This Paul Leni movie laid down the blueprint for old-house mystery-horror movies, but none of the films that followed it – including the 1939 Bob Hope remake and 1932’s The Old Dark House – were so suffused in paranoia, dread, and downright creepiness.
F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece – which was the second unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – was the acme of German Expressionist dread. Max Schreck’s be-clawed, emaciated Count Orlok, a Goya boogeyman beyond the pale, augurs both the Jews vilified in Nazi propaganda and the extermination camp degenerates who enslaved and murdered them. This is the horror film as impending cataclysm.
The producer of Nosferatu having being sued by Stoker’s widow, the great Danish director Carl Thedor Dreyer turned to Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” An early talkie with sparse dialogue and a dream-like story about a man trying to protect two sisters – one of them a vampire – it’s best appreciated as a cryptic but immersive meditation in eeriness and the portending of death. The hero’s point-of-view shot of his own burial is especially disconcerting.
Bela Lugosi was a terrible actor but a genuinely frightening presence – his Count is proud, saturnine, malign, and a fervent believer in the beauty of death. Tod Browning’s film peaks early with the approach of Renfield (Dwight Frye, wonderfully credulous) to Dracula’s crumbling Gothic pile, which looks as if it were imagined by David Caspar Friedrich a hundred years previously.
James Whale’s sequel to his 1931 Frankenstein is a camp masterpiece of skewed sexual politics. Blackmailed into creating a mate for the Monster (Boris Karloff), Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) presents him with an Art Deco harpy who finds him repugnant. Elsa Lanchester played her and Mary Shelley, the novel’s author, who appears in the faux-Gothic prologue. Dwight Frye reprises Karl, the hunchback who delights in tormenting the Monster.
Conrad Veidt, who had played the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, can’t stop smiling as Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s Expressionist melodrama. The hideous rictus grin on his face was etched there by a surgeon hired by King james II. Batman’s enemy The Joker is his most famous legatee.
Paul Wegener played the Golem in the third of his films about a hulking clay monster made by a rabbi to protect Jews from persecution in medieval Prague. Shot in an experimental style that has sometimes been called “plastic,” the movies paves the way for Frankenstein and, containing elements of anti-Semitism like Nosferatu, prophesies the release of ruined Germany’s id in the 1930s.
As the virtuous characters in his circus melodrama, Dracula director Tod Browning cast real-life physically deformed circus sideshow perfomers, including a bearded lady, conjoined sisters, an intersex, microcephalics, a limbless man, a “stork-woman,” and a woman afflicted with Virchow-Seckel Syndrome. Heavily cut and generally reviled, Browning’s film was a visionary critique of beauty and narcissism – perhaps of the Hollywood glamour machine itself.
A rare British chiller from the war and postwar era, the Dead of Night combines several anecdotal tales framed by a country house mystery. The most frightening, which must have inspired Richard Attenborough’s Magic, depicts the fraught relationship between a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) and the dummy that has started to control him. In another story, two golfers compete for the hand of a woman: what the loser does after he’s cheated of victory is shattering; this episode subverted the “clubbable” bonhomie of regular screen partners Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.
Many directorial hands fell on the quintessential film of Gaston Leroux’s novel, but Lon Chaney alone was capable in the silent era of making the love-struck Phantom such a ghoulish apparition. How did that nice Michael Crawford ever get his hands on the part?
With all those curtains, it should have been called The Wafting. Oozing chic, Tony Scott’s drama is more of a fashion statement than a horror movie (and Only Lovers Left Alive is smarter), but it’s where the modern equation of vampirism and eroticism begins. Who would you rather sink your teeth into – Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, or Susan Sarandon?
Hands down the sexiest vampire of all time, Jennifer Beals – a vision in black lingerie – chomps down on Nicolas Cage’s strung-out literary agent, accelerating his lurch into madness. Cage’s comic tour de force as the inelegantly wasted victim augured his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas.
(aka Horror on Snape Island/Beyond the Fog) A group of bitchy, lusting archaeologists stranded on a remote island get a gruesome comeuppance in this cheap and cheerful British horror flick. Anna Palk outclassed her co-stars, who included Bryant Haliday, Jill Haworth, and the eternally randy Robin Askwith.
The British cult horror film par excellence d its folkloric power from fertility rituals and weird sacrificial imagery. There’s little doubt, though, that the tempting of Edward Woodward’s sexually repressed detective by Britt Ekland’s barmaid, Diane Cilento’s schoolteacher, and Ingrid Pitt’s librarian (say what?) explains its lasting popularity.
