director’s vision. But this will give you an “idea” of what the film is like.
Summary (imdb.com): Frankenstein – Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster from various posthumous ‘donors’ and combines them into a massive creature, to whom he wishes to bestow life. The movie centers on this monster and his struggle in this ‘life after death’. The Bride of Frankenstein – Dr. Frankenstein and his monster both turn out to be alive, not killed as previously believed. Dr. Frankenstein wants to get out of the evil experiment business, but when a mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius, kidnaps his wife, Dr. Frankenstein agrees to help him create a new creature, a woman, to be the companion of the monster.
I could not choose between Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein when picking the number one classic horror film of all time. For me, they’re both brilliant and feel like one story since Bride of Frankenstein takes place immediately after Frankenstein and James Whale returned to direct it.
Modern-day audiences often look at the Frankenstein monster as silly and not scary. But it was never the intent of director James Whale to make a scary monster. It was the idea of playing God by creating life by stringing together various dead body parts from rifled graves that was scary in the minds of audiences back then, not so much the monster itself. We were meant to feel empathy for the creature, with it trying to find its way back into the world after being dead. He’s ugly. He’s misunderstood. He does not fit in. It wasn’t his fault that he was brought into this world, and now he has to deal with mankind’s non-acceptance of him.
These films were beautifully shot. For one, they were heavily inspired by German expressionism, which is totally apparent with Dr. Frankenstein’s castle set piece – with its odd-shaped windows, doors, stairs and walls. And who can forget his famous “Mad Scientist” laboratory? That set is forever embedded into pop culture. No horror film since then has quite matched the look of these two films, and Karloff’s depiction of the Frankenstein monster still stands today as one of the most iconic monsters in cinema history.