David Lynch’s pulp neo-noir draws heavily on the 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder and dismemberment of Elizabeth Short. L.A. sax player Fred (Bill Pullman) is arrested and jailed for the murder of his enigmatic brunette wife Renée (Patricia Arquette), a Short lookalike whose mutilated body he has found in their house.
After auto-mechanic Pete (Balthazar Getty) miraculously replaces Fred in his Cell, the police let him go and he starts an affair with the blonde porn-star blonde moll (Arqutte again) of a ferocious gangster (Robert Loggia) – self-evidently the Oedipal mother figure (or unobtainable woman) in Fred’s paranoid fantasy
Feverish, sardonic, and frightening whenever Loggia appears, Lynch’s most underrated movie also has Robert Blake, gnomic and sinister, as the last man you’d ever want to meet at a party.
This version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s allegorical tale about the duality of the soul was cast counterintuitively: Lana Turner played the fiancée of Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy); Ingrid Bergman was the music-hall girl with the bad Cockney accent and saucy smile whom Jekyll’s alter ego Mr. Hyde rapes. Later on, Jekyll passes out and dreams of whipping frenziedly the two naked women as they replace the horses pulling his trap. It’s no surprise Hollywood quickly put Bergman into a nun’s habit.
Angela Carter and director Neil Jordan adapted Carter’s werewolf story into this delirious Gothic riff on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. It’s lush and feverish – much better than Jordan’s Interview With a Vampire, in fact — and one of few films directed by a man that recognized how desperately teenage girls yean to lose their virginities to mono-browed, vulpine huntsmen.
Adapted from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s creepy ghost story is seem from the perspective of a sexually repressed governess. Newly hired to take care of two orphans (Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephen) at a country house, the self-dramatizing Miss Giddins comes to believe they are possessed by the spirits of former occupants. What is real and what is imagined never becomes clear. Kerr’s jittery performance beckoned Nicole Kidman’s in The Others and Birth.
Director Kaneto Shindo was the master of the chilling Japanese folktale. During a 14th century war, a poor mother and her daughter-in-law kill lost samurai, throw their bodies in a pit, and sell their belongings for food. When a returning soldier who joins up with them starts sleeping with the younger woman, the older woman dons a demon mask to scare him away – with horrific consequences. Shindo’s haunting film, set in a waving susuki field, plumbs the depths of sexual jealousy but also celebrates sexuality as a positive force.
Strange sobs, moans, chills, drafts, and a Mimosa scents tarnish a brother and sister’s experience of their new house by the Cornwall coast – situated someone near Rebecca’s Manderley, perhaps? Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell star in this pivotal Hollywood ghost story which, like Val Lewton’s horror thrillers and Spiral Staircase (1945), made unseen specters scarier than visible ones.
An insomniac painter’s obsession with his long-departed lover is manifested in the demons he sees all around him on the small Swedish island where he lives with his wife. Ingmar Bergman’s surrealistic film, his only venture into horror, aligns ethereal phantoms with the harrowing ghosts of broken affairs.
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe etched in Rembrandt-like chiarascuro Alejandro Amenábar’s classy drama about a World War II widow (Nicole Kidman) and her two photosensitive children, who are spooked by ghostly intruders in their house on the British island Jersey. This hauntological spine-tingler won’t make you pine for an afterlife.
Ludicrously suspended skeletons, a vat of acid, and a suavely nasty Vincent Price are the main ingredients of this William Castle film, which is intermittently spine-chilling despite its absurdity. Half the fun comes from observing the emotions the strange goings-on elicit in the house’s overnight guests – especially the creeped-out Elisha Cook Jr. Exteriors were filmed at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in Los Feliz, Ca.
In a Californian housing development, the ghosts of people buried in a disturbed cemetery communicate with a little girl through her family’s television and eventually abduct her. Co-written by Steven Spielberg and helmed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist was an innovative paranormal investigation films. Influenced by The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost” (1962) and The Haunting (1963), it helped spawn Insidious (2010) and Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016).
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent crafted this superior shocker about a young widow (Essie Davis) and her troubled son (Noah Wiseman) menaced by a monstrous top-hatted man the boy has conjured from a picture book. As in Birth, the return of the repressed – the dead husband – proves a tenacious psychological opponent. Kent’s inky imagery creates a strikingly nightmarish domain .
The first of 18 movies (the latest due early in 2017) inspired by Jay Anson’s fictionalized account of a real couple’s experiences of paranormal activity in a Long Island house where a 23-year-old man killed his parents and four siblings in 1974. Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger, Stuart Rosenberg’s exploitative, visceral horror movie – a box-office smash derided by critics – hasn’t dated too badly. Scream along with Kidder.
After escaping from a car that plummeted into a river, a young woman (Candace Hilligloss) takes a job as a church organist. She is stalked by a mysterious man, drawn to an old circus pavilion where ghouls disport themselves, and suffers episodes of invisibility and inaudibility. Industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey cemented his place in horror history with this hallucinatory low-budget drama about the unignorable call of the dead. Its trademarks can be found in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990) and Lost Highway (the Robert Blake character, see below).
This was the West Coast Gothic melodrama in which the long rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was brought to a fictitious boiling point. Robert Aldrich cast Davis as a mad former Hollywood child star – Shirley Temple meets Miss Havisham – and Crawford as the wheelchair-bound sister she routinely torments. Itself a sister to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Baby Jane is the only Crawford-starrer in which she’s served a dead parakeet on a platter.
Nothing David Lynch has directed since his debut, a black and white fever dream about paternal anxiety, has matched its aura of post-industrial foreboding. Big-haired lumpen misfit Henry (Jack Nance) fathers a mutant. Henry has visions of a puff-cheeked “radiator lady” who stomps on ectoplasm as she serenades him. Henry’s head is carried off to be turned into pencil erasers. Henry pricks the baby with a pair of scissors. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Dennis (Ralph Fiennes), a long-institutionalized schizophrenic staying in a halfway house, relives his childhood as the killer of his beloved mother (Miranda Richardson), on whom he’d foisted the identity of a blowsy prostitute (Richardson again). David Cronenberg’s Expressionistic thriller, adapted from Patrick McGrath’s novel, is a dank investigation of Melanie Klein’s post-Freudian theory of matricidal fantasy in early psychosexual development. Dennis is one of the most sympathetic protagonists in all of Cronenberg’s films.
The Ed Gein serial killer case that lured writer Robert Bloch and Alfred Hitchcock was distorted by the Master of Suspense’s pathology into a sustained misogynistic paean culminating in the shower-stall slashing of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) by momma’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Indebted to Bernard Herrmann’s screeching score, it’s the jaundiced king of horror thrillers. If you doubt Hitch relished exacting sexual revenge on women, check out Frenzy (1970), too.
When inexperienced British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is hired to work on the set of an ultra-violent Italian giallo (horror film), he’s driven mad by the producer and crew’s mounting hostility toward him. Or is it that he fantasizes the entire adventure and must punish himself for his hubris? Either way, his gradual breakdown in such a creepy setting is mesmerizing.
Each of Michael Haneke’s nearly identical versions of Funny Games – the first made in his native Austria, the second American – icily depicts the psychological and physical torture of a young family. These films are pitiless exercises in manipulation that make viewers question what they expect from a realistic horror movie, where their sympathies lie, and why they should seek to watch a sequence of atrocities. Be warned.
Insanely shot in CinemaScope and color, David Neumann’s thriller about a scientist who exchanges body parts with a fly after a botched human transporter experiment was the most repulsive entry in the Jack Arnold school of nuclear age gigantism flicks. Yet ou’ve never had a mutant man squeak so plaintively! David Croneberg’s 1986 “body horror” remake was much funnier.
Spores spread by an imperceptible extraterrestrial invasion of a Californian town turn into seed pods that duplicate the human inhabitants as emotionless dummies. Initially intended as an allegory of the passive national response to the McCarthy witch-hunt , Don Siegel’s masterful Cold War-era sc-fi horror classic trenchantly inscribes America’s fear that that the growth of Communism will lead to mass-dehumanization.
Catherine Deneuve gave her most racked early performance as an agoraphobic Belgian manicurist living in Kensington who is disgusted by the idea of sex. A skinned rabbit – fetus surrogate? – rots in the kitchen. Two men who try it on with her get what’s coming to them. Director Roman Polanski suggests paternal abuse is the cause of her madness, but no explanation mitigates the horrific spectacle of her suffering.
Unweld yourself from your laptop and IPhone and watch Shinya Tsukamoto’s stomach-churning, Giger-esque cyberpunk thriller about a maggoty metal fetishist who junk-metallicizes another man as payback for running him over. So many tubes and wires, so much punctured flesh. Welcome to the future.
In Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s landmark Surrealist short, a man draws a razor across a woman’s eye in closeup (an image suggested by Battleship Potemkin), donkeys rot on pianos, and ants teem from a gored – or stigmatized – hand.
A physiclan (Pierre Brasseur) grafts onto his daughter’s mangled face the facial parts of other girls to assuage his guilt for causing her disfigurement. Director Georges Franju’s lyrical approach to this horrific subject suggests it’s a partly an ironic commentary on the pursuit of beauty. Alida Valli plays the assistant who lures the victims to their doom, and Édith Scob is the masked daughter; she paid homage to her role in Léos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012).
Gore Verbinski’s American remake of the Japanese film Ringu (1998) is hokum except that: 1. Once seen, the cursed videotape is never forgotten, even if it seems like an alternate version of Anton Corbjin’s music video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”; 2. Naomi Watts always gives good dread, as she had previously demonstrated in The Wyvern Mystery (2000) and Mulholland Dr. (2001.)
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s micro-budgeted indie smash has an excellent conceit: it supposedly consists of found footage left by three student filmmakers who disappeared while making a documentary about a legendary murderous witch in a wooded region of Maryland. The supposed presence of the unseen predator and the discovery of its folkloric leavings enhanced the movie’s knife-edge tension.
Vincent Price waxes wrathfully as both the Spanish inquisitor Sebastian, who walls up his wife for adultery, and as the unsurprisingly demented grown son Nicholas who sets in motion the razor-edged pendulum that descends as it swings over the strapped bodies of his foes. The most lurid and hysterical of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations ends with Nicholas’s adulterous wife (Barbara Steele) encased in something that won’t enhance her looks.
(aka The Conqueror Worm) Technically too old for the part, Vincent Price gave one of his most intricate performances as self-appointed “Witch Finder Generall” Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer who exploited the chaos of the English Civil War to order the executions of some 300 women between 1644 and 1647. Pumped with viciousness, director Michael Reeves’s third and final feature suggests he would have been a major force in British cinema. He died of alcohol and barbiturate poisoning at 25 in 1969. Ben Wheatley’s hallucinatory A Field in England (2014) is one of Witchfinder’s legatees.
Halloween didn’t invent the horror movie trope of preserving virgins and killing the sexually active, but it was the movie that made it a convention for the 1980s and beyond. John Carpenter’s prototypical slasher film, in which childhood sister-killer Michael Myers goes on the rampage after escaping prison, seems to get nastier as the years go by.
A shy film industry focus-puller and softcore porn photographer (Carl Boehm) kills women with the swordstick on his camera tripod and films their responses to being murdered. The misunderstood and widely reviled masterpiece that effectively destroyed the career of Michael Powell, Britain’s greatest home-based director, remains a unique study of “scophophila” (the morbid urge to gaze) and a classic film maudit (“cursed film”). Powell himself portrayed the psychologist in the home-movie sequence who gauges the response of his prying young son (played by Powell’s son Columba) to having lizards dropped on his bed.
Adapted from one of M.R James’s antiquarian stories, Jonathan Miller’s documentary-like TV drama stars Michael Hordern as a muttering Cambridge professor who disturbs an ancient spirit by pulling a bone whistle from a grave while vacationing by the seaside. Grudgingly aware that he’s being haunted, the old skeptic is forced to question the nature of his existence. More so than the fine 2010 remake with John Hurt, the eldritch drama that initiated the BBC’s famous A Ghost Story for Christmas series suggests you should always look under your pillow before getting into bed.
This BBC Play for Today was directed by James MacTaggart, a pioneering figure in British television drama. The probable inspiration for The Wicker Man, it’s about a script editor (Anna Cropper) who takes refuge in an isolated English village where pagan rites, including human sacrifice, are still enacted. Pregnant and trapped, her younger lover missing, she feels the cloak of doom falling on her….
The Dutch artist Gotfried Schalcken (1647-1706), who specialized in portraits of young ladies lighting the way to bed, is the subject of Lesley Megahey’s sepulchral tale, which filled the broadcast slot vacated by the canceled Ghost Story for Christmas. Narrated by Sheridan Le Fanu (Charles Gray), who wrote the original story, it tells of Schalcken’s failure to save the woman (Cheryl Kennedy) he loves from an elderly suitor – and the succubus who visits him in his subsequent masochistic fantasies.
Charles Dickens’s traumatic experience of the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash prompted his story The Signalman, which Andrew Davies adapted for the BBC’s sixth Christmas Ghost Story. A traveller who befriends a lonely, dutiful railway signalman learns that he is a haunted by a ghost whose visitations portend rail crashes in a tunnel – the worst possible kind. Who’s haunting who is the question here. The perfect spooky tale for those of us who’ve seen poltergeists in or around train stations.
This visionary drama, scripted by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, depicts the efforts of a research team to invent a post-analogue recording medium. Discovering that the fungal walls of their once-Saxon work space retain sound waves, they try to tape the aural death agonies of the tortured victims and suicide cases who have abided there. The sensitive computer programmer played by Jane Asher foreshadows Any Adams’ alien-sympathetic linguist in 2016’s Arrival.
Culture Trip’s London film editor Cassam Looch curated the other 50 Halloween films on this list. You can find them here.